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Home > Advanced Meditation > Tantra Teachings > The Purification Method Used in Anuttarayoga Tantra

The Purification Method Used in Anuttarayoga Tantra

Alexander Berzin
London, England, April 1986
revised, October 2008

The Four Noble Truths

Buddha taught the Four Noble Truths: the four facts seen as true by aryas, the so-called “noble ones.” We all face true sufferings or problems. They have a true origin or cause. But there can be a true stopping of those sufferings, such that they never recur. This comes about through developing on our mental continuums true pathway minds or true paths that lead to their stopping.

True Sufferings

There are three types of true sufferings:

  • The suffering of suffering refers to our usual experiences of feelings of unhappiness. These may accompany either our experiences of objects of any of the five physical senses, including physical sensations of pain, or they may accompany purely mental events.
  • The suffering of change refers to our usual experiences of feelings of happiness. These may likewise accompany either our experiences of objects of any of the five physical senses or they may accompany purely mental events. The problem with such happiness is that it soon dissipates, never satisfies, and is replaced by unhappiness.
  • The all-pervasively affecting suffering is the basis that affects, brings about, and perpetuates all our experiences of the former two types of true suffering. This refers to our experience of the tainted aggregates of our bodies and minds, which came about through the force of karmic impulses and disturbing emotions and attitudes. Presently, our aggregates are still associated with these disturbing emotions and karmic forces. Because of that, our tainted aggregates generate further tainted aggregates.

[See: Brief Introduction to the Four Noble Truths.]

True Origins of Suffering

The true origins or causes of our all-pervasively affecting suffering, then, are our disturbing emotions and attitudes and our karma. In terms of the twelve links of dependent arising, the true origins refer to the first and second links: unawareness or ignorance and affecting karmic impulses, as well as the seventh, eighth, and ninth links: craving, an obtainer disturbing emotion or attitude, and further existence.

Further existence refers to a karmic impulse – deriving from activated karmic aftermath – that actualizes further existence. The further existence that these karmic impulses bring about are bardo (in between rebirth) existence, conception existence, predeath existence, and death existence. These four stages of existence encompass all three types of true suffering. The four may be summarized as death, bardo, and rebirth.

[See: The Twelve Links of Dependent Arising.]

True Stoppings

A true stopping of death, bardo and rebirth is one in which these three never recur. Our mental continuums, being without beginning and without end, still go on once we have attained a true stopping. They continue, however, but not under the force of disturbing emotions and karma, and they are no longer associated or mixed with them. The mental continuums of arhats (liberated beings) have true stoppings of the emotional obscurations preventing liberation, while the mental continuums of Buddhas have, in addition, true stoppings of the cognitive obscurations preventing omniscience. The omniscient mind of a Buddha is that Buddha’s subtlest clear light mind; while the enlightening physical bodies of a Buddha derive from that Buddha’s subtlest energy-wind.

[See: Fine Points Concerning the Physical Bodies of Buddhas and Arhats.]

True Pathway Minds

The mental states that bring about true stoppings are those with nonconceptual cognition of voidness. These are true pathway minds. To bring about the attainment of a true stopping of the emotional obscurations, that nonconceptual cognition of voidness needs to be conjoined with a mind of renunciation, the determination to be free. To bring about the attainment of a true stopping of the cognitive obscurations, it needs to be conjoined as well with a bodhichitta aim.

Nonconceptual cognition of voidness and a network of deep awareness (accumulation of wisdom) that it builds up are the obtaining causes for the attainment of the omniscient mind of a Buddha. A bodhichitta aim and a network of positive force (accumulation of merit) that it builds up are the obtaining causes for the attainment of the enlightening physical bodies of a Buddha.

With the practice of tantra in general, we build up causes for attaining the enlightening mind and physical bodies of a Buddha that are closer in analogy with the resultant ones that we aim to achieve. We do this through a process of visualizing ourselves in the form of a Buddha-figure (yidam), within the context of an understanding of voidness.

With the practice of the highest class of tantra, anuttarayoga tantra, we work to access our subtlest clear light mind and its accompanying subtlest energy-wind and to generate a facsimile of the enlightening mind and physical bodies of a Buddha with them. We do this in order to purify our mental continuums from experiencing ever again the true sufferings of ordinary death, bardo, and rebirth.

