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The Buddhist Archives of Dr. Alexander Berzin

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Listening to, Thinking about, and Meditating on the Dharma

Alexander Berzin
Moscow, Russia, May 2009

Session Six: Visualization

Unedited Transcript
Listen to the audio version of this page (0:57 hours)

At the end of our last session, we were speaking about the various factors that you deal with in meditation – in terms of trying to gain concentration – and as I indicated, there are a lot more further factors which are involved, and it really isn’t possible to go into all the details. But two of the things that we need, with working in meditation and working to gain concentration in our meditation, are joyful perseverance and patience. And Shantideva in his great text, Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior, explains six factors that can help us very much in developing joyful perseverance. These are known as the four supports and the two forces, and these are very useful to know and to work with.

The first of these is called firm aspiration. “Aspiration” is a strong word for a wish, and this is defined as being firmly convinced of the benefits of the goal and the drawbacks of not achieving it, so that the aspiration, the wish to attain it cannot be swayed, in other words it can’t be turned back. So, when we learn about and read about these various states of mind that we want to achieve with our Buddhist practice, usually the presentation gives first the benefits of achieving it and the drawbacks of not achieving it. These are important to study. Shantideva himself follows that in his text. The first chapter is on the benefits of developing bodhichitta. So if we are really convinced of the benefits of getting it and the difficulties that we have when we don’t have this state of mind, that gives us a lot of strength and we’re very happy to try to achieve it. So, if we get discouraged, it’s important to remind ourselves of what are the benefits of achieving what we’re aiming to achieve.

And then we have steadfastness or self-confidence. “Steadfastness” means to be steady in the practice; self-confidence. This comes from an examining if we are capable of achieving the goal and being convinced that we are. And on the basis of having examined, “Am I capable of achieving the goal,” and being convinced that we are, then applying ourselves steadily, even though progress goes up and down. This is reality; progress always goes up and down. That is the nature of samsara; it goes up and down. So some days our practice will go well, some days it won’t. That’s natural, normal. Some days we will feel like practicing, some days we won’t. But if we are convinced that we are capable of achieving the goal, and we remember the benefits of achieving it, then we have this perseverance which they say is like a suit of armor, that: “It doesn’t matter. I don’t care if it goes up and down. I’m just going to continue every day steadily. Just do it. Because even though I know it goes up and down, I know that eventually it is possible to achieve the goal; but it’s never going to be in a linear process of every day it gets better and better. Never.”

And as we progress, then over long periods of time you see the gradual tendency, then we develop the next support which is joy. And this means not being satisfied with making just a little progress, but taking joy, taking pleasure in advancing and going further with a sense of self-satisfaction. I want to go further and further and, as we go further in the practice, obviously, the result is – that we will be happier. That’s the whole point is to eliminate suffering. That’s quite obvious; as our mind becomes less distracted, less upset, less disturbed, of course we are happier. So we’re really happy and excited about going further, making more progress.

And then the next support is called “rest,” which means to take a break when we’re tired, but not out of laziness but in order to refresh ourselves. You know, nothing destroys our efforts worse than pushing too hard and then we burn out. It’s too much and we give up. When you push too hard, it really upsets the energies in your body. It’s like squeezing a balloon and it can break. So, we need to be able to judge ourselves and to determine when we need a rest, and not just because we’re lazy, but we need a rest to refresh ourselves; and not feel guilty about it. And we need to choose something that will help to relax us, to give us rest that obviously is not something destructive that will just increase our disturbing emotions. And obviously for each of us, it will be probably slightly different.

So those are the four supports. Then the two forces; the first one is “naturally accepting,” it’s called, which means to naturally accept what we need to practice and what we need to rid ourselves of in order to reach our goals. We accept that, which means that: “OK, this is reality; this is what I need to do, this is what I need to get rid of” – the mental wandering or whatever it is we have to get rid of. And to naturally accept the hardships that are involved in doing that, which comes from having examined the whole process realistically, and to know what’s involved and not to fool ourselves into thinking that it will be much easier and require less effort than it actually does. So if we’re very realistic about it in the beginning, and say, “OK, this is what it’s going to take,” then later on we won’t get surprised at how difficult it might be for example to quiet our minds.

So as I often say, and His Holiness the Dalai Lama says as well, “Any Buddhist teacher or person who explains Buddhism who claims that it’s easy and quick, be very, very suspicious of what they’re saying and what their motivation is, because it is not easy and it is not quick. We are so used to our disturbing emotions to being selfish and getting angry and being greedy and so on, there’s no easy way, a quick way of getting rid of that just like taking a pill.” And as another one of my teachers, Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey always used to say, “Anyone who is attracted to easy and speedy paths in Buddhism, basically it’s because of being lazy. They don’t want to have to put in the hard work which actually is necessary.”

Then the last one here is called “taking control,” which means to take control of ourselves and apply ourselves to what we wish to achieve. In other words, rather than letting our laziness take control or any other disturbing emotion take control, our aspiration to achieve this is what takes control and we just say to ourselves, “Stop acting like a baby. Get it together and do it.” You know, I don’t feel like meditating, I’ve had a hard day and so on, and you say to yourself, “Stop it; just sit down; do it, take control.” So, these are the points that Shantideva makes in his chapter on joyful perseverance and they are extremely helpful.

