What Is the Difference between Visualizing Ourselves as a Buddhist Deity and a Deluded Person Imagining They are Mickey Mouse?
Moscow, Russia, April 2011
This evening we are going to speak about what is the difference, if any, between imagining or visualizing ourselves as a Buddha-figure or imagining that we are Mickey Mouse. And although this might sound a bit funny; nevertheless, often it happens when we’re involved with tantra practice that we reach a certain stage at which we question what we’re doing. Because we’re working with all these visualizations and things, which seem so fantastic, and after a while, if we don’t have a good foundation, we might think this is crazy. Especially if we happen to tell anybody else what we’re doing – which of course we’re always told, “Don’t do that” – and we say, “I’m imagining that I’m the Red Fairy, and I’m going to go to Fairyland and take everybody with me to Fairyland.” They would probably want to lock us up. So let’s look at this topic of Buddha-figure or Mickey Mouse in some depth.
One of the most characteristic features of tantra practice is so-called deity yoga, with which we imagine ourselves to be a Buddha-figure. The term that’s usually used here is translated by most people as visualize, but we’re not dealing with just some visual picture of ourselves. The term is much better translated as imagine because we really imagine that we really are this figure, and we imagine experiencing everything with all our senses, not just something visual. What I’m translating as Buddha-figure is the Tibetan word yidam, sometimes called a special type of deity – not your usual deity. And the Tibetan term yidam literally means something – a figure – with which to make a close bond for our minds. So we make a strong bonding with this Buddha-figure in order to actually become this Buddha-figure or a Buddha in the form (with the physical shape of) this Buddha-figure.
And not only do we imagine ourselves in this form – that’s only the first of what’s known as the four purities. So not only a pure body, a physical body, but that everything around us is a pure environment, and that means to imagine that we are inside a mandala. A mandala is a three-dimensional palace, and all around that palace is a pure land – in fact, the palace is in a pure land – where everything is just perfect and conducive for spiritual practice. And we have pure actions. So the way that we interact with others is without any confusion; it’s just totally to help them with the most perfect excellent means. In addition, we also have a pure way of enjoying things. So, rather than our ordinary up and down – sometimes a little bit happy, but then it changes and we’re unhappy, and so on – we enjoy things with what is known as “untainted blissful awareness.” That means without any confusion associated with it. So, with these four purities, we have a very vast imagination of what we are, where we are, what we’re doing, and how we feel about what’s going on – how we experience it.
And what we’re doing here is imagining these things which have not yet happened in terms of our actual experience of them, but which we will be able to experience on the basis of what’s known as Buddha-nature factors, which we all have. This weekend we’ll speak in much more detail about them. So we are working with what these various factors that are part of our mental continuum can evolve to, what they can become. And all these Buddha-figures that we are imagining now, which are representing the actual Buddha-figures that have not yet happened but which we can experience or manifest in – all of these things are within the realm of possibility of what can actually exist, what can come to be. Buddhas can manifest in an infinite number and variety of forms in order to help others. And a Buddha would only manifest in forms that are possible, that do exist. A Buddha can’t manifest in what’s given as the classic example of what doesn’t exist, which is the child of a barren woman – a woman who can’t have children – a natural child of such a woman.
So all of these figures with all these arms and faces and legs, and so on, these are actual figures that our energy can be manifest in to benefit others as a skillful means. It’s a skillful means to have all these faces and arms and legs, because they all represent many different aspects of the spiritual path – of what we need to actually realize and attain. And imagining ourselves in these forms is a method for us to be able to more quickly integrate all of these aspects simultaneously, which we’ll need to be able to do if we want to become a Buddha. The point is not to be able to just imagine six arms or twenty-four arms or whatever, and all the things that they’re holding – that’s just a device to enable us to keep in mind (have mindfulness) of what they represent.
So these things do exist. They do exist, in terms of our mental continuum can generate these things the way that a Buddha has – exist here means that it’s possible – and our energy can manifest in these forms. That’s something which is possible, according to the model of what Buddha did, and is doing, and will continue to do, as a skillful means for being able to help others.