[See: Making Sense of Tantra: Why Tantra Is More Efficient than Sutra.]

Methods Used in Buddhism for Rid Ourselves of Problems and Their Causes 

In general, there are many methods that are used in Buddhism to rid ourselves of problems. Let us survey seven of them.

Exercising Self-Control

When disturbing emotions or attitudes arise and karmic tendencies ripen so that we feel like acting these emotions out, the first step for avoiding problems is, as Shantideva recommended, to “ remain like a block of wood.” This means we use alertness to notice that a disturbing emotion has arisen, then mindfulness to remember the suffering consequences that will follow if we act it out, and then ethical self-discipline to refrain from acting. Although such a way of handling this potentially dangerous situation does not rid us of the true origins of our problems – our disturbing emotions and attitudes and the karmic tendencies to act them out – nevertheless, it at least prevents us frim reinforcing those true causes.

Applying Opponent Forces

Exercising self-control not to act out a disturbing emotion when one arises does not actually counter the disturbing emotion. To counter it, we need to deal more directly with it. The first method is to apply an opponent force. An example is meditating on ugliness in order to overcome attachment, or meditating on love in order to overcome anger. When sexually attracted to someone, we imagine the insides of their body if we were to peel away the skin. When angry with someone acting in an annoying fashion, we call to mind that they are acting this way because they are unhappy and something is bothering them. With love, then, we wish for them to be happy and have the causes for happiness, even if out our loving wish is out of our own self-interest so that they will stop bothering us. This method, however, is only a provisional one. It does not rid us of the disturbing emotion such that it never arises again.

Turning Negative Circumstances into Positive Ones

Another method is to change our attitudes and turn negative circumstances into positive ones. For example, when we are experiencing difficulties, we look at our suffering as depleting our past negative karmic potentials, rather than becoming upset and angry about it. We think, “It’s good that I’m suffering. By my negative karmic potentials ripening now, it rids me of having to experience something even more terrible later in this lifetime or in a worse rebirth state.”

In addition, when we are experiencing problems, we think in terms of taking on all the sufferings of others who are experiencing similar types of problems. For example, if we have hepatitis, we think, “By my having hepatitis, may everyone else’s suffering who now has hepatitis leave them and come to me, and may the negative karmic potential of anyone to get hepatitis in the future ripen on me now. In this way, may nobody ever have to suffer again from hepatitis.”

This method of changing our attitudes and turning negative circumstances into positive ones is actually a very effective way of dealing with suffering. Again, however, it is only a provisional method for eliminating our problems and their true origins.

Applying the Mutually Exclusive State of Mind

A third method that is used in Buddhism is to direct toward an object the exact opposite state of mind from that which we had previously held toward it and which had caused us many problems. This is an effective opponent because we cannot have two mutually exclusive ways of cognizing an object simultaneously in the same mental cognition. One mind cannot take the same object in two contradictory, mutually exclusive ways at the same time. When the opponent state of mind is backed by logic, while what is mutually exclusive with it is generated by a false understanding, then if we are able always to stay focused on this opponent state, its exact opposite will never arise again.

For example, grasping for truly established existence and the realisation of voidness – the total absence of truly established existence – are mutually exclusive. If I look at this watch, for instance, and the time it shows, I cannot look at this object with the same mind in two opposite ways. I cannot look at it both as being truly established that it is five minutes to twelve and that there is no such thing as a truly established “five minutes to twelve.” These are two mutually exclusive ways to regard the object I see. When I regard the time as being a truly established “ thing,” I panic that I won’t have enough time to finish this lecture. When I view it in terms of my understanding that there is no such thing as a truly established time – for instance a time when a lecture must end – then I become more relaxed.

It is this type of method that Buddhism employs in general for achieving true stoppings of true problems and their true causes, once we identify the deepest true origin of all problems as our unawareness of voidness.

Dissolving Disturbing Emotions into the Underlying Conventional Nature of the Mind

When disturbing emotions arise, mahamudra meditation provides several methods for dissolving them into the underlying conventional nature of mind. Mind, in Buddhism, refers to the mental activity of mere clarity and awareness. This means the mental activity of giving rise to appearances, which are similar to mental holograms, and being cognitively involved with them. These two aspects are two ways of describing the same activity and are not consecutive. Moreoever, merely or just this mental activity occurs, without it being caused or observed by a person or entity called “mind” that is separate from it.