Okay, so before we get into our discussion of visualization are there any further questions? Yeah?

Participant: How to distinguish the laziness from the tiredness?

Alex: Well, there are different forms of laziness. There’s the laziness with which we get distracted by other things; we’re too lazy to do our meditation or study or whatever, and so we get distracted with the television program or something like that. And then there’s the laziness of putting it off until tomorrow, which you think: “Well, I can do it tomorrow, do it later.” And then there’s the laziness of making the excuse, “I can’t do it.”

When we’re tired, then we still have the wish to be able to do it: “I really want to do it, but I’m really sleepy now and I need to take a little bit rest and then I fully intend to go back to it.” So it’s not making excuses, “Well tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow,” and you don’t really care. It’s like when we go to sleep, it’s recommended that we try to develop, and develop it sincerely, not just with words, that “I can’t wait until I wake up so that I can continue with my practice,” or whatever things we’re doing to be of benefit to others. “I can’t wait until I wake up, but I really need to sleep so that I get the strength to be able to do it.” So laziness doesn’t have that wish that I really want to do it, continue.

Participant: What is the difference with when different types of meditating on the breath with focus on the nostrils or on the navel? What is the difference?

Alex: In terms of technical aspects of it?

Participant: Different teachers teach different ways.

Alex: Right, different places of focus in the breathing meditation – each one is helpful for a particular difficulty that we are having. If we are feeling quite heavy and tired, then we need to lift the energies in the body. And so focusing on the breath at the nostrils coming in and out is focusing on a higher part of the body. It helps to raise the energy. If, on the other hand, we are feeling we have too much distraction, too much mental activity, distracting mental activity, and we’re nervous, we have to quiet down, which means that we have to somehow ground the energies. And the center of gravity of the body is at the navel, and so by focusing on the lower abdomen going in and out as we breathe, it helps to ground the energies. In Zen practice, we also usually focus with the breath at the navel, the abdomen going up and down, for an additional reason. They call that center “hara.”

And although it’s not explained explicitly, from a Tibetan tantra point of view, the navel chakra is where you are able to bring the energies into the central channel. And so Zen, although it won’t explain it explicitly, accomplishes a similar type of thing to what is done in tantra practice – in terms of centralizing the energies of the navel chakra and bringing them into the central channel – and it has this purpose as well underneath.

There are other types of breathing meditations which are done on much more advanced levels. There’s something called “vajra breathing,” which is following the breath or having the breath go in the nostrils down to the heart chakra and back out together with imagining a certain sound with the breath. And the breath and the subtle energies are very much together, very much connected. And mantra is a way of shaping the breath and the energy and this type of vajra breathing practice is helpful for again bringing the subtle energies, now not only just into the central channel, but bringing them to the heart chakra. The central channel goes to the heart chakra. The point is not to just have it enter the central channel like at the navel, but now to enter it and go down to the heart chakra.

So just in terms of technically the way that you’re doing it is, doing the breathing meditation, there are these three variations. But then again, as I mentioned earlier, there are many other types of, what should we say, understanding that we could have together with focusing on the breath, like in terms of impermanence, in terms of “Is there a separate ‘me’ that is controlling the breath or watching it.” So there are many, many levels of sophistication of breathing meditation.

Participant: Do you know any Western students who, living in the world, not being a monk, not going to the retreat, achieved shamatha?

Alex: I wouldn’t know. I mean how would I be able to judge? If they were an authentic practitioner, they would never advertise that they had achieved shamatha. And just to attain, as I said, perfect concentration is not enough. You have to be able to sustain it with this sense of fitness for four hours. That’s quite something. But I did know one Tibetan monk practitioner who was famous for having achieved shamatha. That was Geshe Rabten, a previous lifetime. He’d go to teachings let’s say by His Holiness or whatever and he would be sitting in the audience and he would be like a rock, absolutely not move at all for the whole time, be totally focused. And you could see that because most Tibetans when they sit and listen, they rock back and forth and so on. Just whaoah!

There have been a number of efforts of specifically shamatha retreats, in the West, particularly in America, that some friends of mine that have organized and led, but I don’t know that anybody has actually achieved these things there. Usually what has happened is that the people get terrible lung which is this frustration and disturbance of the energy from pushing too hard, from trying too hard. It’s very difficult for the Westerners to be as relaxed about all of this as the Tibetans. It’s very important when doing these types of practices to be relaxed about it. It doesn’t mean to be sloppy, but being relaxed is absolutely essential for any type of practice or attainment. As I mentioned in my favorite koan, “Death can come at any moment; relax.” Anything else?

Participant: Is there any shamatha practice in dzogchen?

Alex: Yes, every major form of practice relies on shamatha. There’s no way you can attain anything without proper concentration. There’s nothing special about dzogchen in terms of the basic fundamental teachings and practices. Everything shares the same; dzogchen is talking about last stages of the practice. The beginning stages of the practice, including shamatha, are shared by everybody. Dzogchen has all the preliminaries and the ngondro and it has the basic teachings on death and impermanence and precious human life and karma and bodhichitta, shamatha, vipashyana, it’s all there. As you see in the Words of My Perfect Teacher, from Patrul Rinpoche – the previous incarnation of this one here [in the photo] – it’s standard: it covers all these things.