Now Buddha doesn’t manifest (and therefore our energy wouldn’t manifest) in something that is not possible to happen. So it’s not possible for our mental continuum to give rise to a presently-happening Napoleon or Cleopatra or Mickey Mouse. Napoleon and Cleopatra lived long ago. They’re no longer happening – presently-happening Napoleon and Cleopatra doesn’t exist – therefore, we cannot manifest into a presently-happening Napoleon or Cleopatra. Mickey Mouse never existed. There’s a cartoon – a figure or drawing – which represents Mickey Mouse, but an actual Mickey Mouse never existed; therefore, we cannot manifest as an actual presently-happening Mickey Mouse. Although we could manifest into a not-yet-happening Avalokiteshvara with four arms or a thousand arms.
There’s a difference here between manifesting in something which could happen and manifesting in something which could never happen. Or even if we’re talking about a presently-happening Queen Elizabeth of England, who does exist, our mental continuum cannot give rise to a presently-happening Queen Elizabeth of England, can it? We don’t have the factors – we don’t have the potentials to be able to do that. Or, if we get a little bit more profound, our mental continuum cannot give rise to a truly existent “me” in the present form that I have either, because that doesn’t exist either, although there can be an appearance of it. But an actual truly existent “me” in this form doesn’t exist. It can’t happen.
Do you see the difference? There’s an appearance in our imagination that represents something that can happen, and an appearance in our imagination we’re generating of something that could never happen. There’s a big difference. Although to explain it and describe it, we have to get a little bit technical, as I just did. Now let’s go a little bit more on a fundamental level, on a basis level, here, in terms of what is the background of visualizing ourselves as a Buddha-figure, and compare that to the background of someone imagining that they are Mickey Mouse or Napoleon or Cleopatra.
First of all, a Dharma tantric practitioner – we’re talking about an authentic one, somebody who is doing it properly – is someone who, to use the terminology that I prefer, has a safe direction in life (that’s usually called refuge). So what does that mean? That means that they have a realistic view of the four noble truths: They recognize what are true sufferings. They recognize the true causes of them. And they recognize that it is possible to attain a true stopping of these causes and the sufferings they bring about so they never recur again. And they recognize the true pathway minds – often just called the true path, but it’s an understanding that will bring about that true stopping and which will result from it.
So the deepest Dharma refuge or Dharma Jewel are these true stoppings and true pathways of mind – the third and fourth noble truths. And the Buddhas are those in whose mental continuum these true stoppings and true pathway minds are present in full – all of them are there. And the Arya Sangha is the community of those in whom these true stoppings and true pathway minds exist in part – some of them are there, but not the full extent of them.
So that means that a tantric practitioner, Buddhist tantric practitioner, has put a meaning – a direction – in their life. They recognize the various problems that they have, what the causes are, and they are practicing a method that will bring about the true stopping of these problems – of the causes of the problems and therefore the problems. And the tantric practitioner fully knows that there is a way out of suffering – so, very secure in what they’re doing – and they also realize that they’re not alone, that there are others: Buddhas, Arya Sangha, people who are also working in this, going in the same direction.
And the first thing that one needs to do in order to go in that safe direction is refrain from destructive behavior, since destructive behavior brings about unhappiness and the so-called suffering of suffering. So tantric practitioners practicing these visualizations and so on, within a framework of ethical behavior, seeing that the causes for all the suffering and problems that he or she has are internal, basically – internal in the sense of caused by the unawareness, the confusion, disturbing emotions, karma, etc., on their own mental continuum. And that’s what you have to work to get over; and it is possible to get rid of them forever.
A disturbed person, on the other hand, usually looks for a scapegoat for his or her problems. They blame it all on the parents, on society, etc. (usually connected with paranoia). And they don’t recognize that what they do will affect their future, what they will experience; namely, their behavior. And if they think that they are Mickey Mouse or Napoleon or Cleopatra, it isn’t with the intention to use this as a framework for ethical behavior and to achieve liberation and enlightenment free from problems as a Mickey Mouse.
The next difference concerns what’s known as “renunciation.” Renunciation is the determination to be free from our problems and their causes, and entails being willing to give up the problems and causes of course. There are two divisions of this determination to be free: Determined to be free of problems is this lifetime, so we turn away from our compulsive involvement in things of this life. And determination to be free of all problems of all future lives (so, to gain liberation), and you turn away, then, from compulsive involvement with all things of samsara.
