Abiding in a world without suffering right now
There is no doubt the world is hurting right now. Many of us very much want to do something to help, but are at a loss for what to do besides stay at home and perhaps say a few Tara or Medicine Buddha mantras. I would say our job right now is to quite literally construct and abide in a new world, free from all suffering. We can do this through our correct imagination. We can do this through our Tantric practice – not as some future attainment, but right here and right now. If we want to end the virus, we must end samsara.
Believing is Seeing
Sometimes people object, “yeah, it’s nice to dance with the Dakinis for a while in my mind, but when I come out of meditation, I’m right back in it. It was all a nice imagination, but the world continues to suffer and the virus continues to rage. Nothing has really changed, it’s not that much different from me watching some internal Netflix show.” This objection is completely wrong.
To understand why we first need to understand – precisely – how correct imagination works at the karmic level. Everything we perceive is a mere karmic appearance to mind. There is no samsara and there is no pure land, both are just different karmic appearances – one mistaken, one pure. But both arise from karma.
We create the karma for samsara by grasping at things existing from their own side, independently of our mind, and then living and acting as if that was true. When we do this, ALL of the karma we create is contaminated, and when that karma ripens in the future, it will manifest in the form of things that appear vividly to be existing from their own side. Then, through the force of mental habit, we will assent to these appearances believing they do in fact exist from their own side, and the cycle starts all over.
We create the karma for the pure land through believing our correct imagination. All of us are capable of generating correct imagination. We can go through the visualizations of the sadhana, and imagine all sorts of beautiful things, but we don’t really believe what we are doing, so it lacks any power. We think it is just a mental light show, and not real, and that nothing is really changing. We imagine, but we don’t believe our imagination. And we are right, if we don’t believe our imagination, then it is true, nothing is really changing.
But, if we do believe our imagination, then everything not only comes alive in our meditation, it actually works to karmically create pure worlds right here and right now. The key point is understanding that believing our correct imaginations is how we complete the karma of our mental action. If we accidentally squashed a bug, we did not complete the karma of killing because we didn’t have the intention to kill it. Our deluded intention is necessary to complete the karmic action. In the same way, believing our imaginations to be true (not inherently true, but union of the two truths true) functions to complete the karma. The same is true for the practice of taking and giving, which is really Sutra’s version of Tantra.
Creating Temporary Pure Lands
Now we might object, “OK, believing our imagination to be true functions to complete the karma, but the fruit of that karma won’t ripen until the future (otherwise effect and cause would be simultaneous) so I still haven’t actually transformed the world – everyone is still suffering.” There are three answers to this objection. First, if we have this doubt, we are not actually believing our imaginations – we are still hanging on to our doubts, so we are still not completing the karma. Second, this is still grasping at there being a world out there that exists independently of our mind. And third – and this point is subtle – if we are fully believing our correct imaginations, from the point of view of our experience, we quite literally abide in a world without suffering. Geshe-la sometimes talks about temporary emanations, such as when Lama Tsongkhapa enters into our teachers during teachings. In the same way, believing this correct imagination creates a temporary pure land.
Next, we might object, “OK, for me it creates a temporary pure land, but for everybody else, they remain stuck in samsara and the virus is still infecting people. So it is no different than you creating some happy place for yourself inside your mind, like being in a glass box while the war still ravages around us.” While it is true each one of us creates our own karma, and if others are not creating similar karma they will remain in their own karmically created samsara, this objection misses the point. First, it doesn’t matter if its “objectively true” (because nothing is), the point is the only way we can complete the karma is by fully believing it to be true without doubts. Holding onto the doubts means the karma is not completed, and so it produces few good results. Second, this objection still grasps at others’ minds as existing independently of our own. If we dreamt of somebody in a wheel chair, who put them there? Our mind. In the same way, if in our waking state, we “dream” of a world filled with disease and suffering, who put everyone there? Our mind. Others’ minds are also empty of inherent existence. The others that we normally see are the beings of our contaminated karmic dream. We can intentionally dream a different world, one in which there is quite literally zero suffering, we are the deity, and everyone else are Dakas and Dakinis.