Translator: I think the question was about quintessence teaching when you practice with no effort; quintessence dzogchen teachings.

Alex: When you practice with no effort, at that stage that means that you’ve done an unbelievable amount of effort beforehand so that you can now reach the stage where you can practice with no effort. Basic Buddhist teaching, reality, cause and effect; you’re not able to achieve something without the causes. The cause for being effortless is having put in the effort, so that you’re so familiar with it that it doesn’t require any conscious effort. So if we don’t accept the reality, back to Shantideva’s thing, accept the fact of the reality of this, then as Geshe Dhargyey said, “If you’re just attracted to effortless path, often the reason is because of being lazy. You don’t want to put in the effort.”

You have to accept that you’re only going to become effortless if you’ve put in the effort before. For very rare people they have put in so much effort in a previous lifetime that in this lifetime it comes automatically. But that’s one in a billion people. Haven’t all the dzogchen teachers you’ve met said that you have to do a ngondro? Surely that’s putting in quite a bit of effort. There’s no cheap way to enlightenment. Okay, let’s go to the topic of visualization.

Now although we work with visualization in tantra – perhaps it’s most well known there – it’s not limited to tantra, because we have many types of practices in sutra in which we visualize something in front of us, like for instance, just the Buddha for achieving shamatha, or the refuge tree, these sort of things. It’s a lot of visualization practice. And the main difference is that in tantra we visualize or imagine ourselves in the form of a Buddha-figure. In sutra you don’t do that.

Now, very important point is that when we speak of visualization that’s a bit of a misleading translation. It’s not visual, we’re not using our eyes. What we’re working with here is imagination, the whole imagination, not just visual. So we imagine not only something visual, but you also imagine sounds and smells and tastes and physical sensations and so on. Like when we make offerings, you make mental offerings as well of all these various objects. We imagine that we enjoy them as our Buddha-figure in tantra.

Secondly, what we are visualizing is never two-dimensional pictures; it’s always three-dimensional. And we’re talking about a form: we’re not visualizing a statue, we’re visualizing live figures. And they are not solid; they are always made of light, so like a hologram. Now in fact when we do shamatha practice in Mahayana, although many teachers teach focusing on the breath, it’s just because it’s the easiest one to do. The most common practice, however, is gaining shamatha through visualizing a small Buddha. And the reason for this is that just to focus, for instance, staring at an apple, we may gain concentration, but what’s the benefit of staring at an apple? The apple itself? But if we focus on a Buddha, then in addition to just gaining concentration, we are aware of the qualities of the Buddha we can add into it refuge, safe direction; we can add into it bodhchitta, I want to become like that and so on. So there are many benefits of focusing on a Buddha.

Now, I think it’s in one of Asanga’s texts on concentration, a great Indian master, he points out that achieving shamatha, these higher states of concentration, needs to be with mental consciousness, not with sense consciousness. This is because what are we going to apply that concentration to? We’re going to apply it to generating love, compassion, understanding of voidness, bodhichitta; these are all mental states. And so in order to be able to gain concentration in a state of mind or consciousness that we are actively generating, like a Buddha image, a visualization of a Buddha is actually training the tool that we’re going to need, the mental consciousness. And so in the Gelug tradition of Tsongkhapa, then we always find the emphasis on these practices like visualizing the Buddha for gaining shamatha.

So what about in Sakya, Nyingma and Kagyu where we find very frequently explanations of focusing on the breath, or focusing with the eyes looking at a thangka or a statue? Does that contradict Asanga, the Indian Buddhist master? And no, it doesn’t contradict that, because actually if we look at their explanation of cognition theory of how the mind knows things, how we know things, then we find that according to the explanation that is followed by these three schools, that with eye consciousness you only are aware of colored shapes and only one moment at a time. And with ear consciousness, you’re only aware of sounds and only one moment at a time; and it only lasts a microsecond. And it is conceptual cognition that puts these things together into what we would call a “commonsense object.”

An apple is not just a red spherical shape. It is not just a taste; it is not just a smell; and not just a physical sensation in your hand, or a sound, a special sound – when you bite an apple, there’s a certain sound – and it doesn’t exist for only for one moment and then the next moment there’s a completely different object there. There is continuity over time. This apple eventually will rot and fall apart, but there will be a conventional apple that lasts, over – conventionally you would say – over a few days. Look at it again, there’s the apple on the table. But that’s a concept; that’s a conceptual construct.

So according to this explanation of cognition, that when we are focusing on the breath or an apple or something like that, it is actually a conceptual object and conceptual objects are focused on with mental consciousness. Conceptually, we put the colored shapes and the smells and the sounds and many consecutive moments together into an object, what we common sense call a Buddha, or an apple, or the breath. And so in these schools as well, we are still honoring Asanga’s assertion that we need to develop shamatha and concentration with mental consciousness.

Now, if we’re working with a Buddha-figure in front of us for shamatha, a Buddha for example, the Buddha needs to be the size of our thumb, then the distance of about one arm’s length in front of us. And our eyes are looking downward; not looking at it. It’s not being generated by your eyes. So, we’re looking down, the eyes are looking downwards and the Buddha is up here, so we’re generating it with our minds, not looking at it; that’s the level of the mid forehead.