Well, we might object and say, “Isn’t this escapism? Aren’t we escaping from reality by renouncing this life or the conditions of life in general?” But the answer to that is no. This is not escapism. With renunciation, we see ordinary life for what it is. It’s filled with frustration. We’re born, we get sick, we grow old, we die; we don’t get what we want; we meet with things that we don’t want to happen. Even when things are going well, we are never satisfied; we always want more. Things are changing all the time; it’s completely unstable. With this renunciation, we take all of these problems totally seriously, and we have this strong feeling of “I just have had enough. I don’t want to continue accepting these, taking these. I will seek a solution.” And because we have already, as our foundation, this safe direction in life, we are confident that there is a solution to experiencing all these problems – there is a way out; it is possible to get rid of them. So we turn away from just being totally involved with samsaric things of this life or future lives, and turn instead to this safe direction, working for these true stoppings, true pathways of mind, liberation, enlightenment as a constructive way to face and solve our problems.
Whereas a disturbed person imagining that they’re Mickey Mouse is just escaping from life. They are not facing their problems, but are rather escaping into another reality that is totally unrelated with their lives. A tantric visualization is a method to deal with our ordinary life in a creative and constructive fashion, whereas a disturbed person or a schizophrenic person doesn’t deal with it at all.
Now to visualize ourselves as this Buddha-figure, the point is to overcome our ordinary appearance and our grasping at ourselves to exist in an ordinary way. In another words, we have to give up our deluded self-image. Deluded self-image means of who we are, what we are, and that we truly exist that way: that it’s truly established that we exist in this impossible way. So we can have a self-image of being the eternal youth, always handsome, beautiful, strong, sexy – God’s gift to the world. Or we can have a negative one: we’re ugly, no good, unpopular, “Nobody loves me. I’m not good enough” – all these sorts of negative self-images. And we feel this is the way that we always are and will always be. And we act it out, we project it on ourselves, we project it to others, and we try to make it secure because we feel insecure about it and threatened.
But we have to realize that this self-image is false. It’s deluded. We have no such thing as a concrete, unchanging, independent self-identity or image. So there’s nothing that needs to be made secure; there’s nothing that we have to prove. That’s one of the most profound insights that we can have on our initial levels. There’s nothing to feel insecure about. I’ll repeat that: There’s nothing to feel insecure about. You don’t have to prove that I am worthy of your love or any of these sort of things; it will only bring about unhappiness and suffering. It’s like trying to prove that I’m Mickey Mouse. There’s no way that I can prove that I’m Mickey Mouse because there is no Mickey Mouse. So how can I prove it? And why should I feel insecure about being Mickey Mouse when there is no Mickey Mouse?
So, similarly, trying to prove or make secure “me” who is ugly and “Nobody loves me. And I’m fat. But I want to be loved, so I have to prove that you should love me, prove that I’m loveable. And everybody must love me.” Well, not everybody loved Buddha, so what do I expect for myself? Buddha had enemies. His cousin was always jealous, trying to hurt Buddha. So why try to knock ourselves out to accomplish something that’s impossible?
In any case, what we are doing is: Instead of this deluded type of self-image, we substitute. Instead of thinking of ourselves in terms of a negative self-image, we use a pure self-image. But this isn’t just the power of positive thinking. We’re using a positive self-image – in terms of these Buddha-figures – as a way to overcome our grasping at our ordinary self-image. So we understand the reality of what we’re doing. And we understand that we don’t exist in this way yet – we can, but not yet. So that means in order to practice tantra effectively, we have to have some understanding of what’s known as voidness. Many people translate that as emptiness. That means to understand reality, the true way in which we and all things exist.
Voidness means an absence, an absence of a way of existing that is impossible; it doesn’t exist at all. That means a way of existing that is established on the side of the object; that’s impossible. There is something inside me that makes me a bad person, a no-good person – or a wonderful person – that establishes it truly, forever, independent of anything I might experience or do. That’s impossible. And voidness means that although we might feel that this is the way that we exist, it doesn’t refer to anything real, like Mickey Mouse doesn’t refer to anything real.
