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Home > Daily Practice > Prayers and Tantra Practices > Commentary on An Extensive Six-Session Yoga > Session Two: Preparation for the Practice

Commentary on An Extensive Six-Session Yoga

Alexander Berzin
Berlin, Germany, November 2002

Session Two: Preparation for the Practice

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Review of Previous Session

Yesterday we were speaking about the basic theory behind this six-session yoga practice. And we saw that it was a way of helping us to fulfill our commitments from anuttarayoga tantra initiation, by reminding us of the vows that we’ve taken and also the nineteen closely bonding practices, or damtsig (dam-tshig), to make a close connection with the five Buddha-families.

And just to recite these bonding practices doesn’t – these damtsigs – to recite something that falls in that category is not sufficient. As my teacher Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey always used to say, that if we’re standing out in the rain and we say, “I take refuge in this cave,” but we don’t actually go into the cave, just saying, “I take refuge in the cave” doesn’t prevent us from getting wet; it doesn’t help. And so, like that, we need to actually do in our daily lives what we say that we are doing in this recitation. Like, for instance, being generous, practicing the four types of giving. At least have the willingness to give. Remember Shantideva explained that the perfection or far-reaching state of generosity is not the actual act because, if that were so, then Buddha hadn’t perfected it because there’s still people in need, people who are poor. What’s important is the willingness to give. But not simply the willingness to give; if we actually have something that can be helpful to others, we give.

And we saw that with these nineteen closely bonding practices, that they’re dealing with helping us to purify the obscurations from the five different aspects of our Buddha-nature. Remember samaya (close bonding practice) is to actually do something, and a vow is to not do something – to restrain from doing something. So it’s not so convenient to call a samaya a vow; that confuses the two. So that’s the difference, the classification.

So we saw that these Buddha-nature aspects, we can discuss in terms of body, speech, mind, good qualities, and activities. And we can also speak just in terms of mind, and then we have the five types of deep awareness. We also have a correspondence with the five aggregates, and when these get confused – or mixed together with grasping for inherent existence and self-cherishing – then we get the five types of disturbing emotions and disturbing attitudes.

And there are certain practices that we can do which will help us to overcome these disturbing emotions. Like, for instance, four types of generosity to overcome being miserly and being arrogant: “I am better than everybody, so I don’t want to share or give anything to anyone.” This type of practice helps us to overcome that, so that then we can use the full potential of this aspect of Buddha-nature that underlies it – which would be the equalizing awareness, to see that we are all equal: “I am not better than anybody else.” That allows us to be equally compassionate and loving toward everyone; to help all beings, not just some.

So these nineteen practices, which are emphasized very much in the six-session practice, are not just an arbitrary list of things, but they are very important practices on the path to enlightenment – to enable us to use our full potentials of Buddha-nature.

So when we think of the so-called Dhyani Buddhas – these five Buddhas: Vairochana, Ratnasambhava, Amitabha, Amoghasiddhi, and Akshobhya – it is important to realize that they represent all these aspects of Buddha-nature that we’ve been talking about. They’re not just talking about a group of Buddhas that have come into the mandala and are hanging out there. It’s not an arbitrary thing at all. So they are very significant, and they represent many, many different levels of aspects that we are working with.

So were there any questions about the theory that we discussed yesterday, before we actually get into the specifics of the practice?

The Symbolism of the Vajra, Bell, and Mudra

Participant: He forgot what was said about the vajra, the bell, and the mudra.

Alex: The vajra – These are part of the bonding practices for Akshobhya, these three. Also the guru; that was the fourth for Akshobhya. The vajra was to keep mindful of blissful awareness. And the bell is discriminating awareness of voidness. And the mudra is symbolizing these two in union, so it’s usually symbolized by visualizing that we’re a couple. The two in union mean that we have a blissful awareness of voidness.

So when we visualize a couple, we are both members of the couple. We are the couple. It’s not that we are one member of the couple and there’s somebody else that is the other member. Not at all like that; that’s a big mistake. You are both. It’s not this idea (coming from Plato in the West) that I’m a half and I need somebody else, a completely different person from me, in order to make me complete. That is not Buddhist thinking.” I’m a half, and out there is my other half” – that there’s another half.

