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Making Sense of Tantra

Alexander Berzin, 2002

Part I: Basic Questions and Doubts about Tantra

4 Buddha-Figures

To overcome fascination, repugnance, or bewilderment about the dazzling array of Buddha-figures used in tantra and about their unusual forms, Westerners need to understand their place and purpose on the Buddhist path. They also need to differentiate them from the Western concepts of self-images, archetypes, and objects of prayer. Otherwise, they may confuse tantra practice with forms of psychotherapy or devotional polytheistic religion and thus deprive themselves of the full benefits of Buddha-figure practices.

The Use of Buddha-Figures in Practices Shared by Mahayana Sutra and Tantra

To gain mindfulness and concentration, one may focus on sensory awareness, for instance of the physical sensation of the breath passing in and out the nose. In Mahayana sutra and tantra practice, however, visualized Buddha-figures more commonly serve as objects of focus for gaining single-minded concentration. Such practice accords with An Anthology of Special Topics of Knowledge, in which Asanga defined concentration as the mental factor that keeps mental awareness focused on constructive objects or in constructive states of mind. The Indian Mahayana master defined concentration in this way because of the many advantages gained from developing it specifically with mental awareness.

For example, becoming a Buddha requires absorbed concentration on love, compassion, and the correct understanding of how things actually exist. If one has already developed concentration with mental awareness, one may apply it to these mental and emotional states more easily than if one has developed concentration through sensory awareness. Moreover, since Buddha-figures – especially the figure of Shakyamuni – represents enlightenment, focusing on them helps practitioners to remain aimed in the safe direction of refuge. It also helps them to maintain mindfulness of the bodhichitta motivation to achieve enlightenment for the sake of benefiting others as much as is possible.

Both sutra and tantra Mahayana practices include visualizing Buddha-figures in front of oneself, on the top of one's head, or in one's heart. Tantra practice is unique, however, in its training in self-visualization as a Buddha-figure. Imagining oneself as having the enlightening physical, communicative, and mental faculties of a Buddha-figure acts as a powerful cause for actualizing and achieving these qualities.

Buddha-Figures and Self-Images

Most people have one or more self-images with which they identify. The images may be positive, negative, or neutral, and either accurate or inflated. Buddha-figures, on the other hand, are images that represent only accurate positive qualities. Through understanding Buddha-nature, tantra practitioners use them to replace their ordinary self-images as an integral part of the path to enlightenment.

Buddha-figures represent the totality of all the potentials of Buddha-nature – on the basis level when they are unrefined, on the pathway level when they are partially refined, and on the resultant level of enlightenment when they are totally refined. Moreover, most figures also represent a specific aspect of Buddha-nature on basis, pathway, and resultant levels. For instance, Avalokiteshvara represents compassion based on the natural warmth of the heart, and Manjushri stands for wisdom based on the innate clarity of the mind. Identifying with the figure helps to enhance the particular quality that it embodies.

In identifying with Buddha-figures, however, tantra practitioners do not inflate themselves with wishful thinking. They base their identifications on the potentials of their Buddha-natures that allow them fully to realize these qualities for everyone's sake. Alternatively, they understand that the Buddha-figures and the good qualities they incorporate are refined quantum levels at which their own appearances and qualities validly resonate.

For example, people may have self-images of being emotionally stiff or mentally slow. They may in fact be tense or dull, but identifying with these qualities as their self-images may easily depress them and dampen their efforts to benefit others. If, on the other hand, they imagine themselves as Buddha-figures whose hearts are warm and whose minds are lucid, they no longer worry about being inadequate. The visualization helps them to access innate positive qualities, especially in times of need.

Furthermore, people usually regard their self-images as their true and inherent identities. It is who they believe they really are, no matter what the circumstances may be. Tantra practitioners, on the other hand, do not conceive of Buddha-figures as giving them their inherent identities by their own powers, independently of the practice required to actualize the qualities that they represent.

Closely bonding and imaginatively transforming into a Buddha-figure differ in several other ways from improving a self-image casually or systematically. By receiving empowerments before undertaking tantra self-transformation, practitioners formally activate and reinforce the innate potentials that enable them to become like these figures. They gain conscious experiences that the figures and their qualities exist inseparably from themselves and that the voidness of their mental continuums allows the transformation to occur. The vows taken during the ceremony establish, structure, and secure the close bond. Moreover, the relationship established with the empowering tantric master provides ongoing inspiration to nourish and stimulate the potentials throughout the path.

