Every January is Heruka and Vajrayogini Month when the blessings of the Dakas and Dakinis are particularly powerful. Traditionally, Kadampa practitioners do long retreats related to their Heruka and Vajrayogini practice during this month to take advantage of these special blessings. If we can, it is a good idea to do retreat during this month, but even if we are not able to, there are many other things we can do to increase our familiarity with our highest yoga tantra practices.
Why do we need to practice Tantra?
Buddha’s instructions can be divided into two categories, Sutra and Tantra. Sutra teachings are primarily about learning how to control, meditate with, and purify our gross levels of mind. Tantra is primarily about learning how to do these things with our subtle and very subtle levels of mind. Our gross minds arise from our subtle minds, and our subtle minds arise from our very subtle mind. Purifying our gross mind is not enough because if our subtle and very subtle minds remain contaminated and out of control, they will push up into our gross levels of mind in the form of new delusions. In other words, no matter how hard we try, our delusions will just keep coming back, like weeds not pulled out by the roots.
Tantra is said to be the quick path. If we practice Sutra alone, it is said it could take tens of thousands of lifetimes before we attain enlightenment, but with Tantra, we can attain enlightenment in this one short human life. While our human life may seem long compared to thousands of lifetimes, it is like attaining enlightenment in an instant. Why is Tantra so powerful and so quick? This is primarily because with one single meditation – the emptiness of our very subtle mind of great bliss – we can purify ALL our contaminated karma directly and simultaneously. If we imagine all the plants and trees on earth are our different contaminated karmic seeds, practicing according to Sutra is like pulling them all out one at a time. But with Tantra, we can get inside of the center of the earth and with one meditation uproot all our contaminated karma simultaneously.
In the Sutra teachings, it explains the odds of attaining a precious human rebirth in which we find the Dharma and are interested in practicing it are likened to that of a blind turtle who normally lives on the bottom of the ocean the size of this world rising to the surface only once in every 100,000 years putting its neck through the middle of a golden yoke floating on the surface. The earth is 510 trillion square meters, and we only get one shot every 100,000 years! The odds are infinitesimally small. While no similar analogy is given, the Tantric teachings are only taught by the fourth, eleventh, and the last of the 1,000 Buddhas of this fortunate aeon. Buddha Shakyamuni was the fourth. From this, we can perhaps say the odds of us finding the tantric path are one in 170,000 trillion! Yet this is our present circumstance.
Normally, we can say our gross minds are the minds we normally have during the waking state, our subtle minds are our dreams and subtle meditational states, and our very subtle mind is manifest during death and our very subtle meditational states. Ultimately, all our contaminated karma is stored on our very subtle mind. It is like a repository of all the karma we have previously accumulated that has not yet ripened. We learn how to control our gross mind by identifying our delusions and applying opponents. We learn how to control our subtle levels of mind through generation stage practice of highest yoga tantra. And we learn how to control our very subtle levels of mind through completion stage practice. There are more technical explanations, but this is close enough for our present purposes.
In generation stage practice, through faith and imagination, we create our gross deity body and the pure land where we hope to take rebirth. Once we take rebirth in a pure land, we never again take a samsaric rebirth and can complete our spiritual training. From a practical point of view, it is as if we have escaped samsara, but technically speaking we have not since we still have self-grasping and contaminated karmic imprints on our mind. But once we get to the pure land, we can receive teachings directly from the Heroes and Heroines and we can swiftly complete our spiritual training. The main function of generation stage is to create the necessary causes for us to attain the pure land. It is said that if we sincerely practice the generation stage of Vajrayogini, we can be guaranteed to attain pure Dakini Land within seven lifetimes, even if we are reborn in the fires of the deepest hell. Why is this? Because our practice of Heruka and Vajrayogini places uncontaminated karmic potentialities on our mind that can never be destroyed. We may need to exhaust a good deal of negative karma before these seeds can ripen (which rebirth in the lower realms will do), but eventually these seeds will ripen and we will be met by the Dakinis who will guide us to the pure land. Of course, it is better to not have to wait seven lifetimes through even more qualified practice in this lifetime, but the point is even if we do have to wait seven lifetimes before we get to the pure land, compared to beginningless time, we are almost there.
