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Home > Approaching Buddhism > Introduction to Buddhism > Bringing Buddhism Down to Earth > Session Seven: Tantric Practice

Bringing Buddhism Down to Earth

Alexander Berzin
Munich, Germany, June 1996

[lightly edited transcript]

Session Seven: Tantric Practice

Tantra Is an Advanced Practice

For our last session together, let’s speak a little bit about tantra. We also need to bring tantra down to earth.

Often, Western people, when approaching the tantric teachings in Tibetan Buddhism, fall into one of two extremes. One extreme is to be frightened of it and not want to get involved with tantra at all. The other extreme is to want to jump into tantra instantly. Both of those extremes have their shortcomings.

Tantra is an extremely advanced practice. It’s neither something to be frightened of nor something to involve ourselves in prematurely. In our practices on the sutra level of Buddhism, the initial levels, what we’re doing is basically learning to develop many, many different qualities that will help us either to improve samsara, gain liberation, or become a Buddha so that we can help others as fully as is possible. Achieving these goals requires developing concentration, love and compassion, a correct and deep understanding of impermanence, voidness, renunciation, and so on. All of these are totally necessary as the causes to achieve these goals. Although we can describe tantra in many different ways, one aspect of tantra practice is that it’s a way to put all of these together and practice them all at once.

[See: Making Sense of Tantra.]

Obviously we can’t practice all of these things simultaneously if we haven’t developed them first one-by-one. To just jump into tantra practice without having first developed these qualities will degenerate into merely a practice of ritual without any content or depth to it. To actually gain any deep benefit from a ritual, it has to be seen as a structure for putting together all of the qualities that we’ve been developing.

For example, we need to put the safe and positive direction of refuge in our lives. What are we doing with the practice of a tantric ritual? Just that: we’re going in this safe direction by trying to develop ourselves through the ritual. We’re not doing the ritual as an amusement or, like going off to Disneyland, as a diversion and escape from our ordinary lives. Rather, we’re using the ritual practice as a way to help us in our self-development to reach the various Buddhist goals. These goals are the Three Jewels of Refuge: what the Buddha taught, what he achieved in full, and what the highly realized Sangha has achieved in part.

The Necessity for Having Renunciation

Renunciation is another extremely necessary part of any tantric practice and so we also need to stress what it refers to. Renunciation has two aspects. One is a strong determination to be free from our problems. That aspect enables us to use the tantric practice as a method for freeing ourselves from our problems by achieving enlightenment. If we don’t have that aspect of renunciation, that determination to be free, we’ll be unable to apply the practices to ourselves as an integral part of our spiritual path.

The other aspect of renunciation is the willingness to give up not only our suffering, but the causes of our suffering. That’s very important. If we’re not willing to give up the causes of our suffering, there’s no way that we’re going to become free of that suffering, no matter how much we want to be free of it. The cause of our suffering is not just something trivial, unfortunately, like going to the movies or eating chocolate or even having sex. It’s something that’s all-encompassing in our life. On one level, it’s all of our negative personality traits – all of our anger, attachment, arrogance, jealousy, and so on. If we go a little bit deeper, it includes our insecurity, anxiety, and worries. And if we go even deeper, it’s our confusion – it’s our whole misconception that we have about ourselves and everything in life.

Even deeper than that, what we really need to get rid of is our ordinary type of mind that makes things appear in a way that doesn’t accord with reality. On the basis of these so-called “impure appearances,” our unawareness that they’re deceptive and false then makes us believe that they’re true. All of our problems stem from that.

It’s not the mind itself that’s the problem; it’s this deceptive appearance-making activity or functioning of the mind and our mistaken belief that these appearances are true. And so, the cause of our problems is also not the appearances themselves that the mind produces.  That’s a big mistake to think that the problem lies with the appearances themselves. Thinking like that is a fault that comes from misunderstanding the Tibetan word nangwa, which can mean either “appearances” or “appearance-making.”

When we talk about getting rid of “ordinary appearances” or “dual appearances,” we’re not talking about a noun; we’re not talking about appearances “out there.” We’re talking about a way of being aware of something; we’re talking about a verb. Specifically, we’re talking about the function of the mind that causes things to appear in a way that doesn’t accord with reality. That’s what we’re trying to rid ourselves of; that’s what we’re trying to achieve a true stopping of. And unfortunately, life is tough – our minds constantly make things appear in crazy ways, without a beginning.

