Vows, commitments and modern life:  Don’t engage in practices without being qualified

Engaging in mandala actions without completing a close retreat.

If we perform a self-initiation, grant initiation to others, or perform a fire puja, and so forth, without having completed the appropriate retreats, we incur a gross downfall.

My understanding is the rationale for this is the same as why we don’t teach Tantra to those who have not received an empowerment and to those who have no faith.  If we have not completed the appropriate retreats or preliminaries, it simply won’t work, and then we can lose faith.  Likewise, when we think we don’t need to complete the necessary retreats to do self-initiation, for example, then we might think we don’t need to go receive highest yoga tantra empowerments from a qualified spiritual guide.  We can just do self-initiation at home.  But then it won’t work and we will gradually lose our faith and interest in Tantric practice.

We can also say to do self-initiation, grant empowerments and so forth without having done the necessary retreats is a form of misuse of the practice.  These precious jewels have been created for the beings of this world, and the only thing that is asked of us is before we do them we become sufficiently qualified to do so.  To do so without having completed the requested preparations is to use something we were not intended to use.  We can even argue it is a form of spiritual theft.  This is especially true when it comes to granting empowerments because here it is not just our own karma at stake, but that of all those we are pretending to grant the empowerment to.  It is pretty safe bet that if you don’t have permission to grant an empowerment to others from a qualified spiritual guide and you do so anyways that it will not only not work, but all involved – especially the teacher – will create all sorts of negative karma for themselves.

To do self-initiation we need to do the close retreat of our Yidam.  If we are a Heruka practitioner, this means we need to do the Heruka close retreat to do the Heruka self-initiation; and if we are a Vajrayogini practitioner, this means we need to do the Vajrayogini close retreat to do the Vajrayogini self-initiation.  So the question arises, “if I have done a Heruka close retreat, can I do the Vajrayogini self-initiation?”  Since Heruka and Vajrayogini are both the same being, just two different aspects, I think we could say “it is not a gross downfall to do the self-initiation of the other deity, but it is not the full empowerment either.”  Doing self-initiation when we have done the close retreat is the same as receiving the empowerment at a festival in terms of our receiving the empowerment and restoring our vows.  It is not the same, however, in terms of the karmic bonds we create with the others who are receiving the empowerment with us.  Venerable Tharchin says everytime we do a puja with others we create the karmic causes to do the same thing with the same people in the future (usually future lives).  So receiving the empowerment with the group gives you the empowerment, restores your vows, and creates the karmic causes to reunite with your Vajra Brothers and Sisters again in the future doing the same thing.  Doing self-initiation alone simply gives you the empowerment and restores your vows.  It is good, but not as good.

However, doing the self-initiation of a deity you have not done the close retreat for (but you have done for that same beings other aspect, namely Heruka or Vajrayogini), I think you can fully restore your vows (because that is the same in both practices), but you can’t receive the full empowerment.  But you can receive very powerful and beneficial blessings.  So it is still a good thing.  I am not 100% if this is correct, but when I was in Paris, I had done my Heruka close retreat but not the Vajrayogini close retreat, and I was nonetheless able to do Vajrayogini self-initiation with others in the center, and I was told I would just receive powerful blessings.  So I don’t think this would be considered a downfall, but it is not the full empowerment either.

Vows, commitments and modern life:  Knowing who to discuss Dharma with

Revealing holy Dharma to those with no faith.

We incur this downfall if we teach Secret Mantra to those who have received an empowerment but who have no faith in Secret Mantra.

In general, we don’t explain Secret Mantra to those who have not received the empowerment and to those who have no faith, but of the two, faith is more important.  The reason why we don’t explain how to practice Tantra to those who have not received an empowerment is if they try practice without having received the empowerment, it simply won’t work.  You can explain to people how to ride a bike until the end of time, and they can understand it perfectly, but if they don’t have a bike, they will never be able to ride one.  It is the same with Secret Mantra.  During the empowerment we receive the “bike” of our personal Yidam into our mind, and then later in our subsequent practice we learn how to ride it.  Without the empowerment, we have no bike.  But since such a bike is not something we can see with our eye awareness, there is a danger that we might think we have a bike when we in fact don’t, or we might not even realize we need one to ride.  So then we put the instructions into practice, they don’t work, and then we conclude, “Tantra doesn’t work.”  This mental conclusion then plants karma on our mind which makes it extremely difficult to ever find the tantric path again, and if we do find it, we will again conclude it is a bunch of nonsense that doesn’t work, and we won’t pick it up.