In Gelug-Kagyu mahamudra meditation, we shift the focus of our attention from the content of the sensory or mental cognition that is accompanied by a disturbing emotion and focus instead on the conventional nature of the mental activity that is occurring. Not only is the mental activity giving rise to and being cognitively involved with a cognitive appearance of the object of the disturbing cognition, it is also doing the same with the disturbing emotion. And that is all that is happening. Changing the focus of our attention like this removes the emotional energy that is driving and perpetuating the disturbing emotion and quiets it down.

[See: A Discourse on A Root Text for Mahamudra, chapter 4: Meditation on the Conventional Nature of the Mind.]

The Karma Kagyu and Drugpa Kagyu method of mahamudra meditation entails letting the mind naturally quiet down when a disturbing emotion arises, rather than dwelling on and analyzing the nature of the cognition containing it. When the disturbing mental activity and all conceptual thought naturally subsides, then like a bird released from a ship in mid-ocean, the mind automatically is in its primordial pure state of clarity and awareness, which it was in all along.

[See: Commentary on Aspiration Prayer for the Definitive Meaning of Mahamudra, chapter 3: Meditation Practice.]

Dissolving Disturbing Emotions into Underlying Deep Awareness

Another method used in mahamudra and dzogchen meditation is to dissolve the five major types of disturbing emotion into the five types of corresponding deep awareness (ye-shes) that underlies them. Each type of deep awareness accounts for the basic structure of its corresponding disturbing emotion, while unawareness (ignorance) accompanying it provides the disturbing aspect.

With longing desire, for instance, our cognition of something focuses on a specific object, considers it “special,” and exaggerates its good qualities. Underlying that longing desire is individualizing deep awareness, which merely distinguishes the object as an individual item, distinct from everything else. To recognize the underlying deep awareness, we may either analyze the structure of the disturbing emotion or just let the mental activity naturally quiet down, thus revealing its underlying deep awareness.

[See: Dissolving Disturbing Emotions into Underlying Deep Awareness.]

Meditation in Analogy

A seventh method that is used in Buddhism to rid ourselves of problems is to meditate in analogy with what we want to purify and what we want to achieve. This is the method used in tantra in general, and more specifically in anuttarayoga tantra. It is done in conjunction with meditation on voidness combined with bodhichitta.

The basic method is to be like a secret agent in disguise and imitate what we want to destroy. Serkong Rinpoche loved to use this image. Like a secret agent in disguise, we go down to the deepest level of our minds to investigate the natural tendency of the mind to give rise to what happens to us in life. We find out the weakest, vital point of the whole mechanism. Then, we sabotage the mechanism so that it stops giving rise to what we want to get rid of. In a sense, we “ flip” the mechanism, so that instead of it giving rise to what we don’t want to experience, it gives rise to what we want to achieve. It is somewhat similar to a mental judo and it is the method that we use in anuttarayoga tantra.

We always speak in terms of a basis to be purified, a path that does the purifying, and the result of the purification: basis, path, result. In our case here, the three are all analogous to each other: the basis that we want to purify, the path that is going to do the purifying, and the result of the purification. By having the three be analogous, we can use the path like a secret agent to purify the basis and bring about the result.

The method will become clearer when we look at the specific example of uncontrollably recurring death, bardo, and rebirth as the basis we want to purify. As we have seen, death, bardo, and rebirth are another way of presenting the Noble Truth of suffering – the all-encompassing affecting suffering of having tainted aggregates. With anuttarayoga tantra practice, we are aiming to rid ourselves of experiencing death, bardo, and rebirth under the influence of karma and disturbing emotions and attitudes by acting like a secret agent in disguise.

The Meanings of Purification

First, let us look at the different possible meanings of what it could mean to purify death, bardo, and rebirth. There are many possibilities that do not apply to the method used in anuttarayoga tantra.

