Sadhanas are called ”methods for receiving attainments.” We spend the vast bulk of our formal meditation time engaging in them. If we are to receive attainments, we must train in engaging in them in increasingly qualified ways. For me, this consists of infusing each word of the sadhana with four pervasive qualities and meditating with all five aggregates. Practicing in this way enables us to bring all of the Dharma practices of Sutra and Tantra into each word of our sadhana practice. Through training in these four pervasive qualities and learning to engage in our sadhanas with all five aggregates, we become like a spiritual gymnast who can joyfully spend countless hours perfecting their routine, yet still feel like their routine has much room for improvement. We can spend our whole life, indeed countless lifetimes, perfecting our spiritual routines (our sadhanas), content in the knowledge that by doing so we will fulfill the ultimate wishes of ourself and others. How to do so will now be explained.
Sadhanas are Meditations Guided by the Guru
Much of our Dharma practice is reciting sadhanas. Some people mistakenly feel sadhana practice is just a preliminary for meditation, or even a distraction from meditation, thinking we spend all our time reciting sadhanas and therefore have very little time for meditation itself. This confusion comes from making a false distinction between sadhana practice and meditation. Sadhana practice is meditation.
Meditation is mixing our mind with virtue. We all wish to be happy all the time. Our happiness depends upon inner peace. If our mind is peaceful, we are happy even if our external situation is very challenging or indeed painful. If our mind is unpeaceful, we will be unhappy even if our external situation consists of everything our worldly desires ever wanted. Sadhanas are meditations guided by the guru. Engaging in them is a supreme method for mixing our mind with virtue. They are special meditations we are encouraged to memorize and then engage in every day as the very core of our practice. They are written by our Guru – they are our emanation scriptures. We are encouraged to engage in them every day as the principal method for progressing along the path. It would be hard to find anything more important than learning how to engage in sadhana practice in a qualified way. The more we mix our mind with the sadhana, the more completely we will mix our mind with virtue and the more quickly and powerfully we will receive attainments, including the supreme attainment of enlightenment.
Avoiding the Fault of Treating our Sadhanas Like Objects of Attachment
Some people grow bored engaging in sadhana practice, feeling like they are eating the same bread every day, and eventually it grows tiresome. When we first discovered them, they would blow our mind and fill our heart with joy, but now they have gone flat and just don’t do anything for us anymore. Yeah, yeah, we know this, we want something new. This reaction comes from relating to our sadhanas in the same way as we do any external object of attachment – we think these external things have some power to do something to us, and over time their ability to do so wanes.
It is incorrect to say they do anything to us since they do not exist from their own side. Rather, if we want to receive attainments through sadhana practice, we need to do something with them. For myself, what follows is how to engage in our sadhana practice with all of our being. We can quite literally spend our entire life training in improving the quality with which we engage in sadhana practice and still feel we have only scratched the surface of their depths.
Infusing our Sadhana Practice with Four Pervasive Qualities
The power of our sadhana practice depends primarily upon the extent to which we infuse them with the four pervasive qualities of faith, a pure motivation, single-pointed concentration, and an understanding of emptiness. We need to do this with each word of the sadhana. These are being called pervasive qualities because our goal is to have them pervade every word as we engage in the sadhana practice.
Faith. Our faith primarily functions to open our mind to receiving the guru’s blessings. Blessings are what give our practice divine power. Many of our practices are called ”guru yogas.” What, exactly, does this mean? Guru Yoga is a special way of viewing our spiritual guide. We view all the Buddhas of our practices as emanations of our spiritual guide and we view our spiritual guide as an emanation of all the Buddhas. In the beginning, these seem like two different things, but when they fuse into one we have found ”guru yoga.” Why do we want to do this? Because through guru yoga we can receive the blessings of all the Buddhas. Receiving the blessings of a single Buddha has the power to transform our mind from a negative state to positive state, or more generally send our mind in the direction of enlightenment. Receiving the blessings of all the Buddhas multiplies the power of these blessings by the number of Buddhas, which are countless. These blessings supercharge our mind. As explained above, each word of the sadhana is a meditation guided by our guru – the words themselves were written by our lineage gurus. More profoundly, each word of the sadhana is itself an emanation of our guru functioning in our mind. We need to practice “guru yoga” with respect to each word of the sadhana, viewing it as an emanation of our guru, and as we mix our mind with the word we are directly mixing our mind with the realizations of our guru’s mind. Our spiritual guide has already gained all the realizations referred to by each word of the sadhana. By viewing each word as his realization emanated in our mind appearing as the word, by mixing our mind with each word we release our guru’s realization into our own mind. Removing the many layers of doubts we have about this is how we deepen our faith behind each word.