It is for the exact same reason that even if somebody has received the empowerment, if they lack faith we don’t explain how to engage in Tantric practice.  It is said in Tantra, we only need two things:  faith and imagination.  Somebody may have superb powers of imagination, but if they lack faith the practices will never work.  Why is faith so essential?  Faith functions to open our mind to receive blessings.  It is through receiving blessings that the seed of our Buddha nature can grow.  If a seed lays dormant without water, soil or light, it will never germinate nor grow.  Blessings are the water, soil and light for germinating and cultivating our Buddha seed.  The tantric visualizations and imaginations are merely methods for directing and focusing the blessings in particular ways.

If somebody lacks faith, it is also possible that they might even have a critical mind towards what they hear.  If somebody went into a teaching on highest yoga tantra with a mind full of faith, they could receive tremendous benefit and be inspired to put the instructions into practice.  If somebody went into the same teaching with a critical mind, they would spend the whole time finding fault with the teachings and the teacher, and each mental action in this regard would create terrible negative karma for themselves.  This karma would make it almost impossible to find the Tantric path again, and when they do find it they will again be critical of it.  Another danger is their critical attitude might undermine the faith of others if they start speaking about how they reject everything you are saying.  We have a tendency to believe what other people believe, and we are also far more likely to believe something negative than something positive.

But what about if somebody has faith but no empowerment?  What should we do?  The general rule of thumb is you can explain “about” Tantra, but not how to actually do it.  By explaining about Tantra, they will generate faith in it and a desire to do it, but since they don’t know how to do it, there is no danger of them trying to do it and it not working.  Instead their faith in Tantra combined with their not knowing how to do it will encourage them to go receive the empowerments so that they can start.

When Modern Buddhism first came out, the practice of the Yoga of Buddha Heruka was explained.  But the empowerment given was of Guru Sumati Buddha Heruka, or essentially Je Tsongkhapa.  It was not an empowerment of Heruka and Vajryogini, yet nonetheless people were given the practice and told they can start.  The question is why is this OK but the above is not.  The answer is two-fold.  First, since Heruka is an aspect of Je Tsongkhapa, by directly receiving an empowerment of Je Tsongkhapa we are indirectly receiving at least a similitude of an empowerment into Heruka.  So we may not have a full bike, but we did get some sort of bike.  Second, Guru Sumati Buddha Heruka is Heruka, so in many ways it is a Heruka empowerment, just in a more simplified (though no less powerful) form.

Why is it OK for Geshe-la to publicly publish books on Tantra and why is it OK for me to write all of these blog posts on how to maintain the Tantric vows?  The answer to the latter question is I think (I hope!) very few people would read anything I write unless they are already a Kadampa practitioner and have enough faith to where they see it is worth their time to read through what I have written. In a similar way, somebody who finds one of Geshe-la’s tantric texts at the bookstore will only pick it up, buy it and read it if they have a good deal of faith.  Besides, Geshe-la explains early in the books that without an empowerment it won’t work.  There is a risk somebody could pick up the book, have an unfaithful mind and then try it, but that would seem to be a highly rare occurrence.  So the benefit of making the path available outweighs the slight risk of some people coming to the wrong conclusions.

Vows, commitments and modern life:  Don’t be a pretentious ass like me

Pretending to be a Yogi while remaining imperfect.

We incur this downfall if we claim to be a great Tantric Yogi or Yogini just because we know how to perform Tantric rituals.

I am sure there is some technical definition at which point somebody officially becomes a yogi or yogini, perhaps when they have attained some tantric yogic direct perceivers.  We jokingly refer to people who are really extraordinary practitioners as being “a real yogi” or “a real yogini,” but we know when we say such things it is just a Dharma way of giving a compliment.

However, unfortunately, pretending we are a better practitioner than we actually are is quite common.  There are many reasons why we do this, all of them wrong.

I remember when I first started practicing Dharma, I took to it very quickly.  People would say, “oh, you have a lot of imprints.”  Hearing this, I generated all sorts of pride thinking I was really special.  So unconsciously, I played the part of pretending to be better than I was because it won me praise and compliments.

Before my first festival, it was a time when Geshe-la would still meet with people from centers as a group.  So I gathered everyone in the center together and organized that we collect mandala offerings so that he would meet with us.  I can’t remember how many we collected, but it was a lot and our request was granted, and I thought it’s all because of me, aren’t I so great.  But then, at the festival itself, the meeting was cancelled and I felt spurned – didn’t Geshe-la know what a great practitioner I was, surely he should meet with me.

Later, we went to open up a new branch in Los Angeles.  The center in Los Angeles was actually originally a branch of Santa Barbara, and I remember when we first started.  I taught a couple of classes and led a few meditations, and carried myself off like I was some great practitioner with the students to try inspire them, but in reality my motivation for teaching was polluted by pride and attachment to what other people think of me.

When I went to Paris, my teacher was Gen Lhamo.  She is an incredibly powerful teacher and I really wanted her to like me and think I was a great practitioner.  I thought if she thought I had no problems and was all stable and wise then she would like me more and spend more time with me.  But actually, she saw right through me and instead ignored me in an incredibly skillful way which basically said, “if you have no problems, then I guess you don’t need me.”

