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Home > Daily Practice > Vows and Commitments > Bonding Practices for Mother Tantra

Bonding Practices for Mother Tantra

Alexander Berzin
August 1997

Mother, Father, and Nondual Tantra

According to Gelug and some Kagyu masters, anuttarayoga tantra has two divisions – father (pha-rgyud) and mother tantra (ma-rgyud). The former emphasizes practices involving the energy-winds for arising in subtle forms known as illusory bodies (sgyu-lus), which are the immediate causes for achieving a Buddha's Corpus of Forms (gzugs-sku, Skt. rupakaya; Form Body). The latter gives more detail about practices to access clear light mental activity ('od-gsal) and focus it with blissful awareness on voidness, as the immediate cause for achieving a Buddha's omniscient awareness or dharmakaya (chos-sku).

Examples of father tantra are Guhyasamaja (gSang-ba 'dus-pa) and Vajrabhairava (rDo-rje 'jigs-byed), also known as Yamantaka (gShin-rje gshed). Examples of mother tantra are Chakrasamvara (' Khor-lo bde-mchog), Hevajra (Kyai rdo-rje), and Vajrayogini (rDo-rje rnal-'byor-ma). According to this classification scheme, Kalachakra (Dus-'khor) is also a mother tantra.

Sakya and some other Kagyu masters divide anuttarayoga into three divisions – father, mother, and nondual (gnyis-med rgyud). Depending on the textual tradition, nondual tantra either places equal emphasis on methods for achieving both a Buddha's Corpus of Forms and omniscient mind, or stresses the fourth empowerment, which plants seeds for realizing the two simultaneously. In this scheme, either Kalachakra, Hevajra, or both are nondual tantras.

Receiving an empowerment for a mother tantra entails, in addition to taking the bodhisattva and tantric vows, promising to keep certain practices that bond us closely (dam-tshig, Skt. samaya) to mother tantra. Maintaining them helps us to remain on course for achieving blissful awareness of voidness with clear light mental activity.

[For the difference between a vow and a closely bonding practice, see: Auxiliary Bonding Practices.]

Since Kalachakra practice takes clear light absorption on voidness as the similar-family cause (rigs-'dra'i rgyu) for the immediate causes for both a Buddha's Corpus of Forms and a Dharmakaya, there is no contradiction in asserting that Kalachakra practice entails keeping the close bonds specific to mother tantra, even when Kalachakra is classified as a nondual tantra.

The Gelug tradition enumerates ten bonding practices for mother tantra. When eight are listed, the first two are counted as one and the eighth and ninth are counted as one. When the Rimey tradition, as elaborated by the nineteenth-century master Kongtrul (' Jam-mgon Kong-sprul Blo-gros mtha'-yas) and followed in the Kagyu traditions, lists only eight, it omits the second and ninth from this list. It explains the others with only minor variations in a few cases.

Here, we shall follow the Gelug presentation. The twentieth-century Gelug master Pabongka (Pha-bong-kha Byams-pa bstan-'dzin 'phrin-las rgya-mtsho) included the list when he expanded the First Panchen Lama's Extensive Six-Session Yoga (Thun-drug rnal-'byor rgyas-pa) by adding the recitation of the lists of vows. This was perhaps because of his wish to shift the focus in Gelug to Vajrayogini. If practicing only father tantra, it is not necessary to recite or keep these bonding practices for mother tantra.

[See: Extensive Six-Session Yoga.]

Ten Bonding Practices for Mother Tantra

(1) Not deriding left-handed behavior

In Indian culture, we use our right hands for eating and left for latrine purposes. We never touch anything clean or worthy of respect with our left hands. Since the understanding of voidness is contrary to everyone's ordinary apprehension of the world, we remind ourselves of voidness by using our left hands in an unconventional manner, such as for accepting and bringing to our mouths a drop of specially consecrated alcohol during a tsog puja. We also begin various physical actions with our left side, such as when walking, starting with our left foot. Not deriding such behavior is an extension, then, of the thirteenth common root tantric vow – avoiding not relying properly on the substances to bond us closely to our tantric practice.