So we differentiate between what’s known as the false “me” and the conventional “me.” Conventional “me,” I do exist, but I don’t exist in the manner of a false “me.” If we look for “me,” we try to find “me,” whether we are analyzing on the deepest level or on a conventional level, you can never pinpoint and find there’s “me” – up my nose, or somewhere in my mind, or something like that. You can’t find “me.” Nevertheless, when we’re not analyzing, then, “Here I am. I’m sitting here. I’m talking to you.” It’s neither of the two extremes: It’s not that nobody is talking to you, or a solidly existing “me” sitting somewhere inside my head is talking to you.
So what would establish that there’s “me”? Nothing findable inside my mind, inside my body. Is it in this cell? That atom? There’s nothing findable. But we have the word “me,” we have the concept “me,” and it refers to something, something that is functioning – I’m sitting, I’m talking – and that’s the only thing that can establish the conventional existence of “me,” that it is the referent object of a word or concept. In Buddhist jargon, that means that the “me” is established merely by mental labeling. But that’s jargon; not so easy to understand just from the words themselves.
“Me,” though, is labeled on a continuum – conventional “me” – a continuum of moment after moment of experience that is connected by some sort of causal process. So we can label “me” on what we’re experiencing right now. We can label “me” on what was experienced when I was a baby. We can label “me” on what – if we live long enough – we’ll experience in our old age. And of course I’m changing all the time – I’m not the same as I was when I was a baby – but there’s a continuum. And based on the various potentials that are built up on the mental continuum, that will determine what I experience in the future. And if we look at the factors known as Buddha-nature, then in the future it’s quite possible that I can experience – I mean, it is possible, if all the causes are there – to experience being a Buddha. So with tantra we’re imagining that I am already a Buddha; so we’re labeling “me” on something in our imagination that represents the not-yet-happening Buddha that I will become. We realize that we aren’t that deity or Buddha-figure now, but by practicing like this, that will act as a cause for actually becoming a presently-happening Buddha in this form.
Now a crazy person doesn’t have that at all. A deluded person doesn’t have that at all. A deluded person really thinks that they are Mickey Mouse, or that they are Napoleon or Cleopatra, or that they actually are Tara, or they actually are Buddha – or Jesus Christ, for that matter. We can be completely deluded, thinking that we are a solidly existent – “I’m really a deity now. I’m really a Buddha now.” That’s completely crazy. The more ridiculous level, that “I can walk through a wall” – and so you just smash into a wall. Obviously you can’t walk through a wall. So knowing the reality of what’s going on is very, very crucial in tantra practice. Otherwise, we are completely deluded and can become quite crazy.
So by changing from a negative self-image to a positive self-image, we’re doing this on the basis of understanding the reality of self-images. And instead of a negative self-image of what I am or what my characteristics are – for instance that I’m stupid, I can never understand anything, or I can’t really relate to people – we have a positive one: I can understand. I have clarity of mind. I am filled with compassion. And we’re doing this as a method for being able to help us to develop these qualities, knowing full well that we’re not there yet, and knowing full well that we have to build up the causes for being able to really have these qualities in full. And that’s what we’re doing with this practice, is building up those causes.
A deluded person doesn’t have any of that.
Also, when we hold what’s known as the dignity of the deity or the pride of the deity, we’re not talking about pride or arrogance in a deluded sense. It just means to really feel that we are like this.
Question: We are feeling we are actually a Buddha, right?
Alex: I’ll say this perhaps, hopefully, a little bit more clearly. We imagine that we are, let’s say, Avalokiteshvara (Chenrezig in Tibetan), and we feel, “This is what I am. This is who I am,” although we know we’re not there yet. But, as a method, we are imagining that we are there already, and we have the pride of this – the dignity of this. In other words, we are labeling “me” on this, what we’re visualizing or we’re imagining. And we’re not just imagining what we look like. We are imagining that we have all the qualities of Avalokiteshvara – infinite compassion for everybody equally.
This is a wonderful method because, by having the dignity of this – I prefer to translate pride as dignity – it prevents me from acting like an idiot or acting in a cruel way. How could Chenrezig not want to help this person? How could Chenrezig be too tired, too busy? “I can’t be bothered to help you.” Right? If we have our ordinary self-image or deluded self-image: “Waah, I can’t do anything. I’m incapable,” etc., so we don’t even try. “But no, that’s not what I am. I’m Chenrezig. And even if I can’t really help you, and I don’t really know how to help you, I would love to be able to help you. And I have compassion for you, wish for you to be free of your suffering and the causes of it.” So that dignity of being Chenrezig prevents me from being cold-hearted and closed. A very wonderful method.