For example, even if we have some understanding of impermanence and of no solid self, still when we get up in the morning and look at ourselves in the mirror, our minds make it appear as though we’re the same person that we were last night, identical. It seems like we’re permanent. Or, we just hurt our foot and the mind makes it appear as though there’s a “ me” that’s separate from the foot: “I hurt MY foot.” Our conceptual minds, based on our language, makes things appear that way.

What we need to be willing to give up is this whole process of the mind making things appear this way – which, unfortunately, we’re terribly familiar with – and all of the confusion, problems, worries and so on that derive from this. If we’re not willing to give that up, how can we possibly make a transformation of our self, our self-image, and all these sorts of things with tantra?

Without being willing to give up our ordinary self-image, which is the self-image of a solid “me” with some sort of solid identity, to then generate ourselves as some sort of deity, that’s the road to schizophrenia rather than the road to liberation. We would still have this crazy, completely angry and attached idea of ourselves. Then we would be adding on top of that this inflation that “I’m a deity.” Then we can easily get the craziness of saying, for instance, “I’m angry: that’s my wrathful aspect as a deity.” Or we go and have sex with anybody that we find because, “I’m this deity with a consort, and this is high tantra practice to have sex with everybody.” All of that’s a great danger that can happen if we just jump into tantra without having a foundation of this determination to be free – this renunciation of our ordinary self-image.

And to renounce that self-image, it’s absolutely necessary to have a correct understanding of voidness; because otherwise, how can we make a transformation of our conception of ourselves? Without a correct understanding, we can become completely crazy, thinking, “Everything is just a mandala and perfect around me and everybody is a Buddha” in a very weird way, and then we don’t even pay attention when we cross the street and we get hit by a car.

Furthermore, it’s absolutely necessary to have love, compassion, and bodhichitta. We’re doing all these practices to be of help to others and out of concern for others. Bodhichitta really moves us to apply all of this as a method for dealing with the world and for dealing with others. Without it, it’s very easy to go off into a Buddhist Disneyland, just off by ourselves in some weird fantasy land.

When we’re doing the practices of tantra, we imagine that we have all these arms and legs and are surrounded with five colored lights, etc. Each of these things is a representation of various understandings, various qualities like love, compassion, the five types of deep awareness, and so on. By imagining these things in a graphic form, such as multiple arms and legs, it helps us to generate them all simultaneously. It’s in this sense that tantra is a very advanced practice and requires a tremendous preparation to be able to do it properly.

The Need for Preliminary Practices

When we talk about other types of preparation, like prostrations and Vajrasattva hundred-syllable repetition, that’s in addition to what we just discussed. They help us to build up the positive potential to succeed in our tantric practice and to purify us of negative potential that would prevent this from happening. But, to do these preliminary practices only by themselves, without also having these factors of love, compassion, concentration, voidness etc. together with them, will not be enough to bring about success. For example, we could be doing a hundred thousand prostrations for some really neurotic reason as our motivation. It could be to please our teacher; it could be to join the club of “special people”; it could be as a penance for being a “bad” person; or such things.

These preliminary practices need to be done not only on the basis of all of these various aspects of the Dharma, such as love and compassion, but they need to be aimed at furthering our development of those aspects. This is similar to what we discussed already in terms of how to make progress in our understanding of voidness or whatever, and how, for that, it’s necessary to build up a lot of positive potential and clean away some mental blocks. These practices like prostration help us to generate the positive energy to be able to put all the aspects of the Dharma together. If we lack these aspects that we need to put together, the positive energy in itself from the preliminary practices is not going to be enough.

The form of building up positive potential and cleaning away obstacles can be a traditionally structured one, but it doesn’t have to be. It could be taking care of our children; it could be working in a hospital – anything constructive or positive that we do repeatedly. Here’s a traditional example: the Buddha had a very difficult disciple who did not have a great intellectual capacity. As a preliminary practice for this person, Buddha had him sweep the temple for several years, while reciting, “Dirt be gone; dirt be gone.” That was this person’s preliminary practice. Buddha didn’t have him do prostrations. So, we need to be a little bit flexible and understand that the important thing is the process itself of building up and purifying. The structure of that process can be custom-made to each individual.