Now that’s not so difficult. Look down toward the floor, please, and hold your thumb in front of you at the level of the forehead. Now we can have the feeling that we know that there’s something there. Without looking at it, we can concentrate on the thumb being there. Now put down your thumb. Can you still focus on that point? It is possible, isn’t it?

Now this is going to be very important. And for the eyes, in many Theravada practices it’s recommended to concentrate with the eyes closed. Mahayana practice as described again in the Indian texts is done, recommended with the eyes open. We’re talking about general meditation. There are some specific meditations where the eyes are wide open or closed, but general meditation in Mahayana, the eyes are open, not shut. If our eyes are closed, there’s much greater danger of falling asleep. But if our eyes are wide open… unless you’re doing some mahamudra meditation in which we want to focus on the intensity of the mind so then the mind, the eyes have to be wide open and staring. But in normal regular meditation, you don’t want to have the eyes completely open because then you get easily distracted. And so what is instructed is that we are looking downwards, usually it says toward the tip of your nose. That doesn’t mean cross-eyed; it just means a line from the tip of your nose to the floor, so basically the floor in front of you; and loosely focused, not intense. We’re not looking for our contact lens that we dropped on the floor.

One more thing that I wanted to mention, there are several other disadvantages of meditating with the eyes closed. In a general sense, if we get into the habit of having to close our eyes in order to quiet down, become more calm, develop love and compassion, then it’s very hard to apply that in real life. When you’re interacting with people, you can’t all of a sudden shut your eyes and generate a state of mind and then open your eyes. You need to be able to generate all these things while still looking quite normal. And also if we have to shut out the world in order to be able to meditate by closing our eyes, then again that’s a little bit contradictory to the Mahayana flavor, which is that we want to relate to the world and others.

If you have to shut your eyes in order to meditate, in a sense you are closing out the world, “Don’t bother me,” whereas Mahayana you want to have your eyes open, because everything that you’re doing is to be directed toward helping others. You don’t want to shut them out.

But there are more subtle problems with meditating with your eyes closed. What His Holiness the Dalai Lama points out is that if your eyes are closed, the eyelids tend to flutter a little bit and you tend to see a little bit of like dancing red spots, and so on, on the inside of the eyelids; that’s distracting. That’s a more subtle level, a more subtle reason. So we try to get into the habit of meditating with the eyes open, but to not be so distracted, just looking down.

And when we’re doing tantra practice, I don’t know how many of you are involved with these complex tantra visualizations of ourselves as a Buddha-figure inside a mandala, which is a palace, and with many other figures in the mandala. But in that type of practice, then it’s quite obvious that we’re not using our eyes, because how do you use your eyes to imagine what your face looks like, or what’s behind you. And when we’re visualizing all sorts of things inside us like, like a heart, a moon and a seed syllable, and these sorts of things, obviously we’re not using our eyes to imagine that.

And when we visualize, there are always two aspects. One is making an appearance. That’s usually translated as “clarity,” but that’s not a good word here because that implies that it must be in focus. We’re not talking about it being in focus; we’re talking about just making something appear, making something arise, whether it’s visual… but it’s not just visual… it’s using your imagination; making something arise. And then the second factor is literally “pride,” “pride of the deity” it’s called. And what that means is an actual feeling that a Buddha is really there, or that I really am this Chenrezig or Tara, whatever it is we are visualizing.

And Tsongkhapa explains that what is most important in the beginning is an actual feeling that it’s actually there, this pride. So when we are working with visualizing a Buddha in front of us, it’s really important to feel that there is a Buddha there. That’s most important; don’t worry about it being in focus. So all we need is some sort of appearance, even if it’s just a yellow light. That’s sufficient; but on that basis, have the feeling that: “Yes, there’s an actual Buddha there.” All the details and so on will come automatically as our concentration improves.

One of the biggest mistakes that we often make as practitioners is that we get too caught up by the details of what it’s supposed to look like, what do all the jewelry and the clothing and what color eyes and all these sort of things, you get so uptight basically about all this detail that you get stuck and you can’t do the practice at all. And it’s even worse when you try to do a refuge tree or anything like that, where there are a lot of figures on it. And the texts don’t help, because they give us all the detail, which gives us the impression – which is the incorrect impression – that from the very beginning we’re supposed to be able to visualize all of this. Incredibly advanced to be able to actually visualize in all the details a refuge tree with all the figures on it; unbelievably advanced.

Yes, eventually when we are really, really skilled, that’s what we would be visualizing, but as beginners trying to do ngondro or whatever, forget it. There’s no way that we’re going to be able to visualize that. Because when we push ourselves too hard trying to get all this detail, then you really get lung, disturbed energies, and you get very frustrated, unless we’re one of these extraordinary people to whom visualization comes very, very easily. But for most of us that’s not the case. Artists usually find it much easier to visualize.

So, what that means is that we try to “read the instructions,” it says. Well, if you can’t do that, then at least just visualize a Buddha as representing all the objects on the tree. Well, take that seriously. And just think that everybody else is around, but don't worry about actually being able to imagine them in detail. And as I said, if you can just visualize some light in front of you, that is a start. The important thing is that yes, this is really all the objects of refuge, and the feeling that they are actually there. And if we are visualizing ourselves as a Buddha-figure in one of these mandala palaces, which is a three-dimensional building, then in most of these, or many of these mandalas, probably most of these mandalas, there is more than one figure. And in many of them there is a central couple and many other figures around.

