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Home > Approaching Buddhism > Spiritual Teachers > A Portrait of Tsenzhab Serkong Rinpoche > Part Seven: Rinpoche's Specific Advice for Tantric Practitioners

A Portrait of Tsenzhab Serkong Rinpoche

Alexander Berzin, 1998

Part Seven: Rinpoche's Specific Advice for Tantric Practitioners

Although full-time tantric meditation retreats continued over long periods are beneficial, most people do not have the luxury to undertake them. Therefore, Rinpoche felt it narrow-minded to think that we can only do this type of retreat if we have three months or more of free time. Retreat does not mean a period of cutting ourselves off from others, but a period of intensive practice to make our minds flexible with a practice. Doing one session each morning and night, while leading a normal life the rest of the day, is perfectly acceptable. Rinpoche himself did many of his retreats in this manner, without anyone ever knowing that he was doing one.

The only restrictions with this method of practice are to sleep in the same bed and to meditate on the same seat in the same place throughout the retreat. Otherwise, the momentum of building up spiritual energy is broken. In addition, each session must include at least a minimum number of mantras, prostrations, or some other repetitive practice, as set by the number repeated during the first session of the retreat. Therefore, Rinpoche advised making only three repetitions of the chosen practice during the initial session. In this way, a severe illness will not necessitate breaking the continuity of the retreat and having to start again from the beginning.

As with all forms of Buddhist discipline, however, "necessity sometimes overrules the prohibition," but only in very special cases. Once, in Dharamsala, in the middle of a meditation retreat, I received a request to translate an empowerment and teachings His Holiness the Dalai Lama was giving in Manali, another Himalayan town in India. I consulted with Rinpoche who told me to go without any hesitation or doubts. Assisting His Holiness would be more beneficial than anything else I could possibly do. I would not break the momentum of my practice so long as I did one meditation session each day, repeating the minimum number of mantras I had set. I followed this procedure and, after ten days with His Holiness, returned to Dharamsala and completed my retreat.

Rinpoche always stressed that ritual procedures are purposeful and serious. They need to be followed correctly. For example, tantric retreats require repeating certain mantras a specific number of times and then performing a "fire puja" afterwards. A fire puja is a complex ritual for offering special substances into a fire. The purpose of the ritual is to make up for any deficiencies in the practice and to purify any mistakes that we made.

Certain retreats are particularly difficult. One that I did, for example, requires repeating a mantra one million times and, during an elaborate fire puja, offering ten thousand pairs of long grass reeds while reciting a mantra with each pair. All ten thousand must be tossed into the fire at one sitting, without a break. When I performed my fire puja at the end of this retreat, I ran out of grass reeds somewhat short of the required number. After finishing the rest of the ritual, I reported to Rinpoche. He had me repeat the entire fire puja a few days later. This time, I made sure to have ten thousand pairs of reeds ready!

Because ritual experts are not always available, Rinpoche emphasized the need to be self-reliant. Therefore, he taught his advanced Western disciples how to perform fire pujas themselves. This included how to prepare the firepit and how to draw the requisite mandala design on its floor with colored powders. Even if Westerners required someone else to recite the ritual if it were not yet available in their own languages, Rinpoche explained that they needed to offer the various substances into the fire themselves. This is true even when doing a group retreat.

Following procedures correctly, however, does not contradict having a practical approach. For example, tantric retreats begin with arranging special offerings on a home altar and then offering them each subsequent day to ward off obstacles. The obstacles are visualized in the form of interfering spirits and invited each day to partake of the offering. Rinpoche advised that boxes or jars of cookies are a perfectly acceptable substitute for the traditional ornate tormas used for this purpose.

Rinpoche was not happy about people trying to do advanced practices when they were unqualified. Some people, for instance, attempt complete stage practices when they are not willing or even interested in doing a long sadhana, let alone having mastered it. The highest class of tantra, anuttarayoga, has first generation stage and then complete stage practices. The former stage trains the powers of imagination and concentration through sadhana practice. The latter stage uses the developed powers of mind to work with the subtle energy system of the body to bring about actual self-transformation. Without the skills gained through sadhana practice, work with the chakras, channels, and energy-winds of this subtle system is a farce.

Advanced tantra practices, Rinpoche warned, could be very harmful if done incorrectly by someone unqualified. For example, transference of consciousness (powa), which entails imagining shooting one’s consciousness out the top of one’s head in anticipation of death, can shorten one’s life. Taking the essence of pills (chulen), during which one fasts for weeks and lives on consecrated relic pills, especially if done in a group, can cause famine to the area. In addition, someone practicing like this may fall seriously ill from lack of food and water, and even die.