When I was in Geneva, I was resident teacher, I was the moderator of NKT-chat, and I was organizing NKTforKids, the early days of Dharma for kids in the tradition.  I thought I was making cosmic contributions to the tradition!  I organized for there to be child care in what used to be the Creperie during the teachings so parents can attend the teachings.  At that time, Geshe-la used to walk through the Creperie on his way to the temple, and there I was waiting for him to pass by.  I was sure when he saw me, he would be filled with delight happy with all I was doing, but instead when he saw me, he rolled his eyes almost in disgust and he blew his nose right as he walked by me not giving me a second look.  I was instantly reminded of Atisha’s advice of blowing away attachment to praise and reputation as we would our nose.  Wrathful, yes; but powerful teaching.

When I first became resident teacher I thought I had to put on a show of being without fault, thinking that I was helping people generate faith in me, and this faith would then help them get more out of the Dharma.  But then Kadam Morten told me once, “there are two types of master, those that show the final result and those that show the path of getting there; and of the two, the latter is more beneficial.”

When I had been moderating NKT-chat for a few years, answering lots of people’s questions, I came to think I was so skilled at explaining Dharma and I knew so much.  I was talking with Kadam Lucy once, asking her questions and she was providing wonderful answers.  I then thanked her for answering all my questions, and I said how nice it was to have somebody who could do so.  She then said, “well what about on NKT-chat, why don’t you ask your questions there.”  I said, “I answer people’s questions there, I can’t get answers there.”  She then said without missing a beat, “funny, I find I have something to learn from everybody who posts there.”

When the Gen-la Samden scandal broke, afterwards Gen-la Khyenrab became the General Spiritual Director.  He spent much of that summer teaching about the dangers of pretention, and how when we pretend to be better than we are, all we do is wind up repressing our delusions until eventually they blow in some dramatic fashion.  This, to me, was one of the most powerful lessons we have as a tradition on the dangers of pretention.

Again and again, my Dharma career has been one episode after another where I thought I was better than I actually was, I overstepped, and then fell flat on my face.  I am sure there will be many more such episodes.  All of this is wrong of course.  Geshe-la is very clear in the lamrim teachings that when we listen to Dharma we should do so with an acute awareness of just how sick we are with delusions.  It is humility that makes us great and pride that makes us fall.

Vows, commitments and modern life:  Don’t withhold Dharma.

Giving false answers to questions asked out of faith.

If someone out of faith asks us a sincere question about Dharma, and out of miserliness we refuse to give a correct answer, we incur a gross downfall.

Generally speaking withholding the Dharma from somebody creates the karmic causes for others to withhold the Dharma from you in the future.  Since finding the Dharma is so rare, it is quite foolish to create such karma for ourselves.

There are many reasons why we might not answer questions asked out of faith.  One might be we simply don’t know the answer, but we are too prideful to admit that we don’t, so we refuse to answer.  A second might be we think by withholding the Dharma I can get the other person to do what I want them to do.  Many parents, for example, will blackmail their kids by withholding their love for them if the kids don’t do as the parents wish.  Such similar abusive behavior can also occur in a student-teacher relationship.  The teacher, of course, might have their rationalizations why their withholding of the Dharma is in the best interests of the student – and sometimes they may be right – but generally speaking we should really check our motivation and wisdom to make sure we are right before we do such a thing.  As a general rule, it is better to err on the side of giving the Dharma than withholding it.

A third reason might be simple laziness.  We know the answer, but just can’t be bothered to take the time to answer.  It sometimes takes a lot of work and commitment of time to answer other’s Dharma questions.  A fourth reason might be we just don’t like the other person.  Even people who have been practicing and indeed teaching for many years will still have preferences within their mind towards some people and aversion towards others.  This likewise happens within a center.  To pretend otherwise is spiritually fatal conceit.  Of course we know we shouldn’t have such preferences, but if we are honest with what is going on in our mind, such preferences exist.  The others in the Sangha are not stupid.  They know when we have such preferences, and if they are not on the receiving end of it, they can generate all sorts of resentments towards ourselves as the teacher or towards other members of the Sangha.