Now this becomes quite difficult because actually we are imagining that we are all of the figures; we are not just the central figure. It’s not that I am only the central figure and this partner that I’m embracing is somebody else. So if we are a woman doing this type of practice in which the central figure is a male embracing a female, please don’t try to visualize it from the point of view that you are the female here, because you are only identifying with one figure here. Whether you are a man or a woman, you’re both members of the couple. And not only are we both members of the couple, but we’re all the other figures around as well and we are the building too.

So all the different figures etc., regardless of what gender they are, parts of the building etc., represent different aspects of our realization, different aspects of what we are trying to achieve; and we’re the whole thing. So different figures will represent the different aggregates; they will represent different elements of the body. They represent so many different things, with the whole thing, just like our body now, is an interconnection and network of the digestive system, and the circulatory system, and the respiratory system. It’s the whole thing. I’m not just my liver. Okay? So this is not the easiest thing in the world to do, but don’t just identify with one part of the visualization and then get into a very dualistic manner of practicing, that I’m one figure and then everything else is something else.

Okay? Now, Tsongkhapa explains in this letter of practical advice very, very nicely about the whole process of visualizing. He’s speaking specifically about visualizing a mandala, ourselves as all the figures in a complex mandala. So Tsongkhapa says there are two traditions in the literature of how to do this. One is to work on fine details one at a time, adding them until we get the whole picture. And the second way is to start with a vague image, a vague feeling of the whole thing and then within that, fill in one detail at a time. And he says that for some very few, very special individuals, that first method is appropriate: just build up one detail or one little piece at a time until you get the whole picture. But for most practitioners, the vast majority, that second method is recommended. Try to get a vague feeling, a vague image of the whole thing and then while holding that, fill in one detail at a time.

And for this, what’s very important is that this process of adding details is accumulative. In other words, if you’re able to get one detail in sharper focus, then without losing that you add one more. Then you have two details; then you have three details. It’s very important not to lose the focus on what we’ve already maintained, when you add something further. So that is important in terms of ourselves – let’s say as one figure. So he says that usually you start with the third eye. In the highest class of tantra, the deities have three eyes. In the lower classes of tantra, they only have two eyes.

So he’s talking about the highest class of tantra, and there you would start with the central eye in the middle of the forehead, and then you add the other eyes and you start adding details like that. And especially when we try to add more focus, or detail, on the other figures in the mandala, he says very strongly: “Be sure that you don’t lose the focus and the clarity of the central figure. Add it to it; otherwise, you’re never going to be able to visualize the whole figure at once.” And he says, “If the general form of the body” – he’s talking about now a single deity – “If the general form of the body was clear, we need to hold that. If the general form is unclear, but a few of the parts are clear, hold your attention on whatever aspects are clear. If those few parts have faded as well, then you need to generate again the entire general rough form once more.”

Okay? So what is this referring to? Let’s just do something simple. We’re visualizing ourselves as a seated figure, let’s say Chenrezig, four-armed Chenrezig. First of all we have a feeling that we have a face. You have a face, don’t you? It’s not very easy to imagine what our face looks like, because then the question is from what point of view. Looking outside at us from looking inside out? What?

But we can be aware of the fact that on the front of this head are two eyes, a nose and a mouth. And put your hands by your ears and then take them off. We can also be aware that there are two ears. Please do this. Put your hand on the back of your head. Take it away. So, we have a feeling that we have a back of our head, don’t we? We can’t really see it, but we know that we have it. So that’s how you feel that you have a head and a face. Put your two hands by the side of your face. And imagine that where our hands are we have two more faces. Now take the hands away. You can feel that you have three faces. It’s not that difficult.

There are these methods to help us by using our hands to actually feel these places and then be aware of them. Now we have a feeling that we have arms and a leg, legs don’t we? You don’t have to see them to know that you have them. You feel them. Now, for four-arm Chenrezig, not so difficult. Put your two arms in front of you holding the jewel. And now it’s like a photograph that has two frames superimposed on each other. Put the two arms to the side. So, now we have all four of them, just superimposed. It’s like a double exposure photograph. Don’t worry, “Where does the arm fit in? Is it coming in under my armpit?” Don’t worry about that. So what Tsongkhapa is saying here is that you get a general feeling of the whole body. When that is clear, there’s some feeling of it, and if it also gets in focus, then you add, well four-arm Chenrezig doesn’t have three eyes, but I was just using that as a simple example, but you would add the eyes and try to get that in more detail.

So, you try to have the clarity, the feeling of a whole thing, plus the details. So, let’s say eventually you get all the details of the face in focus, and then he says: “Well if you lose the clarity of the whole thing” – I mean there’s still the general feeling of being the whole thing – “but if you lose the detail of that, but you still have clarity, focus on a few of the details. Hold onto that. But if you lose too much” – and of course it’s not clear what the border is of when it’s too much; that you have to judge for yourself, – “but when you lose too much of the detail, then you have to go back to generating the whole thing,” which might entail actually reciting that I have sixteen arms and they’re holding all of this and that, to remind ourselves, to generate it.