In completion stage we learn how to control and purify the channels, drops, and winds of our subtle body. Just as oceans have currents that power the whole ocean, so too does our mind. These are our inner energy winds. Particularly strong currents tend to flow in tight densities, like rivers moving through the oceans. This is like our channels. The water that moves through these currents is like our drops. The currents then create waves on the surface of the ocean that are like the different conceptual minds that arise and phenomena that appear in our mind. As long as our winds are moving uncontrolledly, the waves of our conceptual thoughts will continue to arise. But if we can learn to completely still our inner winds, the waves gradually cease, and the ocean of our mind becomes clearer and clearer until eventually, we realize the clear light nature of our mind. With this clear light, we then meditate on the emptiness of all phenomena, which is easy because we directly see the absence of all of the waves we normally see. This meditation on the emptiness of our very subtle mind of great bliss swiftly purifies our mind of all delusions and their imprints. In Guide to Dakini Land, Geshe-la explains if we attain the direct realization of our very subtle mind of great bliss (meaning clear light), we can attain enlightenment in six short months!
How does Tantra work?
All our minds are mounted upon inner energy winds. These winds are what enable our mind to move to objects. Our mind is likened to eyes without legs, and our winds are likened to legs without eyes, but together they can move to and know any object. If our winds are impure, then the minds mounted on those winds will likewise be impure. Therefore, the entire goal of tantric practice is to purify our winds. We primarily purify our inner winds by either mixing them with mantra or by bringing them into our central channel, in particular at the level of our heart.
When we bring our inner winds into our central channel, our mind becomes increasingly subtle until eventually, we reach our very subtle mind of great bliss. It is with this mind that we then meditate on emptiness and quickly attain enlightenment. Thus, the whole goal of tantric practice is to generate the subjective mind of great bliss. The way we do that is by bringing our winds into our central channel through completion stage practices.
The problem is at present our winds are scattered everywhere outside of our central channel. These winds get stuck outside of our central channel due to damage to the channels of our subtle body. Every time we generate a delusion or accumulate contaminated karma, we do psychic damage to our subtle body. It has taken quite a beating since beginningless time. Imagine a city with a web of freeways running through it. Our winds are like cars on the roads. When we generate deluded or negative minds, we damage the roads, which slows down traffic. Sometimes, the roads get so bad that traffic can no longer pass through, and blockages start to form. These blockages eventually can turn into physical diseases, such as cancer. Kadam Bjorn explained that all physical sickness comes from the sickness of delusions, and all delusions come from blockages within our subtle body. To get the traffic flowing again, we need to repair the roads.
How? Through receiving the blessings of the Heroes and Heroines (or Dakas and Dakinis) of Heruka and Vajrayogini’s retinue. Venerable Tharchin explains that the specific bodhichitta we generate as a bodhisattva shapes the type of Buddha we become. For example, Avalokiteshvara specifically wanted to help living beings generate compassion, and so he became the Buddha of compassion. The Heroes and Heroines of Heruka and Vajrayogini’s retinue are specialized enlightened beings who attained enlightenment for the specific purpose of healing certain aspects of our subtle body. In this sense, they are all Medicine Buddhas. In our body mandala practice, we imagine these deities enter into our channels, drops, and winds and heal them completely so that our winds can flow unobstructedly into our central channel at our heart.
In the same way, we imagine Heruka and Vajrayogini themselves enter into our indestructible drop inside our heart chakra, blessing and purifying it so that the winds can flow inside. Inside our indestructible drop is our indestructible wind, which is like our root wind from which all other winds arise. We imagine that a very subtle emanation of Heruka in the aspect of his seed letter HUM mixes inseparably with our root wind, which then reabsorbs all our winds back into their source. When this happens, all the gross conceptual thoughts and appearances which normally are mounted on these winds subside into clear light emptiness. Our winds and conceptions become completely still, and the clear light mind manifests. We then use this mind to meditate on emptiness and attain enlightenment very quickly.
From this explanation, we can see that without the blessings of the deities of Heruka and Vajrayogini’s mandala, it is almost impossible to attain enlightenment, but with their blessings, we can do so quickly and nearly effortlessly. It is during Heruka and Vajrayogini month that these deities are particularly powerful at bestowing their blessings. Our sincere practice during this time enables us to make very rapid progress along the tantric path. This is why Heruka and Vajrayogini month is so important.
How can we take advantage of this month?
