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Home > eBooks > Unpublished Manuscripts > Making Sense of T°| antra > 4 Bu°| ddha-Figures

Making Sense of T°| antra

Alexander Berzin, 2002

Part I: Basic Questions and Doubts about T°| antra

4 Bu°| ddha-Figures

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

The Use of Bu°| ddha-Figures in Practices Shared by Mahayana Sutra and T°| antra

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 t°| antra practice, however, visualized Bu°| ddha-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 Ind°| ian Mahayana master defined concentration in this way because of the many advantages gained from developing it specifically with mental awareness.

For example, becoming a Bu°| ddha 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 Bu°| ddha-figures – especially the figure of Shakyamuni – represents enl°| ightenment, 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 enl°| ightenment for the sake of benefiting others as much as is possible.

Both sutra and t°| antra Mahayana practices include visualizing Bu°| ddha-figures in front of oneself, on the top of one's head, or in one's heart. T°| antra practice is unique, however, in its training in self-visualization as a Bu°| ddha-figure. Imagining oneself as having the enl°| ightening physical, communicative, and mental faculties of a Bu°| ddha-figure acts as a powerful cause for actualizing and achieving these qualities.

Bu°| ddha-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. Bu°| ddha-figures, on the other hand, are images that represent only accurate positive qualities. Through understanding Bu°| ddha-nature, t°| antra practitioners use them to replace their ord°| inary self-images as an integral part of the path to enl°| ightenment.

Bu°| ddha-figures represent the totality of all the potentials of Bu°| ddha-nature – on the basis level when they are unrefined, on the pathway level when they are partially refined, and on the resultant level of enl°| ightenment when they are totally refined. Moreover, most figures also represent a specific aspect of Bu°| ddha-nature on basis, pathway, and resultant levels. For instance, Avaloki°| teshvara represents compassion based on the natural w°| armth 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 Bu°| ddha-figures, however, t°| antra practitioners do not inflate themselves with wishful thinking. They base their identifications on the potentials of their Bu°| ddha-natures that allow them fully to realize these qualities for everyone's sake. Alternatively, they understand that the Bu°| ddha-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 Bu°| ddha-figures whose hearts are w°| arm 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. T°| antra practitioners, on the other hand, do not conceive of Bu°| ddha-figures as giving them their inherent identities by their own powers, inde°| pendently of the practice required to actualize the qualities that they represent.

Closely bonding and imaginatively transforming into a Bu°| ddha-figure differ in several other ways from improving a self-image casually or systematically. By receiving empowerments before undertaking t°| antra 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.

Bu°| ddha-Figures and Archetypes

Accord°| ing 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 human°| ity in general or a particular cult°| ure or hi°| storical 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 cult°| ure – 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 Avaloki°| teshvara, for example, does not obviously suggest compassion to people from non-Bu°| ddhist cult°| ures. The meanings that archetypes symbolize are, for the most part, quite obvious; whereas the meanings that Bu°| ddha-figures symbolize are not obvious at all. 

Furthermore, archetypes are universal features of everyone's collective unconscious, whereas Bu°| ddha-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 reb°| irth.

Moreover, Bu°| ddha-figures are neither concrete nor abstract representations findable in a clear light continuum. Nor are they findable elsewhere. Rather, the Bu°| ddha-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 Bu°| ddha-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, Bu°| ddhism clarifies the meaning of the Bu°| ddha-figures' being collective. Bu°| ddhism 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 Bu°| ddha-figures and the Bu°| ddha-nature potentials that they represent. Universal Bu°| ddha-figures do not exist as individual beings separate from the clear light continuums of individuals. Nor do people gain access to universal Bu°| ddha-figures through the Bu°| ddha-figures of their clear light continuums, like reaching God through the s°| pirit of the divine within their souls.