A deluded person has none of that.
Also, in terms of our understanding of voidness: although things appear to be truly established to our ordinary mind – or, more precisely, to our unenlightened mind – nevertheless, that appearance is just like an illusion. The word like here is very important. It implies things don’t really exist in the way that they appear, like an illusion appears real but it’s not referring to anything real. So even this appearance of ourselves as a Buddha-figure, while we are not enlightened yet, is like an illusion. We understand that. A disturbed person, a schizophrenic person, actually believes the illusion; they don’t recognize that things are like an illusion. So this is very different.
Also, it’s very important when we are imagining everything around us to be pure, everybody is a deity, a Buddha-figure, and this is a pure land, a mandala, and all of that – at our level, to our eye consciousness, the ordinary appearance appears; to our mental consciousness, we understand it in terms of the appearance of a mandala, a pure land, and so on. So, in a sense, we are experiencing two levels of appearance. It’s not that we are so totally dissociated from normal reality (what appears to be normal reality) around us that we can’t function. Whereas a disturbed person, a schizophrenic person, has no idea of that; they really think that things are like in their illusion.
Another important difference here is the motivation. In tantra practice, our motivation is bodhichitta. We are aiming for enlightenment, for our own future enlightenment which has not yet happened. And this Buddha-figure that we are imagining ourselves to be represents that goal, that aim. And what we imagine that we’re doing is helping everybody. So imagining ourselves as this deity, as this Buddha-figure, all the time – or as often as we can – helps us to keep focused with bodhichitta on what we’re aiming for, which is enlightenment. The whole purpose of visualizing ourselves like this is to be able to benefit others as much as possible – it’s bodhichitta – so that helps us to overcome our self-preoccupation and our selfishness. Whereas a schizophrenic fantasy, on the other [hand], is even more self-preoccupied, just caught in their own little world, and is not done at all in order to attain enlightenment and help others.
Another difference has to do with preliminaries. A tantric practitioner usually engages in preliminary practices to purify themselves of obstacles and past karmic negative potentials, and so on, and to build up positive force which will ensure success in the practice. And so there’s a lot of purification practices done as preliminary: prostration, Vajrasattva meditation (which again implies acknowledging our faults, our mistakes; making a strong resolution to not repeat them, based on regret; doing some reaffirming of our direction in life; bodhichitta; and doing something as an opponent), and building up a lot of positive force by mandala offering, getting inspiration from our spiritual teacher with guru-yoga. So we’re very well prepared to do this visualization.
A schizophrenic person or disturbed person does no preparation for imagining themselves to be Mickey Mouse or Napoleon.
Next point. With deity yoga – we do this on the basis of receiving an empowerment; it’s often called “initiation.” This links us to a lineage of thousands of years of practice of other people who have done the same thing. It gives us security and assurance that this is a time-tested method that has worked – we aren’t just inventing it – so we don’t feel crazy doing this. We have permission to do this. And the beginning of doing it becomes a special spiritual event.
A schizophrenic person or a deluded person lacks this completely, so they feel all alone.
The whole practice of deity yoga is done under the guidance and the supervision of a guru or a spiritual master, so there’s no uncertainty about it. It’s like following a doctor’s prescription. And the teacher can answer all your questions. And the teacher serves as a living example of what we’re aiming to become.
And a crazy person, a schizophrenic person, even if they go to Disneyland and ask a worker there who’s dressed in a Mickey Mouse costume to give them permission to wear the Mickey Mouse costume themselves and be Mickey Mouse… Come on, that’s crazy! That’s not the same. Because they don’t realize that it’s just wearing a costume of Mickey Mouse, do they? They think, “Really this is Mickey Mouse: they’re in Disneyland. And now I will be Mickey Mouse.” I mean, this is completely crazy.
Next. At the empowerment, we take various sets of vows concerning our ethical behavior – especially bodhichitta vows to help others – and we take the commitment to do this visualization practice daily for the rest of our lives. So it’s done with a process of discipline and strong commitment, taking the whole thing very seriously, and done with strong conscious effort. Whereas a schizophrenic or deluded person is completely unconscious of what they’re really doing.