Buddha-Figures and Archetypes

According to Jungian psychology, archetypes are symbols for fundamental patterns of thought and behavior that are present in the collective part of everyone's unconscious. They derive from the collective experience of either humanity in general or a particular culture or historical era, and they account for people's responding to situations in ways similar to their ancestors. Archetypal symbols, such as the loving parent, the wise elder, the brave hero, or the wicked witch, find expression in myths and fantasies. Their forms may differ from one society or time to another, but the patterns of thought and behavior that they symbolize remain the same. Psychological maturity comes from raising to consciousness the intuitive knowledge symbolized by the entire spectrum of archetypes and incorporating it harmoniously into one's life.

Some symbols convey meanings that are evident to people from any culture – either at first sight or upon simple explanation. For instance, a mother feeding an infant universally symbolizes nurturing love. Other symbols, however, do not clearly suggest what they signify. The four-armed figure of Avalokiteshvara, for example, does not obviously suggest compassion to people from non-Buddhist cultures. The meanings that archetypes symbolize are, for the most part, quite obvious; whereas the meanings that Buddha-figures symbolize are not obvious at all. 

Furthermore, archetypes are universal features of everyone's collective unconscious, whereas Buddha-figures are collective features associated with everyone's clear light continuum. The clear light continuum is not an equivalent for the collective unconscious. Although both mental faculties have features of which one is normally unaware, the clear light continuum is the subtlest level of the mental continuum and provides an individual with continuity from one lifetime to the next. The collective unconscious, on the other hand, explains the continuity of mythic patterns over successive generations. It manifests in each person, but only in humans, and does not pass on through a process of rebirth.

Moreover, Buddha-figures are neither concrete nor abstract representations findable in a clear light continuum. Nor are they findable elsewhere. Rather, the Buddha-figures represent the innate potentials of everyone's clear light continuum to give rise to patterns of thought and behavior, whether the potentials are unrealized, partially realized, or fully realized. They represent the potentials of general positive qualities, such as compassion or wisdom, rather than the thought and behavior of specific familial, social, or mythical roles. The Buddha-figures associated with disturbing emotions such as anger represent only the transformation and constructive use of the energy underlying the emotions, rather than the destructive negative emotions themselves.

Moreover, Buddhism clarifies the meaning of the Buddha-figures' being collective. Buddhism accepts the existence of universals and particulars. Universals are metaphysical abstractions imputed on sets of similar items to organize them into categories delineated by words and concepts. For example, all people have similar-looking features on their faces through which they breathe. The universal nose is an imputation on these features allowing them all to share the name nose. Yet everyone's nose is individual and one person's nose is not another's. A universal nose does not exist somewhere on its own as an ideal model, separate from particular noses, nor do people reach the universal nose through contemplation of their own noses. The same is true with Buddha-figures and the Buddha-nature potentials that they represent. Universal Buddha-figures do not exist as individual beings separate from the clear light continuums of individuals. Nor do people gain access to universal Buddha-figures through the Buddha-figures of their clear light continuums, like reaching God through the spirit of the divine within their souls.

Furthermore, unlike archetypes, Buddha-figures do not come to consciousness spontaneously in dreams, fantasies, or visions unless people have thoroughly familiarized themselves with their forms during their lifetimes or in recent previous lives. This holds true also for bardo, the periods in between death and rebirth. The Tibetan Book of the Dead describes the Buddha-figures that appear during bardo and advises those in the in-between state to recognize the figures as mere appearances produced by their clear light continuums. The people for whom the instructions pertain, however, are persons who have practiced tantra during their lifetimes. Those without previous tantra practice normally experience their continuums giving rise to other appearances during bardo, not those of Buddha-figures.

Buddha-Figures as Emanations of Buddhas

Although Buddha-figures represent both the totality and specific aspects of the basis, pathway, and resultant Buddha-natures, Buddha-figures are not merely symbols. In An Extensive Explanation of (Chandrakirti's) "Illuminating Lamp, " Sherab-senggey, Gelug founder of the Lower Tantric College, explained that Buddha-figures have the same mental continuums as Buddhas. This is because they are emanations of Buddhas' enlightening clear light continuums. For example, although Shakyamuni attained enlightenment eons ago, he emanated himself as Prince Siddhartha and gave the appearance of becoming a Buddha during his lifetime. He did this to help beginners to gain confidence that practicing the teachings brings results. Similarly, Shakyamuni assumed the form of Vajradhara when he imparted The Guhyasamaja Tantra and simultaneously emanated himself as Vajrapani, the compiler of the teachings. Buddha merely gave the appearance that the Buddha-figure Vajrapani was someone different from Vajradhara in order to inspire beginners also to listen attentively to the teachings and to remember and practice them conscientiously. Shakyamuni, Vajradhara, and Vajrapani were, in fact, all the same person.

