All my appearances in dreams are the supreme instructions of my Guru

In the Lord of All Lineages Prayer it says, “All my appearances in dreams teach me that all my appearances when awake do not exist; thus for me all my dream appearances are the supreme instructions of my Guru.” This verse can be understood at two levels: interpretative instructions and ultimate instructions. Interpretative instructions derive teachings from the substance of what appears in our dreams and ultimate instructions derive teachings from considering the nature of the dreams themselves.

How to interpret our dreams as Dharma instructions

Long-time followers of this blog know that I occasionally have very vivid dreams which reveal to me a host of Dharma lessons which I then write up and share here. Normally, these postings discuss how the substance of what appears in my dreams teaches some Dharma lesson. There are many books about how to interpret our dreams and it is a subject of much fascination in the world. Interpreting what appears in our dreams as Dharma lessons is the first level of understanding this verse. My experience has taught me that what exactly appears in our dreams doesn’t really mean anything – seeing a raven in and of itself has no fixed meaning. For one person, it could mean one thing; and for somebody else it could mean something entirely different. Most – if not all – of the books or popular understandings of interpreting dreams that say this appearance means this and that appearances means that in some fixed way for all people are simply an example of grasping at inherently existent things and meanings. If any appearance can mean anything, then how can we accurately interpret our dreams? The answer is simple: we ask ourselves what did we understand it to mean? If we understood either during the dream or shortly after waking up that the raven we dreamt of meant revealing the two wings of wisdom and compassion, then that is what the raven meant to us and that is the Dharma meaning or teaching our guru is trying to reveal to us through our dream. And if we understood the dream to mean we have perhaps watched a bit too much Game of Thrones and it is becoming a strong object of attachment, then that is the meaning our guru is trying to teach us. The same logic can be used for interpreting any dream. The main point is don’t over-think it. Simply ask yourself, “what did I understand it to mean?” That is your instruction from your guru. But it is not the supreme instruction of your guru, it is the interpretative instruction of your guru.

Contemplating the nature of dreams reveals the ultimate instructions of our Guru

The supreme instruction of our guru is the teachings on emptiness. Venerable Geshe-la has said on many occasions the real meaning of meeting him is discovering the truth of emptiness, and understanding the nature of our dreams is the supreme instruction among the teachings of emptiness. Why? Because we all instinctively understand the nature of dreams is mere appearances to mind. Geshe-la says all the appearances when awake are just like these. The only difference between our dream appearances and our waking appearances is the mind to which they appear – our gross waking mind or our subtle dreaming mind. In terms of their nature of being mere karmic appearances to mind, they are exactly the same.

So let’s dive in a bit to flesh this out by looking at the classic example of a dream elephant. Now mind you, I have never personally dreamt of an elephant, but apparently in ancient India, this was a thing! We all know that even though the elephant appeared vividly to us in our dream, there was no elephant actually there. We don’t go looking for the elephant when we awake, but instantly realize that we were just dreaming and when we awoke, the elephant simply dis-appeared – it ceased to appear to our mind. There was never any elephant there. What was there? There was an appearance of an elephant, nothing more. That is why we call it a mere appearance. There is an appearance of something there, but there is nothing, in fact, actually there. It is merely an appearance to mind.

But it appears to be real…

A particular characteristic of this appearance is despite it being a mere appearance, the elephant nonetheless appears to be a real elephant. When we are in the dream, we do not doubt at all the existence of the elephant. It appears to actually be there and we believe it to be there. Now of course, in truth, there is no elephant there – it is just a mere appearance – but in the dream, we believe without a doubt it is there and can generate a wide range of emotional reactions in response to the elephant, perhaps we marvel at its majesty or we tremble in fear if it is charging us. Because we believe (or grasp at) it is real, we experience it as a real elephant and can even be harmed by it, even though both the elephant and ourselves in the dream are nothing more than mere appearances to our mind. When we wake up, we then know without a doubt there was never anything there and we were never actually in any danger. Sure, our dream body was in danger, but we were not.

Communicating with others

If we encounter our friend in our dream, we can even have a very in-depth conversation about the elephant – what it looks like, what it is doing, how it makes us feel, and so forth. We both seem to see, more or less, the same elephant and as long as we do not investigate further into its ultimate nature, we are able to discuss it. If we are satisfied with its mere name, we can communicate with others about it. In truth, we are discussing nothing. There is nothing actually there that we are talking about, but relative to the dream world, we can nonetheless discuss it, have all sorts of opinions about it, and devise elaborate plans for how we are going to ride it and take selfies atop it.

Differentiating ordinary appearance from conception

Sometimes when we are dreaming we are aware of the fact that we are dreaming and we know that what is appearing to our mind is just dream appearances. This is often referred to as lucid dreaming. The things that appear still appear to actually be there doing their thing, but we know this to be false. Though they appear, we know they do not truly exist. Just knowing that they are false appearances does not give us the ability to make the appearances themselves cease to appear. Despite knowing better, they still appear, but we are not afraid because we know they are just appearances. They can’t actually harm us, though they can still harm our dream self. So it is quite natural and indeed appropriate to not provoke the beast and to avoid its charge if we can.

Understanding the relationship between karma and appearance

Where does the appearance come from? It comes from our karma. All appearances are “karmic appearances,” meaning they arise from our past karma. If we gave somebody a rose in the past, we planted the karma on our mind to have the appearance of somebody giving us a rose in the future. Karma shapes the emptiness of our mind into appearance. There are two types of karma – contaminated and uncontaminated. Contaminated karma is karma created with a mind that grasps at objects existing inherently, from their own side, independent of our mind. We believe that something is actually there and that we are actually there, and in dependence upon these beliefs, we engage in some action with respect to that object. In doing so, we create contaminated karma. This karma will later ripen in the form of appearances of something actually being there, us actually being there, and us actually doing something towards that object. None of it is true or real – but it vividly appears to be so, just like our dreams. In contrast, when we know the objects that appear to us, ourself, and our actions are all just mere appearances like in a dream, we create uncontaminated karma. This karma will ripen in the future in the form of appearances that we know to be just mere appearances to our mind, just like a lucid dream.

Most of the time we do not dream about the same things more than once. We see an elephant, but we don’t see that same elephant tomorrow night. Why not? Because every karmic seed only has the potential to ripen as appearance for a certain duration. Some seeds produce appearances that are long-lasting and other seeds produce appearances that are fleeting. This is primarily due to the degree of concentration the mind had when it created the karma in the first place – deeper concentration producing longer-lasting appearances. I have a friend who has narcolepsy. Unlike us, he sleeps maybe 16 hours a day and is awake only eight hours per day. For him, his dream world is more his reality than his waking world. When he dreams, he returns to the same home, the same life, the same family – night after night. He has a job, relationships, experiences, everything. It all appears to him to be real and he experiences it in that way. For him, it is quite common to encounter night after night the same appearances in much the same way as it is normal for us to encounter day after day the same appearances. His dream appearances are not, in fact, any more real than ours are, the only difference is the karmic seeds producing those appearances are of longer duration and waking up doesn’t exhaust that karma. The same is true for us with our waking appearances, they are just as un-real as our dream appearances, but their karmic duration hasn’t exhausted itself, so we continue to see more or less the same things day after day.

Do things cease to exist if they don’t appear directly to our mind?

Sometimes people wonder what happens to the waking world while dreaming and what happens to the dreaming world while awake. When we fall asleep, does the world that appears to our waking mind simply cease to exist at all? Does it shift into a state of utter non-existence? What happens to my narcoleptic friend’s dream world when he is awake? Some people argue that yes, both cease to exist at all when we shift from one world to the other. Their argument for why is if there is no dream mind, there can be no dream objects because an object cannot exist without a mind apprehending it. Similarly, if there is no waking mind there can be no waking objects. When the waking mind ceases, the waking world ceases as completely and irrevocably as last night’s dream. These people say if there is some trace of the dream world that remains while awake or the waking world while dreaming, then we would have objects that exist without a mind, which would be inherently existent objects – something we know doesn’t exist at all.

But others argue that is absurd. When I move from one country to another, the former country I lived in no longer appears directly to my mind. Does that mean that entire country ceases to exist at all when I am not seeing it? Do all of the people I knew and interacted with cease to exist at all when I’m not seeing them? When I remember them, do they then go from a state of total non-existence to a state of existence; but then when I’m not thinking about them anymore, do they cease to exist and function at all? If so, when I call them, how are they able to tell me about all of the things they did since we last spoke? When they engage in actions when I’m not looking, do they produce no results? If I put a message in a bottle and send it out to sea and nobody sees it for six months until somebody discovers it on a faraway shore, what happens to the bottle during this time? Nobody sees it or perceives it. Does it not exist at all? Does our heart cease to function when I’m not thinking about it? There are all sorts of absurd consequences that follow from saying these things cease to exist at all when they are not appearing directly to our mind.

Both sides of this debate have valid points. So how can we resolve this apparent contradiction? The answer lies in understanding there are two types of object – manifest and hidden. Manifest objects are objects known directly by a mind and hidden objects are objects known indirectly by a mind. My friends in China used to be manifest objects to my mind, but now that I have moved to India they have become hidden objects. They still exist and function, but as hidden objects and they are known indirectly. For example, if I saw my daughter enter her room and close the door, she no longer appears directly, but if I have been outside her room the whole time and never saw her leave, I can know without a doubt that she is still in her room even if I don’t give her another thought. If my wife asks where she is, I can answer, “she’s in her room,” and this will be valid and correct, even though she doesn’t appear directly to either one of us. At that time, she is a hidden object to me (but a manifest object to herself). When she comes out of her room, she transitions from being a hidden object to a manifest object for me, just like the bottle arriving on the other shore. She does not transition from being non-existent to existent, she transitions (for me) from being hidden to manifest. But in both cases, whether she is manifest or hidden, she remains equally empty – a mere karmic appearance to my mind. She appears directly or she appears indirectly (even if I am not thinking about her, my mind that saw her enter her room “knows” her to be in her room, thus maintains her existence). There is no my daughter that exists independently of my mind, thus this view avoids the problem of an object existing without a mind apprehending it.

This answers the question of what happens to the waking world when I’m dreaming. It transitions from being a manifest object to a hidden object, and then when I awake, it becomes manifest again. Because the karmic duration for seeing my wife, home, job, and so forth have not exhausted themselves, when I awake, there they are again. They did not cease to exist at all while I slept, they simply made the transition from being manifest to hidden, but in both cases, they remained empty of existing from their own side independent of my mind. This also answers the question of what happens to the dreaming world of my narcoleptic friend when he is awake. It doesn’t cease to exist entirely, it merely transitions from being manifest to hidden. The karmic duration of those appearances has not been exhausted, so he will return to his home when he dreams again, but the karma for them to appear directly has ceased while he is awake. They still exist – as dream appearances – but they are simply hidden. This is no different really then how, when we dream, what appears is only a small fraction of the world we understand those appearances to exist in. Our dream moments can have complete pasts and complete futures, even though neither appear directly to our mind. They exist and appear as hidden objects.