A tantric practitioner keeps secrecy about their practice. It’s a private affair, so they don’t make a big deal about it and advertise it to everybody. Whereas a schizophrenic often will boast, be arrogant about what they’re doing, make a public display of their fantasy.
I remember there was one lady in India, Dharamsala, who was completely disturbed and she thought that she was Tara – and she took off all her clothes and was running around the streets screaming that she’s Tara. This is not what we do with proper tantra practice.
So this deity yoga, then, is done within a very large wide framework of:
- Wanting to get out of our problems.
- Putting a safe direction in our life as a way to get over these problems.
- Following cause and effect in terms of how we approach getting rid of these problems and their causes.
- We renounce our ordinary deluded self-image; we use a pure one to be able to help others and keep our focus on enlightenment.
- We understand that it’s not real, that it’s like an illusion; but it’s valid, since we can attain this in the future.
- We have authorization and empowerment to do it, based on having prepared for this with preliminary practices.
- We have guidance from a qualified spiritual master who is also doing this type of practice, who has experience.
- We are linked to a whole long lineage of people who have done this successfully and attained enlightenment through it, so we have confidence in what we’re doing.
- We’re keeping the discipline of vowed commitments and various vows that we take in terms of our ethical behavior.
- And we’re keeping our practice private and being humble about it.
A schizophrenic or deluded person imagining that they are Mickey Mouse or Napoleon or Cleopatra lacks all of that.
So that is the presentation, then, of what is the difference between imagining ourselves as a Buddha-figure within the context of proper tantra practice and a schizophrenic or deluded or crazy person imagining that they are Mickey Mouse.
So if it happens further down the line in our tantra practice that we start to question, “What in the world am I doing? This is crazy,” we have to go through the whole checklist of “What are the factors that I am missing or have become weak in?” and restrengthen them. So, for emphasis, let me go through the list again:
- Safe and sound direction (refuge).
- Cause and effect.
- Determination to be free from our suffering.
- We’re opening out our heart to everybody – bodhichitta – wanting to help everybody through these methods.
- Understanding of voidness, in terms of the reality of what I’m doing.
- Preliminaries as a basis: purification and building up positive force.
- Empowerment: a link to a lineage.
- Guidance of a qualified spiritual master.
- Keeping my vows and discipline and commitments.
- And keeping all of this private.
- And working with this positive self-image as a means for attaining Buddhahood, with all these arms and legs and so on representing various realizations on the path. And so that is the main thing that I need to incorporate into my mental continuum – what they represent. That is why these various bodies of these deities are referred to as method. They are a method side, for not just attaining the body of a Buddha, but a method for attaining all the various things that they represent – the various arms and faces and so on.
To summarize it all up: This deity yoga is a method for attaining enlightenment. And we have to understand that it is possible to attain enlightenment – “I am capable of it” – and although I’m not there yet, I’m imagining that I am, as a method for being able to attain it more quickly, knowing full well the reality of what I’m doing. This is very important, all these points. Otherwise, instead of being a crazy person imagining that they are Mickey Mouse, we are a crazy person imagining that we are Chenrezig or Tara. And rather than deity yoga being a path to enlightenment, it’s a path to insanity. When it is stated in all the texts that tantra practice is dangerous, there’s a reason for that. The point is that it has to be practiced within the context of all these variables that we’ve been discussing. Otherwise, you can really go astray. And for this, we need the guidance of the spiritual master to help us to avoid going astray and stay on the correct path and inspire us.
So I suppose we have a little bit of time – a few minutes? – for some short questions. The problem is short answers.
Question: You said something about a lady in Dharamsala, and she was imagining that she was Tara and she was running around naked in the streets. How do we actually know that she wasn’t Tara?
Alex: She’s asking about the lady who took off all her clothes and ran around the streets screaming that she was Tara. How do we know that she wasn’t actually Tara? One would know by her actions, by her behavior. If she were Tara, she wouldn’t take off all her clothes and run around the streets screaming that she was Tara. She would actually be working to benefit others.
Question: Can we say that, on the ultimate level or deepest level, these Avalokiteshvara, Tara, and other deities – they exist? And, for instance, that Chenrezig is the manifestation of our compassion, our love, and Vajrasattva is the manifestation of our purity, and wrathful deities are manifestations of our anger or other emotions? So they are like beings or energies that actually exist on their own? Or are they more like creations of our mind, or images and symbols?