  • When we speak of purifying death, bardo, and rebirth, it is not purification in the sense of removing stains from something, like purifying our mental continuums of fleeting stains. It is not that we have an everlasting continuity of death, bardo, and rebirth, like we have an everlasting continuity of a mental continuum, and we work to make this endless continuity free of stains just so that we can have a nice death, bardo, and rebirth without stains. It is not that type of purification.
  • It is not purification or cleansing in the sense of chasing away interferences from death, bardo, and rebirth, like chasing away harmful spirits or disturbing qualities from flowers that make us sneeze. In tantric sadhana practice, we chase away interfering forces, for instance from objects of offering, by imagining fierce figures emanating from our hearts and chasing them away. In this way, we purify the offerings. We rid them of disturbing qualities so that we can enjoy them purely. But here, we are not working to chase away interferences so that we can enjoy death, bardo, and rebirth more purely, free from confusion.
  • It is not purification in the sense of making the later moments of continuity of death, bard, and rebirth better. For instance, we speak of developing love, which is the wish for all beings to have happiness and the causes for happiness. At first, our love may only be directed toward our loved ones and be mixed with attachment. But as we progress on the spiritual path, we purify that love so that is becomes extended equally to all beings – friends, strangers and even our enemies, and is mixed with an equal attitude toward everyone. In this sense, we are purifying our love so that it becomes better; it becomes purer. But here, we are not trying to make the continuity of our recurring death, bardo, and rebirth better, for instance with better rebirth states. It is not that type of purification.
  • It is also not purification to make the later moments of continuity of death, bardo, and rebirth be of a different quality. Like instead of eating food with attachment, we imagine ourselves as a Buddha-figure and that we enjoy purely, without any confusion, the offerings we imagine being made to us. It is not that type of purification. We are not striving to continue to die, go through bardo, and be reborn, but instead of as an ordinary person, as some sort of pure deity who dies and is reborn more nicely in some paradise without so much suffering and confusion. It is not that kind of purification either.
  • Rather, it is a fifth type of purification, a fifth possibility – purification in the sense of ending the continuity of uncontrollably recurring death, bardo, and rebirth by eliminating its true cause. We want to make them stop continuing and never occur again. It’s not that we want to just change its continuity. We don’t want to make it better, nor remove the stains from it, nor chase away interferences from it. We want to stop it forever and, in that sense, purify it. In other words, we don’t work “to purify death, bardo, and rebirth”; but rather “to purify ourselves of death, bardo, and rebirth.”

Methods for Purifying Ourselves of Something We Want To Be Rid Of

Purifying ourselves of something that we want to be rid of can be done in various ways. Buddhism is filled with a variety of methods for ending the continuity of something, so it is helpful to have some idea of the various approaches that are used.

  • We are not trying to end the continuity of death, bardo, and rebirth in the sense of merely burning the seeds for them, like we do in Vajrasattva purification for ridding ourselves of negative karmic potentials or “karmic seeds.” In Vajrasattva purification, we purify ourselves of having to experience the ripening of negative karmic potentials by burning off their “seeds” so that the circumstances will not arise for the negative potentials to ripen. Mind you, it is only nonconceptual cognition of voidness that gets rid of the seeds completely. The mantra of Vajrasattva just scorches them so that although they are still present, the circumstances will not arise for them to ripen. So in anuttarayoga tantra practice, we are not just working to scorch the seeds of death, bardo, and rebirth so that the circumstances do not arise for them to happen again. Rather, we want to root out the causes for them altogether and to purify ourselves in the sense of eliminating death, bardo, and rebirth forever.
  • We are also not opposing death, bardo, and rebirth directly. We are not using an opponent for them, such as some sort of elixir of immortality. Some people could conceive of such an elixir as being the way to get rid of death, bardo, and rebirth. Such an opponent force would be similar to when we oppose hatred with love.
  • Also we are not using a mutually exclusive exact opposite of death, bardo, and rebirth to end them, like we use the nonconceptual cognition of voidness as the opponent to rid us forever of grasping for truly established existence. We are not meditating on something that is the exact opposite of death, bardo, and rebirth as the method to purify ourselves of them and bring them to an end.

Rather we are working to break the continuity of death, bardo, and rebirth by meditating with pathway minds that are similar to the three. Specifically, we generate pathway minds that, by imitating death, bardo, and rebirth, are able to get past usual blockages so as to get to the heart or the foundation of the three. These pathway minds then access the mechanism that underlies and generates death, bardo, and rebirth and roots out from the foundation of that mechanism the causes for it perpetuating the three. Simultaneously, the pathway minds act as causes for substituting onto the foundation other factors, so that the same mechanism that gave rise to death, bardo, and rebirth gives rise instead to the omniscient mind of a Buddha and the two levels of subtlety of enlightening physical bodies in which a Buddha appears.