Another example worth considering is what happens to a friend who dies but I didn’t know it? I recently learned that a dear college friend died about a week ago. I haven’t seen him in years, but I assumed he was still alive. When I learned that he had already died, I realized I was wrong to think he had been alive. What happened here at a karmic appearance level? When I saw him last years ago, he transitioned from being a manifest object to a hidden object, but he did still continue to exist in this world and had all sorts of experiences with my other friends. When he died, he ceased to exist at all in this world, he transitioned from being a hidden object to an utter non-existent. The karma for him to exist in this world exhausted itself. How he appeared to different people (as a hidden or manifest object) varied, depending upon their karmic relationship to him. My thinking he was still alive was mistaken with respect to conventional appearance. My believing he existed inherently before was mistaken with respect to ultimate truth. In exactly the same way, the people I see in my dreams cease to exist at all when I awake because the karmic duration of those appearances is fleeting, whereas the people who appear in my narcoleptic friend’s dream world continue to exist because the karma hasn’t exhausted itself. But sometimes, people in his dream world die, at which point they cease to exist at all in his world – either as a manifest or a hidden object. But in all cases, these beings have never been anything more than mere appearances to mind, regardless of how they appeared.

Conclusion

Interpreting what appears in our dreams can provide us with many profound Dharma understandings and insights, but these are not the supreme instructions of our guru. The supreme instructions of our guru are the teachings on emptiness, and considering the relationship between what appears in dreams and what appears in our waking state, how things transition from one state to another, and when they exist (as mere appearances) or cease to exist at all reveal to us the meaning of the profound truth of emptiness.

Why does this matter? There are two main reasons – according to Sutra and according to Tantra. First, according to Sutra, by considering these things, we can gain a very accurate understanding of the meaning of the teachings on emptiness. By contemplating this meaning day and night, with respect to both our dream and our waking appearances, we will gradually be led to the final view or intention of Buddha. This wisdom will free us permanently from samsara.

Second, with this understanding, we can understand how Tantra works. When we received the empowerments, our spiritual guide placed within our mind an enlightened being and a pure world. Our future enlightened self and world were born and they came into existence. It is like our dream world we do not see directly very often, except when we are engaging in our tantric meditations. When we arise from meditation (and forget our tantric pure view), our pure world does not cease to exist entirely, it merely transitions from being manifest to being hidden. It is sustained both by our Guru’s compassion and our knowledge that we received the empowerments, even if we are not thinking about either. By engaging in our tantric meditations, we create new karma that will later appear directly to us as our pure world. That pure world is not created anew, it is discovered – our meditations make it manifest, but it has been there all along (as a hidden object) ever since we received the empowerment. The karma creating the appearances of our normal waking samsaric world will gradually exhaust itself and not be replenished since, as our tantric practice deepens, we will stop creating new karma for samsara to appear. We will at some point have “lucid dreaming” experiences of our samsaric world, where it will continue to appear, but we will know it is just a mistaken appearance. Though it still appears, we will know it does not truly exist. We will have overcome ordinary conceptions, even though we still have ordinary appearances. Eventually, through creating enough karma in our new pure world, it will also start to appear directly to us as a manifest object. We will move into the pure world, which is our guru’s pure dream for us. It will become our manifest reality, and we will be able to communicate with him about it, even though we both know everything that appears to us is just a pure karmic dream. Finally, we will be able to help others join us in purity forever.

How to Engage in Vajra Recitation of Sadhanas and Listening to Teachings

Just as there are three levels of mantra recitation – verbal, mental, and vajra – I would say there are three levels at which we can recite sadhanas – verbal, mental, and vajra. Mental recitation of our sadhanas is superior to verbal recitation, and vajra recitation of them is supreme. When we learn how to do this, it feels as if guru Heruka is reciting the sadhanas in our mind for us, like a blessing or an empowerment. We can do the same with listening to Dharma teachings, giving Dharma teachings, and contemplating and meditating on the Dharma.

Mantras are Buddha’s Speech and the Nature of Pure Winds

All of this is derived from Tantric Grounds and Paths. The short version is simple: mantras have four levels, form, speech, wind, and mind. The form is the written letters, the speech is the spoken mantra, wind is their nature before being spoken, and mind is their ultimate nature of bliss and emptiness. There are three types of mantra recitation – verbal, mental, and vajra. Mental recitation is superior to verbal recitation, and vajra recitation is superior to mental recitation. Verbal recitation is saying the mantra out loud with our speech, mental recitation is saying it with our mind, vajra recitation is listening to the mantra arising in our mind, understanding its conventional nature is pure wind and its ultimate nature is the bliss and emptiness of the Dharmakaya, or the definitive guru. So just as we say “Dharmakaya dreaming,” we can also say vajra recitation is “Dharmakaya speaking.” It is our definitive guru reciting the mantras in our mind as a blessing – quite similar to an empowerment. The Dharmakaya – the Truth Body of Guru Heruka – is speaking in our mind.

There is no reason why we cannot practice the guru yoga of the wind and mind levels of mantras. Indeed, doing so brings them alive and feels like an empowerment every time we engage in vajra recitation of any mantra. The definitive guru is speaking directly into our mind. The nature of speech is wind – in this case the pure winds of our guru mixed inseparably with our own. The duality between ourself and the guru has dissolved, we “listen” to him infuse his vajra speech in our mind understanding his winds and our winds and his mind and our mind are inseparably one.

Three Ways of Reciting Sadhanas – Verbal, Mental, and Vajra

So how does this connect to recitation of sadhanas? Just as there are four levels to mantras, so too there are four levels to sadhanas. Just as there are three ways of reciting mantras, so too there are three levels to reciting sadhanas – verbal, mental, and vajra. Geshe-la advises us to memorize our sadhanas so we can recite them mentally as opposed to just verbally because doing so is more powerful. In exactly the same way, implicit within the teachings on vajra recitation of mantras is the possibility of vajra recitation of our sadhanas. 

The nature of Dharma is speech, and the nature of speech is wind. All Dharma is the nature of a Buddha’s speech, which is the nature of the purified winds of our guru. What is a sadhana? It is the speech of our guru. It has a written level (the words on the page), a verbal level, a wind level, and a mind level. 

For me, the key link is a sadhana is a scripture. In Tantric Grounds and Paths, Venerable Geshe-la says, “Some scholars have raised the question: ‘What is the real nature of scriptures?’ This is very difficult to answer in terms of Sutra teachings alone. If we say scriptures are mind, then we have to explain how they can be communicated to others, but if we say scriptures are sound or visible form, we must explain how matter can express meanings. How can a sound, which is devoid of awareness, become an object-possessor? These problems can easily be resolved if we consider the Highest Yoga Tantra teachings on winds. The inner nature of scriptures is wind, which is conjoined with awareness. When the scriptures are recited they become sound, and when they are written down they become form.”

From this, it is easy to understand how we can engage in our sadhanas as vajra recitation of them. It’s exactly the same as mantras. Both are Buddha’s speech and both are the nature of pure winds. Both can be “listened to” (with faith) arising in our mind from guru definitive Heruka, like our guru engaging in the sadhana for us in our mind like a blessing or empowerment. When we actually try it, we will see how it can be done and how much more powerful this is than mental recitation alone. Mental recitation is engaging in the sadhana with our ordinary mind, vajra recitation is engaging in the sadhana with our guru’s mind. When we engage in vajra recitation of our sadhanas, it feels as if the guru is revealing to us the hidden meanings of the sadhana directly into our mind. The recitation of each word of the sadhana is like a request for blessings, “please reveal to me the meaning of this word” and the understandings that dawn within our mind when we do so are the guru directly infusing his pure winds and minds into our own. It feels as if he is engaging in the sadhana for us in our mind, carrying us to enlightenment, and all we need to do is enjoy the ride. When we combine this with the emptiness of our guru, the sadhana, and ourselves, we let go of our grasping at these three as being distinct. The are experienced as inseparably one.

How to Vajra Listen to and Vajra Give Dharma Teachings

When we understand this, it also opens up new ways of “listening to” Dharma teachings – or even to giving Dharma teachings as well. When we listen to Dharma teachings, we can not just listen to the words as verbal speech, we can ”hear them” as the pure winds of definitive Heruka arising from the Dharmakaya, and indeed we can do this with an awareness of the emptiness of the three spheres of the teacher, the teaching, and the listener. The whole teaching is a vajra recitation taking place witin our mind, mixing our winds inseparably with our guru’s pure winds, like an empowerment. As these pure winds course through our mind, they blow open the obstructions in our mind, directly revealing new understandings. It is like our guru going, ”and if you thought that was amazing, let me show you this…” This gives a whole new meaning to having our “mind blown.”

This is likewise true for giving Dharma teachings. Anybody who has given Dharma teachings has had the experience of feeling as if it was Geshe-la speaking through us. Ideas or explanations come out of our mouth which we have never heard or understood before. When we give Dharma teachings, we need to essentially get out of the way and let the guru teach through us. We can center ourselves in the Dharmakaya, let is ”speak” through us as pure winds, giving rise to understandings within our mind, and words out of our mouth. All four levels of the Dharma discourse are present – form (our students taking notes), verbal (our words), wind (Dharmakaya speaking), and mind (our mind remaining mixed inseparably with definitive Heruka). Verbal teaching is good (repeating Geshe-la’s words), mental teaching is better (sharing the understandings we have gained through our own contemplations and meditations), vajra teaching is supreme (allowing the guru to teach through us).

How to Engage in Vajra Contemplation

Normally when we contemplate the Dharma, we do so with our ordinary mind asking ourselves, ”what does this mean?” or ”how does that make sense?” or ”how does that work?” etc. This is a very good thing to do. Venerable Tharchin says listening to Dharma is trying to understand how the guru sees things. Contemplation is transforming that understanding into our own. We start to see things as the guru does. But there is absolutely no reason why we cannot engage in vajra contemplation instead. Instead of directing our questions of ”what does this mean?” and so forth to our ordinary mind, we direct the same questins to our guru. We ask him, ”what does this mean?” We are essentially asking him to reveal the meaning to us through his blessings. Indeed, Geshe-la directly teaches us that every time we get stuck in our meditations, we should image our guru at our crown or our heart, offer a mandala, and then request blessings to be able to understand. We then imagine we receive blessings and new understandings dawn. Where do these understandings come from? They arise from definitive guru Heruka inseparable from our own mind. We ”listen” to them arising in our mind, recognizing them as by nature the pure winds of our guru. Dharmakaya speaking.

To get some experience of this, we can train in reciting the Three Principal Aspects of the Path. The entire scripture is written from the point of view of Je Tsongkhapa speaking directly to us. It is a teaching. We can read it. We can memorize it and mentally recite it. Or we can vajra recite it, imagining he is speaking directly into our mind. We “listen to” him recite it directly into our mind, like a blessing empowerment. As he does so, he is revealing to us the deep meaning. He is showing us directly what he sees within our mind. Where does this speech come from? It arises from his Dharmakaya. The Three Principal Aspects of the Path are what the Dharmakaya has to say. Dharmakaya speaking. More profundly still, we can first dissolve Lama Tsongkhapa into our heart, mix his Dharmakaya with our own root mind to the point where we feel his Dharmakaya is our root mind, and then we listen to him give this teaching in our mind, revealing directly its most profound meanings. We can do the same with all of our scriptures.