Buddhas emanate Buddha-figures from their clear light continuums to benefit beings in many ways, particularly by serving as representations of the various factors of Buddha-nature. Through realizing the inseparability between Buddha-figures and the clear light continuums of the Buddhas and of the tantric masters, practitioners realize that both the imagined and actual Buddha-figures they bond with in meditation are emanations of their own clear light continuums. Just as every clear light continuum can emanate an appearance of a nose without one person's nose being another's, similarly every clear light continuum can emanate Buddha-figures, although the Buddha-figures of one clear light continuum are not the Buddha-figures of another. The realization of the inseparability of the Buddha-figures and their own clear light continuums helps practitioners to actualize the Buddha-nature factors that the figures represent.

Buddha-Figures as Objects for Prayers

Mahayana sutra and tantra practitioners often pray to Buddha-figures, such as Tara. The two truths or facts about things, which the Indian master Nagarjuna elaborated in Root Stanzas on the Middle Way, shed light on the phenomenon. According to the interpretation common to sutra and tantra, the conventional truth about something is how it appears to everyday beings. Its deepest truth is how it actually exists, a fact about an object that its appearance conceals.

From the conventional viewpoint of everyday people, Buddha-figures such as Tara appear to be independently existent beings with the powers to grant petitioners' wishes. In deepest fact, however, there is no independently existent Tara: all Taras are emanations of the clear light continuums of the Buddhas and of the people who pray to Tara. Moreover, even as emanations of clear light continuums, Buddha-figures lack the ability to bring about results, such as granting wishes, by their own powers, from their own sides, independently of anything else. Buddhism argues that such abilities are impossible. Nevertheless, offering prayers to Tara may help to bring about effects, whether or not one recognizes Tara as an emanation of Buddha or as an emanation of one's own clear light continuum and representing its potentials. This is because the strong wish of prayer acts as a circumstance for activating one's innate potentials.

For example, devotees commonly pray to Tara, as an external being, for protection from fear. Tara may inspire people to be courageous, but the main cause for their overcoming fears is the potentials of their clear light continuums for understanding how things actually exist and the courage that this naturally brings. Inspiration (chinlab, byin-rlabs; Skt. adhishthana, blessing), however, is required for devotees to activate and to use their potentials, and inspiration may come from either external or internal sources. An important Buddha-nature factor, in fact, is the ability of a clear light continuum to be inspired or uplifted.

Coarse and Subtle Emanations of Buddha-Figures

To benefit others, Buddhas emanate multiple appearances of themselves in a variety of coarse and subtle forms. They assume an array of subtle bodies (Skt. sambhogakaya) to teach arya bodhisattvas – the only ones able to see such forms. Aryas (noble ones) are highly realized beings with direct, straightforward, nonconceptual perception and understanding of how things exist. Buddhas take an assortment of coarser bodies (Skt. nirmanakaya) in order to benefit ordinary beings. Any Buddha may emanate coarse or subtle bodies in the forms of any Buddha-figure or everyday being, or even of another Buddha. The same is true of Buddha-figures when appearing as if they were individual enlightened beings. Only those who are receptive to receiving help or teachings, however, are able to meet Buddhas in any form and derive the full benefit.

Buddhas and their Buddha-figure emanations reside in their own Buddha-fields. Buddha-fields are special realms unassociated with the confusion of uncontrollably recurring existence (Skt. samsara). They are the pure lands where Buddhas and Buddha-figures manifest in subtle forms and teach arya bodhisattvas the final steps to enlightenment. Since Buddha-fields are beyond the common experience of Buddhologists and Hinayana adherents, their literal existence would naturally be unacceptable to them. Mahayana sutra and tantra practitioners, however, regard them as actually existing, although no one can reach them without the prerequisite realizations. Even great masters cannot bring the mental continuums of freshly deceased persons to pure lands unless the deceased have built up the potentials for this from their own practices.

The nonliteral ultimate meaning of Buddha-fields is the clear light continuum of each individual being. Within the sphere of each being's clear light continuum, beyond the confusion of uncontrollable existence, dwell the various aspects of Buddha-nature, represented by Buddha-figures. Arya bodhisattvas on the path of highest tantra – the only practitioners with nonconceptual meditative access to their clear light continuums – gain final actualization of their Buddha-natures while in this state.