Explanation of the Anuttarayoga Method in Structural Form

In structural form, what we have is a basis and a result that are analogous to each other. If we call the basis “one” and the result “two,” both one and two come from the same foundation. In addition, we are using a pathway mind of practice that is also analogous to both one and two and which enables us to get down to their common foundation. When this pathway mind gets down to that foundation, it performs a dual function. It acts as an opponent to eliminate the causes in that foundation that have been giving rise to number one. In other words, it destroys the ability of the foundation to give rise to number one any more, which it normally has been doing all the time. Simultaneously, it acts as a cause for the foundation to give rise to number two instead.

The basis, our number one, is death, bardo, and rebirth. The result, our number two, is the omniscient mind of a Buddha and the two levels of subtlety of a Buddha’s enlightening physical bodies. The omniscient mind of a Buddha is called a Dharmakaya, a Corpus Encompassing Everything. The countless number of physical forms in which a Buddha appears is of two types: Sambhogakaya and Nirmanakaya.

Sambhogakaya, the subtler of the two, is a Corpus Making Full Use – specifically, a network of physical forms making full use of the Mahayana teachings.

  • According to the sutra presentation, these are subtle enlightening forms that always have the full set of major and minor physical signs of a Buddha, always teach Mahayana, always to an audience of exclusively bodhisattva aryas, always in pure-land Buddha-fields, and always live until the end of everyone’s samsaric existence.
  • According to general anuttarayoga tantra, Sambhogakaya is the corpus of a Buddha’s enlightening speech, which, in a sense, is also a corpus of subtle physical forms – namely, the form of sounds – with which a Buddha expresses himself.

The grosser of the two is a Nirmanakaya, a Corpus of Emanations. They comprise emanations of Sambhogakaya in grosser enlightening forms, such that ordinary persons with the karma to meet them are able to receive teachings from them.

The foundation that gives rise to both our number one and number two is an individual being’s subtlest clear light mind and the subtlest energy-wind that is inseparable from it. This foundation is an individual everlasting continuum with no beginning and no end.

Number one and number two are analogous in the following sense. Death occurs when all the grosser levels of mind and energy-wind dissolve into this foundation. Bardo takes place when the mental continuum goes on, but now manifesting out of this foundation, a subtle form that only special beings with ESP can perceive. With rebirth, however, the mental continuum takes on a grosser form that is visible to ordinary beings as well.

Similarly, with the attainment of a Dharmakaya, all the grosser levels of mind and energy-wind also dissolve into this foundation, the subtlest level of mind and energy-wind. Sambhogakaya is a subtle manifestation of a corpus of forms out of this foundation and a Nirmanakaya is a corpus of grosser emanations of those subtle forms.

In the case of bardo and rebirth, however, grosser, “tainted” levels of mind and energy-wind emerge from the subtlest level to constitute the mind and physical bodies of those two samsaric occasions. By contrast, the enlightening physical appearances of Sambhogakaya and Nirmanakaya are still on the level of the subtlest mind and energy-wind, as is the case with Dharmakaya. The structures of how the experiences of our number one trio and number two trio occur, however, are the same. The structure is for our mental continuum to go down to its subtlest level and then to manifest in a subtle and a gross form.

The pathway mind that we use to purify the foundation in the sense of getting it to stop generating number one and to generate number two instead also follows this same structure. It also entails practices that bring the mental continuum down to its subtlest level and then manifest a subtle and a gross form. This pathway mind entails two levels of practice: first the generation stage and then the complete stage.

  • With generation stage practice, we work on the conceptual level, namely with our imaginations. We imagine that our grosser levels of mind and energy-wind dissolve and that we access the clear light subtlest level. We then imagine that we arise in a subtle form, for instance as a seed syllable, and then in a grosser form, namely that of a Buddha-figure, a yidam.
  • With complete stage practice, we work with the subtlest energy-system so that we actually do dissolve the grosser levels of mind and energy-wind and actually do access the subtlest clear-light level. We then generate from that level the subtle forms known in some anuttarayoga systems as illusory bodies. From these, we generate grosser forms, known as pathway emanation bodies.