This is why it is generally advisable for members of the Sangha, and Dharma teachers in particular, to make a point of cultivating healthy and happy relationships with those in the Sangha they like the least!  It is too easy to run off with those we like and exclude those we don’t, even if we do so in only very subtle ways.  It is natural, of course, when we are at festivals to spend time with our close Dharma friends who we haven’t seen most likely since the last festival, but then we end up neglecting the students we brought to the festival with us.  While it is a strange sentence to say, we should follow the example of Jesus and Bill Clinton!  If you check, the vast majority of Jesus’s teachings were about reaching out to those who everyone else shuns and condemns.  He made a point of heading straight for those who the culture of his time excluded and through his love he brought them into the fold.  When his disciples would object, he would chastise them for not taking the teachings to heart.  In a similar way, Bill Clinton’s general mode of operation when he is in large crowds is to find the person who is the most excluded and the most marginalized, and he will go right up to them and make them feel like they are the most important person in the world.  Of course, his motivation might not be 100% for doing so, but as a way of going through life it is perfect.

We need to remember that we do not just give Dharma through giving formal Dharma teachings, but rather our every act in this world is an example of giving Dharma.  If there are people who look up to us or who would benefit from our help, but out of laziness, attachment, anger and so forth, we fail to help them it could likewise be considered a transgression of this vow.  There are those who we may have not yet met but could otherwise be helping, but if we fail to do so again motivated by delusion, it could likewise be considered a transgression of this vow.

Giving Dharma is not limited to just giving Dharma advice packages as Dharma advice.  We could be watching a football game with a friend, and simply discussing it in a completely normal way could serve as sharing Dharma wisdom.  Of course we don’t want to be weird about this where people think we are some Dharma robot who starts every sentence with “Geshe-la says,” but when you think about it there is not a single situation that doesn’t directly or indirectly teach some truth of Dharma.  Our job it to simply become aware of this truth, and then share our perspective of things in a completely normal way.  Then, even if we never talk about the Dharma and the other person doesn’t even know we are Buddhists, we wind up having our every word wind up being the sharing of Dharma wisdom.  But if instead, out of attachment to idle chatter, we fail to do so, it could be an example of transgressing this vow.  Just be natural.  If Dharma is within you, by being natural, it will naturally come out in ways others can accept.

Vows, commitments and modern life:  Don’t ruin the party

Fighting or arguing during a tsog offering ceremony.

If we lose pure view of ourself and others, develop anger, and start arguing or fighting we incur a gross downfall.

During a tsog offering ceremony, we imagine that all of the participants are actually heroes and heroines and the ceremony itself takes place in the pure land.  All of the offerings we make are completely pure and they are offered up to the holy beings.  When we are in the presence of influential or well-respected individuals, we are naturally careful to act in respectful ways.  Surely, when we are in the presence of all the Buddhas, we should show the same courtesy.

It is said that one moment of anger directed at a bodhisattva creates incalculable negative karma which will result in many rebirths in hell.  During a tsog offering ceremony, all of the Buddhas of the ten directions enter into the bodies and minds of the practitioners assembled, and so if we generate anger towards one of the participants, it is karmically as if we are generating anger towards the deities within them.

On the surface, it seems highly unlikely that this will happen.  But the reality is different, at least on the inside.  While it is true we are unlikely to enter into open argument with others during a tsog ceremony, internally we may still harbor resentment towards somebody else in the Sangha participating and find ourselves spending our time during the ceremony generating minds of anger towards the person, going over again and again all the different ways in which the person is wrong and faulty.  Sometimes people who do not live in Dharma communities mistakenly think that those who do must all live in such wonderful harmony, after all everybody there is trying to cherish others, practice patience and so forth.  But this confusion belies a failure to understand the cause of disharmony.  Disharmony does not arise because the people around us are do disagreeable, rather it arises because our mind is still infected with anger.  Whether we are with the nicest people on earth or the worst people on earth, if our mind is filled with peace and love, we will feel only peace and love; and if our mind is filled with anger and critical thoughts, we will feel only anger and hostility.

The example is given in the lamrim of the person who thinks they need to get away from everybody to avoid their delusions, but then they find themselves meditating in the cave developing attachment for certain bird songs and aversion to others.  If the mind engages with the world with a deluded outlook, it will project deluded problems onto any appearance, even those one perceives while living within in a Dharma center.  The mind has an uncanny ability to recreate the same problems in any number of circumstances, which shows the problems we experience have nothing to do with the objects we are encountering, but rather have everything to do with our mind.

When problems arise between any two people, whether they live in a Dharma center or outside of one, people have a choice:  either they allow these problems to drive them apart, or they use the problems to draw themselves even closer.  If you spend time with older people who have been together for a very long time and you ask them what is the secret of the longevity of their relationship, they all say the same thing:  “conflicts arise, as they do in every relationship, but we view them as an opportunity to draw closer to one another by working through them.”  Ultimately, any distance we feel with anybody comes from delusion, because at the core we are all inseparably one.  It is only our tight grasping at self and others, and our cherishing of ourselves over others that gives rise to conflicts.  Conflicts, in and of themselves, are not a problem.  Rather, they are an opportunity to train our mind in patient acceptance, love, consideration for others and so forth.  If we view the foibles of whoever we are with through this light, there is great hope that we can build enduring relationships with everyone.