So this comes in what’s called the vajra guru initiation – that one takes the vajra and bell, and the mudra being a couple. But that’s only in the general anuttarayoga initiations. In Kalachakra it’s different. One just has the vajra and bell, and it’s alone – a single deity – without a couple, in the vajra guru initiation in Kalachakra. And there when we talk about mudra, it’s talking about having blissful awareness of voidness – that’s the vajra and bell – in a bodily form, while having a body. So having an appearance. So there is only the single figure to represent that. While having a bodily form – a mind together with a body. So mudra here can mean either understanding of voidness and bliss together, or having that together with a body. It has two meanings.

Test on the Nineteen Close Bonding Practices

Question: Are we going to use this concept of the five Buddha-families so much that it might be worthwhile to write them down on the blackboard?

Alex: I’m not going to refer back to them again. It might be helpful for one’s own understanding to make a chart.

Who remembers what the nineteen close bonding practices are? It’s very important to learn. For Vairochana we have six. So three refuges – three safe directions. What are the three? That’s an easy question. Anybody?

Participant: Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha.

Alex: Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. Very good. Very good.

And then the other three are the three types of ethical self-discipline. Ah, now, a more difficult one. What are those three?

Participant: Avoid harmful actions.

Alex: Avoid harmful actions. That’s one.

Participant: Do constructive actions.

Alex: Do constructive actions, which refers to…? Anybody?

Participant: The six perfections.

Participant: Listening to teachings, thinking of teachings, and meditating on teachings.

Alex: Right. Listening, thinking, and meditating. It’s the discipline to actually meditate, and practice, and learn, and study.

And then the third one is?

Participant: Benefit others.

Alex: The discipline to benefit others.

So you can’t say all practice is the second one, including benefitting others. These are two separate ones. The constructive actions are to study and meditate. And then the third one is where we actually help others. Practice it in daily life, in that sense.

So those are the six for Vairochana. So what are the six of Vairochana?

Participant: Three of refuge and three of ethical discipline.

Alex: Three of refuge and three of ethical discipline. Okay.

Question: And it’s related to which mental quality?

Alex: Vairochana? That’s related to overcoming naivety, so that we can use the mirror-like awareness, the body, and so on. The physical body. Gives a structure. So, body.

So next is Ratnasambhava. How many?

Participant: Four.

Alex: Four. Very good. What are the four?

Participant: Four kinds of giving.

Alex: Four types of giving. Very good. What are the four types of giving?

Participant: It’s giving fearlessness – No, material things.

Alex: Material things.

Participant: And fearlessness? And Dharma…

Alex: Right. The usual order is: material things, Dharma, love, and freedom from fear. So that will clear up problems we have with being miserly and being arrogant, so that we can use the full potentials of equalizing awareness, and feelings, and good qualities – develop good qualities. May everybody be happy. Everybody be happy. And we can achieve good qualities so we don’t have arrogance, don’t think that we have everything already.

Next is Amitabha. How many?

Participant: Three.

Alex: Three. Very good. And what are the three? Somebody else… Okay, what are the three?

Participant: Three types of sutra teachings. And the two higher classes of tantra teachings – the two lower and the two higher.

Alex: Right. So it is upholding the various classes of the teachings. We talk about them in terms of three different sets. So the three classifications of teachings. One is the sutra teachings of shravakas, pratyekabuddhas, and bodhisattvas. And then the two lower classes of tantra – kriya and charya. And then the two what’s called the secret classes or hidden classes of tantra because these two are the ones that have the tantric vows – the first two don’t have tantric vows – that’s yoga tantra and anuttarayoga. And they’re called the hidden or secret ones because they have the tantric vow.

And this helps us to clear away our attachment, clinging – this is my lineage, and only this teaching is correct. So that’s attachment, desire. It then allows us to use the full potentials of individualizing awareness and speech – distinguishing things, and speech.