A pure motivation. Our motivation is the ’why’ we are engaging in our practice – and more specifically, why do we recite each word of the sadhana. Without a clear why, our practice has no purpose and therefore no meaning. The vast path of the Lamrim is primarily about getting our ’why’ right through improving our motivation. When we first start meditating, our main goal may be to find some peace in this life – we are stressed out and we hope to become happier in this life. There is nothing wrong with starting here, it is very good in fact. But there are much more powerful reasons we can develop to meditate. Just because there are more powerful reasons doesn’t mean our wish to be happy in this life is wrong. It is good, but there are even better reasons. We don’t need to abandon our wish to be happy in this life to expand the scope of our why to include much more. As we train in Lamrim, we first learn that we can die at any point and we are in grave danger of falling into the lower realms where we can remain trapped for countless aeons. This is not ”fire and brimstone,” this is fact. Just because such a prospect is terrifying doesn’t mean it is wrong. Engaging in sadhanas can function to create within our mind a safety net preventing us from falling into the lower realms. It can plant the karma on our mind to continue to find the spiritual path uninterruptedly in all our future lives until we attain enlightenment. This is a good why behind each word.
Similarly, as we deepen our Lamrim training, we realize it is not enough to avoid lower rebirth, we must escape permanently from any form of samsaric rebirth. As it say in the Lord of All Lineages Prayer, ”and if, as it is said, the tears I have shed from all this suffering are vaster than an ocean I still do not feel any sorrow or fear, do I have a mind made of iron?” Our sadhana practice can deliver us from the ocean of samsara by destroying its root, self-grasping ignorance and the other delusions. In exactly the same way, “all of our mothers who have cared for us with great kindness are drowning in the ocean of samsara.” If we are to free them from suffering and mistaken appearance, we must become a Buddha ourselves who has the power to be with them every day, bestowing blessings in life after life until they are eventually led to enlightenment themselves. How can we become a Buddha? Through engaging in our sadhana practices. All of our sadhanas, especially our Highest Yoga Tantra sadhanas, are methods for transforming ourselves into an enlightened being who has this power. This is their ultimate why and function. When we engage in our sadhanas with the motivation of bodhichitta – wishing to become a Buddha so that we can lead all beings to enlightenment – we multiply the power of our practice by the number of living beings, which are also countless. Since each word of the sadhana can be engaged in with any (and all) of these whys, we can literally spend our whole life building up the power of our ”whys” behind our recitation of each word. We can infuse all of the Lamrim into each word.
Single-pointed concentration. Meditation is mixing our mind with virtue. The more we mix our mind with virtue the more profoundly it transforms us. Whatever we mix our mind with, we become. Since the sadhana itself is an emanation of our guru, if we mix our mind with it completely, we attain his enlightened mind. Geshe-la said when he opened the temple at Manjushri that we have been given everything we need to attain enlightenment, all that remains is learning to engage in our practices without distraction. There are two main faults to pure concentration, mental sinking and mental excitement, each of which has two levels, gross and subtle. Gross mental excitement is when our mind goes to an object of attachment and we forget our object of meditation entirely, and subtle mental excitement is when part of our mind remains with the object and part of our mind is on an object of attachment. Gross mental sinking is when we hold the object, but its clarity decreases; and subtle mental sinking is when the clarity remains, but our grip on the object loosens. Our goal is to engage in each word of the sadhana free from gross and subtle mental sinking and excitement. Depending upon our karmic history with each word of the sadhana, we may have a different nexus of faults of our concentration on different parts. Learning to engage in every part, every word, with faultless concentration is our goal.