We can even meditate in the same way. When vajra ”ah ha” moments arise, we can meditate on them, familiarizing ourselves with the new understanding so that we never forget it. But we don’t need to meditate with our ordinary mind. We can meditate with our guru’s mind. We can view these new understandings not as ”our” realization, but rather ”his” realization arising within our mind like an emanation. Part of his mind is in our mind. The object of meditation itself is his realization in our mind, or more profoundly, mixed inseprably one with our mind. There is only his mind, and on that basis we think our mind, our realizations. We can even ”hold” our object of meditation with his mind by using his completely purified and fully developed mental factors of mindfulness, alertness, concentration, and so forth. Why do so with our ordinary mental factors when we can do so with his?

Don’t be Afraid to Contemplate the Dharma

Sometimes people object to new ideas they haven’t heard before saying, ”where does Geshe-la say this?” And if he does not explicitly say something somewhere, it is default assumed to be ”wrong.” This is a premature conclusion which is actually quite harmful to our practice – it can be a form of holding onto wrong views or at the very least it can be closing the door to discovering the profound depths of the Dharma. We arrive at this default premature conclusion because we, quite understandably, want to rely upon our guru’s teachings and not make up our own lineage. We feel as if some new idea not explicitly taught must be making up our own lineage and since we don’t want to rely upon something unreliable, we reject anything that is not explicitly taught.

The key to overcoming our doubts of this nature is realizing there are three types of wisdom – the wisdom arising from listening, the wisdom arising from contemplation, and the wisdom arising from meditation. Listening refers to audibly listening to teachings or reading Dharma books. Contemplation refers to when we consider ourselves the teachings, including connecting the dots between the different teachings so that they become integrated into a coherent whole of our Dharma understanding. We need to realize how all of the teachings relate to one another and are not only non-contradictory, but mutually reinforcing. We contemplate the Dharma until we come to some sort of ”ah ha” moment, and then we meditate on that to familiarize ourselves with our new understanding so that we don’t forget it. We should not be afraid to ”contemplate” the Dharma, indeed, we are encouraged to do so.

But how do we know if our new understandings we discover are reliable? I have discussed this point with Gen Rabten, and we concluded there are four tests we can use. First, does this new understanding contradict any known instruction? Second, does the new understanding naturally follow from all known instructions? Third, we can request Dorje Shugden – the protector of the Dharma within our mind – to thoroughly sabotage this new understanding if it is wrong or be reinforced if it is correct. And fourth, does this new understanding take us higher up the mountain towards the peak of enlightenment (as opposed to just being an interesting, but ultimately irrelevant avenue)? If our new understandings satisfy these four tests, then we can have sufficient confidence that they are reliable at least as stepping stones to higher understandings. This doesn’t mean these new understandings should be considered ”definitive Dharma.” We very well may realize a few years later that the understanding was good, but not good enough. We discover some new nuance and our understanding becomes refined. We are encouraged to refine and refine our understandings over time.

Geshe-la encourages us all the time to ”make your own commentary,” and he explains how he does so when he describes how he develops oral lineage teachings. We rely upon the guru through vajra contemplation, we write down what we understood, we work with it through contemplation and meditation, fine-tuning it until it is exactly right. Making our own commentary is not meant to replace Geshe-la’s holy scriptures, rather doing so is our way of mixing our mind more deeply with what he has taught us. Our commentary represents our best possible understanding of what is being taught at the time we write it, and our commentaries will improve over time as our understanding deepens. Stepping stones. Parts of the path. What I have shared here is my understanding as it has been revealed to me. If others perhaps also find it helpful, all the better.

Five Meditations to a Perfect Blissful Experience of the Emptiness of the Self-Generation

The emptiness section of the Three Principal Aspects of the Path takes us through a series of five meditations we can do with respect to any phenomena. To illustrate, I will use the self-generation of ourself as the deity:

1. Meditate on non-dual appearance and emptiness. We can do this by meditating on the four profundities. To meditate on the first two profundities, we think the self-generation we normally see does not, but the self-generation does appear, exist and function. To meditate on the second the second two profundities, we specifically meditate on non-dual appearance and emptiness. The self-generation is not other than emptiness, emptiness appears as the self-generation.

2. Meditate on dependent relationship. This has four levels: the self-generation arises in dependence upon causes and conditions, such as having received an empowerment; listened to, contemplated, and meditated upon correct instructions; and engaged in the mental actions of generating the mandala. It exists in dependence upon its parts, such as the charnel grounds, Mount Meru, the Celestial Mansion, the five wheels of deities, etc. The parts can also be divided into what appears – the mandala, what is understood – its emptiness, what is experienced – great bliss, what it is held by – our mind; and what is known – ourself as the deity. It also exists in dependence upon its basis of imputation, namely the collection of the parts, but the phenomena itself is not its basis of imputation. We make a distinction between the basis of imputation and the imputation and the imputation itself. It finally exists in dependence upon its mere name – Heruka is what we call ourself generated as the deity. At a more profound level the Dharmakaya in the aspect of the basis of imputation makes the expressive sound Heruka. It is the Dharmakaya speaking that is the mere name. The sign we have done this correctly is our self-grasping reduces or ceases, but our divine pride increases.

3. Meditate on negating the two extremes in a special way. We negate the extreme of existence by realizing it exists as a subtle dependent relationship, a mere name. The extreme of existence says if things exist, they must exist inherently. By seeing how something can exist as mere name/appearance, we realize how it doesn’t have to exist inherently to exist. We negate the extreme of non-existence by realizing when we see the self-generation we normally see does not exist, we are not left with nothing, we are left with a non-dual appearance of the self-generation and its emptiness. The extreme of non-existence says if things do not exist inherently, they do not exist at all. No, we can strip away the mistaken appearance and conception of inherent existence and something remains, namely the non-dual appearance and emptiness of the supported and supporting mandala.

4. Meditate on non-dual karma and emptiness. The self-generation arises from karma but there is no karma other than emptiness. The laws of karma describe how the emptiness of our person shape-shifts from a samsaric being into the self-generation (changing the basis of imputation of our I). The laws of karma are like the laws of fluid dynamics that explain how emptiness shape-shifts appearance. In economics, we make a distinction between static and dynamic analysis. Static analysis is how things appear in a snapshot of time, dynamic analysis explains how things change over time. Non-dual appearance and emptiness is static analysis, non-dual karma and emptiness is dynamic analysis. Each of the four main aspects of karma (ripened effect, environmental effect, tendency similar to the cause, and effect similar to the cause) are the laws governing this motion of the ocean of non-dual appearance and emptiness. Interestingly, when you look at the actual laws of fluid dynamics, you see these four effects.

5. Meditate on the non-dual bliss and emptiness (Tantra Prasangika view). This is not explicitly mentioned in the Three Principal Aspects of the Path, but since the uncommon characteristic of Je Tsongkhapa’s doctrine is the union of sutra and tantra, I would say it is implied. The Tantra Prasangika view combines the Prasangika view that all phenomena lack inherent existence with the Chittamatrin view that all phenomena are by nature our mind, while recognizing that our very subtle mind itself is the nature of great bliss. In the context of the self-generation meditation, what appears is the self-generation of ourself as the deity, what is understood is its emptiness, what is experienced is great bliss, all this is known/held/by nature our very subtle mind of great bliss. The emptiness of our very subtle mind of great bliss appears in the aspect of the self-generation. This object is non-dual with the subject mind of great bliss – they are two aspects of the same phenomena, like the gold and its coin.

We can do these same five meditations with any phenomena. This is how we cut the root of samsara. In this way, we realize the emptiness of samsara and nirvana. On the basis of these understandings, we can then reshape emptiness from samsara and its inhabitants into a pure land and all the deities.

Happy Heruka Day: Enjoying An Ocean of Bliss and Emptiness

Today is Heruka Day, which takes place during Heruka and Vajrayogini month (otherwise known as January), and is a special day when his blessings are particularly powerful.  Most of all, on this day we can recall his kindness and make an effort to bring him to life in our world.

Who is Heruka?

Heruka is the manifestation of the compassion of all the Buddhas.  Out of his Truth Body, he emanates himself as a complete path from the deepest hell to the highest enlightenment.  He is Keajra Pure Land, which is not some distant place but rather a different way of looking at our world.  He emanates in this world as Spiritual Guides who in turn introduce us to Keajra Pure Land.  We then begin to connect with it, and as we do, we are guided progressively to purer and purer states of mind.  Geshe-la once said the mind of Lamrim is Akanishta Pure Land – a revealing way of phrasing things, a mind as a place.  Heruka is the principal deity of Akanishta Pure Land.  Our Spiritual Guides first guide us into Lamrim (Akanishta), then conventional Keajra Pure Land through generation stage, then definitive Keajra Pure Land through completion stage.  Finally, we attain union with definitive Heruka, the omniscient mind of great bliss realizing directly and simultaneously the emptiness of all things.  Heruka is not just this final state, he is the entire path to it.  He is the compassion of all the Buddhas manifesting as the quick path to enlightenment.

My favorite description of Heruka is Chakrasambara.  As Geshe-la explains in Essence of Vajrayana:

“Another term for Heruka is ‘Chakrasambara.’  ‘Chakra’ means ‘wheel,’ and in this context refers to the ‘wheel’ of all phenomena.  ‘Sambara’ means the supreme bliss, which is called ‘spontaneous great bliss.’  Together ‘Chakra’ and ‘sambara’ reveal that by practicing Heruka Tantra we gain a profound realization that experiences all phenomena as one nature with our mind of great bliss.  This realization directly removes subtle dualistic appearances from our mind, and due to this we quickly become definitive Heruka.”

This realization is called “meaning clear light,” and Geshe-la explains in Guide to Dakini Land that if we gain this realization, we can attain enlightenment within six months.  This does not mean we can attain enlightenment in six months from the time we start practicing Heruka.  It will take a long time to gain the realization of meaning clear light, but once we do, we can attain enlightenment in six months.  Practicing Heruka is the quickest method for attaining the realization of meaning clear light.  At a minimum, through our sincere practice of Heruka in this life, if we can die with a mind of compassion and faith in Heruka, it is definite we can be reborn in his pure land.  From there, we will be able to quickly attain meaning clear light and then enlightenment.  This is our incredible good fortune. 

Recalling the Kindness of Heruka

The very heart of the sadhana Offering to the Spiritual Guide is the Single-Pointed Request, which can be understood as a prayer to Heruka as Keajra Pure Land. 

You are the Guru, you are the Yidam, you are the Daka and Dharma Protector;

From now until I attain enlightenment I shall seek no refuge other than you.

In this life, in the bardo, and until the end of my lives, please hold me with the hook of your compassion,

Liberate me from the fears of samsara and peace, bestow all the attainments, be my constant companion, and protect me from all obstacles.  

The first line reveals the vastness of Heruka.  Heruka is by nature our Guru and our Guru is Heruka.  All Tantric practices are fundamentally trainings in guru yoga – a special way of viewing the deity and the guru as inseparably one.  Saying Heruka is our Guru and our Guru is Heruka evokes different meanings, and both are true simultaneously.  Heruka is also our Yidam or our personal deity.  He is the Buddha we seek to become and our ultimate role model.  Christians ask, “what would Jesus do,” we ask, “what would Heruka do,” and we seek to do that.  Heruka is also the Daka, which here refers to the Heroes and Heroines of his body mandala.  These deities are his retinue, but also his spiritual limbs.  Heruka is also the Dharma Protector.  He manifests Dorje Shugden as the Protector of the Guru’s words.  Conventionally, Heruka appears as the totality of his Pure Land, from the HUM at his heart to the principal deity (Yidam); to the body mandala deities (Daka); to his celestial mansion, Mount Meru, and the continents (his gross body); to the charnel grounds (his perception of samsara); to Dorje Shugden’s protection circle surrounding it all transforming whatever appears into a perfect condition for the enlightenment of all beings within Heruka’s pure land.