Alex: That’s a very complex question. First of all, there can be actual beings – according to tradition, Tara was an actual being, Avalokiteshvara was an actual being – with their own mental continuums. So there can be various yidams (these Buddha-figures) that were actual living beings. A Buddha can of course manifest in all forms, so a Buddha can also manifest in the form of another being – a Tara or an Avalokiteshvara. So that’s one type of deity. There are other deities, who would not necessary have their own individual mental continuum, but a Buddha can manifest in such a form. Like Kalachakra. Buddha taught it; he manifested in the form of Kalachakra. I’ve never heard of any account of Kalachakra having actually been an individual sentient being. So that’s from the side of a Buddha.
Now when we speak from our side, as a practitioner: In anuttarayoga tantra, the highest class of tantra, we’re speaking about the subtlest level of mind and energy. And that subtlest energy can of course be shaped to appear in any form, just as is the case of a Buddha. Because when a Buddha has all of these different forms – is manifesting in all these forms – it’s also out of the Buddha’s subtlest energy. But now, on our level of practice, we’re not able to actually have our subtlest energy manifest in this form. And even on very, very advanced levels, when you actually have an actual illusory body, it’s called, where you can manifest, you can’t maintain that manifestation in these forms all the time. But now when we visualize these forms, on our beginning levels, it’s a representation of what we have not yet attained, what has not yet happened.
Now the interesting question is: Are these just imagination? What does it actually mean that they are just imagination? If you’re familiar with tantra practice: We have within a sadhana – a sadhana is a method for actualizing ourselves as a Buddha-figure, it’s our usual practice – we imagine ourselves in what is called the close-bonding figure (dam-tshig sems-pa) (that’s sometimes translated as a commitment being), and a close-bonding mandala around us, or a commitment-being mandala, and then we call forth what I call the deep awareness being (ye-shes sems-pa), the deep awareness aspect (sometimes called the wisdom being), to merge with it.
So I always thought, and I think many people think this way, that the so-called close-bonding form – it’s called close-bonding because this is what you make a close bond with in order to actually achieve or attain this form – I always thought that this was purely imaginary, and that the deep awareness ones were the real ones coming from the Buddha-fields. But my teacher Serkong Rinpoche said that that was not correct. He said that at a certain stage of practice…
And I must confess I don’t remember which stage it was, and he would really scold me for not remembering. He told me this maybe thirty years ago and I don’t remember. He was like that. I remember once I asked him – I was his translator – and I asked him “What does this word mean?” And he scolded me, and he said, “I explained to you that word seven years ago. I remember. Why don’t you?”
Anyway, I think it’s on one of the stages of the second of the paths, the so-called path of application, applying mind, or preparation path. And he said at that point, you can actually receive teachings from a painting, from a statue, from these close-bonding beings, from the deep awareness beings. So it’s not just your imagination, in the sense that it can’t function as an actual Buddha. And also the other aspect: the close-bonding figure is the external figure; the deep awareness one is the one inside, in the heart, and so on. So there are so many levels of this. So eventually we can receive teachings from all of them.
So if you ask the question, “Are they just purely imaginary? Are they real? What do you mean by real?” this become very complicated, doesn’t it? It’s like the statues and the thangkas; they have to have what’s known as a rabney (rab-gnas) in Tibetan, sometimes translated as consecration, in which the deep awareness aspect is brought and merged with them. And so prostrating to them and making offerings to them is the same as prostrating and making offerings to the actual Buddha. Shantideva said this in Bodhicharyavatara – that you build up as much positive force to a stupa of a Buddha as to the actual Buddha. Is this idol worship? Not really, not really. One has to understand that one can receive teachings from anything – from the wind and so on – when you are at a very advanced level. But very advanced, not our ordinary level.
So, from one point of view, these various deities are representing what has not yet happened but which can happen. On another level, they are a different level at which our energy can vibrate, specifically our subtlest energy. On another level, we are imagining it. But, on yet another level, at a certain stage, you can even receive teachings from them, the same as you would from a Buddha. And some of them are based on an actual living being with their own mental continuum, and some are not.
Question: So that means that it doesn’t have a mind-stream?
