Making Sense of Tantra
Part II: Why Tantra Is More Efficient Than Sutra
9 Non-Gelug Variations Concerning General Anuttarayoga
The non-Gelug traditions agree with most points made by Gelug concerning why anuttarayoga is a more efficient and speedier path than the three lower tantras. We need to note, however, the following additions or variations.
When meditating in analogy to death, bardo, and rebirth, Sakya emphasizes purifying the past – namely, our deaths from our immediately preceding lives, the bardos that ensued, and our present rebirths. Purifying, here, means eliminating being under the influence of our previous karma.
In Nyingma and in Kagyu practices influenced by Nyingma, the three-part analogy also corresponds to the three progressively grosser aspects of rigpa. In terms of rigpa, the analogies also work both downward as the unrealized Buddha-nature and upward as the fully realized Buddha-nature of an enlightened being.
The essential nature (ngo-bo) of rigpa is its primal purity (ka-dag), its absence of all fleeting grosser levels of mental activity and of all impossible ways of existing.
Its influence (‘ phrin-las) is its compassionate responsiveness (thugs-rje, compassion), its communicative activity.
Its functional nature (rang-bzhin) is that it spontaneously establishes appearances (lhun-grub), based on its responsiveness.
Thus, in anuttarayoga practice or its dzogchen equivalent:
analogous to death, sleep, dharmakaya, and rigpa’s primal purity, we access the subtlest level of mental activity;
analogous to bardo, the dream state, sambhogakaya as subtle forms or speech, and rigpa’s compassionate responsiveness, we arise, within the state of rigpa, as compassion;
analogous to birth, the awake state, nirmanakaya, and rigpa’s spontaneously establishing appearances, we arise within a state of compassion in the form of seed-syllables and, from them, as Buddha-figures.
Equivalent to Nyingma practice analogous to the subtle movement of rigpa with compassion is the anuttarayoga practice of inciting by songs (glus-bskul), found in both the non-Gelug and Gelug traditions. Incited by female Buddhas singing songs of the four immeasurable attitudes (mtshams-med bzhi, four Brahma-viharas) of love, compassion, joy, and equanimity, we arise from focus on voidness and appear in subtle forms to help others. This is analogous to dharmakaya appearing as sambhogakaya.
The Sakya tradition of lamdray (lam-‘bras, the path together with its results), practiced in conjunction with the Buddha-figure Hevajra (Kyai rdo-rje), includes further analogies in meditation.
As human beings, our subtle bodies have as provisional all-encompassing foundations (gnas-skabs-kyi kun-gzhi, provisional alaya) the four mandala-seats (gdan dkyil-‘khor bzhi):
subtle syllables within them,
Based on these, the appearance-making aspects (gsal-cha, clarity aspect) of our subtlest clear-light minds, as our ultimate all-encompassing foundations (mthar-thug-gi kun-gzhi, ultimate alaya), produce two inseparable quantum levels of unpurified appearances of our bodies, speech, minds, and the inseparable simultaneity of the three. The two quantum levels are their gross appearances in our usual human forms and their subtle appearances as Buddha-figures.
By meditating in analogy with the four mandala-seats, we purify ourselves of the four, in the sense of achieving a true stopping of them. Consequently, the appearance-making aspects of our clear-light minds analogously give rise on the path to two inseparable quantum levels of purified appearances of body, speech, mind, and the inseparable simultaneity of the three. Through further practice, on the resultant level, the appearance-making aspects of our enlightening clear-light minds give rise to the two inseparable quantum levels of gross enlightening appearances of nirmanakaya and the subtle enlightening ones of sambhogakaya.
According to the nineteenth-century Rimey (nonsectarian movement) master Jamyang-kyentsey-wangpo (‘ Jam-dbyangs mkhyen-rtse dbang-po), many of the seeming contradictions in the explanations of the four Tibetan traditions arise because of a difference in viewpoint from which each approaches the Dharma.
The Gelug tradition explains from the point of view of the basis,
Sakya from the path,
Kagyu and Nyingma from the point of view of the result.
Gelug asserts that clear-light mind is not innately blissful, because, ordinarily, clear-light cognition at the moment of death is not blissful.
Because anuttarayoga practitioners on the path generate clear-light cognition into a blissful awareness, Sakya describes clear-light mind as naturally blissful. It is the “youth of the mind."