The Spiritual Teacher and Taking Vows

On the other hand, there’s no need to be frightened of tantra and feel, “I don’t really want to get involved in this.” But we need to be careful about it and do it properly. For that, the relation with the spiritual teacher is very important because again, as we were mentioning, when we see the teacher as one of these deities, these Buddha-forms, it also works the other way around: it enables us to see these Buddha-figures as human. In other words, we learn what it means to actually translate all of this tantric practice into human life. That’s very important. Otherwise, we can get really weird ideas of what it means to visualize ourselves in these forms all day long.

Another thing that’s very important with tantra is taking certain sets of vows – lay vows, bodhisattva vows, and, in the highest two classes of tantra, tantric vows. But, we have to be careful to avoid taking vows from the point of view of thinking that we exist as a solid “me” and “I should do this and I shouldn’t do that.” So the understanding of voidness is very important to be able to take vows in a non-neurotic way, so that we don’t bring in feelings of guilt about what we’ve done in the past or what we might do in the future, or feelings that we’re losing control because of taking these vows, or “Now I’ve given the control to somebody else and now I’ve become the slave of this teacher.” If we think like that, in terms of the issue of control, then we might become so afraid of taking vows, that we don’t get involved with tantra at all.

To overcome all of that and to be able to take and keep vows in a non-neurotic way, once again we need the understanding of voidness. Over and over again, in order to practice tantra, we NEED renunciation, bodhichitta, and the understanding of voidness. If we’re properly prepared, then tantra is extremely important because it does enable us to put everything together. It’s proper to be very cautious and careful and not jump into it before we’re prepared, but we also need to avoid thinking, “I’m never going to be prepared and so I never want to involve myself in this.” We need some sort of middle path in our approach.

When Is Our Understanding Enough?

When do we know that “Now I have enough of an understanding of voidness, enough bodhichitta, and enough renunciation to actually get involved with tantra?” That’s not so easy. First of all, we know ourselves better than anybody else is going to know us. To say “ Oh, the guru knows” and so on, really is romanticizing the whole situation. It becomes a method of turning away from taking responsibility for our lives, which is very immature. Of course, if we have a close relation with a spiritual teacher, discussion with the teacher and so on can be helpful. We need to avoid thinking in a very arrogant way, “I don’t have to consult my teacher.” But not all of us have a close personal relation with a teacher, so it’s not so easy. I think we have to look within ourselves and be honest with ourselves and not play around with games of self-deception: “I’m so high,” etc.

I think the main thing to focus on in ourselves – and I think that only we can judge that ourselves – is how strong our compassion is, which then is going to determine how strong our bodhichitta is. In other words, how much am I really concerned with other people and being able to help them? If that’s quite strong, it can lead to having strong renunciation and bodhichitta. “I’ve got to let go of all the causes that are preventing me from helping others, and I’ve got to develop all good qualities so that I’ll be able to help them as much as is possible.”

The only way that we can possibly let go of the causes of our limitations and develop all our good qualities is through gaining a correct and full understanding voidness and not grasping at a solid concept of “ME – I’m so terrible, I can’t do anything” or “I’m so wonderful, I’m God’s gift to the world, I don’t need to learn anything.” Rather, we understand cause and effect.

When we understand voidness, we naturally respect cause and effect – how to develop the qualities to help others. With this really strong determination to help others, “I’ve got to give up the causes of my suffering. I want to. It’s not that I ‘should’ give them up, but I really want and need to do that,” we’re motivated or moved, in an altruistic way, to do that. And we realize that to be able to really help others, we need to follow cause and effect. We need to build up all the qualities to be of best help to others, and that can only be through a process of cause and effect, which can only operate on the basis of voidness.

On the basis of that motivation and understanding, then we need to examine what’s going on in tantra practice, what’s it all about? We need to have confidence that tantra offers the most powerful methods for getting rid of what’s preventing us from helping others and for developing the qualities with which we can help others as much as is possible. In other words, we need confidence that practicing tantra is the most efficient way to accomplish the goals of enlightenment and being best able to help others.

When we have the proper motivation and some understanding of voidness, as well as an appreciation and understanding of the process of tantra practice, so that we have some sort of confidence in it and some idea of what we’re doing with it, then we’re ready to involve ourselves with tantric practice. Then we’re really drawn to it in a very positive, constructive way and we’ll use it in a constructive and positive manner.