So in doing these visualization practices, particularly in tantra, they’re very, very difficult. And it is really quite important that we’ve already done some concentration practice beforehand; otherwise, if your mind is completely wandering all over the place, then it’s going to be very difficult to even begin this type of practice. Tantra practice is very, very advanced. It’s not for beginners. And if we are just working in sutra, visualizing something in front of us like a Buddha in shamatha, it’s the same thing. Try to get a feeling of the whole thing, the whole image in the rough form of it in focus, and then work with getting details. But don’t get too caught up and don’t push too hard.

You need to understand what the point is of all this practice. It’s not just to develop the mental athletic skills of visualizing things and we win the Olympic gold medal in visualization. It’s a tool that we are developing in order to be able to use that tool of the imagination to move the various energies in the body and generate the energies in a form like that of a Buddha. And having all these details and all these figures and everything that we’re holding and stuff like that is a way of expanding our minds to be able to hold at the same time an awareness and understanding of many, many different things. There are so many deity systems and so many different things that we’re holding – that is not the point. So what, what they’re holding. The point is what it represents, the insight that it represents.

It’s very difficult to keep in our minds simultaneously let’s say thirty-seven different things at the same time, if we’re doing that in just an abstract way. If we represent them graphically by thirty-seven objects that we’re holding, it’s easier to put it all together simultaneously. And that is what we’re aiming for: to network and put everything together simultaneously – another reason why this is advanced. If we haven’t been able to generate each of the individual realizations one at a time, how could you possibly network and put them all together? And we are aiming to be able to benefit everybody. That means that we have to be aware of everybody at the same time, so we need to be able to expand our minds to be aware of more and more things at the same time.

So, this is a practice that helps us, these complicated visualizations. So that’s why they are so complex like this and when somebody asks a question, “Well, aren’t these alien symbols and couldn’t we use Western things?” To use Western things is irrelevant. It doesn’t matter. The point is not so much what you’re visualizing, but what it represents. And if we’re not visualizing ourselves in the form of these traditional figures, well, what else are we going to do? Visualize ourselves in the form of Jesus Christ and Mary and so on? That will highly offend our Christian brothers and sisters; much too offensive and insulting.

Just think of it the other way. Would you like to see Buddha crucified on a cross? Pretty strange. So then what are we going to do? Visualize ourselves as a movie star? This is silly. A political leader, Mickey Mouse, what? If we object to the palace, then what? Are you going to visualize yourself inside the skyscraper, this palace of culture that you have here in Moscow? What are you going to visualize yourself inside? It’s silly, that’s why I say it’s irrelevant to try to change it. Why?

So we have these visualization practices. There are some visualizations that we do, like Vajrasattva, with a figure on our head. That also is not so difficult. Put your hand on your head, please. So, now you take your hand off; and you still feel the top of your head. So that’s the way that we visualize something on top of our head. And if you lose it and you need to put your hand on top of your head again, put your hand on top of your head. No big deal. The important point is to feel that something is there, something is happening and it actually is Vajrasattva, and not some insect or something.

Okay, so now questions. What would you like to ask?

Participant: Should we visualize ourself as a Buddha, or the Buddha in front of us?

Alex: It all depends on the ritual practice that we’re doing. When we practice what’s known in Sanskrit as a “sadhana,” a sadhana literally means a method for actualizing ourselves, so actualizing ourselves as a Buddha-figure. And the sadhana is like a script of an opera, in which you read step by step what you’re visualizing, what’s happening. So, you go through it like a movie. So Serkong Rinpoche always used to explain that what’s very important, especially when it’s an initiation, an empowerment, and there are so many visualizations one after another, he says it really is like a movie. So if you miss one scene, just go onto the next one. It’s not that you play all the scenes of the movie simultaneously: it’s one after another.

And so, when you are doing a sadhana with a group, then you can’t stop if you didn’t get one scene. So you just continue. If we’re doing it by ourselves, of course you can stop and make sure that you get each scene at a time. There are short forms and long forms of all the sadhanas. As Serkong Rinpoche used to say, the long forms are for beginners, not the short forms. The short form is when you are so familiar with the long form that you can abbreviate it and fill in from your memory what’s in the long form. Most of us, however, don’t follow that procedure, unfortunately. But in any case, in the long ones, you usually begin with a lineage prayer, imagining all the lineage gurus eventually dissolving into you, then you generate yourself as the Buddha-figure, then you would have refuge, bodhichitta. So you would visualize something in front of you.

Then you dissolve them one by one. You say a verse for each guru, it’s like a totem pole, one figure on top of each other. That one dissolves into the next one, into the next one, the next one, and eventually into us. And then we transform through voidness into the Buddha-figure and then there’s various possibilities. It could be refuge and bodhichitta; you visualize a Buddha in front of you. There can be consecrating the offerings first; there’s many variants. You follow the script. If we are doing tantra practice properly, which is unbelievably difficult to do, we are trying to visualize ourselves as the Buddha-figure all day long. That’s obviously very, very difficult to remember to do.

So then the question comes, and Serkong Rinpoche loved these questions. He was the most practical teacher; he was one of the teachers of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, and he said… You know these figures are standing in a certain posture. And he said, “You don’t imagine all day long that you’re like some sort of Japanese robot in a cartoon that, you know, zzzzzzzzz, moves around in this form like this. Can Yamantaka” – that’s a standing figure – “can he sit down? Of course he can sit down, don’t be silly. This is part of the whole general instruction to be relaxed with the practice. Make it natural.”