The second line explains how we rely upon Heruka.  It begins with an understanding of both why we go for refuge to him and for how long our commitment to doing so is – namely to attain enlightenment and until we do.  Geshe-la explains Heruka’s power is only unleashed within us in dependence upon our motivation of Bodhichitta, the wish to become a Buddha for the benefit of all. 

The third line makes our reliance upon Heruka pure.  In Joyful Path, Geshe-la explains what makes our spiritual practice pure instead of worldly is whether we are engaging in it for the sake of all of our future lives or the sake of this life.  We rely upon Heruka in this life, in the bardo, and in all of our future lives.  What do we request of him?  That he always hold us with the hook of his compassion.  The ocean of samsara is vast and it is easy to get lost at sea and drown, but out of his compassion for us, he throws us a hook we can grab onto.  If we never let go, he will pull us to safety.  What is this hook and how does it appear in our life?  It primarily appears as our Spiritual Guide, but it also manifests as the Daka and the Dharma Protector. 

The fourth line reveals Heruka’s main function; or put another way, the principal benefits of relying upon him.  His aspect of the Guru functions to liberate us from the fears of samsara and peace.  Peace here refers to the solitary peace of individual liberation, which is nice for us but useless for others.  We pray to never get trapped in solitary peace but instead strive to become a Buddha who works until the end of time to free others from their suffering.  His aspect of the Yidam functions to bestow all the attainments.  Bestow is a beautiful word as it implies the giving of something precious.  In truth, we attain enlightenment by the Buddhas bestowing the realizations of their mind upon ours, like a gift.  Of course, we must do certain things from our side to open up our mind to receive these precious gifts, but by nature, our future realizations of the stages of the path are actually by nature aspects of our Yidam’s mind.  His aspect of Daka functions to be our constant companion.  In other words, the deities of the body mandala – Heruka’s retinue – are his companions who not only bless our own channels, drops, and winds, but similarly bless all living beings as they fulfill Heruka’s wishes in this world.  His aspect of Dharma Protector functions to protect ourselves and all the beings inside Heruka’s mandala from all obstacles to our spiritual practice.  Nothing is an obstacle from its own side.  Things only become obstacles when we relate to them in a deluded way.  Dorje Shugden is first and foremost a wisdom Buddha, meaning he grants us the wisdom to be able to see how whatever arises is perfect for our spiritual training.  Since his protection circle envelopes all of Keajra, from the Charnel Grounds to the HUM at Heruka’s heart, he is likewise bestowing similar wisdom blessings on the minds of all living beings.  This is why for Heruka samsara appears as the Charnel Grounds.  In the Charnel Grounds, even though conventionally horrific things appear, they are all understood and seen as powerful Dharma teachings propelling us towards enlightenment.  When we have this wisdom, when others come to us with their difficulties, we fail to even see a problem, we see only spiritual opportunity.  We then share our perspective with others, empowering them to transform their life into a joyful path of good fortune. 

For myself, I recite the Single-Pointed request with these recognitions day and night as I go about my day.  It is my daily mantra, and with every recitation, it draws me closer to Heruka.  In my meditation itself, I try to gain experience for what it feels like to be Heruka in Keajra.

Bringing Heruka to Life in our World

We can sometimes feel like Heruka is not in this world and our attainment of union with him is very far off.  Both of these perceptions are completely wrong.  Heruka is the ultimate nature of everything in this world and attaining union with him is simply one recognition away.  How can we bridge the gap between these two very different views?  Through the practice of the Eight Lines of Praise of the Father.  This is a special method for activating Heruka’s function in this world through us.  On the basis of this feeling we simply recognize ourselves as Heruka.  Through continual training in this practice, the gap between our normal perception and our enlightened perception collapses until eventually, we experience ourselves directly as Heruka in this world performing his enlightened deeds for the benefit of all.   As Geshe-la says in Essence of Vajrayana, “By sincerely reciting these praises we swiftly purify our ordinary appearances and reach Heruka’s Pure Land.”

The Eight Lines of Praise are almost like words of a magical spell, which function to invoke or activate the different functions of Heruka we are praising. 

OM I Prostrate to the Blessed One, Lord of the Heroes HUM HUM PHAT

When we recite this line, we request Heruka’s body to become active in this world.  His body is the form aspect of Keajra Pure Land.  In Keajra, every form that appears is understood as a powerful Dharma teaching by all those who behold it.  Heruka manifests as whatever living beings need to be led to enlightenment.  While Keajra Pure Land is shaped like a mountain, it’s spiritual gradient is more like a funnel.  No matter where you drop something in a funnel, it is eventually guided down into the center of the funnel.  In the same way, no matter where you find yourself in Keajra Pure Land – from the Charnel Grounds to the principal deity’s body – you are inexorably drawn towards the indestructible wind inside Heruka’s heart chakra.  By activating Heruka’s form body in our world, we are “inviting all beings to be our guests” in our Pure Land where we engage in the pleasing supreme practices of enlightenment.  We then strongly believe that whatever forms appear to the minds of any living being, they are by nature emanations of Heruka’s form body, revealing the truth of Dharma and guiding all beings towards his heart. 

In particular, when we recite this line, we can imagine that our body is Heruka’s majestic body.  Our eyes may continue to perceive the body that we normally see, but our mind’s eyes of faith see ourselves as Heruka.  In Essence of Vajrayana, it explains the symbolism of Heruka’s body.  The short version is it reveals all of the essential stages of the path to enlightenment.  Buddhas can manifest their inner realizations as forms.  The main point is we should disregard, even forget, our body that we normally see and believe that through our recitation of this line of the prayer we perceive our body to be Heruka’s body.

OM To you with a brilliance equal to the fire of the great aeon HUM HUM PHAT

When we recite this line, we invoke/activate Heruka’s speech.  In Keajra, every sound is arising from Heruka’s enlightened speech and it functions to reveal the truth of Dharma.  When we recite this, we imagine that every sound, even the rustling of leaves in the wind, is actually vajra songs teaching Dharma.  His speech burns away the ordinary conceptions and ignorance of living beings like a great wisdom fire that radiates out and burns away all delusions.  In particular, we should imagine that from this point forward all of our own speech is actually Heruka’s speech being spoken through us.  Instead of saying whatever comes to our mind, we get out of the way and let him speak through us.  If we are practicing this at the level of completion stage, we can recall that the nature of sound is wind, and so all sounds are actually the whistling of Heruka’s pure winds blowing through the world.

OM To you with an inexhaustible topknot HUM HUM PHAT

With this line we imagine we invoke/activate Heruka’s mind in our world, symbolized by his topknot.  There are two aspects of his mind in particular worth noting.  First, his mind sees all past, present, and future phenomena directly and simultaneously.  He sees everything that has been, everything that is, and everything that will be as one inseparable ocean.  This wisdom knowing the three times is extremely effective for being able to help people because we can see the karmic why they are currently facing the situations they are facing and all of the different possible futures they will experience depending upon how they respond to their present circumstance.  Heruka sees everything as currents and continuums, like spiritual winds blowing through time, not static pictures that seem arbitrary and bewildering.  Second, his mind has the power to bestow the realizations of Chakrasambara on others, in other words, his mind functions to gather and dissolve all phenomena into the ocean of bliss and emptiness.  When impure winds cease to flow, the waves of appearance subside, and the ocean of our mind settles into a blissful clarity.  Heruka’s mind naturally draws all phenomena back into this original source of all purity.  When we recite this line, we feel as if these two powers of his mind are now active.  We start to see the three times as Heruka does and we feel all phenomena settling down into the ocean of our mind of clear light emptiness.

OM To you with a fearsome face and bared fangs HUM HUM PHAT

When we recite this line, we imagine we gain Heruka’s great wisdom knowing clearly and unmistakenly what are the objects to be abandoned and what are the objects to be attained, not only for ourselves, but for all living beings.  Not being clear about this is our fundamental problem and the source of all of our suffering.  In Modern Buddhism, Geshe-la makes a clear distinction between our outer problem and our inner problem.  If our car breaks down, normally we think, “I have a problem.”  No, our car has a problem.  Our problem is our inner problem of relating to this appearance in a deluded way.  We need a mechanic to fix our car, and we need to change our mind to solve our inner problem.  Fixing our outer problem will not solve our inner problem.  If we continue to have our inner problem, we will just project it onto some other external circumstance and think now that needs to be fixed too.  Worldly beings are convinced their problem is what is happening externally, and they expend all of their energy trying to solve all of their outer problems, but no matter how many times they do, they continue to have the same sorts of problems just with different faces or different sets of external appearance.  The reason for this is they have not solved their inner problem.  Heruka’s great wisdom enables us to see clearly that our own and others’ actual problem lies within.  Once we are clear that our problem is our inner problem, then his great wisdom helps us see clearly our delusions as mistaken minds.  It is one thing to identify that we have delusions, but if we do not see why they are wrong or deceptive, we will continue to follow them believing them to be true.  His great wisdom also helps us easily know what is the correct way of looking at things that leaves our mind peaceful and calm.  We not only know the wisdom way of thinking, we actually think that way – or at least believe it to be correct, even if the winds of our mind are blowing in opposite directions. 

When we recite this line, we have this wisdom not only for ourselves but also for others.  When others talk to us, we see clearly the difference between their outer and their inner problem, and with respect to their inner problem, we know and can explain in a way they can understand the objects to be abandoned and the objects to be attained.  Traveling outer paths is accomplished through taking steps, inner paths are traveled through knowing what thoughts to believe.  The great wisdom of knowing the objects to be abandoned and the objects to be attained is like always knowing which paths to travel so that we never get lost.  It is like an inner GPS that is always set for the City of Enlightenment, and no matter where we find ourselves, we always know how to get to where we want to go.

OM To you whose thousand arms blaze with light HUM HUM PHAT

When we recite this line we imagine we invoke/activate countless emanations of Heruka who spontaneously burst forth from his heart of compassion to benefit living beings through acts of loving-kindness.  This line refers to how Heruka is the compassion of all the Buddhas, he is the highest yoga tantra version of thousand-arm Avalokiteshvara.  Some people wonder how Buddhas gain the ability to send out emanations.  The answer is their compassion wishing to protect all living beings from all suffering is so great, emanations naturally burst out of their hearts.  Because they realize emptiness of all phenomena, their compassion is like blowing air into the soap of their realization of emptiness producing countless bubbles of emanations.  Normally, when people come to us for help, we think, “I can’t help all of these people,” and we wish some of them would go away and stop putting so many demands on us.  But a bodhisattva thinks, “I would want to help all of these beings, but right now, unfortunately, I can’t.  That’s why I need to become a Buddha because then I will be able to be with each and every living being every day.”  We imagine that through reciting this line, we gain this ability to send out countless emanations and to be like thousand-arm Avalokiteshvara, able to help living beings in countless ways.