Sometimes Buddha-figures come from their Buddha-fields in the subtle forms of bodhisattvas and request Shakyamuni to impart the various sutras and tantras, as when Vajrapani requested A Concert of Names of Manjushri (Praises to the Names of Manjushri). As bodhisattvas, they may also attend and compile Buddha's discourses, as Vajrapani did for The Guhyasamaja Tantra, or give teachings in Shakyamuni's stead, as Avalokiteshvara did for The Heart Sutra. In such cases, as explained above, the Buddha-figures and Shakyamuni share the same mental continuum.

Some of the coarse bodies that Buddhas or Buddha-figures emanate from their Buddha-fields were actual historical persons, such as Padmasambhava, the Indian master responsible for the first spread of Buddhism to Tibet. From the viewpoint of conventional truth, these great beings seemed to have individual mental continuums and appeared as such to ordinary beings, who could understand only this truth about them. A deeper truth about them was that their mental continuums were one with the Buddhas and Buddha-figures of whom they were emanations. For Buddhologists and Hinayana adherents, only the first statement about these historical figures is true. For Mahayana practitioners, both statements are fact.

Tantra practice includes visualizing oneself in the forms of certain historical figures regarded as Buddha-figure emanations, such as Padmasambhava, his female partner Yeshey Tsogyel, or the Second Karmapa, Karma Pakshi. Not all masters regarded as Buddha-figure emanations, however, serve as forms for tantra self-visualization, for example the Dalai Lamas as Avalokiteshvaras. Moreover, political reasons may have motivated the Tibetans to address honorifically certain rulers as Buddha-figure emanations, such as the Manchu emperors of China as Manjushris and the Russian czars as Taras. Tantra practice does not include such persons. Regarding them as emanations, however, accords with the general Mahayana advice to avoid speaking badly of anyone, because one can never tell who may be a bodhisattva emanation.

Further, some coarse Buddha-figure emanations that the Tibetans consider as having been historical figures would be hard to confirm by Western standards. A prominent example is Tara. Tara appeared as an individual who during a lifetime as a woman developed bodhichitta and became a bodhisattva. She vowed to continue taking rebirth ever after as a woman and to achieve enlightenment in a female form to encourage women to follow the path.

Buddha-Figures as Containers for Practice

Buddha-figures are more than emanations representing various factors of Buddha-nature; they also serve as multipurpose containers. The motivation for Mahayana practice is to become a Buddha for the benefit of all. Becoming a Buddha requires actualizing enlightening physical, communicative, and mental faculties. Such faculties need the container of a physical form. Visualizing oneself as a Buddha-figure acts as a cause for achieving a physical container – the enlightening body of a Buddha. It also serves as a fitting container for the various tantra practices for achieving enlightenment, such as visualizing the chakras and channels of the subtle body.

Like all Buddhas, Buddha-figures appear in a vast network of assorted forms to benefit others in varying ways. For example, tantra encompasses six classes of practice according to the Nyingma system and four according to the Kagyu, Sakya, and Gelug schools. Moreover, each Tibetan tradition transmits several styles of practice for each tantra class. Any Buddha-figure may serve as a container for any number of practices from any number of Tibetan traditions and any number of tantra classes. In any of these practices, the same Buddha-figure may appear in different forms, in different postures, with different colors and numbers of faces and limbs. The details of the appearances depend on the number of aspects of Buddha-nature or enlightenment that the figure and its features represent. For instance, Avalokiteshvara appears in all tantra classes, in all traditions, alone or as part of a couple, sitting or standing, white or red, with one or eleven heads, and with two, four, or a thousand arms. Regardless of the form or the practice, however, Avalokiteshvara still serves as a container for focusing on compassion.

Cultural Diversity in Buddha-Figures

Some Westerners feel that the Buddha-figures are too alien to meet the needs of Western tantra practitioners. They would like modifications in their forms. Before acting hastily, they might benefit from studying the historical precedents.

As tantra practice spread from India to East Asia and Tibet, some of the Buddha-figures indeed altered forms. Most of the changes, however, were minor. For instance, the facial features matched those of the local races and, in the case of China, the clothing, postures, and hairdos corresponded as well. The most radical alteration was with Avalokiteshvara transforming from male to female in Central and East Asia. A traditional Mahayana explanation for the phenomenon is that Buddhas are masters of skillful means and therefore they manifest in different forms to suit varied societies. Chinese associate compassion more comfortably with women than with men. Buddhologists assert that tantric masters made these modifications themselves, using skillful means to adapt the forms to cultural tastes. The Mahayana retort is that the masters received inspiration and guidance for the changes from the Buddha-figures themselves, in pure visions and other revelations. In either case, the point in common is that the Buddhist principle of skillful means requires the modification of forms to suit and thus benefit different cultures.