It’s like we’re able to see two levels at the same time. We’re supposed to also visualize everything around us as a mandala. Well, how are you going to cross the street or drive your car if that’s the only thing that is appearing to your mind? That’s ridiculous. You don’t want to cripple yourself; so you’re able to see things on two levels simultaneously. Not so easy. So it’s like we have our skin, but also on another level sort of underneath the skin, we can be like the Buddha-figure. And don’t worry that you’re holding a vudra and bell in your hands, so how could you possibly cook dinner. Don’t make it so concrete.

And also, people ask the silly question, “How you visualize yourself with a partner, as a couple all day long? If you bend over isn’t the partner going to fall off and so on?” And Rinpoche said, “It’s like wearing clothing. You know that you’re wearing clothing: you don’t have to constantly, visualize or say in your head: ‘I’m wearing a blue shirt,’ and so on. And no matter what you do the clothing comes with. Don’t take it so concretely. Be relaxed, but that doesn’t mean to be sloppy. It means to be just integrated into normal life: that although things appear to us in a certain way, there’s a much purer way in which they can appear.

Participant: I would like to ask you to tell more about visualizing offerings, to this imagined figure of Buddha especially mandala, for example, and how are we visualizing that?

Alex: Okay. So, we make many different kinds of offerings. We make offerings to figures in front of us, like the Buddhas; we make offerings to all beings; we make offerings to ourselves as a Buddha-figure. I mean, you imagine that offering goddesses emanate from you and then make offerings back to yourself. So, many different objects to whom we give offerings, and there are many, many different kinds of offerings. I don’t really want to bore you with a long list of outer and inner and secret and all sorts of different types of offerings.

And mandalas are one type of offering, and there is also external and internal and secret – different types of mandalas that you offer. But normally when we offer a mandala, as in the ngondro, the preliminary practices, although we have some sort of object, whether it’s a plate with rice or our fingers in the mudra, what we are imagining is that we are giving the whole universe.

And so His Holiness the Dalai Lama explains that it doesn’t matter what it looks like in terms of our visualization. It could be visualized like in abhidharma with Mount Meru and the four continents. It could look like the way that Mount Meru and the continents are described in Kalachakra, which is different. You can visualize it as the globe of this planet, Earth; you can visualize it as our solar system; you can visualize it as the Milky Way; you can visualize it as the whole universe, whatever you are capable of visualizing. And that size as well, not just a miniature model. The point is that we are willing to give absolutely everything to be able to reach enlightenment to benefit others. That’s the main thought in doing this mandala ngondro: “I would give anything, even the whole universe, to be able to benefit everybody as a Buddha.”

So now when we make offerings to the Buddhas, let’s say sense objects, you know, water, and the flowers, incense and stuff like that, it’s not a bribe. Buddhas don’t need our stupid stick of incense, but it is a sign of respect that we are showing, and it’s like inviting Buddha to a meal. So the standard offerings that we do: argham, padyam, pushpe, these sort of things, this is modeled after what you would do if Buddha himself actually came to your home, which Buddha did during his lifetime. He would go around to various people’s homes who invited him for a meal and then after the meal, they would ask Buddha, “Please can you teach us.” Buddha would come with his, with the monks, and then after the meal the Buddha would give a discourse. And these eventually were written down and became the sutras.

So, you give Buddha when he first comes… You know he’s thirsty, it’s hot, it’s India… so there’s some water to drink. First to rinse the mouth out because it’s dusty and dry… There’s different orders, but you rinse the mouth out because it’s dry; you offer water for the feet, because they walk barefoot so it’s very dusty, to cool down; and something to drink; and maybe a shower. There could be two waters; there could be three waters; there could be four waters that you offer.

Translator: Three waters, four waters, we usually do two waters.

Alex: Right, that’s because you’re doing a simple practice. If you looked at the larger practices, there are sometimes three; there’s sometimes four. And then flowers, you know a nice flower garland. This is an Indian custom. And then you would light some candles: you bring them to the tables, candles. You have some nice incense. I’m not doing them in the proper order because in different rituals it’s slightly different orders. So it’s irrelevant. Some perfume water: it’s like cologne, to sprinkle on, because it’s very hot. And at the table nice candles, nice light, there’s incense, there’s music and a lovely meal. It’s representing that, what you did when you invited Buddha to your house. And obviously you hope that it will make the Buddha happy.

You don’t have to make the Buddha happy. He’s happy anyway, but obviously you want to make it nice because you respect the Buddha and you imagine that the Buddha actually enjoyed it. He didn’t say, “Oh, this food is terrible.” And in more elaborate ritual practices, you have many more offerings like that, so you can have a whole band. So somebody playing cymbals, somebody playing this kind of drum, somebody playing that kind of drum. You know it gets very, very elaborate in the more complex ritual practices. In some practices you offer Buddha a shower and then a clean towel and clean clothes after walking on the dusty Indian road. As I say, it’s all modeled after when you actually invited Buddha to your house. And obviously when you make offerings to all beings, you offer them whatever they need and eventually offer them liberation and enlightenment.