Then we have Amoghasiddhi. How many? Anybody?

Two. Two for Amoghasiddhi.

So one is making offerings. Right? And that would be the various types of offerings. There’s outer offerings, inner offerings, secret offerings, thusness offerings. There’s a lot of different types of offerings. And outer offerings are giving external things. Inner offerings is offering things inside our body, either our aggregates and elements – we’re going to use them to benefit others – or in Kalachakra it’s explained in terms of it can be the offering of our internal energies, energy-winds. Right? So we’re going to use all our energy, to bring that onto the path and use it to benefit others – to reach enlightenment, to benefit others. And the secret offering is offering our blissful awareness, not just to enjoy ourselves but to use that to benefit others, give happiness to others. And then the thusness offering, the fourth offering, can be understood in two ways. Either it’s the offering of the understanding of voidness with the blissful awareness. Or it can be the offering of that blissful awareness of voidness together with appearing in a bodily form, just as we explained the two levels of meaning of mudra. So it’s making all these kinds of offerings.

And then what’s the second one of Amoghasiddhi? Upholding all the vows, all the other samayas. Keep all the others. That’s a very Buddhist way of organizing things: one of the nineteen is to keep all the other eighteen! Okay. And that is going to help us to overcome the blocks of jealousy that prevent us from acting. And that enables us to use the full potentials of accomplishing awareness to accomplish things. And our Buddha-nature of activity, influence things, and things like intention – do things.

And then the last group. That’s the Akshobhya group. How many? I’ve just explained it to you. That was the question that you asked.

Participant: Four.

Alex: Four. Very good. What are they?

Participant: Mudra, vajra, Glocke [bell], and the guru.

Alex: Yes. Very good. You can stay! The vajra, the bell, mudra, and guru.

And basically keeping this blissful awareness of voidness, inseparably with the bodily form, and with inspiration from the guru – with a healthy relation with the guru – that helps us to overcome anger, anger with which we reject things: it’s not that, it’s not this. Like rejecting the handout, getting angry with the handout because the last bottom of the line was unclear. It wasn’t what you wanted. So that one can use the full potentials of the awareness of the sphere of reality, so that we can see what things are and how they exist. We’re completely open and can use all the potentials of the mind. One just sees things for what they are, without criticizing.

Mind you, this is the Gelug interpretation. We’re talking about a Gelug practice. There’s mirror-like awareness and awareness of the sphere of reality; these are reversed in the other schools. There’s a perfectly reasonable explanation for it being explained the other way as well. And within these nineteen bonds, there’s a slight difference in the explanation of two of them in the other schools, but this makes really very little difference.

So obviously it’s very important to know what these nineteen are because these are forming the main aspect of our practice. So this is what we try to do each day. So you can see that we’re not talking about something which is so out of the ordinary in terms of Dharma practice. So let us begin on how we start the practice.

Preparatory Practices

We start the practice, like any practice – start our morning practice – by cleaning the meditation room. Sweep. Dust. Make it orderly, not a messy room, because if our environment is messy, and out of order, and dirty, that affects very much the state of the mind; the mind is going to be disorderly. And also, when we clean, this is showing respect. If you have an honored guest coming, like the Buddhas, then you want to have the place clean. And, similarly, it is showing respect to what we are doing. Making it clean. Everything in order.

Atisha – when he was old, his attendant said, “Atisha, please. You’re too old. You don’t have to clean your meditation room. I’ll clean it for you.” And Atisha said, “And am I supposed to ask you to eat for me as well?” From eating, you get nourishment yourself. From cleaning the room, you get a certain state of mind yourself, not when you have somebody else do it for you.

Then we set up the altar. We’re not talking about an altar that we sacrifice a lamb on, but just a place for making offerings. It’s just a shelf, the top of your dresser, the top of a bookcase – something like that is quite sufficient. Usually you put a nice piece of cloth on it and some sort of representation of the Three Jewels – whether it is a statue, a picture, a painting, whatever. I mean, you can do this obviously much more elaborately, but just something to represent the Three Jewels. More elaborately, you could have something to represent the body of a Buddha – so, like a statue – a book to represent the Dharma, and a stupa to represent the Sangha. Or body, in terms of the statue; speech, in terms of the book; a stupa, in terms of mind. But that’s more elaborate. Just all in one is perfectly fine. Just some sort of Buddha representation is sufficient.