In the context of a Dharma center, we can view all of the problems that arise between its members as emanated by Dorje Shugden to give the people of the center an opportunity to train their mind and gain the realizations that the people of their community need.  Quite often, the problems that arise in a Sangha community are a microcosm of the sorts of problems that tend to arise within the broader community of the city or town where the center is located.  This is not surprising because there are many karmic reasons we find ourselves in a given city and we also tend to get socialized into the delusions of our local culture.  Venerable Tharchin says that the ability of a center to grow depends almost entirely upon the collective realizations of the members of the Sangha and the harmony that exists between them.  If a Sangha community accepts the tensions that invariably arise among the members of the community as an opportunity to gain the realizations that the community needs, then by working through these difficulties they will gain such realizations.  These realizations then act like a spiritual magnet drawing towards the center those who need such wisdom.

Vows, commitments and modern life:  Don’t externalize your practice of Tantra

Showing secret substances to an unsuitable person. 

We incur this downfall if without a good reason we show our Tantric ritual objects to those without empowerments or to those who have received empowerments but who have no faith.  However, if our motivation is to encourage others to develop faith in Secret Mantra we do not incur a downfall.

Our tantric ritual objects include our vajra, bell, inner offering substance and the different objects that are used during Tantric empowerments.  Generally speaking, we keep a cloth over these objects when they are on our meditation table and we are not meditating so that people coming by don’t see them.  We can also put them in a cupboard if we wish.

The reasons for not showing these ritual objects is fairly straightforward.  First, if people have no understanding of Buddhist practices in general and Tantric practices in particular, upon seeing these objects people could generate skeptical or critical minds towards Tantric practice, thinking it is weird or cult-like.  As a result of such thought patterns, they create terrible karmic tendencies to reject the Tantric path in the future when they encounter it again.  In this way, they get close to finding the Tantric path (something exceedingly rare) but then again and again they turn away from it.  To protect people from creating such karma for themselves we need to be skillful.  In a similar way, it is possible that people can see these objects and think they are meaningless.  While not as bad as having a critical mind towards them, such negative tendencies of thought likewise make it harder for people to take up the Tantric path in the future.

An additional reason to not show our ritual objects is to remind ourselves that the Tantric path is a “secret path.”  Secret here does not mean like a “secret society”, but rather secret in the sense of outer, inner and secret practices.  Je Tsongkhapa’s tradition unites Sutra and Tantra by explaining that externally we show the aspect of observing pure Pratimoksha vows, internally we generate a mind of bodhichitta and with this mind engage in the six perfections, and secretly we engage in highest yoga tantra.  It is not secret from others, rather it is hidden within our Bodhichitta motivation and indeed within our subtle body.

A further reason is some types of realization or inner experience get destroyed when we externalize them.  Just as old-style camera film gets ruined when exposed to light, so too many tantric realizations can be lost if they are prematurely externalized before they are fully ripened.  In particular, when we are on retreat we need to be careful in that externalizing our experiences might bring them to an end.  In general, we do not speak openly about our tantric experiences, but rather do so privately with trusted Sangha friends and teachers.

We might ask, “if all of this is true, why then do we put these ritual objects on sale to the public in the Dharma shops in our centers?”  The reason this is OK is within the context of a Dharma center it is perfectly normal to have such objects, so nobody would think it is strange.  Likewise, most of the people who come into a Dharma center will have at least enough faith to have wanted to seek out instructions, so there is no downfall.

Vows, commitments and modern life:  If you are going to have sex, do it right

Engaging in union without three recognitions.

The three recognitions are to recognize our body as the body of a Deity, to recognize our speech as mantra, and to recognize our mind as the Truth Body.  When we engage in union with somebody, we should strive to maintain these three recognitions.  Our motivation for doing so should be as qualified of a bodhichitta as we can generate.  Of course our motivation will not be fully qualified, but we shouldn’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.  Our motivation will be mixed, but we strive to move it in the direction of being increasingly qualified.

To recognize our body as the body of the deity does not mean we should look at our ordinary body and impute upon it “deity body.”  Our ordinary body is not a valid basis of imputation for a deity body, though it is a valid basis of imputation for imputing a human body.  Rather, the meaning here is within our mind we generate the deity body per the instructions explained in the Tantric teachings, and upon this mentally generated deity body we impute “my body.”  In this way, the deity body becomes “our body” and then with this deity body we engage in union.  Likewise, we should mentally generate our tantric consort, and then upon that mental generation impute “my partner’s body.”  Then, mentally we imagine that it is these two imagined deity bodies who are engaging in union.  Of course, there will quite likely still be some awareness of the fact that the two human bodies are also engaging in union, and while still remaining natural in the act, we should mentally practice “non-ascertaining perceivers” with respect to the ordinary bodies engaging in union, and instead focus our attention on the imagined deity bodies doing so.