And that can be very elaborate in terms of offering to those that we are closely connected to, those that we have offended and hurt in the past, and those who are especially needy. It gets extremely elaborate. And when we imagine offerings being made to ourselves, what’s very important is to imagine that we enjoy it in a pure way, that we have, pure blissful pleasure understanding the voidness of the whole thing.

That’s not making it into some object of attachment. Before you make the offerings, you have a certain ritual. You chase away interferences. So that means that the flowers aren’t going to make you sneeze, and the water isn’t going to give you diarrhea. And you purify everything in voidness. It’s very important to not make, “Me I’m so wonderful and Buddha is such a fantastic being over there and I’m so great what I’m giving them” and so on. You have to clear out all this garbage, this inflation, by the understanding of voidness, to put it very simply. And then you generate the offerings in some fantastic beautiful form, not just the way it looks on your altar, and you imagine that it multiplies so that it will never run out – that helps to overcome miserliness, with which you feel that there’s not enough, and so I want to keep some for myself, and there won’t be enough for everybody and so on. So you imagine that there’s an infinite supply.

So the practice of making offerings is an incredibly extensive, full practice and it’s part of every sadhana. It may be abbreviated, but the intention is to do the long thing and then you abbreviate it all and then fill it in, but from your understanding. If you look at the long sadhanas, offerings are done so frequently in them, and it’s part of the whole method. In the long sadhanas, you make offerings maybe ten times during the thing. It’s done over and over and over again with different contexts within the script of the sadhana. The sadhanas are long, a hundred pages, a hundred fifty pages; they’re long. Yeah?

Participant: What to do when we are visualizing a Buddha, but the image starts to move down?

Alex: Right. This is a common problem that happens in visualization: you can’t get the image to stay still or to maintain its proper size; and that’s a fault basically in our energies. The energy is not stable and so the energy that’s generating the visualization is not stable, so it moves. It’s not quite flightiness because it’s not because of desire, but it’s some sort of mental wandering. You’re losing the hold on the object, it’s not tight enough. So then you have to use all the methods for re-establishing the visualization, bringing the attention back, re-establishing it in its proper place. You don’t just let it wander all over the place.

Also, you need to appreciate that visualization practice gets very sophisticated. We train to be able to visualize on an enormous, enormous scale, very, very large and then also microscopically, and then to be able to do both at the same time. In order to manipulate and move the energy winds within the body, not only do you have to be able to visualize all the channels and all of that, which is not very easy to do, but you need your concentration to be like a laser, so that it’s really microscopically focused to move things around within that system. Because it’s like trying to do a brain operation with a butter knife: if you’re not focused enough, you’re going to cause a lot of damage. And so the concentration has to be really microscopic and so there are very advanced difficult practices to get it microscopic. It’s very important: don’t fool around with practices with chakras and channels and things like that unless you really are qualified, because you can mess up your energies very badly: first very, very disturbed in your body and consequently in your mind.

So we have time for one more question if there is. Yes?

Participant: What is going with our mind when we are under the general anesthesia, when we have no consciousness, when we lose our consciousness?

Alex: It’s a deeper state than sleep. When we fall asleep, then our attention is withdrawn from sense consciousness. So you just have mental consciousness. And when you’re under an anesthesia, then the consciousness is withdrawn and becomes even more subtle. But, that’s the general explanation. A more subtle explanation: in the explanation of how we know things, then what is said is that consciousness has an object and so does the self, the “me.” The eye consciousness sees, and I see. The ear consciousness hears and I hear. You’d have to say that I see and I hear and I know. It’s just too weird to say only that the eye consciousness sees, because the self would be imputed on the consciousness here.

Now subliminal awareness – the consciousness still takes the object, but I don’t take the object. The consciousness is aware of the object, but I’m not aware of the object. Subliminal awareness would be like you’re watching a movie and for one microsecond it comes up: Drink Coca-Cola and it sends that message. You didn’t really see it, but the consciousness took it in. It is used for propaganda for selling things.

So, it’s similar to that. When you fall asleep the ear consciousness can hear, I mean it takes its objects, but I don’t hear it. But if the ear consciousness was totally stopped, you’d never hear the alarm clock. If the body consciousness was totally turned off, you’d never feel somebody tickling your feet. So, that’s a more subtle explanation of what’s going on when you’re asleep, and under anesthesia it’s even more deep. But you can’t say that the consciousness, the grosser levels are totally stopped, otherwise you’d never wake up. Although obviously with anesthesia it’s induced by a chemical in your body, so when the chemical wears off you wake up. But I think we can understand it analogously with the explanation of sleep and how you hear the alarm clock. Okay? So…

Participant: Next question is, then what is sleeping if our senses are not?

Alex: I’m sleeping. There is no separate me from the consciousness, from the body. To say that the mind is awake, but I’m not awake, gets into a very dualistic way of understanding. It’s not quite like that. What I explained is just a conceptual framework to explain how you don’t hear the clock ticking while you’re asleep, but you do hear the alarm clock. I’m sure there are many other explanations from science to explain the phenomenon. This is the Buddhist way of explaining it.

Okay, so let’s end here with the dedication. We think whatever understanding has come from this, whatever positive force and energy has come from this, may it go deeper and deeper, and act as a cause for not only me, but everybody being able to reach enlightenment for the benefit of us all. Thank you.