[See: The Common Root Tantric Vows.]

(2) Making offerings

As a further extension of the thirteenth common root tantric vow, we periodically perform offering pujas, in which we taste transformed alcohol and meat. We usually promise to do this on special days, twice every lunar month – specifically, on the tenth and twenty-fifth of such months. In the Gelug tradition, making this promise is part of taking only a Vajrayogini empowerment and not normally part of empowerments for other mother tantras, such as Kalachakra. Tasting alcohol and meat symbolizes our transformation and use of not only these substances, but also our aggregates, bodily elements, and energy-winds to enhance our blissful awareness of voidness once we have attained a certain level of that awareness and have control over our subtle energy-systems. In the Vajrayogini practice, we direct the offering puja to our tantric masters inseparable from Vajrayogini. We also offer each day the eight-line praises to Chakrasamvara (Heruka) and Vajrayogini (Vajravarahi). Because of this close-bonding practice, Pabongka included the recitation of these verses in the Extensive Six-Session Yoga, and, because the Gelug tradition considers Kalachakra to be a mother tantra, it often includes these verses  as part of the  Kalachakra Six-Session Guru-Yoga as well. Other practices included  here  are, when seeing women, praising them in our minds as representing the mother  side of practice – namely, the side of the discriminating awareness of voidness – and visualize circumambulating them to the left, counterclockwise.

(3) Avoiding absorption into sexual union with an unqualified person

This is equivalent to the first secondary tantric vow – not to appropriate wisdom by force.

[See: The Secondary Tantric Vows.]

(4) Never parting ourselves from the view of voidness while in union

This is equivalent to the stipulation concerning our minds in the second secondary tantric vow - not to appropriate her nectar by force.

(5) Taking unchanging interest in using desire as a path

Using desire as a path refers to utilizing the bliss of union, without orgasmic release, as a pathway method for enhancing our blissful awareness of voidness. It never implies letting our sexual desires rage wildly and making no effort in the direction of voidness to tame and overcome them. This point is reminiscent of the seventh secondary bodhisattva vow in connection with ethical self-discipline – giving up the intention only to wander in samsara. Therefore, we keep this bonding practice within the context of the eleventh common root tantric vow – abandoning not meditating on voidness continually.

[See: The Secondary Bodhisattva Vows.]

(6) Never forsaking the two types of mudras

The two mudras or seals are a seal of behavior, karmamudra (las-kyi phyag-rgya) and a seal of deep awareness, jnanamudra (ye-shes-kyi phyag-rgya). These refer to actual physical partners and visualized ones with whom we absorb ourselves in sexual union, without orgasmic release, to enhance our blissful awareness of voidness. We join in union with either a physical partner visualized as a Buddha-figure, or merely a visualized one. This is equivalent to the stipulation concerning our bodies in the second secondary tantric vow – not to appropriate her nectar by force.

(7) Primarily exerting effort on the external and internal methods

For enhancing our blissful awareness of voidness, we primarily exert ourselves to absorb in sexual union externally – with all the previous stipulations – while internally maintaining our blissful awareness of voidness. This is an extension of the eleventh common root tantric vow - abandoning not meditating on voidness continually.

(8) Never releasing jasmine flower drops (Skt. kunda)

Referring to not emitting the subtle sparks of energy that accompany orgasm, this corresponds to the fifth Kalachakra root tantric vow – never giving up bodhichitta, particularly within the context of enhancing our blissful awareness of voidness.

[See: The Kalachakra Root Tantric Vows.]

(9) Committing ourselves to chaste behavior

This too is another way of phrasing the fifth Kalachakra root tantric vow, but with the emphasis on not resorting to ordinary sexual behavior as a path to liberation or enlightenment.

(10) Abandoning nausea when tasting bodhichitta

During empowerments, tsog pujas, and certain other tantric procedures, we taste bonding substances (dam-rdzas) to enhance our blissful awareness of voidness. Not feeling repulsion at this is an extension of the thirteenth common root tantric vow – avoiding not relying properly on the substances to bond us closely to our tantric practice.