OM To you who hold an axe, an uplifted noose, a spear, and a khatanga HUM HUM PHAT

With this line, we imagine we gain Heruka’s ability to engage in wrathful actions, and we invoke his wrathful actions pervade the entire universe.  What are wrathful actions?  They are the ability to use force out of compassion.  They are of two types:  outer and inner.  Outer wrathful actions are when somebody is hurting themselves or others and we can stop them through using whatever power we have (physical, our position, our speech, etc.).  We do this not out of anger, but to protect the person they are harming and to protect the person committing the harm from accumulating negative karma.  Our wish is not to harm the other person, but to protect them.  Sometimes outer wrathful actions take the form of telling people the hard truths of their situation, such as they are acting like a jerk or the only reason why they are suffering is that they are jealous or attached to companionship, or whatever.  Whether our outer wrathful actions are effective depends upon whether our mind is truly free from anger and whether the other person has enough faith in us to take well what we are saying.  If either of these two conditions is not met, our wrathful actions will just be anger or they will just be self-defeating.  Inner wrathful actions are the ability to be utterly ruthless with our delusions, but kind to ourselves.  We can only successfully engage in them if we have truly differentiated between ourselves and our delusions and we have realized that renunciation is true self-love or self-compassion.  It is loving or having compassion for our true selves, our pure potential.  Inner wrathful actions of a Buddha are powerful blessings that help people see clearly the error of their ways, sometimes at an epic scale, but without inducing guilt causing the person to beat themselves up.  When we recite this line, we imagine we gain the ability to engage in such wrathful actions and we imagine we invoke Heruka to engage in such wrathful actions through the appearances of this world.

OM To you who wear a tiger-skin garment HUM HUM PHAT

This refers to Heruka’s ability to pacify anger and conflict.  There is no evil greater than anger.  Almost all of the harm in this world is caused by anger.  Hell realms are the nature of anger, and those who remain consumed by anger in life wind up taking rebirth in hell after death because that is the nature of their mind.  Anger prevents us from accepting samsara as it is, making us wish it was different.  It leads to frustrations, great and small, leaving us always internally uncomfortable, agitated, and unhappy.  Guilt is anger directed at ourself and is a major obstacle to our ability to view Dharma as refuge instead of a mirror we perceive to be judging us for all of our failures and shortcomings.  Conflict in the world ranges from large-scale wars to spats between siblings, but it leaves a wake of pain wherever it goes.  In Eight Steps to Happiness, Geshe-la says the mind of cherishing others is like a magic crystal that has the power to heal whole communities.  In Toronto, he said, “love is the real nuclear bomb that destroys all enemies.”  Heruka’s compassion is his magic crystal and his love is his nuclear bomb that ends all conflict.  We imagine by reciting this line, we activate this power and it functions to pacify all anger, all guilt, and all conflict, not only in our own lives but in the whole world.  We feel as if his love radiates out, pulsing peace into the world.  In Transform Your Life Geshe-la says, “without inner peace, outer peace is impossible.”  We imagine through Heruka’s blessings, we bestow inner peace on all living beings, resulting in universal peace for all.

OM I bow to you whose smoke-coloured body dispels obstructions HUM HUM PHAT

In Essence of Vajrayana, Geshe-la explains:

“In the Condensed Root Tantra it is said that just by seeing a sincere Heruka practitioner we purify our negativities and attain liberation; just by hearing or being touched by such a practitioner we receive blessings and are cured of sickness; and just by being in the presence of such a practitioner our unhappiness, mental disturbances, delusions and other obstacles are dispelled.  Why is this?  It is because the actual Deities of Heruka abide within the body of the practitioner and therefore seeing the practitioner is not so different from seeing Heruka himself.”

When we recite this line of the Praise we recall this special quality of Heruka which makes merely being in their presence a cause of liberation for others.  There are two types of obstructions – the obstructions to liberation, or our delusions; and the obstructions to omniscience, or the karmic imprints of our past delusions.  Merely being in Heruka’s presence dispels both of these, just as being exposed to the sun will melt ice cream.  When we recite this line with faith, we imagine that our Heruka body attains these qualities and when others are merely in our presence, it functions as a cause of their enlightenment – even if we are doing nothing other than watching football together.  We further imagine that Heruka’s body pervades all phenomena, and while our ordinary eyes may perceive the things we normally see, our wisdom eyes see Keajra Pure Land, which is nothing other than Heruka’s pure form body.  By being in this world, the two obstructions of all living beings are dispelled away, all ordinary appearances and conceptions dissolve, and all beings awaken into a world of pure wonder. 

Through continuously engaging in the Eight Lines of Praise, we will gradually purify our mind and samsara will gather and absorb into the clear light, like clouds into a clear blue sky.  We will feel Heruka as Keajra Pure Land become increasingly manifest and we will realize it is not far away, but actually the true nature of all things.  Having activated these eight abilities of Heruka and feeling them work through us, we will have no difficulty generating a qualified divine pride thinking we are Heruka.  As our experience with these verses deepens, the duality between ourselves and our Yidam will dissolve away until we experience union with this marvelous being.  In this way, we will fulfill all of our own and others’ pure wishes.

Heruka day is a particularly auspicious day when Heruka’s blessings are especially powerful.  The karma we create familiarizing ourselves with Heruka in our life and drawing closer to him on this day will pay dividends for aeons to come.  If we have not yet memorized the Eight Lines of Praise, today is a perfect day to do so.  Once we have learned it, we can then practice it day and night and swiftly move out of samsara and into Keajra Pure Land! 

Happy Vajrayogini Day: Becoming the Vajra Queen

Today is Vajrayogini Day, which takes place every year on the first tsog day of Heruka and Vajrayogini Month.  On this day, we can remember her amazing good qualities and try to ripen them within ourselves.  By doing so, we can draw closer to her and eventually become her.

Our Vajra Queen

Within the Kadampa tradition, our highest yoga tantra deities are Heruka and Vajrayogini.  Heruka is great bliss inseparable from emptiness, and Vajrayogini is emptiness inseparable from great bliss.  Ultimately, they are the same person, differing only in aspect and emphasis.  Practically, they are our spiritual guide’s truth body inseparable from our own pure potential.  By relying upon Heruka and Vajrayogini, we can quickly ripen our Buddha nature and attain the union with their enlightened state.  Our highest yoga tantra deity is also known as our “yidam,” which essentially means it is the actual Buddha we want to become.  Venerable Tharchin explains we design our own enlightenment by the specific type of bodhichitta we generate.  In our tradition, we take Heruka and Vajrayogini as our yidam. 

Vajrayogini is known as the Vajra Queen because she is the highest of all the female enlightened deities for us.  Many people, both in movies and in real life, develop tremendous loyalty and respect for their political queen, willing to dedicate their lives to fulfilling the wishes of their noble queen.  How much more respect and devotion should we feel towards our Vajra Queen who leads us beyond samsara?

Venerable Tharchin once told me, several years before I married her, that my girlfriend at the time was an emanation of Vajrayogini.  He explained this to me at my very first Heruka and Vajrayogini empowerment.  Of course, she is not inherently so since she is inherently nothing, but he was unambiguous that I should view her in this way.  I then asked him again several years later if he meant it that she was an emanation of Vajrayogini, and he said, “without a doubt, for you, she is.”  When we got engaged, the ring she gave me had seven diamonds in it, and she said, “like seven lifetimes.”  She had never read Guide to Dakini Land where it explains by relying upon Vajraygoini, an emanation will enter our life within seven lifetimes to lead us to Dakini Land, yet I was flooded with a clear recognition that was the meaning of her engagement ring to me.  For me, she has been my spiritual muse – learning how to relate to her purely, learning how to help her, and overcoming all of the delusions her behavior would provoke in me. 

Vajrayogini practice has many uncommon qualities that surpass even Heruka practice.  First, her three-OM mantra is the king of all mantras.  Geshe-la explains in Guide to Dakini Land:

“By reciting this mantra we can help others to fulfill their wishes and gain peace, good health, long life, and prosperity. We gain the ability to avert others’ diseases, such as cancer, strokes, and paralysis, as well as all physical pain and dangers from fire, water, earth, and wind.  Some practitioners who have a strong karmic link with Vajrayogini, through their daily practice or by merely reciting this mantra attain outer Dakini Land before their death, sometimes even without engaging in close retreats or intense meditation. Some attain Dakini Land in the bardo by remembering as if in a dream their daily recitation of the mantra, thereby enabling Vajrayogini to lead them to her Pure Land. In Dakini Land these practitioners are cared for by Heruka and Vajrayogini and, without ever having to undergo uncontrolled death again, they attain enlightenment during that life. It is for these reasons that the three-OM mantra of Vajrayogini is called the `king of all mantras’.”

Vajrayogini’s body mandala is also unequaled.  Again, Geshe-la explains in Guide to Dakini Land:

“In the practice of Heruka’s body mandala, Deities are generated at the outer tips of the twenty-four channels, at the twenty-four inner places. In Vajrayogini’s body mandala, however, the Deities are generated at the inner tips of the twenty-four channels, inside the central channel at the heart channel wheel. This is the main reason why Vajrayogini’s body mandala is more profound than those of other Yidams.”

Finally, Vajrayogini practice has an uncommon yoga of inconceivability, which is the most profound practice of self-powa in existence, enabling us to transfer our consciousness to the pure land where we can complete our spiritual training without ever having to take another samsaric rebirth.  Through this practice, Geshe-la explains:

The uncommon yoga of inconceivability is a special method, unique to the practice of Vajrayogini, whereby we can attain Pure Dakini Land within this life without abandoning our present body.

By contemplating these incredible benefits of Vajrayogini practice, we can generate a strong faithful wish to rely upon her in this and all our future lives.

How we can activate Vajrayogini’s good qualities in our life

We do not consider the good qualities of Vajrayogini to simply think how amazing she is, the goal is for us to generate wishing faith, wishing to acquire these good qualities ourselves.  At first, it can seem like her good qualities are so far away that knowledge of them is more academic than anything else.  But there is a method for activating her good qualities within us right now, where we quite literally start to become her and fulfill her function in the world.  How?  Through faithful recitation of the Eight Lines of Praise to the Mother.

Becoming Vajrayogini is not like an on-off switch but is rather like a volume knob – the more we rely upon her, the more we come to embody her good qualities until eventually we gradually become her.  In our practice of divine pride, we train in imputing our “I” onto Vajrayogini, thinking, “I am Vajrayogini.”  If we impute “I am Vajrayogini” onto our ordinary samsaric body and mind, this is not only a mistaken imputation, it might land us in a psychiatric hospital!  For an imputation to be valid, the basis of imputation must be valid.  For an imputation to be valid, the name, aspect, and function must all be in alignment.  A tennis racket may be used to strain spaghetti noodles, but we would not call it a strainer.  In the context of Vajrayogini practice, her aspect is the beautiful red Dakini, her function is to bestow the qualities of her mind, and her name is Vajrayogini.  If we impute our I onto these three – her name, aspect, and function – we can validly say we are Vajrayogini.

Oftentimes, especially in our early years of Vajrayogini practice, we tend to place primary emphasis on the “aspect” of Vajrayogini, imputing our “I” onto this mere image.  But this rarely works to generate much feeling of actually being Vajrayogini.  In contrast, when we feel like this aspect is performing the function of Vajrayogini in our mind, then when we impute our I onto Vajrayogini engaging in her enlightened deeds, it is very easy to generate a qualified feeling of divine pride being Vajrayogini leading all beings to freedom. 