Tantric retreats are themselves an advanced practice and Rinpoche warned against entering them prematurely. Sometimes, for instance, people undertake a retreat to recite a hundred thousand mantras, but are unfamiliar beforehand with the practice. They imagine that in the course of the retreat, they will gain experience. Although spending an intensive period studying and becoming accustomed to a particular practice is beneficial, this is not the work to do during a formal tantric retreat. Someone who does not know how to swim does not begin training by practicing in the pool twelve hours a day. Such foolhardiness leads merely to cramps and exhaustion. Intensive training is restricted to experienced swimmers for becoming top athletes. The same is true for tantric meditation retreats.

Further, tantric practice needs to remain private. Otherwise, much interference may arise. Rinpoche saw that many Westerners not only did not keep their practices and accomplishments to themselves, they boasted about them. He said it was absurd to brag about being a great yogi practitioner of a certain Buddha-figure when all one is doing or has done is its short retreat by reciting the relevant mantras a couple hundred thousand times. And, to be so pretentious and arrogant when not even practicing daily the long sadhana of the figure is even more pathetic. Rinpoche always explained that the long sadhanas are for beginners. These sadhanas often contain over a hundred pages and are like the scripts of lengthy operas of visualizations. The short abbreviated sadhanas are for advanced practitioners who are so familiar with the entire practice that they can fill in all the visualizations and procedures while only reciting a few words.

Rinpoche taught that Westerners needed also to curb their tendencies to want all teachings and instructions neatly presented from the start, particularly concerning tantra. The great Indian and Tibetan masters were perfectly capable of writing clear texts. Nevertheless, they purposely wrote in a vague style. Making tantric material too clear and accessible may easily cause interference and degeneration of practice. For example, people may take the teachings for granted and not exert serious effort in them.

An important part of the Buddhist pedagogic technique is to make others question the meaning. If students are truly interested, they will seek further clarification. This automatically weeds out those who are "spiritual tourists" and who are unwilling to put in the hard work necessary for becoming enlightened. If, however, the purpose for clarifying the tantras is to dispel people’s distorted, negative impressions of them, His Holiness the Dalai Lama has endorsed publishing explicit explanations. These are to concern only the theory, however, and not specific practices of individual Buddha-figures. A clear "how-to-do-it" manual may encourage people to attempt advanced practices without the supervision of a teacher, which can be very dangerous.

Most dangerous of all, Rinpoche warned, was to treat dharma-protectors lightly. Dharma-protectors are powerful forces, often spirits, whom great masters have tamed. They made these normally violent beings swear by oath to protect Buddha’s teachings (the Dharma) and its sincere practitioners from harm and obstacles. Only great yogis can keep them under control.

Rinpoche often told the story of one protector given the vow to safeguard the practice of a monastery devoted to debate. He must bring interference, such as sickness and accidents, to anyone trying to practice tantra within its grounds when he should be debating. Only monks who had finished their dialectics training and who had then studied further at one of the two tantric colleges were allowed to practice tantra – but even then, not within the monastery walls.

One Geshe, while still a student, used to make within the monastery grounds a burnt offering of juniper leaves associated with tantra. He was continually plagued with obstacles. He then entered one of the tantric colleges and, after graduation, resumed making this offering, but outside the monastery on a mountainside nearby. Some years later, after the Geshe had straightforward, nonconceptual perception of voidness, the protector appeared to him in a vision. The ferocious-looking spirit apologized, saying, "I am sorry that I had to harm you before, but that was part of my pledge to the founder of your monastery. Now that you have achieved bare perception of voidness, even if I wanted to, I could not cause you any harm."

Rinpoche stressed the importance of this example. Fooling with forces beyond our abilities to control can lead to disaster. He often quoted His Holiness who said always to remember that dharma-protectors are servants of the Buddha-figures. Only those with full competence on the generation stage of anuttarayoga tantra and with the power to command as a Buddha-figure should become involved. Otherwise, premature engagement will be like a small child calling a huge lion to protect it. The lion may simply devour the child. His Holiness advised that the karma created by our actions is our best protector. Moreover, what ever happened to taking refuge in the Triple Gem – the Buddhas, the Dharma, and the highly realized spiritual community?