An understanding of emptiness. Due to countless aeons of mental habit, we tend to grasp at a chasm between ourselves and, well, everything, including the words of our sadhana. As a result, our sadhanas remain ’there’ while our mind remains ’here,’ and a gap between the two remains. This grasping prevents a complete mixing of our mind with the sadhana. Realizing the emptiness of each word of the sadhana, the emptiness of our guru (which each word is an emanation of), and the emptiness of our own mind will eliminate these gaps so that our guru’s realizations, the words of our sadhana, and our mind mix like water mixing with water. In some traditions, practitioners engage in special spiritual dances. The dances themselves are divine sequences that reflect the functioning of the ultimate in this world. By engaging in the dance perfectly, the dancer comes into alignment with the divine and produces profound spiritual experience in the dancer and all those who watch the dance. In exactly the same way, our sadhanas are a dance of emptiness our mind performs that functions to channel the guru into this world. By eliminating our grasping at the differences between our guru’s realizations, the words of the sadhana, and our own mind, we bring ourselves into alignnment with his spiritual dance. There are many levels of grasping and many levels of realizing emptiness. Our training is to eliminate completely all dualities with respect to every word.
Meditating with All Five Aggregates
When we engage in our sadhana practice, we should strive to do so with all of our being, not just our mouth or just our intellectual mind. This takes a lifetime of training. What, specifically, does it mean to engage in our sadhana practice with all our being? It means to learn how to do so with all five aggregates. What are we? We are an “I” imputed upon five aggregates – form, discrimination, feeling, compositional factors, and consciousness. This is all our being. Attaining enlightenment, quite simply, is changing the basis of imputation of our “I” from the five contaminated aggregates of a samsaric being to the five completely purified aggregates of a Buddha. The five main stages of the path are renunciation, bodhichitta, the wisdom realizing emptiness, generation stage, and completion stage of highest yoga tantra. How can we understand these? There is one activity on the path – changing the basis of imputation of our I from a samsaric being to an enlightened being. There are two reasons why we do this – for ourself (renunciation) and for others (bodhichitta). There is one thing that makes it possible – everything is empty. To engage in our sadhana practices with all our being does not just mean learning how to do our practices with all five of our aggregates, it means learning how to do them with the five completely purified aggregates of our guru! Therefore, we can say meditating with all of our being – meaning all five aggregates – has two levels: according to Sutra and according to Tantra. Doing so according to Sutra means learning how to do so with our present five aggregates and doing so according to Tantra means learning how to do so with the five completely purified aggregates of our guru.
Learning to meditate with our aggregate of form. According to Sutra, our aggregate of form is essentially our body. Technically, it is all forms in the three thousand worlds, but due to our self-grasping we relate to our aggregate of form primarily as the body that we normally see. When we engage in our sadhana practices, we want to do so with our body in the correct meditation posture as explained in the Lamrim texts. At a minimum, we want to try keep our back straight and our hands in the appropriate postures – such as together with our thumbs touching at our navel or with our palms pressed together at our heart or engaging in the various mudras of our tantric practices.
According to Tantra, our pure aggregate of form is viewing every aspect of our pure visualizations as emanations of our guru. When we engage in our sadhana practices, there are always visualizations that accompany each aspect of them. Buddhas have the ability to manifest their realizations in the aspect of forms. What we see is the visual form, but we understand these forms are by nature the realizations of our guru’s mind. We should view each word of the sadhana as a form of checking meditation on the visualizations we are engaging in. As we recite each word of the sadhana, we should recall a specific aspect of the visualization that ”speaks to us” as representing the meaning of the mind we are generating as we recite the word of the sadhana. In the commentaries to the different sadhanas found in our Dharma books, Geshe-la explains how each aspect of the visualization symbolizes specific Dharma realizations. Where such explanations exist, as we recite each word, we should mentally recall this aspect of the visualization while understanding that these visual forms are actually the realizations of our guru appearing in the aspect of form. Where such explanations do not exist, we can just mentally recall whichever aspect of the visualization represents for us the meaning of the word of the sadhana. In this way, our sadhana practices are all checking meditations. Ultimately, with a bodhichitta motivation and single pointed concentration, we can recall that all of these visualized forms are manifestations of our guru’s mind of bliss and emptiness.