Since the omniscient clear-light awareness of a Buddha is blissful and all Buddha-qualities are already complete in clear-light mind or rigpa, Kagyu and Nyingma also assert clear-light mind as a blissful awareness.
Thus, because of the pathway and resultant viewpoints from which the non-Gelug traditions describe clear-light mental activity, they assert that blissful awareness as method in anuttarayoga is especially close to clear-light nonconceptual cognition of voidness as wisdom. We need merely to enhance the blissful awareness that is already there, or remove the obscurations preventing its full functioning, in order to reach or access the blissful awareness of the clear-light mind.
According to the Sakya and Kagyu traditions, a purified illusory body is a more special basis for voidness than the purified appearance of the body of a Buddha-figure that appears during yogic nonconceptual cognition of voidness in sutra and the three lower tantras. Purified illusory bodies and the purified appearances that occur during yogic nonconceptual cognition of voidness are both made from the subtlest energy-winds. Nevertheless, the grosser energy-winds that can fabricate and project dualistic appearances onto such appearances are still present on the level of yogic cognition. As is the case with disturbing emotions and attitudes, the undissolved subtle energy-winds can destabilize and in a sense infect the purified appearances. A purified illusory body avoids such dangers of infection from dualistic appearance-making, and thus serves as a basis particularly conducive for focusing simultaneously on its voidness.
The Nyingma dzogchen tradition does not explain pure appearances in terms of subtlest energy-wind. Instead, it explains them as the natural effulgence (rtsal) of rigpa, deriving from rigpa’s functional nature of spontaneously establishing appearances. The essential nature of rigpa is its primal purity, namely its voidness. Thus rigpa’s functional nature and essential nature, namely its pure appearances and its voidness, are two aspects of the same phenomenon.
The Nyingma presentations of bodhisattva sutra and the three lower tantras do not include discussions of rigpa or methods for accessing it. Although yogic nonconceptual cognition also cognizes pure appearances, the cognition of them is still on the level of limited awareness. Consequently, limited awareness can destabilize or infect these appearances.
The Karma Kagyu presentation of the Prasangika Madhyamaka assertion of the two sets of obscurations and the stages in which they are eliminated agrees, in structure, with the Gelug-Prasangika view. As I do not have sufficient information to outline the Karma Kagyu presentation of these points in terms of its Maha-Madhyamaka view followed in tantra, let us restrict our discussion here to the Nyingma and Sakya positions. The Nyingma and Sakya traditions assert that both the Prasangika-Madhyamaka and Svatantrika-Madhyamaka schools accept the presentation of the two obscurations that Gelug and Karma Kagyu assert that only Svatantrika-Madhyamaka accepts.
If we simplify the Nyingma and Sakya positions, then
The emotional obscurations include the unawareness associated with grasping for an impossible “ soul” of persons (gang-zag-gi bdag-‘dzin , grasping for the self of persons). This is grasping for persons to have a soul that is a nonstatic, monolithic entity separate from the aggregates or that is self-sufficiently knowable. Also included among this set of obscurations are the legacies (sa-bon, seeds, tendencies) of this unawareness, plus all the disturbing emotions and attitudes, as well as their legacies.
The cognitive obscurations include the unawareness associated with grasping for an impossible “ soul” of phenomena (chos-kyi bdag-‘dzin, grasping for the self of phenomena). This refers to grasping for all phenomena, including persons, to have truly established existence. Also included among this set of obscurations are the habits (bag-chags) of this unawareness, plus the habits of all the emotional obscurations.
Shravakas (nyan-thos, listeners to Buddha’s teachings, striving to become arhats, liberated beings) achieve a true stopping of only the first set of obscurations. They do this with cognition of an absolute absence of the impossible “soul” of persons defined as above. From the shravaka point of view, this cognition is nonconceptual, but from a bodhisattva viewpoint, it is still subtly conceptual because absolute absences are objects only of conceptual cognition.
Gelug, in contrast, asserts that shravakas and bodhisattvas nonconceptually cognize the same voidness. The voidness they nonconceptually cognize in common is an absolute absence of true existence. Karma Kagyu agrees with Gelug on these points only in terms of sutra Prasangika. From the point of Karma Kagyu Maha-Madhyamaka, only bodhisattvas cognize voidness beyond words and concepts and that is only with anuttarayoga methods.