For me at least, the supreme method for generating a feeling of Vajrayogini accomplishing her function is using the Eight Lines of Praise as an invocation for her to accomplish her special function through us.  When we do this, we will feel her enter us and accomplish these eight special functions through us; and on this basis, it is easy to generate a qualified divine pride.

We can understand how to do this as follows:

OM I prostrate to Vajravarahi, the Blessed Mother HUM HUM PHAT

To prostrate means to wish to become, it is a form of wishing faith.  Vajravarahi refers to her function of destroying ignorance, recognizing her as the essence of the perfection of wisdom that destroys ignorance.  Blessed Mother means she is the mother of all the Buddhas, both in the sense of all Buddhas are born from bliss and emptiness (definitive Vajrayogini), but also in the sense of the actual mother of all the Buddhas in that they arise from her.  In this sense, she is simply the highest yoga tantra version of Mother Tara.  When we recite this line, we imagine we invoke this power to destroy the ignorance of all living beings and give birth to all the Buddhas, requesting that this function be accomplished within our mind.

OM To the Superior and powerful Knowledge Lady unconquered by the three realms HUM HUM PHAT

Superior means she can see directly the ultimate nature of all phenomena, powerful Knowledge Lady means she has the power to bestow great bliss, and unconquered by the three realms means she has the power to overcome all delusions of the desire, form, and formless realm.  When we recite this line, we imagine we invoke her to bestow bliss on ourselves and all living beings, which bestows a direct realization of emptiness on the minds of all, enabling them to completely abandon all the delusions of the three realms.  We feel as if this is actually happening inside our mind.

OM To you who destroy all fears of evil spirits with your great vajra HUM HUM PHAT

Nobody is an evil spirit from their own side, they only become evil spirits for us if we relate to them in deluded ways.  It is our delusions that create all evil spirits in our life, and we can say from one perspective all evil spirits are really just our delusions so condense that they take on a life or personality of their own and function like they are an “evil spirit.”  But through Vajrayogini’s blessings, we can come to experience all beings and all phenomena as manifestations of her mind of bliss and emptiness.  In this way, what was previously experienced as an evil spirit in our life is now experienced as the dance of bliss and emptiness.  Instead of harming us, we receive blessings.  All fear is destroyed because they are now seen as bliss and emptiness, and indeed we can say all “evil spirits” themselves are destroyed, not in the sense of they are killed, but in the sense that there is no longer a valid basis for imputing “evil spirit.”  When we recite this line, we imagine that we come to see all phenomena as manifestations of bliss and emptiness, and so we fear nothing and nobody has the power to harm us in any way.  We strongly believe our view of everything has changed and now we fear nothing because we experience it all as great bliss.

OM To you with controlling eyes who remain as the vajra seat unconquered by others HUM HUM PHAT

Vajra seat here means she is always in union with Heruka who is eternally filling her with great bliss as she bestows the realization of emptiness on his mind.  Her controlling eyes can subdue negative behavior simply by looking at others, much in the way a mother’s firm stare brings her children in line without saying a word.   When we recite this verse, we imagine that while in union with Heruka – being filled with bliss and bestowing upon him the realization of emptiness – we can look out onto all living beings subduing all of their negative behavior in an instant.  We feel this compassionate power coursing through us and that this function is actually being accomplished.

OM To you whose wrathful fierce form desiccates Brahma HUM HUM PHAT

This refers to Vajrayogini’s ability to subdue the pride of all living beings, even the highest gods.  Geshe-la explains that pride is the death of all spiritual learning.  If we are free from pride, we can use the Dharma to overcome all our other faults; but if we are consumed by pride, we cannot overcome any of our faults.  Subduing our pride is, in this sense, a prerequisite for all spiritual progress.  Vajrayogini does not merely subdue our pride, she desiccates it, which means to drain of emotional or intellectual vitality.  We generate pride when we observe some uncommon characteristic we have, and then think that somehow makes us better than others.  Perhaps a candle in a dark room provides some light but standing next to the blazing of the sun its luminescence is humbled.  In the same way, we may think we are special in some way, but standing before the Vajra Queen we are stripped away of all pretension and are drained of any emotional or intellectual basis for thinking we are special in any way.  Vajrayogini’s mere presence has this humbling effect on all living beings, opening their mind to generate faith in the spiritual path.  When we recite this line, we feel as if the pride of ourselves and all living beings has been thoroughly desiccated and everyone now bows down with humble faith in her magnificence, ready to learn from her.

OM To you who terrify and dry up demons, conquering those in other directions HUM HUM PHAT

This refers to the ability of her wisdom blessings to burn up the inner demons of ordinary appearances and ordinary conceptions of all living beings.  According to Sutra, the root of samsara is self-grasping ignorance, but according to Tantra, the root is ordinary appearances and conceptions.  Ordinary appearances are, essentially, the things that we normally see – all of which appear to exist from their own side, independent of our mind.  They appear to have some objective existence that we believe our mind merely observes accurately.  Ordinary conceptions are believing these appearances to be true.  We think everything really does exist in the way that it appears.  Due to ordinary appearances and ordinary conceptions, we remain trapped in the nightmare of samsara, and the same is true for all other living beings.  The fire of Vajrayogini’s wisdom blessings has the power to burn through all ordinary appearances and conceptions like the fire at the end of the aeon, stripping away samsara from everyone and enabling them to see directly pure worlds.  Samsara is nothing more than a dream that need not be.  Vajrayogini has the power to burn it all away.  When we recite this verse, we imagine we invoke the fire of her wisdom blessings to radiate out like a spherical burst in all directions stripping away the ordinary appearances and conceptions of all living beings, and then we strongly believe that as a result of this enlightened action all beings are now able to see directly her pure world, Keajra Pure Land.

OM To you who conquer all those who make us dull, rigid, and confused HUM HUM PHAT

This refers to her ability to protect us from evil spirits who would interfere with our spiritual practice by making our minds dull, rigid, or confused.  There are countless evil spirits who would interfere with our practice, and we have all experienced the effects of their interference in our practice.  Vajrayogini can subdue these spirits in four ways, the first of which was already explained above by viewing them as manifestations of bliss and emptiness.  The second is just as would-be attackers are deterred through knowing they are outmatched, so too evil spirits know they stand no chance against Vajrayogini and so they keep their distance.  The third is through the wisdom fire of her protection circle, the basis for any negativity is burned away as it approaches, and thus cannot even enter like a magical shield that disarms all those who would enter the realm.  Negativity simply can’t get through.  The fourth way is through the power of her love and compassion for evil spirits who would do harm.  Just as Buddha Shakyamuni under the Bodhi tree defeated all the spirits through the power of his love, so too Vajrayogini’s unconditional love defeats the evil intentions of all those who would interfere with our practice.  As Geshe-la famously said, love is the real nuclear bomb that destroys all enemies.  When we recite this verse, we imagine we invoke Vajrayogini to dispel all interference from evil spirits in these four ways, and strongly believe as a result all interference is permanently subdued.

OM I bow to Vajravarahi, the Great Mother, the Dakini consort who fulfills all desires HUM HUM PHAT

This refers to Vajrayogini’s ability to fulfill all the pure wishes of living beings.  Buddhas do not fulfill our worldly wishes – nothing can since samsara is by nature contaminated.  But they can fulfill all our pure wishes.  Like a loving mother who helps fulfill all the pure wishes of her children, Vajrayogini works tirelessly to fulfill all the pure wishes of all living beings.  What are pure wishes?  They are spiritual wishes, such as wishing to abandon lower rebirth, escape from samsara, and gain the ability to lead all beings to enlightenment.  They also include any wish to overcome our delusions, purify our negative karma, or gain any of the realizations of the stages of the path.  Vajrayogini is the real wish-fulfilling jewel who possesses the power to fulfill all the pure wishes of all living beings.  When we recite this verse, we strongly imagine that she does so in an instant and everyone is spontaneously born into the pure land. 

We can recite these Eight Verses anytime, both in meditation and out of meditation.  We can also recite specific lines of the eight verses as targeted prayers for specific situations we find ourselves in.  The effectiveness of our recitations depends primarily upon the purity of our motivation, the depth of our faith, and the extent of our realization of emptiness of all phenomena.  The more we improve these three conditions, the more we will begin to feel Vajraygoini entering into us and accomplishing her function through us in the world.  With deeper experience, it will almost feel like she takes on a life of her own inside of us, spontaneously accomplishing her function in this world.  Once we have a taste of this experience, generating qualified divine pride both in and out of meditation is easy.

May we all come under Vajrayogini’s loving care and behold her sublime face.  May we become empty vessels through which she may accomplish her enlightened deeds in this world, bringing benefit and happiness to ourselves and all living beings in the process.  May she burn away all ordinary appearance and conception until we see ourselves directly as the Vajra Queen.

How to Engage in Sadhana Practice with the Four Pervasive Qualities and all Five Aggregates

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.

Realizing the Emptiness of the Clear Light Mind we Normally See

The way we attain enlightenment is by purifying our very subtle mind of the two obstructions. We do this primarily through the meditation on the emptiness of our very subtle mind. The main purpose of tantric practice is to make manifest our very subtle mind of clear light of bliss in meditation. Once we do so, we then meditate on its emptiness.

The method for realizing the emptiness of anything is to identify how it normally appears to us, then differentiate its different parts, realize it is not the parts individually, the collection of the parts, or separate from the parts. How do we do that with the mind of the clear light of bliss, which is a similitude of a Buddha’s omniscient wisdom and Dharmakaya.

The way we realize its emptiness is by differentiating its parts like we do any other object, in this case the parts being the five omniscient wisdoms. In this case, the parts are mirror like wisdom appearing as clear light, the wisdom of equality manifesting as the feeling of great bliss, the wisdom of individual realization purely discriminating the five omniscient wisdoms as manifestations of their emptiness, the wisdom of accomplishing activities functioning as the purified mental factors holding the meditation on the emptiness of the clear light mind, and the wisdom of the Dharmadhatu cognizing purely the emptiness of the clear light mind. The function of the meditation on the emptiness of the very subtle mind is to completely purify our consciousness of the two obstructions.

An interesting question concerns what subsequently appears as the karmic effect of the mental action of meditating on the emptiness of the clear light mind.

Geshe-la said in Berlin when he was giving teachings on Sutra Mahamudra that the conventional mind is so clear it knows, and the more we realize its clarity the more we understand its power to know – essentially we realize clarity and cognizing are non-dual.

In the same way, it seems to me (but I am not sure since this is far beyond my personal experience) that when we realize the emptiness of the clear light mind and purify it of the two obstructions what appears is the Enjoyment Body and then subsequently the Emanation Body. It is like the clear light, while clear, is not realized at the stage of the union of bliss and emptiness as clear enough. But as we push through into the union that needs learning, we realize it is so clear it appears as the Enjoyment Body and later the Emanation Body. It is like we polish the clear light mind of the two obstructions until it starts to appear as the Enjoyment Body and Emanation Body, first with slight grasping at the duality between the clear light and the subsequent bodies during the union that needs learning until finally that duality is completely removed and we attain the Union of No More Learning.

Normally, we tend to think of the clear light mind as the basic construct of the Matrix – a vast space IN which we can then appear anything. That may work for generation stage, but in completion stage it seems to me the clear light mind is more like a mirror that when sufficiently polished appears AS the subsequent bodies. Just as the convention mind is so clear it knows, the very subtle mind of clear light is so clear it appears.