The changes that occurred in the Buddha-figures fit within the domain of Asian-style creativity. They gave new life to standard forms and harmonized them with varied cultural backgrounds. Consistent with this trend, the Buddha-figures in the West may reasonably take on musculature and Western facial features. However, since Westerners are used to cultural diversity, it is probably unnecessary that the Buddha-figures change their clothing to modern fashion. Further, in light of the contemporary Western acceptance of sexual equality, it also seems unlikely that gender changes need to occur.

Despite modifications, certain features of the Buddha-figures remained untouched as tantra spread from one Asian culture to another. The most noticeable one is the retention of multiple limbs. Avalokiteshvara still manifests with a thousand arms, whether with a male body in India or a female one in China. Thousand-armed people are alien to the common experience of any culture. Yet, as a symbol of the compassion to help others in a thousand ways, the significance of a thousand arms is understandable to anyone.

Moreover, manifold faces and limbs stand for multiple Buddha-nature aspects and realizations along the path. For example, it is difficult to maintain simultaneous mindfulness of twenty-four qualities and realizations in an abstract manner. By representing them graphically with twenty-four arms, it is easier to keep them in mind all at once by visualizing oneself with an array of arms. To eliminate the multilimbed features of the Buddha-figures in order to make visualization of them more comfortable for Westerners would sacrifice this essential facet of tantra practice – the interweaving of sutra themes.

The Possible Use of Western Religious Icons as Buddha-Figures

When tantra practices become so widely publicized and well known that they become banal, they stop inspiring practitioners. At such times, Buddhas reveal new forms of practice to tantric masters in pure visions. The revelations often include slightly different forms of the Buddha-figures. His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama has explained that undoubtedly the phenomenon will continue in the future. His prediction makes sense in light of the commercialization of Tibetan Buddhism and the appearance of merchandise such as Kalachakra T-shirts. Buddha-figures and their practices need to remain private and special in order for them to retain their sacredness. If practitioners see babies dribbling food on their Kalachakra T-shirts, they may find visualizing themselves as Kalachakras less than inspiring. If new forms of Buddha-figures arise in the West, however, what forms will be the most helpful and inspiring?

Some Westerners feel that visualizing themselves as familiar Western religious icons, such as Jesus or Mary, rather than as alien Indian figures, may be a skillful means for adapting tantra to the West. After all, they argue, Jesus and Mary represent love and compassion as much as Avalokiteshvara and Tara do. Moreover, if Buddhas can emanate in any form, they can surely emanate as Jesus or Mary to benefit Westerners. Again, one needs to keep in mind historical precedents.

The Manchu rulers of China tried to unify the Mongols and Han Chinese under their rule by combining Tibetan Buddhism with Confucianism. Thus, for purely political reasons, they called Confucius an emanation of Manjushri, commissioned the composition of tantric rituals for making offerings to the bodhisattva Confucius, and sponsored ceremonies in Beijing based on these texts. The rituals, however, did not entail visualizing oneself as the Buddha-figure Confucius/Manjushri.

In India, however, a few Hindu deities, such as elephant-headed Ganesh (the god of prosperity) and Sarasvati (the goddess of musical and artistic expression) did appear as Buddha-figures for self-visualization in tantra practice. As mentioned above, practitioners of Hindu and Buddhist tantra intermingled in ancient India and shared many features of practice. Not only did Hindu deities appear as emanations of Buddha in Buddhist practice, but also, correspondingly, Hinduism included Buddha as one of the ten manifestations (Skt. avatar) of Vishnu, one of its main gods. All-inclusiveness is a characteristic shared by most Indian religions.

Monotheistic religions, on the other hand, regard themselves as upholders of the exclusive truth. Their leaders would undoubtedly take offense at nontheistic religions such as Buddhism declaring their most sacred figures emanations of Buddha and incorporating them into their practices, particularly into practices involving sexual imagery. One of the bodhisattva vows is to avoid doing anything that would cause others to disparage Buddha's teachings. Adapting Jesus and Mary for tantra self-visualization, then, might harm interfaith relations.

Moreover, features associated with the image of Jesus, such as the cross and the crown of thorns, have deep significance within the Christian context. Even if Western Buddhism were to adapt them as Buddhist symbols, most Western practitioners would find difficulty in divorcing them from Christian connotations. Because most symbols involved with Buddha-figures, such as lotuses and gems, are mainly free of associations for the majority of Westerners, they are open to carry their intended meanings and thus more suitable for use in tantra practice. Therefore, if new forms of Buddha-figures emerge in the future to rejuvenate the practices, they will probably follow precedent and be minor variations on previous forms. Unlike products on the free market, however, there will be no need for new improved models each year.