All traditions agree that bodhisattva practitioners, both of sutra and of tantra, achieve a true stopping of both sets of obscurations. According to Nyingma and Sakya, in gaining nonconceptual cognition of voidness that is beyond words and concepts with respect to all phenomena, bodhisattva practitioners also gain this cognition with respect to persons. Although they finish removing the first set of obscurations before completing removal of the second, they start to eliminate the two sets of obscurations simultaneously, rather than consecutively as Gelug and Karma Kagyu Prasangika theories assert.
The non-Gelug traditions include three positions concerning the realization that eliminates forever the two sets of obscurations.
The mainstream Sakya tradition asserts voidness beyond words and concepts as self-voidness according to the Sakya usage of the term, namely as the ontological state of nondenumerable voidness. Thus, voidness nonconceptually realized in bodhisattva sutra and tantra is the same. There is no assertion of voidness beyond words and concepts as a cognitive state.
The Nyingma tradition asserts voidness beyond words and concepts in both an ontological sense and a cognitive sense. When used in an ontological sense, voidness beyond words and concepts means nondenumerable voidness and is called “self-voidness.” When used in a cognitive sense, voidness beyond words and concepts is called “other-voidness.” Bodhisattva sutra and tantra practitioners realize the same self-voidness as an ontological state of nondenumerable voidness, but only practitioners of dzogchen realize other-voidness as the cognitive state of rigpa.
The Karma and Shangpa Kagyu Maha-Madhyamaka traditions also assert voidness beyond words and concepts in both an ontological sense and a cognitive sense. But unlike the mainstream Sakya and Nyingma traditions, voidness beyond words and concepts as an ontological state of nondenumerable voidness is called “other-voidness,” not “self-voidness.” They use the term “self-voidness” only in the sense of a nonimplicative negation, an absolute absence – in other words, as the ontological state of denumerable voidness. When the term “other-voidness” is used to refer to both the ontological and the cognitive states realized simultaneously, it is called the “definitive other-voidness.” Thus, although the manner of existence of all phenomena nonconceptually realized in bodhisattva sutra and all four classes of tantra is the same – namely other-voidness in its ontological sense as nondenumable voidness beyond words and concepts – the attainment of other-voidness realized in bodhisattva sutra and the three lower tantras is only other-voidness in its ontological sense as nondenumerable voidness. It is not the definitive other-voidness realized in anuttarayoga as both nondenumerable voidness and a cognitive state beyond words and concepts.
As in Gelug, non-Gelug asserts that attainment of a bodhisattva seeing pathway mind, then an eighth level bhumi mind of an arya bodhisattva (the first of the three purified bhumi minds), and then enlightenment requires a zillion eons each when practicing only the bodhisattva sutra methods.
The non-Gelug systems agree with Gelug that because clear-light mental activity is automatically nonconceptual, it is free of the shortcomings of gaining nonconceptual cognition of voidness while remaining on the same level of mind as conceptual cognition. Gaining nonconceptual cognition of voidness does not require a zillion eons.
The non-Gelug schools also agree with Gelug that clear-light cognition is naturally free of all disturbing emotions and attitudes, both conceptually based and automatically arising. In accordance with their definitions of the two sets of obscurations, clear-light cognition is also naturally free of unawareness about the actual mode of existence of both persons and all phenomena.
Although yogic nonconceptual cognition of the voidness of phenomena attained in bodhisattva sutra and the three lower tantras is also free of these obscurations, it is still at the subtle level of mind at which all of them occur.
According to Nyingma, yogic nonconceptual cognition of voidness gained on the bodhisattva sutra path requires a zillion eons to eliminate forever:
the doctrinally based emotional obscurations,
the doctrinally based cognitive obscurations.
A second set of zillion eons is required for this yogic cognition to eliminate forever:
the automatically arising emotional obscurations,
the first six out of nine grades of automatically arising cognitive obscurations.
Clear-light mind accessed through anuttarayoga methods, on the other hand, has enhanced power from the preceding generation of bliss and preceding dissolution of the energy-winds in meditation. This is still the case even when, in dzogchen practice, the generation and dissolution do not immediately precede the manifestation of rigpa, but have occurred during earlier anuyoga practice. Further, rigpa made manifest through the dzogchen methods has the additional power of the dzogchen methods.