Furthermore, unlike archetypes, Bu°| ddha-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 reb°| irth. The Ti°| betan Book of the Dead describes the Bu°| ddha-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 t°| antra during their lifetimes. Those without previous t°| antra practice normally experience their continuums giving rise to other appearances during bardo, not those of Bu°| ddha-figures.

Bu°| ddha-Figures as Emanations of Bu°| ddhas

Although Bu°| ddha-figures represent both the totality and specific aspects of the basis, pathway, and resultant Bu°| ddha-natures, Bu°| ddha-figures are not merely symbols. In An Extensive Explanation of (Chandrakirti's) "Illuminating Lamp, " Sherab-senggey, Ge°| lug founder of the Lower Tantric College, explained that Bu°| ddha-figures have the same mental continuums as Bu°| ddhas. This is because they are emanations of Bu°| ddhas' enl°| ightening clear light continuums. For example, although Shakyamuni attained enl°| ightenment eons ago, he emanated himself as Prince Siddhartha and gave the appearance of becoming a Bu°| ddha 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 T°| antra and simultaneously emanated himself as Vajrapani, the compiler of the teachings. Bu°| ddha merely gave the appearance that the Bu°| ddha-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.

Bu°| ddhas emanate Bu°| ddha-figures from their clear light continuums to benefit beings in many ways, particularly by serving as representations of the various factors of Bu°| ddha-nature. Through realizing the inseparability between Bu°| ddha-figures and the clear light continuums of the Bu°| ddhas and of the tantric masters, practitioners realize that both the imagined and actual Bu°| ddha-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 Bu°| ddha-figures, although the Bu°| ddha-figures of one clear light continuum are not the Bu°| ddha-figures of another. The realization of the inseparability of the Bu°| ddha-figures and their own clear light continuums helps practitioners to actualize the Bu°| ddha-nature factors that the figures represent.

Bu°| ddha-Figures as Objects for Prayers

Mahayana sutra and t°| antra practitioners often pray to Bu°| ddha-figures, such as Tara. The two truths or facts about things, which the Ind°| ian master Nagarjuna elaborated in Root Stanzas on the Middle Way, shed light on the phenomenon. Accord°| ing to the interpretation common to sutra and t°| antra, 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, Bu°| ddha-figures such as Tara appear to be inde°| pendently existent beings with the powers to grant petitioners' wishes. In deepest fact, however, there is no inde°| pendently existent Tara: all Taras are emanations of the clear light continuums of the Bu°| ddhas and of the people who pray to Tara. Moreover, even as emanations of clear light continuums, Bu°| ddha-figures lack the ability to bring about results, such as granting wishes, by their own powers, from their own sides, inde°| pendently of anything else. Bu°| ddhism 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 Bu°| ddha 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 Bu°| ddha-nature factor, in fact, is the ability of a clear light continuum to be inspired or uplifted.

Coarse and Subtle Emanations of Bu°| ddha-Figures

To benefit others, Bu°| ddhas 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. Bu°| ddhas take an assortment of coarser bodies (Skt. nirmanakaya) in order to benefit ord°| inary beings. Any Bu°| ddha may emanate coarse or subtle bodies in the forms of any Bu°| ddha-figure or everyday being, or even of another Bu°| ddha. The same is true of Bu°| ddha-figures when appearing as if they were individual enl°| ightened beings. Only those who are receptive to receiving help or teachings, however, are able to meet Bu°| ddhas in any form and derive the full benefit.

Bu°| ddhas and their Bu°| ddha-figure emanations reside in their own Bu°| ddha-fields. Bu°| ddha-fields are special realms unassociated with the confusion of uncontrollably recurring existence (Skt. samsara). They are the pure lands where Bu°| ddhas and Bu°| ddha-figures manifest in subtle forms and teach arya bodhisattvas the final steps to enl°| ightenment. Since Bu°| ddha-fields are beyond the common experience of Bu°| ddhologists and Hinayana adherents, their literal existence would naturally be unacceptable to them. Mahayana sutra and t°| antra 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 Bu°| ddha-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 Bu°| ddha-nature, represented by Bu°| ddha-figures. Arya bodhisattvas on the path of highest t°| antra – the only practitioners with nonconceptual meditative access to their clear light continuums – gain final actualization of their Bu°| ddha-natures while in this state.