To recognize our speech as the mantra has two layers of meaning.  The first is whatever sounds arise while we are engaging in union, we should mentally imagine that they are the mantra appearing in the aspect of these sounds.  Alternatively, while our ordinary human ears may be hearing ordinary sounds, we imagine that our pure deity ears are hearing the mantra in exactly the same way as we do with our deity body.  The second layer of meaning is the inner essence of mantra is our inner energy winds.  In Tantric Grounds and Paths it explains the relationship between our inner energy winds and mantras.  The meaning here is as we engage in union, we try stay focused on the flows of our inner energy winds, recognizing them as being inseparable from the mantra.  In Essence of Vajrayana it explains a special practice where we can imagine mantras circling between the two central channels as you engage in union with your consort.  This can be done, while mentally reciting mantras, while you are engaging in union.  Additionally, in a variety of the tantric texts, it explains how we can imagine our winds and drops rising and descending within our central channel giving rise to the four joys.  These can also be done in the context of viewing our speech as the deity’s mantra.

To recognize our mind as the Truth Body likewise has two layers of meaning.  The first is we mentally imagine that the imagined deity bodies engaging in union are like pure waves arising from the ocean of the clear light emptiness of the Truth Body.  While conventionally there are appearances, they are seen as inseparable from the underlying Truth Body, like a wave is inseparable from its ocean or a coin is inseparable from its gold.  If it helps, we can mentally recite “thought it appears, it does not truly exist” over and over to help us maintain this mental recognition.  It is important to remember that in our tantric practices, bliss and emptiness are united inseparably.  An easy way to think about this is while our mental factor discrimination cognizes emptiness, our aggregate of feeling experiences great bliss – or quite simply, bliss is what emptiness feels like.

The second layer of meaning is the purpose of generating bliss is to meditate on emptiness.  It is often said that Tantric practices gives us methods for transforming attachment into the path.  This is not exactly accurate.  Actually, it is transforming the pleasant feelings that normally arise from our objects of attachment into the path.  The way we do this according to Tantra is as follows.  Imagine by engaging in union you generate some pleasant feelings (hopefully, at least!).  Normally, we generate attachment thinking that it is the external object that has some power to give us good feelings.  Instead, here, we try to decouple the external object from the experience of the pleasant feelings.  We meditate on the emptiness of the external object giving rise to our pleasant feelings, in this case our partner we are engaging in union with, while still trying to maintain the continuum of the pleasant feelings themselves.  So whereas before what appeared to our aggregate of discrimination was our partner and what was experienced by our aggregate of feeling was something pleasant, now what appears to our aggregate of discrimination is the clear light emptiness of our partner but our aggregate of feeling still experiences the same pleasant feelings.  Indeed, if done correctly, the pleasant feelings should feel infinitely more qualified and sublime, as if the separation between ourself and the pleasant feelings dissolves away completely.  We then focus our attention on this union of bliss and emptiness for as long as possible.

Of course in the beginning, our practice of any of these methods will not be very qualified.  That’s entirely normal and perfectly OK.  The only way we get good at anything is through practice.  We do not need to actively seek out engaging in union with others for this purpose, rather when through the course of the normal flow of our karma we find ourselves engaging in union, we try to transform it in these ways.

Vows, commitments and modern life:  What if my partner is not a HYT practitioner?

The Gross Downfalls of the Secret Mantra Vows

The gross downfalls of the Secret Mantra vows primarily relate to sustaining the circumstantial causes for maintaining our other Tantric vows.  The other Tantric vows can be likened to the substantial causes for maintaining the uninterrupted continuum of our Tantric practice until we attain enlightenment, and the gross downfalls relate to abandoning the circumstantial conditions that could cause us to abandon the Tantric path.

Relying upon an unqualified mudra. 

An action mudra must have received a Tantric empowerment, keep the Tantric commitments, and understand the meaning of the two stages of Secret Mantra.  If we rely upon an unqualified consort solely out of desirous attachment we incur a gross downfall.

This vow often gives rise to a good deal of confusion.  First, what is an action mudra?  An action mudra is an imagined or real tantric consort with whom we engage in union in the context of our Tantric practice.