Clear-light mental activity not only has enhanced efficiency and sustainability; it is deeper than the level at which the disturbing emotions and attitudes operate. Thus, the initial attainment of clear-light nonconceptual cognition of voidness totally eliminates all the disturbing emotions and attitudes, including unawareness regarding persons – both doctrinally based and automatically arising – and their legacies and habits. Because it is deeper than the conceptual level, its first attainment also eliminates doctrinally based unawareness about phenomena and its habit.
In other words, the initial-level attainment of clear-light nonconceptual cognition of voidness eliminates forever the emotional obscurations and the doctrinally based cognitive obscurations. Thus, except for the first six out of nine grades of the automatically arising cognitive obscurations – namely, the first six out of nine grades of automatically arising unawareness about phenomena, and their habits – it totally eliminates all the other obscurations that would otherwise take two sets of zillion eons to remove.
According to the Sakya explanation, the initial attainment of yogic nonconceptual cognition of voidness in bodhisattva sutra and the three lower tantras and of clear-light nonconceptual cognition of voidness in anuttarayoga equally eliminate forever:
the doctrinally based and automatically arising emotional obscurations,
the doctrinally based cognitive obscurations.
Thus, all the emotional obscurations, together with the doctrinally based obscurations preventing omniscience, are eliminated forever all at once, regardless of the bodhisattva method used for attaining nonconceptual cognition of voidness beyond words and concepts. This attainment through yogic nonconceptual cognition of voidness gained through bodhisattva sutra methods requires a zillion eons. When attained through clear-light nonconceptual cognition gained through anuttarayoga methods, it needs much less time.
A second zillion eons is required in bodhisattva sutra to attain yogic nonconceptual cognition of voidness effortlessly and spontaneously, so as to eliminate forever:
the first six of the nine grades of the automatically arising cognitive obscurations.
Because of the exceptional methods of anuttarayoga that dissolve the grosser levels of mental activity on which unawareness about phenomena operates, clear-light nonconceptual cognition of voidness is much easier to reach spontaneously and effortlessly than is yogic nonconceptual cognition of voidness with other methods. Thus, anuttarayoga does not require a second set of zillion eons.
Clear-Light Mental Activity Does Not Produce Appearances of Any of the Four Extreme Modes of Impossible Existence
According to the Nyingma and Sakya explanations in common, yogic nonconceptual cognition of voidness in sutra requires a third set of zillion eons to eliminate forever:
(1) the final three out of nine grades of automatically arising cognitive obscurations.
[For a more advanced discussion, see: Ridding Oneself of the Two Sets of Obscurations in Sutra and Anuttarayoga Tantra According to Nyingma and Sakya. See also: The Five Pathway Minds (Five Paths): Advanced Presentation.]
Conceptual cognition produces appearances of objects as truly existent “this”s and “that”s. Sensory and mental nonconceptual cognitions produce appearances of objects as not truly existent “ this”s and “that”s. Both appearances are unpurified appearances, because conceptual and nonconceptual cognition of them are both accompanied by unawareness.
Conceptual cognition is accompanied by the unawareness of not knowing how what appears exists and taking it to exist in a manner contradictory to how it actually exists.
Sensory and mental nonconceptual cognitions are accompanied by simply the unawareness of not knowing how what appears actually exists.
The habits of the unawareness included among the emotional obscurations produce the appearances of truly existent “this”s and “that”s during conceptual cognition. The habits of the unawareness included among the cognitive obscurations produce the appearances of objects as not truly “this”s and “that”s.
When we have eliminated forever the emotional obscurations, our conceptual cognitions no longer produce appearances of truly existent “this”s and “that”s. Only when we have totally removed the final three grades of cogntive obscurations do our sensory and mental nonconceptual cognitions stop producing appearances of objects as not truly existent “this”s and “ that”s. At that point, as Buddhas, we no longer experience sensory or mental cognition. The omniscient awareness of a Buddha is beyond both.
[For a more advanced discussion, see: Divisions, Causes, and Elimination of Unpurified Appearances According to Non-Gelug.]
Eliminating the final group of obscurations with clear-light nonconceptual cognition of voidness beyond words and concepts does not require the third set of zillion eons that doing so with yogic nonconceptual cognition of it requires in sutra. This is because, like omniscient awareness, clear-light mental activity is beyond sensory and mental cognition and does not produce appearances of either truly existent or not truly existent “ this”s and “that”s. It is subtler than the levels of mind that produce these unpurified appearances. Clear-light nonconceptual cognition of nondenumerable voidness, when manifest, gives rise exclusively to purified appearances.