Sometimes Bu°| ddha-figures come from their Bu°| ddha-fields in the subtle forms of bodhisattvas and request Shakyamuni to impart the various sutras and t°| antras, as when Vajrapani requested A Concert of Names of Manjushri (Praises to the Names of Manjushri). As bodhisattvas, they may also attend and compile Bu°| ddha's discourses, as Vajrapani did for The Guhyasamaja T°| antra, or give teachings in Shakyamuni's stead, as Avaloki°| teshvara did for The Heart Sutra. In such cases, as explained above, the Bu°| ddha-figures and Shakyamuni share the same mental continuum.

Some of the coarse bodies that Bu°| ddhas or Bu°| ddha-figures emanate from their Bu°| ddha-fields were actual hi°| storical persons, such as Padmasambhava, the Ind°| ian master responsible for the first spread of Bu°| ddhism to Ti°| bet. From the viewpoint of conventional truth, these great beings seemed to have individual mental continuums and appeared as such to ord°| inary beings, who could understand only this truth about them. A deeper truth about them was that their mental continuums were one with the Bu°| ddhas and Bu°| ddha-figures of whom they were emanations. For Bu°| ddhologists and Hinayana adherents, only the first statement about these hi°| storical figures is true. For Mahayana practitioners, both statements are fact.

T°| antra practice includes visualizing oneself in the forms of certain hi°| storical figures regarded as Bu°| ddha-figure emanations, such as Padmasambhava, his female partner Yeshey Tsogyel, or the Second Kar°| mapa, Ka°| rma Pakshi. Not all masters regarded as Bu°| ddha-figure emanations, however, serve as forms for t°| antra self-visualization, for example the {D.} La°| mas as Avaloki°| teshvaras. Moreover, poli°| tical reasons may have motivated the Ti°| betans to address honorifically certain rulers as Bu°| ddha-figure emanations, such as the Manchu emperors of Chi°| na as Manjushris and the Russian czars as Taras. T°| antra 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 Bu°| ddha-figure emanations that the Ti°| betans consider as having been hi°| storical 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 reb°| irth ever after as a woman and to achieve enl°| ightenment in a female form to encourage women to follow the path.

Bu°| ddha-Figures as Containers for Practice

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

Like all Bu°| ddhas, Bu°| ddha-figures appear in a vast network of assorted forms to benefit others in varying ways. For example, t°| antra encompasses six classes of practice accord°| ing to the Nyin°| gma system and four accord°| ing to the Ka°| gyu, Sak°| ya, and Ge°| lug schools. Moreover, each Ti°| betan tradition transmits several styles of practice for each t°| antra class. Any Bu°| ddha-figure may serve as a container for any number of practices from any number of Ti°| betan traditions and any number of t°| antra classes. In any of these practices, the same Bu°| ddha-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 Bu°| ddha-nature or enl°| ightenment that the figure and its features represent. For instance, Avaloki°| teshvara appears in all t°| antra 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, Avaloki°| teshvara still serves as a container for focusing on compassion.

Cult°| ural Diversity in Bu°| ddha-Figures

Some Westerners feel that the Bu°| ddha-figures are too alien to meet the needs of Western t°| antra practitioners. They would like modifications in their forms. Before acting hastily, they might benefit from studying the hi°| storical precedents.