Alex: If a Buddha manifests as Kalachakra, it doesn’t mean that Kalachakra had its own individual mental continuum. If a Buddha manifests as Tara, that doesn’t contradict the fact that Tara had her own mental continuum. A Buddha can appear as a bridge, so why can’t a Buddha appear as a Tara? That doesn’t mean that the Buddha’s mental continuum becomes Tara’s mental continuum. Think about that.
So that’s a good place to end for this evening, with everybody silenced by that question. So we think whatever understanding, whatever positive force has come from this, may it go deeper and deeper and act as a cause for reaching enlightenment for the benefit of all.
Question: Is it all right to visualize that we are in the form of a Buddha-figure that’s more familiar to us, like Jesus or Mary, rather than in the form of these traditional Indian Buddha-figures that are hard to relate to?
Alex: In general, this is not a good idea, because it is quite disrespectful to the other religions, like for instance, here, Christianity. Even if we keep this private to ourselves and don’t tell this to any Christians, it is still being disrespectful to Christianity. It’s almost as if we are converting Jesus and Mary into Buddhists. Now this doesn’t preclude having Jesus and Mary visualized in front of us and being inspired by their good qualities, and even imagining waves of inspiration in the form of colored lights coming from them and inspiring us to develop their qualities. But what would be inappropriate and disrespectful would be to visualize ourselves as Jesus or Mary.
I mentioned in my lecture that there are certain types of Buddha-figures that Buddha manifested in which had their own individual mental continuum (like Tara and Avalokiteshvara) and others that did not have their own individual mental continuum (like Kalachakra). And, similarly, Mickey Mouse does not have his own individual mental continuum. In fact he was not even a limited being, a regular being – living being. And so the question is: Couldn’t Buddha manifest as Mickey Mouse? What’s the difference between Buddha manifesting as Kalachakra and as Mickey Mouse, if both of them did not have their own individual mental continuums?
Well, this is also a rather complex question. Kalachakra was manifested by Buddha as a skillful method in order to help others, to help them to attain enlightenment. And so all the various arms and faces, etc., represent the various aspects of what we’re purifying, and the path that purifies them, etc., and the resultant level that is attained.
Then another aspect is that at various times over history when various forms of these Buddha-figures have become too popularized, and so, in a sense, have become a little bit stale – that people practicing it has become a little bit stale because it’s too popularized – then a Buddha has manifested to various highly realized masters in pure visions in different forms of the classic Buddhist deities or Buddha-figures.
So Mickey Mouse is a little bit difficult an example; let’s use the example of Snow White. If somebody claimed that they had a vision of Snow White with the seven dwarfs around her and now was teaching the Snow White Tantra, people might think that that’s really crazy.
Now the test, of course, of a valid teaching from a pure vision is that fully qualified yogis put it into practice, if in fact the practice is based on the general Buddhist principles, and particularly in Mahayana and the tantra principles, and they achieve the stated results that one would attain from such a practice; in other words, they attain enlightenment. So if we put these points together, about pure visions of new forms of the standard deities, and then fitting into standard Buddhist practices, standard themes of Buddhism, and they produce their results, and the fact that these various Buddha-figures have all these different aspects that represent different aspects of the path (basis, path, and result), then…
For example, Tara has manifested in at least twenty-one forms, the Twenty-One Taras, and there are other forms of Tara as well as these twenty-one. Then it is possible that somebody could have a pure vision of Tara manifesting in the form of Snow White in a mandala with the seven dwarfs around her. And the seven dwarfs represent the seven jewels of the aryas, for example, the seven qualities of an arya mind. And the white color of Snow White represents purification. So all of these things are within the realm of possibility of what would be consistent with the Buddhist tradition, but it’s a bit far-fetched. And there would have to be a pretty good reason for there to be such a manifestation of Tara as Snow White. There would have to be a really good reason, a necessity for that.
So these are my thoughts in terms of could Buddha manifest as Mickey Mouse, as Snow White, or whatever. And it doesn’t have the same disrespect as a Buddha manifesting as Jesus or Mary. But please bear in mind that I’m only answering in this way based on just analyzing with logic. It’s not that I’m recommending this, or predicting this, or thinking that this would ever be beneficial to happen – that Buddha would manifest a different form of Tara in the aspect of Snow White. But, just for fun, we can analyze in this way.
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