Summary

In short, I think that we’re the best judge of ourselves as to how sincere is our wish to help others or is it just empty words? If we practice tantra before we’re ready, there are an awful lot of dangers. We can really get psychologically messed up if we’re just practicing some empty ritual for some neurotic reason. Such incorrect practice can easily serve as a basis for a tremendous inflation of ourselves with strange fantasies, arrogance, and so forth, on the one hand, and on the other hand, disillusionment because the ritual practice isn’t really accomplishing anything. When we’re merely keeping a commitment to do a certain ritual practice every day and we become disillusioned because we don’t know how to apply it to our lives, our daily practice then becomes a complete ordeal that we feel is an obligation, a duty: “I have to do it.” We soon resent it and it becomes very unpleasant. If we’re properly prepared and have the proper attitude toward tantra, then tantra practice is extremely beneficial. But this requires really putting everything in the Dharma together.

We also need to keep in mind that when we’re involved with tantra practice, our practice will evolve. We need to avoid putting a solid line around it and thinking that our practice has to be the same stupid thing day in and day out, “I’m reciting this ritual and I could recite it backwards.” The practice evolves over time. It’s a process, rather than the boring task of reciting one thing for the rest of eternity. Although having ethics, renunciation, bodhichitta, concentration, and the understanding of voidness are things that we want to have forever, the level of our realization of them will evolve as we use the ritual practice to put them together.

But always bear in mind that just as one feature of samsara is that it goes up and down, also our tantric practice will also go up and down. It never evolves in a linear way, always getting better day by day. We need patience and perseverance.

What questions do you have?

Initiations

Participant: [transl.] In the West, it happens very often that you take initiations and then you have to do rituals without these understandings; and the fact that you need to have these understandings is not explained to you before taking the initiation.

Alex: Yes, sadly that happens all too often. You see, one of the problems is that all these initiations are being given and we as Westerners take them in terms of, “Now I should do this and I shouldn’t do that.” A Tibetan doesn’t approach them that way. When these initiations are given, most ordinary Tibetans’ attitude is, “I’m attending in order to have seeds or instincts planted on my mind-stream for future lives.” Most have no intention of practicing tantra in this lifetime.

Mind you, I’m talking about ordinary lay Tibetans. They bring their babies and even their dogs to initiations. They feel that anybody, including the baby and the dog, has seeds for future lives implanted on their mind-streams by attending the initiation. That’s how they look at it. But we, as Westerners, don’t really think in that way. We go to initiations and even if we had no idea of what was going on in the ceremony and we were totally unconscious in terms of the process during the initiation, afterwards we say, “Oh my God! I’ve taken this commitment and now I SHOULD do this and if I don’t do this, I’m going to Vajra Hell!!”

That’s quite a misunderstanding of voidness and dependent arising. Things don’t happen one-sidedly. Receiving an initiation is dependent on both what the person who’s giving the initiation and what the person who’s receiving it are doing. For example, in order to actually receive an initiation, we need to take the vows very consciously, with full awareness of what we’re doing. If we don’t do that, then we’re no different from the dog that was there.

The interesting question is whether or not the dog gets instincts implanted from being there? From the classical literature it does seem as though the dog does, because the dog experiences being there. So there is some sort of impression on its mind-stream even though it might be quite weak. We too can be present and have a certain impression from being there. In the West, we call that taking the initiation as a “blessing.” But doing so doesn’t mean that we’ve actually received the initiation and now we have all the commitments and vows from it. Unless we very consciously accept the commitments and vows, we don’t have them.

There’s nothing wrong in receiving an initiation in the way that an ordinary Tibetan would receive it – as some sort of inspiring event to make an impression that some time in the future will be something that we can use to benefit ourselves and others. We need to avoid being pretentious and thinking, “Now I’m such a high person. Now I’m a real tantric practitioner,” when our attending an initiation was merely on a superficial level and we really didn’t commit ourselves consciously to anything.  We need to be willing to accept that “I went on the level of a dog and that’s okay.”

Nevertheless, having gone to an initiation on the level of a dog can still be very inspiring and helpful – no problem. But it’s our pretentiousness that makes us unwilling to accept that there’s merely this level of benefit that can come from it. Obviously, we can get confused and think, “If I go around and collect as many initiations as possible, I’ll be such a high person.” That also is a bit silly, isn’t it? Even if we compulsively collect initiations because we find them inspiring and helpful, it’s important not to consider ourselves to be great tantric practitioners. Humility is always essential with all aspects of Dharma practice.

Let’s end on that note. May whatever positive potential and understanding that has come from our discussing these things together act as a cause for reaching enlightenment for the benefit of all.