If we have the karma to do an intensive retreat on Heruka and Vajrayogini during January, we should. We can do so at our Kadampa temples, retreat centers, our local centers, or even at home. There is no place not pervaded by Heruka, so we can do our retreat anywhere. Even if we are not able to physically be with others engaging in similar retreats, we can recall that thousands of Kadampas all over the world are also focusing on their Heruka and Vajrayogini practice this month, and collectively all of our practices are strengthening the practice of everyone else in the same way many bristles come together to form a brush.
Many of the major Kadampa centers organize close retreats of both Heruka and Vajrayogini during January. But we are not limited to doing close retreats, we can also do any sort of retreat to familiarize ourselves with the practice. What is retreat? A retreat is just extensive meditation over a period of time without our normal distractions. What is meditation? It is familiarizing ourselves with virtue. When we do so, our mind becomes more peaceful and controlled and we become happier and happier as a result. But this does not mean retreats are all rainbows and unicorns! Quite the opposite. Going on retreat is like diving into the deeper recesses of our mind where we discover all sorts of powerful monsters lurking about. These powerful deluded currents are always there, but it is in a retreat that we can bring them to the surface and eventually subdue them. This is not always pleasant, but it is always therapeutic.
If due to our karmic circumstances, such as our job or family responsibilities, we are not able to do a formal retreat, there are still many other ways we can take advantage of this month. For example, instead of our normal Heart Jewel practice, perhaps we can do a more extensive Heruka or Vajrayogini sadhana. Geshe-la has given us a wide spectrum of tantric practices that take anywhere from 20 minutes to several hours. We can choose the level that our schedule allows and do the practice every day for this month. Perhaps we can even wake up 30 minutes earlier than normal (by perhaps going to bed 30 minutes earlier) to do a more extensive practice than we normally do. Most of us have a commitment to practice Dorje Shugden every day, we can just add this onto the end of our tantric practice before the dedication, even if we do it in abbreviated form by just visualizing Dorje Shugden and reciting the “all the attainments I desire arise from merely remembering you…” prayer.
We can also make a point of taking advantage of the two tsog days during January, namely January 10th and January 25th, which are Vajrayogini and Heruka Day respectively. If we have done our close retreat, these days make excellent opportunities to do self-initiation where we can renew our vows and the blessings of the empowerments. At a minimum, we can do the Tsog offering in the context of our tantric practice for the month.
If none of the above are possible, we can also perhaps recite more mantras than our normal daily commitment. During the empowerment, we promised to recite our mantras a certain number of times every day. During Heruka and Vajrayogini month, we can perhaps double our normal mantra commitment or agree to do a full mala of mantras every day.
All of us can throughout the month try to remember Heruka and Vajrayogini throughout the meditation break. Perhaps we have gradually lost our practice of six-session guru yoga where we self-generate and recall our vows six times every day. Heruka and Vajrayogini months are an excellent opportunity to start again. The trick to remembering is to connect it to things we do every day. We all wake up, eat several times, go to the bathroom, and go to sleep every day. If we make a point of doing our six-session guru yoga practice every time we do these daily activities, it will not be long before it becomes our habit. As we walk about or drive, we can recite our mantras. Normally our mind wanders to all sorts of irrelevant things, but during this special month, we can perhaps instead use this time to recite mantras. We can also recall the three main recognitions of the yoga of daily activities, namely to view all phenomena as empty, all emptiness as the nature of our mind of great bliss, and the bliss and emptiness of all things as our truth body, Dharmakaya. Or we can view everything we see as comprised of atom-sized offering goddesses, so instead of seeing samsara, we see the pure land. Or we can simply throughout this month recall the benefits of our tantric practice or read our tantric books before we go to bed. The point is – do something more than you usually do.
If we practice in this way during Heruka and Vajrayogini month, there is a good chance we will be able to carry some of our new habits or understandings into the rest of the year. Then our practice is better all year. If we practice in this way, year after year, our familiarity with Heruka and Vajrayogini practice will grow and grow until eventually, we feel as if we are always in their presence and we never forget them. In the end, we will attain union with them and become a Heruka or Vajrayogini ourselves.
All of this depends upon a wish, and the wish depends upon understanding the benefits of this practice. If we contemplate deeply how our tantric practice is the quick path to enlightenment and we consider how long living beings will have to suffer waiting for us to attain enlightenment, we will be very motivated to practice. From this, everything else naturally comes.