Geshe-la speaks of realizing the emptiness of the mandala that we normally see in generation stage. We visualize the mandala, but we start to grasp at it as inherently existent. We need to see past that to the union of appearance of the mandala as a manifestation of the emptiness of all phenomena – the union of appearance and emptiness. I believe we need to do the exact same thing with the clear light we normally see. Just as there is the mandala we normally see, so too there is the clear light we normally see. When we see past that, the clear light appears as the subsequent bodies.

The scriptural citation for this is the last paragraph of the Lord of All Lineages Prayer. “Through completing the practice of this clear light I will attain the actual Union of Great Keajra, the state of enlightenment. This is the great kindness of Guru Heruka; May I become just like you.” Completing the practice of clear light means purifying it of the two obstructions until it spontaneously appears as the totality of Great Keajra, which is the Dharmakaya so clear, so empty, it appears spontaneously as non-dual appearance and clarity of the mandala. The Union of Great Keajra is distinct from both the Keajra that we normally see and the clear light that we normally see. An additional citation is in NEOV when it says the third function of the meditation on non-dual appearance and emptiness is “Through meditating on the union of appearance and emptiness we will attain the Union of the state of No More Learning, Buddhahood, in this life.” Put another way, the meditations of the union that needs learning is the completion stage version of the generation stage meditation on non-dual appearance and emptiness.

In short, the clear light Dharmakaya is not our final end state, but the mirror like basis for the other bodies appearing. It is so clear, so empty, it appears.

The Power of Correct Belief

Every stage of the path of both Sutra and Tantra is, in the final analysis, a meditation on correct belief. Understanding what are correct beliefs and how they function is therefore of fundamental importance. For some, this post may seem very technical. But if we understand correct beliefs, I believe we can gain great confidence in our spiritual path. Gen Tharchin said, “when we understand clearly how the Dharma works to produce its effects, effort becomes effortless.”

What is a correct belief?

In How to Understand the Mind, Geshe-la says, “the definition of correct belief is a non-valid cognizer that realizes its conceived object.” In short, a correct belief is the mental action of believing in something that exists and is true. Meditation on correct beliefs transforms them into valid cognizers which know (as opposed to merely believe) the truth of the object. Meditation is the process of familiarizing ourselves with a virtuous object. We do so through study and practice. Study and practice give us the valid reasons and personal experience which establish irrefutably the truth of the objects of our correct belief. Knowledge held by correct beliefs is correct, but vulnerable to doubts. Knowledge held by valid cognizers is also correct, but invulnerable to doubts – it knows the truth.

Before we can appreciate the power of correct beliefs, we must answer a fundamental question of how they are established. In other words, how do we know if a belief is correct or not? Ordinary beings attempt to establish truth by demonstrating something is objectively true. To be objectively true means it is true on the side of the object, and not dependent upon any subjective perception or opinion. But clearly this doesn’t work for Prasangika Buddhists who reject that anything exists on the side of the object. If nothing exists on the side of the object, then nothing can be objectively true. Understanding this can lead many people into an existential crisis – if things can’t be objectively established, then they can’t be established at all, and there is no basis for establishing anything as true. Every subjective opinion becomes equally valid, including genocidal mentalities like Hitler’s, which is a disturbing conclusion to say the least. For this reason, many people wind up rejecting the teachings on emptiness altogether because to accept them leads to terrible consequences – namely the extreme of relativism that all subjective opinions are equally valid to those who hold them.

So how do we escape this conundrum? Dharmakirti’s Commentary to Valid Cognition provides the answer. Lorig is the teachings on how to understand the mind. Lorig can be taught at many different levels depending upon one’s understanding of emptiness. Dharmakirti presents Lorig from the perspective of the Madhyamika Prasangika, or the highest view of emptiness. For modern Kadampas, the book How to Understand the Mind is our commentary to valid cognition from the Prasangika perspective.

Epistemology is the study of how truth is established. All the lower schools of Lorig establish truth on the side of the object – or objectively. The Prasangika presentation of Lorig is a philosophical Copernican Revolution in Buddhist epistemology. Prior to Copernicus, everyone thought the sun revolved around the earth. Copernicus turned all of this on its head by showing the earth revolved around the sun. In the same way, all of the lower schools attempt to establish truth on the side of the object. Prasangikas establish truth on the side of the mind. If the mind knowing an object is valid, then the object known to that mind is valid. If an object is known to be true to a Superior Being (a being who has a direct realization of ultimate truth or emptiness), then that object is established to be true. In other words, an object is true if it is known to be true by a Superior being.

But since we ourselves are not a Superior being, how are we to know what is true to them and how are we to establish what is true? In How to Understand the Mind, Geshe-la provides us with a compass pointing us in the direction of knowing what are valid minds (which in turn know valid objects). A valid mind is one that “leads us in the direction of purity and happiness.” In other words, truth is established by looking at the function of believing something. If believing that thing leads us in the direction of purity and happiness, then it is true. If believing that thing leads us in the direction of impurity and suffering, then it is false. Virtuous minds, by definition, are those that function to make our mind pure and peaceful. Deluded minds, by definition, are those that make make our mind impure and unpeaceful. We distinguish what is a virtuous and what is a deluded mind by looking at the function believing that mind has on our mind. If believing something makes our mind pure and peaceful, we call that something “virtuous.” If believing something makes our mind impure and unpeaceful, we call that something “deluded.” As both Gen Losang and Gen Tharchin often say, “what is true is simply what is beneficial to believe.” If believing something makes our mind pure and peaceful, it is beneficial to believe, and thus established as “true” from a Prasangika point of view. This enables us to escape from the extremes of both objectivism and relativism. Truth can be established on the side of the mind and we can say without a doubt that Hitler is wrong.

In this way, all objects of Dharma – of both Sutra and Tantra – can be established as true. They are known and taught by valid minds, and believing them moves our mind in the direction of purity and happiness.

This then begs the question “how” does believing in correct objects move our mind in the direction of purity and happiness? If we understand this, we will see the power of correct beliefs. In fact, we will see the power of the entire spiritual path since the entire path is a series of meditations on correct beliefs.

The Karma of Correct Beliefs

To understand the power of correct beliefs, we need to understand the karma we create through them. All mental actions create karma, and correct beliefs are mental actions – they are verbs, not nouns. All actions have four karmic effects: the effect similar to the cause, the tendency similar to the cause, the environmental effect, and the ripened effect.

The effect similar to the cause of a correct belief can be understood as follows. The mental action of a correct belief functions to purify the mind of the obstructions that prevent us from realizing directly the truth of that object. Because the object is in fact true and exists, when we engage in the mental action of believing it, it functions to purify our mind of everything preventing us from knowing it to be true. The analogy of the toy snake is very helpful here. If in fact a toy snake exists, the more we investigate our assumption that it is just a toy snake, the more vividly and accurately it will appear to our mind to be a toy snake until eventually we see directly and without a doubt that it is a toy snake. In contrast, the more we investigate carefully our assumption that it is a real snake, the less a real snake will appear and we will discover that despite thinking it was a real snake, we were mistaken – in fact, it is just a toy snake. The same is true for all correct beliefs. The more we investigate them with study and practice, the more they are established in our mind to be true. We transform what was a correct belief into a valid cognizer. In this way, all realizations of Sutra and Tantra are gained.

The tendency similar to the cause of correct belief is a future tendency to more naturally believe correct things. Gen Losang says, “what is natural is simply what is familiar.” When we have familiarity believing something to be true, it becomes more natural for us to believe that thing. Tendencies similar to the cause of correct beliefs are extremely helpful because we build up spiritual momentum within our mind until eventually it becomes like a locomotive barreling down the spiritual track. In space there is no friction, so if force is applied, an object moving through space will gain momentum; and once set in motion, it will keep going forever because there is no friction to ever slow it down. In the same way, the effect similar to the cause removes the karmic friction within our mind preventing us from realizing directly something is true, and the tendency similar to the cause creates self-reinforcing momentum in our mind to realize directly the correct object.

The environmental effect of a correct belief is to abide in an environment which is conducive to believing in correct things. We see this all the time in society. When we are surrounded by people who think in similar ways, we naturally start to think in the same ways – almost through osmosis. Sometimes this socialization effect can be negative – such as hanging out with gangsters – or it can be positive – such as surrounding ourselves with Sangha friends. Milarepa once said he does not need Dharma books because everything confirms the truth of Dharma for him. Why? Because he had ample environmental effects similar to the cause of correct belief ripening. His mind was positioned in such a way through the tendencies and effects similar to the cause to believe correct things that every object in his environment was conducive to him realizing directly the truth of his correct views.

The ripened effect of a correct belief is being born already validly knowing the truth of our correct view. The teachings on karma explain that the only things we take with us into our future lives are our mind and the karma we have planted on it. When highly realized beings die they are able to carry their prior Dharma understandings with them from life to life – they are simply born already having Dharma realizations. Of course there are many degrees of having a Dharma realization, from the initial understandings to yogic direct perceivers. A Buddha has realized directly the truth of all objects of Dharma, and when they are reborn, they retain their enlightened mind forever. This is the final goal of correct beliefs – to gain their ripened effects. The effects similar to the cause, the tendencies similar to the case, and the environmental effects of correct beliefs all eventually lead to the ripened effect of correct beliefs.

Seen in this way, we can understand how fundamentally the entire path is nothing more than meditations on correct beliefs. The mental action of meditation – familiarizing ourselves with the virtuous object – creates the karma that transforms our correct beliefs into valid cognizers.

The Path as Meditations on Correct Beliefs

All our Sutra Lamrim meditations, for example, are meditations on correct beliefs. Each object of the Lamrim is a correct belief. When we contemplate, meditate on, and practice in our daily life the different Lamrim teachings, we add valid reasons and personal experience which transform correct beliefs into valid cognizers. In science, we talk about necessary and sufficient causes. In Buddhism, we talk about substantial and circumstantial causes. The substantial cause of an oak tree is an acorn; and the circumstantial causes are the water, sunlight, and rich soil. In the same way, the substantial causes of valid cognizers are correct beliefs; and our study, meditation, and daily practice of the Lamrim teachings are the circumstantial causes which transform the acorn of our correct beliefs into the oak tree of valid cognizers. Just as you can never have an oak tree without an acorn, no matter how much water, sunlight, and rich soil you add; so too we can never have valid cognizers without correct beliefs, no matter how much study, meditation, and daily practice we add. They are fundamental and foundational.

In Tantra, it is said that all we need to attain enlightenment is faith and imagination. In other words, all we need is correct belief in our pure imaginations. In Tantra, we generate ourselves, our environment, our enjoyments, and our activities into ourselves as the deity, abiding in the pure land, enjoying all things as the dance of bliss and emptiness, and engaging in the enlightened deeds of a Buddha. This is a meditation on a correct belief.