The generation stage practices act as the causes for being able successfully to practice the complete stage methods. The complete stage practices, in turn, are the actual obtaining causes for attaining the resultant three Enlightening Corpuses of a Buddha – our number two. Moreover, both stages of practice are carried out with a mind that has both valid cognition of voidness and an unlabored bodhichitta aim.

Recapitulation

Now let us put all this together in terms of our example and fill in more detail. Although everything in our example may not be exactly accurate, perhaps it nevertheless helps to explain how the anuttarayoga purification method works.

There is a house with two rooms, one and two, which share a common basement. Room one is a prison cell; room two is the palace chamber of a Buddha. Each room is connected to the basement by its own elevator. The electricity for both elevators comes from the basement, but now it is connected only to elevator one, the elevator to the prison cell. Elevator two to the palace chamber has no electricity. Because of that, only elevator one works; elevator two doesn’t function. We are a prisoner in the cell. We have an endless lifespan and are locked in the cell forever. Every hundred years, we take the elevator down to the basement; get a change of clothes; and go back up to our cell. This is the prison routine.

Our aim is to sabotage the electric system of the house so that we cut off the electric supply to elevator one and connect it to elevator two. If we accomplish our mission, the elevator to room one will go out of order; the elevator to room two will start working; and we can use it to enter and live in the palace chamber. To carry out our mission, we have to get to the basement. Although we normally make a trip to the basement once every hundred years, we can’t wait that long. Our misery in prison is awful, but even more unbearable is the suffering of the countless other prisoners who are each locked up in their own cells.

In order to break into the basement from our prison cell, we need to follow the customs of both rooms of the house: we need to access the basement by taking an elevator. To do this and get past the guards, we need to wear a disguise. Someone from the palace chamber in our house comes to help us. He comes for a visit and secretly gives us a palace uniform and instructs us on how to get to the basement on our own. If we pretend to be from the palace, we can fool the guards, activate the elevator in our cell, and reach the basement.

We follow the instructions. First, we practice in our imaginations going down to the basement, carrying out our secret operation of reconnecting the electric wires, and then coming back up into the palace chamber via elevator two. Once we are able to visualize the operation perfectly and have practiced sufficiently, we are then able actually to break into the elevator in our prison cell and use it to go down to the basement. After many trials of taking the elevator down and almost reaching the basement before having to come back up again, we finally succeed in reaching the basement. There, we disconnect the electricity from the elevator that goes to the prison cell and reconnect it to the elevator that goes to the palace chamber. Having accomplished this, we then take elevator number two up to the palace chamber and, from there, help all the other prisoners to escape.

In this more extended analogy, the prison cell is samsara. The basement is the subtlest level of our continuum – our clear light mind and subtlest energy-wind. The guards are our emotional and cognitive obscurations. Going from the prison cell down to the basement occurs with death. Being in the elevator going back up to the cell is bardo existence, and being back in the prison cell is rebirth.

The palace chamber is the enlightened state of a Buddha. When we are in the elevator to the palace and it is in the basement, this is Dharmakaya. Being in the elevator going up to the palace is Sambhogakaya, and being in the palace chamber is Nirmanakaya. This part of the analogy is not exact, since Dharmakaya, Sambhogakaya, and Nirmanakaya are simultaneous, not sequential. What is analogous is that the appearances of the three enlightening corpuses of a Buddha have three levels of subtlety.

The visitor from the palace chamber is the tantric master. Giving us a disguise is conferring a tantric empowerment. The disguise is as a Buddha-figure. Wearing the disguise and practicing the operation in our imaginations is generation stage practice, during which we visualize ourselves in this Buddha-form. Actually taking the elevator and eventually succeeding in reaching the basement while wearing the disguise is complete stage practice.

The electric connection to the elevator going to the prison cell is held in place by our grasping for truly established existence. What disconnects it from there and reconnects it so that the electricity flows to the elevator going to the palace chamber instead is the nonconceptual cognition of voidness. Finally reaching the palace chamber of a Buddha is our attainment of enlightenment.

This, then, is the procedure we use in anuttarayoga tantra to purify ourselves of experiencing the true suffering of uncontrollably recurring death, bardo, and rebirth.