Second, why do Tantric practitioners rely upon Action Mudras?  We could doubt thinking it was explained earlier that qualified tantric practice has nothing to with the popular cultural conceptions surrounding “Tantric Sex” and now there is discussion of precisely this.  Tantric sex as understood in popular culture has as its goal to spice up our sex life and make it seem more exotic.  Engaging in union with an action mudra has as its goal to cause all of our inner winds to gather, absorb and dissolve into our central channel at our heart, so that we may make manifest the mind of great bliss.  We do so not because it is a supremely pleasant mind, but rather because it is only our very subtle mind of great bliss that can mix inseparably with the very subtle object emptiness, like water mixing with water.  When we realize emptiness directly with our very subtle mind of great bliss, it has the power to uproot all of the contaminated karma we have accumulated since beginningless time in as little as three years or even three months.  Due to the special blessings and flows of the inner energy winds when engaging in qualified union, we can untie completely the last remaining knots, or obstructions, within our subtle body preventing all of the inner winds to gather and absorb into our central channel at our heart.  Besides the clear light of death, engaging in union with an action mudra, or realizing our very subtle mind through the Ganden Oral Lineage instructions of transforming the clear light of sleep explained in Mahamudra Tantra, there is no other way to untie completely all of our inner knots.

Third, when should we engage in union with an action mudra?  If we are an ordained person, we should not do so.  Doing so would bring the Sangha into disrepute.  While it is true, by doing so we may in theory attain enlightenment a few years earlier than we otherwise would if we waited until the clear light of death, in reality the harm we would do by conventionally appearing to break our vows, etc, far outweighs the marginal benefits of attaining enlightenment slightly sooner.  While I don’t know, it would seem to me that breaking our vows in this way would actually make it impossible to attain enlightenment sooner, so I highly doubt such a strategy would even work.  But I am not sure about this point.  Regardless, the conclusion is the same, if we are an ordained person we do not take an action mudra.

If we are lay Tantric practitioner, the appropriate time to take an action mudra is once we have attained isolated speech of completion stage.  This is an extremely advanced realization only attained when we are very near enlightenment.  While I cannot say about anybody else, this realization appears to be a very long way off in my mind.  I struggle to hold my meditation objects for more than a few seconds, much less be anywhere near isolated speech.  This does not mean we must wait to attain isolated speech before we engage in union with an Action Mudra, but according to the Tantric teachings that is time at which it becomes appropriate and indeed advised to do so.

A qualified Action Mudra is somebody who has received highest yoga tantra empowerments, is keeping their commitments purely and understands the meaning of the two tantric stages.  Sometimes this can give rise to a doubt, “since my spouse does not have all (or any) of these qualifications, does it mean that I am breaking my Tantric vows every time I engage in union with him or her?  Does this mean we need to divorce our spouse and marry somebody from the Sangha?  Of course not. First, since we have not yet attained isolated speech our engaging in union now is at most a similitude of engaging in union with an action mudra, like practicing before the actual thing.  Second, if we mentally imagine that our partner is Heruka or Vajrayogini while we are engaging in union, then there is no fault because Heruka and Vajrayogini are qualified action mudras.  Third, this downfall only occurs if we engage in union solely out of desirous attachment.  If part of our motivation is spiritual, even just love of our partner wanting to make them happy, then our motivation is not solely desirous attachment.

Fourth, just as it would be inappropriate and bring the Dharma into disrepute for an ordained person to engage in union with an action mudra while still ordained, it would also bring the Dharma into disrepute if it came to be understood to mean people are required to divorce their partners if they are not highest yoga tantra practitioners. I would argue that if a lay Tantric practitioner has likewise attained isolated mind and it is time for them to engage in union with an Action Mudra but their spouse is not a qualified action mudra, then it is equally appropriate for this practitioner to delay their loosening of the final knots of the central channel at the heart until the clear light of death.  The one exception to this would be if the practitioner’s spouse gave them permission to do so as an act of love and compassion.  While at present, that may seem unthinkable that our partner would grant such permission, we never know how the karma will be ripening at the time of our attainment of isolated speech.  Until then, we really shouldn’t worry about such things and instead focus on transforming our engaging in union with our spouse into the path as explained earlier and as will be explained later.

Vows, commitments and modern life:  Always turn towards the Mahayana

The additional commitments of abandonment. 

These are to abandon the causes of turning away from the Mahayana, to avoid scorning gods and to avoid stepping over sacred objects.

The causes of turning away from the Mahayana are the opposite of the causes of turning to it.  The causes of turning to it are the minds of wishing love, bodhichitta, confidence that we can succeed at becoming a Buddha if we persevere and allowing ourselves to come under the influence of our Sangha friends.  Therefore, the causes of turning away from the Mahayana is abandoning love or generating hatred for others; abandoning the wish to attain enlightenment, settling for a lesser goal; becoming discouraged thinking we will never succeed in our spiritual training; and coming under the influence of those who think the spiritual path is a waste of time.