[For a more advanced discussion, see: Alaya and Impure Appearance-Making.]
Further, the third group of obscurations prevents nonconceptual cognition of voidness beyond words and concepts from cognizing purified appearances and voidness simultaneously with equal prominence and from cognizing them without a break in continuity. Only clear-light mental activity is capable of such cognition, because only it continues without disruption and only it continues into enlightenment. The subtle level of mental activity at which yogic nonconceptual cognition of voidness operates cannot be sustained during the experience of death and it ceases altogether with enlightenment.
Clear-light mental activity lacks all forms of unawareness, including the unawareness of not knowing how things actually exist. This is because it is subtler than the levels at which unawareness manifestly occurs. Moreover, not only does it lack unawareness, it naturally has the reflexive deep awareness (rang-rig ye-shes) of how everything actually does exist.
Yogic nonconceptual cognition of voidness attained in bodhisattva sutra and the three lower tantras also has reflexive deep awareness, according to Karma Kagyu, although not according to Nyingma. Nevertheless, yogic cognition as explained in Karma Kagyu is still at the level of mind at which this deep awareness may not be operational, namely the level of subtle mental activity and not the clear light subtlest level of mind. This subtle level of mental activity, when not cognizing voidness nonconceptually, does not have operational reflexive deep awareness. Consequently, the reflexive deep awareness of clear-light cognition is more stable, because the clear light level has reflexive deep awareness as part of its nature.
Words and concepts imply an impossible mode of existence – namely, that things exist in the solid categories delineated by them. In other words, words and concepts imply that the fabric of the interrelatedness of everything is divided into boxes or categories, with solid lines around them, and that phenomena in these boxes or categories correspond to reality. This is not so. It is an impossible mode of existence.
Nonconceptual cognition of voidness beyond words and concepts, whether with yogic cognition or clear-light mental activity, does not produce unpurified appearances of any of the four extreme modes of impossible existence. Thus, it does not produce appearances of things existing in the solid categories of truly existent “this”s or “that”s or not truly existent “this”s or “that”s. In this sense, the purified appearances that nonconceptual cognition of nondenumerable voidness produces are beyond words and concepts.
Only clear-light nonconceptual cognition of voidness, however, can give rise to an appearance of the entire fabric of the interconnectedness and interrelatedness of everything. Only clear-light mental activity can become omniscient awareness. This is true because of the following line of reasoning.
Clear-light nonconceptual cognition of voidness gives rise to purified appearances simultaneously with reflexive deep awareness of their voidness. Nevertheless, clear-light nonconceptual cognition of voidness cannot do so at first with both appearances and reflexive deep awareness of voidness being equally prominent. The same is true concerning yogic nonconceptual cognition of voidness beyond words and concepts.
So long as the unpurified appearance-making of conceptual cognition can recur, the habits of unawareness of how phenomena exist, which give rise to unpurified appearance-making, can still be imputed on the mental continuum. These habits do not produce unpurified appearances while purified appearances are arising. Nevertheless, their unpurified appearance-making in a sense infects the purified appearances. Because of that, a cognition producing purified appearances is not omniscient so long as these habits can still be imputed, whether the cognition is with clear-light cognition or yogic cognition.
Unlike yogic nonconceptual cognition of voidness, clear-light nonconceptual cognition of voidness can be sustained forever without any break. When, with the removal forever of the obscurations regarding all knowables, this clear-light cognition can be so sustained, the habits of unawareness that produce unpurified appearances can no longer be imputed on the mental continuum. Because of that, the clear-light cognition can occur with purified appearances and voidness being equally prominent. When this is the case, clear-light mental activity cognizes the entire fabric of all that is knowable. Thus, it becomes the omniscient awareness of a Buddha.
The interrelatedness of everything does not mean that the accurate mode of existence of everything is as an undifferentiated oneness. Within the fabric of interconnectedness, everything still maintains its individuality. Nevertheless, things exist maintaining their individualities in a manner that is beyond the solid boxes that would correspond to the words and concepts for them.
Yogic and clear-light nonconceptual cognition of nondenumerable voidness and omniscient awareness all naturally have the deep awareness cognizing individuality (so-sor rtogs-pa’i ye-shes). Because only clear-light mental activity has the capacity to function as the omniscient awareness of a Buddha, only its innate deep awareness cognizing individuality has the capacity to cognize the individuality of everything.
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