Learning to meditate with our aggregate of discrimination. Our aggregate of discrimination is the ability to differentiate one object from another by realizing its uncommon characteristic. The way we ’know’ anything is by differentiating the object from everything else by realizing what makes that object uniquely it – its defining characteristics. Functionally speaking, we can say our aggregate of discrimination is our intellectual understanding. Sometimes we criticize intellectual understandings of the Dharma, as if they are somehow bad. An intellectual understanding of the Dharma is good, a heart-felt understanding is even better. Just because a heart-felt understanding is better doesn’t mean an intellectual understanding is bad. Indeed, the intellectual understanding of the Dharma is almost always the foundation, or pre-requisite, for being able to realize the Dharma in our heart. We gain an intellectual understanding of the Dharma primarily through the power of listening to and studying Dharma. According to Sutra, therefore, we can say that learning to meditate with our aggregate of discrimination means we need to listen to many Dharma teachings and study our Dharma books to gain an intellectual understanding of what exactly we need to do in our practices and what do these things mean. It also means memorizing our sadhanas so that we can engage in them without having to keep our eyes open or listen to their sounds. We have the ability to engage in all our practices and intellectually know exactly what we are doing and why. We may not feel everything in our heart yet, but we know exactly what we are trying to do. According to Tantra, we learn how to engage in the sadhana with our guru’s aggregate of discrimination. This is a form of bringing the result into the path. With deep faith, we imagine we have our guru’s perfect understanding of the practice and the meaning of each word, and we see all of these individually as manifestations of his mind of bliss and emptiness. We don’t just self-generate as the deity, we learn how to meditate as the deity with his aggregate of discrimination as our own.
Learning to meditate with the aggregate of feeling. Generally speaking, our aggregate of feeling refers to how we experience objects. Contaminated aggregates of feeling experience objects as pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. Pure aggregates of feeling experience all objects as all the different flavors of great bliss. Just as there are many different flavors of ice cream, a pure aggregate of feeling experiences each object as a different flavor of great bliss. Practically speaking, meditating with our aggregate of feeling means learning how to meditate with our heart. There is a qualified difference between meditating just with an intellectual understanding and heart-felt meditation. Our job is to learn how to meditate with our heart, where we feel in our heart the realizations implied by each word of the sadhanas. How do we do this? There are two principal methods. First, through blessings. We request our guru to bless our mind so that we may realize each word in our heart – that we may recite each word of the sadhana from our heart, that each word of the sadhana is “giving voice to” what we genuinely feel in our heart. With our guru’s blessings, we can accomplish anything, including, bringing the Dharma into our heart. Second, through contemplation. Geshe-la explains in Mirror of Dharma that the purpose of contemplation is to bring the Dharma to our heart – to have the Dharma touch our heart. Contemplation is decidedly not an intellectual exercise, though our intellectual understanding is the starting point of our contemplations. Qualified contemplation is making the Dharma our lived truth. A shortcut to qualified contemplation is to ask ourselves, ”if this Dharma was true, what would it change?” For example, if we really were standing on the precipice of hell, what would it change about how we experience our lives. We then get a ”feeling” in our heart. The Dharma has touched our heart. But we then may still have doubts about whether that Dharma is in fact true. So then we can test the truth of the Dharma instruction through checking our own lived experience or examining whether it makes sense, is logical and consistent with everything else we know. Venerable Tharchin says the wisdom arising from listening is primarily gaining an understanding of how the enlightened beings see things and the wisdom arising from contemplation is transforming this Dharma into our own understanding and experience of the world.
Practically speaking, then, according to Sutra learning to meditate with our aggregate of feeling means contemplating deeply each word of the sadhana until it touches our heart. As we go through the sadhana, we build and then recall the mental pathways from our intellectual understanding to our heart, so that with each word of the sadhana we are touching our heart much in the same way a master pianist touches the keys of their most treasured piano. According to Tantra, it means doing so with our guru’s aggregate of feeling. We bring the result into the path and, with deep faith, imagine that we are feeling in our heart each word of the sadhana as our guru does. Ultimately, it means experiencing each word of the sadhana as a different flavor of our guru’s mind of great bliss.