At this point, an objection can arise – how can this be a correct belief if I am not, in fact, a Buddha? Rather, it seems like this is make believe. There are two main answers to this objection. First, this objection is grasping at ourselves inherently being one thing or another from the side of ourselves. But there is nothing about us that exists from the side of ourselves – we are empty of “objective” existence, or existence on the side of the object of ourself. Second, wherever we imagine a Buddha a Buddha actually goes. So if we imagine that our body and mind (and our subtle body and mind) transform into the body and mind of the deity (and our subtle body transforms into the body mandala of the deity), then actual Buddhas enter into our imagination. They are actually there. Wherever a Buddha goes, they perform their function, which is to bestow blessings. A blessing functions to move our mind in the direction of enlightenment, gradually transforming it from an ordinary state into an enlightened state. By imagining ourself, our body, our mind, and our subtle body and mind are all Buddhas, actual Buddhas enter into us and perform their function, which is to bless our mind moving it in the direction of enlightenment. Believing ourself, our environment, our enjoyments and our deeds are completely pure is a mental action. The effect similar to the cause is to purify the obstructions on our mind to seeing ourself directly in this way. The tendency similar to the cause is to build up spiritual momentum or familiarity with seeing ourselves in this way until it becomes entirely natural. The environmental effect will be to come to see our environment as a pure land. And the ripened effect will be to be reborn as the deity in the pure land (or as a Tantric bodhisattva reborn in a pure land so as to complete one’s training). What could possibly be more important than this?

The more we read all of our Dharma books – be they of Sutra or Tantra – the more we realize in the end all of the spiritual path is nothing more than meditations on correct beliefs. Meditating on correct beliefs is the sine qua non of spiritual practice. Or, put more poetically, it is the very heart of the spiritual path from which a thousand million blissful flowers of Dharma realizations may bloom.

Pure View as Compassionate Action

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.

Faith is emptiness in action

In the old days, the Lamrim cycle started with faith and ended with emptiness, but with the New Meditation Handbook, Geshe-la put faith as the last meditation after emptiness. Most people assumed this was done primarily to make it easier for newer practitioners who find faith hard, but I actually think there was a much more profound meaning in this change. Namely, that faith is emptiness in action. Technically, the final meditation is Reliance upon the Spiritual Guide, but we accomplish that primarily through faith. All of the paths of tantra are, fundamentally, practices of reliance upon the Spiritual Guide on the foundation of realizing emptiness.

First some definitions. In Joyful Path of Good Fortune, Geshe-la explains, “Faith is a naturally virtuous mind that functions mainly to oppose the perception of faults in its observed object.” There are three types of faith: believing faith, admiring faith, and wishing faith. Believing faith is essentially believing an object to be true without knowing it directly ourselves. Admiring faith is admiring the good qualities of holy objects, such as the three jewels. Wishing faith is wishing to have those good qualities ourselves. Emptiness is the way things are, as opposed to the way they appear. Fundamentally, emptiness explains that despite things appearing to exist independently of the mind, in fact they are all nothing more than mere karmic appearances to mind, like a dream, with not even the slightest trace of anything existing from its own side – in other words, everything is created by mind. According to Sutra, we say emptiness appears as conventional objects; and according to Tantra we say the emptiness of the very subtle mind of great bliss appears as conventional objects.

On the basis of these definitions, how can we understand faith is emptiness in action? Believing faith is a correct belief in any object that is conducive to our spiritual development. A lot of people have great difficulty with faith because they still have doubts whether what they are believing in is actually true, and since they cannot be sure, they err on the side of not believing the object. But if we understand everything is empty – in other words, nothing is objectively true (by this I mean truth being established on the side of the object) – then there is no basis for this hesitation, since nothing is “actually” true in the sense we mean it. But if there is no objective truth, how then do we establish truth in the Dharma? Technically, we say things are conventionally true if they are known to be true by superior beings. Practically, though, because there is no objective truth we establish truth by examining what is most beneficial to believe. Venerable Tharchin and Gen Losang frequently have said, “what is true or not true is not the point, the question is what is most beneficial to believe.” If believing in a certain way is beneficial, then we can “choose” to believe it to be true because doing so is “conducive to our spiritual development.”

But the relationship between believing faith and emptiness is much deeper – what is in fact true IS what is most beneficial to believe because what is most beneficial to believe is consistent with how things truly are, namely empty. The implication is profound – it means not only can we confidently believe in things that are beneficial to believe, but the North Star for being able to discern what is true is examining what is most beneficial to believe. This protects us from falling into the extremes of nihilism or relativism thinking because nothing is objectively true then either nothing is true or everything is equally true if people believe it to be. Practically, this enables us to let go of our crippling doubts about whether our objects of faith are true or not and allows our mind to play with the dance of beneficial belief. It is enough for us to see the benefits of believing in a certain way, and then we choose to do so on that basis. This is why in our Dharma books every meditation begins with an explanation of the benefits of that particular meditation.

Admiring faith is the ability to see and appreciate the good qualities of the three jewels. Admiring faith makes us marvel at the wonders of virtuous objects, which naturally leads to wishing faith to acquire those good qualities ourselves. But the teachings on admiring faith and pure view can sometimes lead to a great deal of confusion for people, especially when they see “Sangha Jewels” engaging in inappropriate action or they hear their teachers giving “wrong teachings.” Many people wind up abandoning the path as a result, and many centers or their administrators will try deflect blame away from their mistakes by saying the people at the center don’t have sufficiently pure view. Are we supposed to just look the other way and pretend we didn’t see the inappropriate actions or hear the wrong teachings? No, that would be repression of our doubts and the quick path to becoming cult-like in our relation to the Dharma. Are we then supposed to say what is incorrect is somehow correct because we are supposed to be maintaining pure view? No, because then we are believing things that are not beneficial to believe and we are following wrong understandings.

How does understanding the relationship between faith and emptiness enable us to escape these problems? The functional definition of delusion is our mind projects something mistaken onto an object, and then we mistakenly believe that projection to actually be true from the side of the object. The wisdom realizing emptiness completely undermines the premise of all delusions by showing nothing exists on the side of the object, it’s all just projection of our mind. So if we see fault in a holy object, the fault is necessarily coming from our own mind and not the holy object. Admiring faith uses the wisdom realizing emptiness to differentiate the perception of fault in the holy object from the holy object itself, which is without faults. The more we differentiate the two, the more we can appreciate the good qualities of the holy object and not be obstructed by the perception of some fault inherent in the holy object despite it appearing vividly to our mind. In short, we are able to say, “the fault I am perceiving is coming from my mind and not the holy object itself.” In other words, the faulty thing I am seeing is not the holy object, but my misunderstanding of it. To actually “find” the holy object, I need to find a way to see it without fault.

Sometimes when we hear a Dharma teaching, our understanding of its meaning leaves our mind feeling disturbed. This is a perfect sign we have misunderstood the teaching because all Dharma, if understood correctly, functions to make our mind peaceful and happy. So we can correctly say to ourselves, “I must be misunderstanding what is being said because this is making me disturbed,” and then we ask questions until we can understand the subject in a way that leaves our mind peaceful and happy. When somebody in the Sangha does something inappropriate, we can do the same thing. Obviously we don’t say what is inappropriate is somehow appropriate, but we can ask ourselves, “what is this inappropriate behavior teaching me?” Since it is teaching us what is appropriate, we are receiving a perfectly beneficial teaching from the appearance of the inappropriate behavior. This enables us to call out wrong behavior for what it is without it undermining our faith. Then, no matter what scandal befalls what teacher, our faith and conviction in the Dharma just grows stronger and stronger.

But there is a deeper level still to the relationship between admiring faith and emptiness. Sangha, by definition, is somebody who shows us a good example and inspires us to follow the path. So what do we do when they show a bad example? Emptiness is the answer – when they are showing a bad example, they are no longer “Sangha.” The label Sangha can only validly be imputed onto somebody showing a good example. When they are not showing a good example, they are no longer “Sangha.” Nobody is inherently Sangha, and there is no Sangha that exists from its own side. It is perfectly possible for the same person to sometimes show a good example, at which point they are Sangha; and at other times show a bad example, at which point they are not Sangha. Just as somebody can be a temporary emanation, so too somebody can temporarily be Sangha. In a similar way, when we hear faulty Dharma teachings, even from the throne, it can sometimes lead to great confusion. Should we believe the wrong thing to be correct? Or if we see the mistake, do we lose faith in the teacher as no longer being reliable because they made a mistake in their teaching? Of course not. We can either say, “the wrong thing they just said reminds me of the correct thing,” thus enabling us to receive perfectly reliable understandings even though what is being said is incorrect; or we can say, this wrong thing is not ‘Dharma,’ so I don’t have to take it on board and instead I should listen to and focus on what is Dharma in the other things they are saying. Temporary Dharma teachings. Emptiness enables us to differentiate what is to be relied upon and what is not, thus freeing us from grasping at inherently existent three jewels that somehow need to appear to be perfect from their own side. With emptiness, we understand the three jewels become perfect when we view them in a perfect way.

What is the relationship between wishing faith and emptiness? Wishing faith is wishing to acquire ourselves the good qualities our admiring faith appreciated. Wishing faith then induces effort, and effort leads to attainments. But, if we grasp at ourselves and our faults as being inherently existent and unchangeable, then we develop doubts about our ability to actually change, acquire these good qualities, and become a Buddha. Our grasping at ourself as being ordinary keeps us ordinary. When we realize the emptiness of ourself, we realize we become infinitely (and effortlessly) changeable. Ignorance grasping at ourself is like friction on the spiritual path, letting go of that ignorance creates a frictionless progression along the path.

But again, it goes much deeper. All of Generation Stage and Completion Stage of highest yoga tantra is essentially a giant exercise in the relationship between faith and emptiness. Fundamentally, Tantra is quite simple: we change the basis of imputation of our I from our ordinary samsaric aggregates to the completely pure aggregates of the Guru Deity. We mentally generate these pure aggregates, and then identify with them as ourselves. Our faith in our Spiritual Guide makes the aggregates imputedly “pure” and our wisdom realizing emptiness enables us to identify with them without any residual of our ordinary self. It is said all we need to practice Tantra is faith and imagination. We imagine pure worlds, then believe in them as being true. Because they are correct beliefs, with familiarity of believing in our pure imaginations, they become our living reality. Often times people get hung up on self-generation meditations saying, “this is just fantasy land, I’m not really Heruka.” This completely misses the point and comes from a grasping at us actually being one thing or another. To escape this doubt we need to understand the relationship between karma and emptiness. Karma is mental action. We don’t believe we are Heruka because we actually already are, rather we engage in the mental action of believing we are Heruka because doing so creates the karma for us to later appear to ourself directly as being Heruka. Again, what is true or not true is not the point, what matters is what is beneficial to believe. The correct belief of divine pride is a mental action that creates a karma which will ripen in the future of ourselves being Heruka. So we can believe in it fully and without reservation, even though we know we are not yet Heruka.

Further, we are not saying that our ordinary aggregates are Heruka, that would be a wrong conception. Our ordinary aggregates are a valid basis for imputing our ordinary self, but not Heruka. So if in our generation stage meditation, it is our ordinary aggregates appearing, we don’t say they are Heruka, they are the cloud-like obstructions obscuring the mentally generated Heruka we are trying to identify with. We again use emptiness to differentiate the completely pure object we are seeking to identify with and the self that we normally see. As Geshe-la says, without faith we could practice Tantra for a thousand years and never experience any results; but with faith, Tantra becomes the quick path.

For me, Geshe-la moving Reliance upon the Spiritual Guide to the last meditation of the Lamrim cycle is a profound teaching on the critical relationship between emptiness and faith. On the basis of realizing emptiness, we set our faith free to dance.