Pulling our Head out of the Sand of Samsara
To this, we might object, “yeah, but isn’t this just burying my head in the sand, pretending there is no suffering? I will then do nothing to compassionately help those experiencing mental and physical pain.” Answering this objection is where we get to the punch line: from the point of view of tantra, pure view is compassionate action and our compassionate action is maintaining pure view. Wherever we imagine a Buddha, a Buddha actually goes. Wherever a Buddha goes, they accomplish their function, which is to bless the minds of others. When we believe our pure view, fully and completely believe it, all of the Buddhas enter into the other person (who is just a being of our karmic dream) and transform them into a temporary pure being. We should not doubt that they are not experiencing themselves in this way because doing so is still grasping on to some part of them existing from their own side independently of our mind and depriving them of receiving Buddhas into that part of them. We should also believe that they are experiencing themselves in that way. This is the most compassionate thing we can do because through this correct imagination, the Buddhas enter into every aspect of them without residual, thus maximizing the blessings we can bestow upon them and thus the benefit they receive from our pure view.
In truth, we currently are burying our head in the sand of samsara, and Buddha is trying to pull our head out into the pure lands.
But what if they still appear to our mind to be suffering? Shouldn’t we tend to that? Yes, of course we should. This appearance of them still suffering is our residual ordinary appearance which has not yet exhausted itself. With our residual ordinary appearance of ourself we compassionately tend to the residual ordinary appearance of the other person, exactly as normal; while at the same time, with our believing ourselves to be the deity, we believe our correct imagination of them being a Daka or a Dakini. We practice the union of sutra and tantra. When we are in the meditation session, we have dissolved everything we normally see into emptiness, and every appearance is a pure one – there is no residual ordinary appearance. In the meditation break, when residual ordinary appearances arise again, we practice this layered approach of sutra and tantra simultaneously. Doing so creates the experience that we are quite literally purifying all of samsara in real time, gradually dissolving it into our pure world.
Gaining Experience in the Meditation Session
To help us gain some experience with this, it is vital that we infuse emptiness into every aspect of our Tantric sadhana practice. Sometimes we can feel like, “I never seem to practice emptiness in my tantric practice, I’m so busy with all these complex visualizations that I don’t get any deep experience of emptiness.”
We should think of the sadhana like a spiritual buffet. Different people will take different items in different portion sizes at a buffet depending upon what they hunger for and what their body needs. In the same way, different practitioners will emphasize different parts of the sadhana depending upon their needs and desires. Each time, we do all of the sadhana, but we can pause wherever we’d like for as long as we’d like to emphasize those parts that move our mind the most. Our problem is usually just an issue of not having the time to pause for long because we have to get to work, but with the present lockdowns from the virus, this is not our problem.
It seems there are two places within the sadhana where we can do a nice, long emptiness meditation to get a good feel for it: In the very beginning before we start, we can dissolve everything into emptiness, bathe in the clear light for a while, and then out of emptiness generate the appearances of the sadhana. The second, of course, is bringing death into the path to the truth body where the final object of meditation is emptiness.
We need to be careful to not confuse nothingness with emptiness. It should not feel as if nothing is arising in our mind, rather it should feel like a shocking reminder that everything we thought existed – the virus in all its horrible glory – in fact does not. As Geshe-la says all the time, “the things we normally see do not exist.” We are so convinced there is an actual reality around us, when in fact, there is nothing actually there. It has always been nothing more than mistaken appearance. This awareness protects us once again from thinking our generation stage practice is like retreating into a “safe space” within our mind like a glass box while the war ravages around us. Instead, we bring about a deep transformation of reality itself, creating a world quite literally free from all suffering.
We should view the non-emptiness meditation parts of the sadhana as training in the union of the two truths. We should see each appearance of the visualization as the dance of bliss and emptiness – never losing that feeling of emptiness we got at the beginning and at the death meditation. The union of conventional and ultimate truth is actually deeper than emptiness itself. I sometimes think of it as I looked so deep into emptiness, I found mere appearance. Each appearance is a mere karmic appearance of mind, generated through the force of my compassion, to liberate all beings.
Faith is Emptiness in Action
From my perspective, “faith is emptiness in action.” Faith, actually, makes no sense without emptiness. How could we take refuge in something that is independent of us and exists outside of us? When children blow air into soap, it creates beautiful bubbles that they take great delight in. In the same way, when we blow the pure winds of our faith into the space of emptiness, we get the pure appearances of the sadhana visualizations. When we experience it this way, every word of the sadhana comes alive as an expression of our faith.
Yes, the world we normally see is currently hurting. The question is what can we do about it? Through believing our correct imagination in this way, we can quite literally karmically reconstruct this world of sickness and suffering into a pure land in real time. Because we fully believe our pure imagination, we experience the world right now as a pure land; and through the karma we create engaging in this practice, eventually everything will directly appear to us and everyone else as completely pure. But if we are doing the practice correctly, we won’t even notice that happening because, from our perspective, we will already have been abiding in the pure lands for some time, the same as everybody else.