And then we make some sort of offerings. This is very important if we can do. And what’s quite sufficient is just a bowl of water. It doesn’t even have to be the seven offering bowls. Just a bowl of water, a glass of water, a cup of water is sufficient. Obviously we can do more elaborately; that’s very nice. But at least offer something. A symbolic offering. This is Atisha’s advice: at least offer some water.

Then we sit on a proper meditation seat. Proper posture. So, again, depending on what type of posture we use, different types or sizes of cushions are more comfortable. If we’re sitting cross-legged, what is going to help to prevent our legs from falling asleep is if we have our backside slightly raised. No need to go into all the details. Tibetans, following the Indian style, sit cross-legged.

And so you’ve arranged the seat. Then you do like we do in the beginning of a class: You quiet down by focusing on the breath. You reaffirm the motivation – what are we aiming for? And usually we make three prostrations and then sit down. What we do in the beginning of the class is also helpful, in terms of making the conscious decision that during this meditation I’m going to try to concentrate. If my mind wanders, I’m going to try to bring it back. If I get sleepy, I’m going to try to wake myself up. Otherwise we just rush into the meditation and then have a period of mental wandering rather than a period of meditation.

And then we start the practice. All of this is preliminary.

Reaffirming our Understanding of Voidness

So we reaffirm our understanding of voidness. Everything in tantra practice has to be done within the understanding of voidness. So that means to clear out our concepts and appearances of ourself in our ordinary form of: “Oh, I’m tired. And my legs hurt. My back hurts. And I have a cold,” and all this sort of stuff. All our daily thoughts. “I have to do so much work today,” and all this sort of junk that we identify with. Clear that all out. This is not my true identity. There is no such thing as these things as truly existent and there’s a “me” that is identified with this. It’s not that I have another, true identity, that this is the wrong one. There is no such thing. There are no such things as true identities. You don’t want to truly identify with being the Buddha-figure either. If you identify with a Buddha-figure as your truly existent identity, then it’s no different from a crazy person thinking that they are Napoleon or Cleopatra.

Being Mindful of Pure Appearances

So clear all of that out, and stay with the understanding that there’s no such thing as true existence, true identities. And, within that, reestablish the visualization of ourselves as the yidam that we are practicing, the Buddha-figure that we’re practicing. We are trying to maintain this visualization – this feeling of ourselves as this Buddha-figure – all the time. All day long. That’s one of the most difficult aspects of tantra practice, to remain mindful of that. Not always think of ourselves in terms of our ordinary appearance, with wrinkles, and gray hair, and pain in the lower back. In other words, we’re keeping our focus all day long on our Buddha-nature, not on our ordinary samsaric form. So we reestablish this visualization, particularly if we didn’t instantly think of that when we woke up in the morning.

And we visualize the place around us as a pure land, which means a smooth flat plane, made of blue beryl. Beryl is – I mean, that’s usually translated as lapis lazuli, but actually it is a different stone – but it is blue, dark blue, spotted with gold flakes. Don’t imagine this as cheap linoleum on the kitchen floor. Blue is for dharmadhatu, the blue sphere of reality. And it’s spotted with gold – within that sphere of reality of the clear light mind – spotted with gold: it has all the good qualities, complete. And it’s smooth of all faults and obscurations. So this represents the state of mind that we are in. That is the environment. So this environment represents the environment of the state of mind that we’re in. We’re not just talking about: go to Buddhist Disneyland and do your visualization there. Smooth roller-skating rink. It’s a state of mind.

So let’s end with a dedication before lunch. What we’ve learned from here, may we get the correct understanding of the practice. So that we can practice it properly, get the full benefit from it. So we can reach enlightenment and be able to help others as much as possible.