As t°| antra practice spread from Ind°| ia to East Asia and Ti°| bet, some of the Bu°| ddha-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 Chi°| na, the clothing, postures, and hairdos corresponded as well. The most radical alteration was with Avaloki°| teshvara transforming from male to female in Central and East Asia. A traditional Mahayana explanation for the phenomenon is that Bu°| ddhas are masters of skillful means and therefore they manifest in different forms to suit varied societies. Chi°| nese associate compassion more comfortably with women than with men. Bu°| ddhologists assert that tantric masters made these modifications themselves, using skillful means to adapt the forms to cult°| ural tastes. The Mahayana retort is that the masters received inspiration and guidance for the changes from the Bu°| ddha-figures themselves, in pure visions and other revelations. In either case, the point in common is that the Bu°| ddhist principle of skillful means requires the modification of forms to suit and thus benefit different cult°| ures.

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

Despite modifications, certain features of the Bu°| ddha-figures remained untouched as t°| antra spread from one Asian cult°| ure to another. The most noticeable one is the retention of multiple limbs. Avaloki°| teshvara still manifests with a thousand arms, whether with a male body in Ind°| ia or a female one in Chi°| na. Thousand-armed people are alien to the common experience of any cult°| ure. 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 Bu°| ddha-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 Bu°| ddha-figures in order to make visualization of them more comfortable for Westerners would sacrifice this essential facet of t°| antra practice – the interweaving of sutra themes.

The Possible Use of Western Rel°| igious Icons as Bu°| ddha-Figures

When t°| antra practices become so widely publicized and well known that they become banal, they stop inspiring practitioners. At such times, Bu°| ddhas reveal new forms of practice to tantric masters in pure visions. The revelations often include slightly different forms of the Bu°| ddha-figures. His {H.} the Fourteenth {D.} La°| ma has explained that undoubtedly the phenomenon will continue in the future. His prediction makes sense in light of the commercialization of Ti°| betan Bu°| ddhism and the appearance of merchandise such as Ka°| lachakra T-shirts. Bu°| ddha-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 Ka°| lachakra T-shirts, they may find visualizing themselves as Ka°| lachakras less than inspiring. If new forms of Bu°| ddha-figures arise in the West, however, what forms will be the most helpful and inspiring?

Some Westerners feel that visualizing themselves as familiar Western rel°| igious icons, such as Jesus or Mary, rather than as alien Ind°| ian figures, may be a skillful means for adapting t°| antra to the West. After all, they argue, Jesus and Mary represent love and compassion as much as Avaloki°| teshvara and Tara do. Moreover, if Bu°| ddhas can emanate in any form, they can surely emanate as Jesus or Mary to benefit Westerners. Again, one needs to keep in mind hi°| storical precedents.

The Manchu rulers of Chi°| na tried to unify the Mong°| ols and Han Chi°| nese under their rule by combining Ti°| betan Bu°| ddhism with Confucianism. Thus, for purely poli°| tical 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 Bu°| ddha-figure Confucius/Manjushri.

In Ind°| ia, 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 Bu°| ddha-figures for self-visualization in t°| antra practice. As mentioned above, practitioners of Hindu and Bu°| ddhist t°| antra intermingled in ancient Ind°| ia and shared many features of practice. Not only did Hindu deities appear as emanations of Bu°| ddha in Bu°| ddhist practice, but also, correspondingly, Hinduism included Bu°| ddha as one of the ten manifestations (Skt. avatar) of Vishnu, one of its main gods. All-inclusiveness is a characteristic shared by most Ind°| ian rel°| igions.

Monotheistic rel°| igions, on the other hand, regard themselves as upholders of the exclusive truth. Their leaders would undoubtedly take offense at nontheistic rel°| igions such as Bu°| ddhism declaring their most sacred figures emanations of Bu°| ddha 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 Bu°| ddha's teachings. Adapting Jesus and Mary for t°| antra self-visualization, then, might harm interfa°| ith 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 Bu°| ddhism were to adapt them as Bu°| ddhist symbols, most Western practitioners would find difficulty in divorcing them from Christian connotations. Because most symbols involved with Bu°| ddha-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 t°| antra practice. Therefore, if new forms of Bu°| ddha-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.