Learning to meditate with our aggregate of compositional factors. Generally speaking, we say that we have a body and mind. Our body is our aggregate of form, and our mind is the other four aggregates of discrimination, feeling, compositional factors, and consciousness. Compositional factors are essentially all of our different mental factors except for discrimination and feeling. In How to Understand the Mind, Geshe-la explains all of the different mental factors, primary minds, and so forth. These are traditionally called Lorig teachings. In simple terms, we can say mental factors know the aspects of an object whereas the primary mind knows the mere entity of the object itself. For our present purposes, we can say that the aggregate of consciousness is the primary mind and the aggregate of compositional factors is all of our mental factors except discrimination and feeling.
More specifically, there are fifty-one mental factors. Geshe-la explains all of them in detail in How to Understand the Mind. They can be divided as follows: (1) The five all-accompanying mental factors, (2) The five object-ascertaining mental factors, (3) The eleven virtuous mental factors, (4) The six root delusions, (5) The twenty secondary delusions, and (6) The four changeable mental factors. The five all-accompanying mental factors include discrimination, feeling, intention, contact, and attention. Discrimination and feeling have already been discussed. Intention is our ”why,” which was explained above in the four pervasive qualities under a pure intention. Contact, attention, and the five object-ascertaining mental factors refer to the mental factors we employ to concentrate single-pointedly on our objects of meditation, which was explained above when we discussed concentration. The eleven virtuous mental factors are minds we try bring to each word of our sadhana, and the six root and twenty secondary delusions are mind we try abandon completely as we recite each word of the sadhana. Therefore, to learn to meditate with our aggregate of compositional factors according to Sutra means to cultivate each of these mental factors according to their respective instructions as we recite each word of the sadhana, and to do so according to Tantra means to bring the result into the path, imagining with deep faith that we are meditating with our guru’s fully qualified and pure mental factors. In this way, we bring our entire practice of Lorig into each word of our sadhana.
Learning to meditate with our aggregate of consciousness. As explained above, our aggregate of consciousness knows the object itself. The aggregate of consciousness knows the tennis racket itself and the mental factors know the attributes of the tennis racket. Upon the basis of seeing the attributes, the basis of imputation, we impute the mere name ”tennis racket,” which is the object itself. To meditate with our aggregate of consciousness means our primary mind becomes the realization referred to by the word of the sadhana. If the aggregate of discrimination is the wisdom arisen from listening and the aggregate of feeling is the wisdom arisen from contemplation, the aggregate of consciousness is the wisdom arisen from meditation. I mentioned above that Venerable Tharchin said with listening we gain an intellectual understanding of the guru’s point of view and with contemplation we make the guru’s view point of view our own, but he went on to say with the wisdom arisen from meditation we make the guru’s realizations ”an acquisition of our personality.” Whatever we mix our mind with, we become. When we meditate with our aggregate of discrimination, we understand what we are doing; when we meditate with our aggregate of feeling, we touch our heart; and when we meditate with our aggregate of consciousness, we become our objects of meditation. The realizations referred to by the words of the sadhana become part of our basis of imputation for our I. They become acquisitions of our personality or our self. Once again, according to Sutra, learning to meditate with our aggregate of consciousness is to transform our primary mind into the realizations referred to by each word of the sadhana; and to do so according to Tantra means with deep faith strongly imagining that the duality between our guru’s realizations and our own mind has completely dissolved. In short, we impute our I onto his realizations. Each word of our sadhana practice becomes a training in self-generation.
Putting it All Together
It is my experience and understanding that training in sadhana practice is the gradual process of improving the quality with which we engage in our sadhanas by infusing them with the four pervasive qualities and learning to meditate with all of our being – all five of our aggregates. Each one of these alone is an enormous practice that we could profitably spend our whole life training in. Until we have fully qualified faith, motivation, concentration, understanding of emptiness, and fully harnessed all five aggregates behind each and every word of our sadhana, we still have work to do. Viewed in this way, we can joyfully train our whole life in our sadhanas, understanding them to be our guru’s heart advice for how we can gain all the mundane and supermundane attainments. I pray that all those who read this may, day by day, year by year, life by life, improve the quality of their sadhana practice, finding ever deeper levels of joy until they become fully centered in the supreme omniscient bliss of full enlightenment.