We tend to think of our practice as something we do, as opposed to an actual life.  Just as we need to feed our body and maintain good health to keep our normal life alive, so too we need to feed our spiritual body and maintain good spiritual health to keep our spiritual life alive.  If we neglect the health and well being of our normal life, or we engage in reckless behavior, there is a danger we may lose our life, or at least die sooner.  In exactly the same way, if we neglect the health and well being of our spiritual life, or we engage in reckless spiritual behavior, there is a danger we may lose our spiritual life, or at least have it end sooner.  It is perfectly possible, indeed common, for someone’s spiritual life to die long before their ordinary life does.  We feed our spiritual life by eating a rich diet of virtue, primarily through meditation and accumulating merit.  We keep our spiritual life healthy by maintaining our moral discipline.  Moral discipline, especially done with a spiritual motivation, creates the substantial cause for higher and higher forms of spiritual life.  We do not have to die and take rebirth for such seeds to ripen, but within our present human body have our spiritual life progress from being an ordinary small being all the way to a fully enlightened being.  Moral discipline is a true wish fulfilling jewel.

Ordinary beings often worship gods and demi-gods, turning to them for help and protection.  But there is a danger that bodhisattvas can out of pride wind up scorning such beings.  It is true that a spiritual being is a higher form of rebirth than being born as a god or a demi-god.  The reason for this is clear:  gods and demi-gods have little to no opportunity to engage in the spiritual path, whereas humans can.  But gods and demi-gods are preoccupied with the pleasures and struggles of samsara, and so they have little interest in making spiritual progress.  It is not at all uncommon for Dharma practitioners to develop haughty minds thinking that they are better than others because they are spiritual practitioners.  The fact that such minds are completely at odds with the Dharma doesn’t seem to stop us from generating them.  In the same way, even high bodhisattvas can generate similar minds towards gods and demi-gods.  It is also possible that we can fail to understand and generate compassion for the sufferings of gods and demi-gods, and as a result they fall outside the scope of our compassion and love.  We may effortlessly generate love for those who suffer samsara’s manifest sufferings, but struggle to do so for the rich, powerful and sublime.  We do so only because we still think samsara’s pleasures are good as opposed to deceptive.  Finally, just as it is a fault to scorn women or men in general because there are many emanations amongst them, so too it is a fault to scorn gods and demi-gods because there are many emanations amongst them.  Emanations do not just appear in the human realm, but they do so in all six realms.  They do not just take the form of spiritual teachers, but can take any form, from a crazy person to a spoon.  Since we cannot say for certain who is and who is not an emanation, better to scorn nobody.

Finally, we also need to abandon mistreating sacred objects.  Stepping over them is just one example, the actual meaning here is mistreating them in any way.  We should view our Buddha statues as actual emanations of Buddhas.  What appears to our eye awareness may be some finely shaped metal, but with our mental awareness we see a living Buddha sitting there, ready to communicate with us and bestow upon us their blessings.  Recently, they started making statues of Geshe-la.  We should not think of this as a mere statue, but as a living emanation of Geshe-la in our very room.  If we have faith and pure view, we can learn to communicate with him in almost exactly the same way we would with anybody else in our room.

In a similar way, we should view our Dharma books as the living speech of Buddha in this world.  Geshe-la said that he has blessed his books, Joyful Path in particular, where we can with faith ask it a question, then flip randomly to some page, and the answer to our question will be on that page.  I have tried this many times, and it definitely works.  It is not always immediately obvious how what is on that page is the answer to our question, but it will be revealed to us over time.  In the Lamrim teachings, Geshe-la advises us to read our Dharma books in a particular way.  We should do so understanding we are sick with delusions and the words we are reading are the remedy.  As we read, we should feel as if it is our spiritual guide speaking to us directly, compassionately explaining to us how to overcome our troubles.  If we approach our Dharma books in this way, we will come to view them as magical telephones through which we can communicate directly with our spiritual guide.  The words on the page may be the same each time, but due to the special blessings we will receive in dependence upon reading them with faith and a wish to get better, the understandings we gain from reading will be different every time.  We can read the same book 100 times, but with a different mind each time, and get something completely different out of our reading every time.  The secret is to not read the books as intellectual information, but rather to clearly have our inner problem in mind and to read the books as our personal advice for how to solve our problem.  If we do this, our Dharma books will come to be seen as our most precious possessions, our most trusted friends.

In a similar way, our vajra can be seen as our realization of great bliss, our bell can be seen as our realization of emptiness, our mala can be seen as the speech of all the Buddhas, our mandala kit can be seen as an inexhaustible fountain from which we can draw merit and good fortune at will, and so forth.  These objects are ordinary if we relate to them with an ordinary mind, but they become magical when we relate to them with a magical, spiritual mind.

If we come to view our Dharma objects in these ways, we will naturally come to treat them with respect without having to make a special effort to do so.  In the meantime, everytime we see that our Dharma objects are not being treated with the respect they deserve we can use that as a reminder to consider how truly miraculous they are and then we set things right by treating them respectfully.  If we train in this way, it won’t be long before treating them with respect becomes second nature.

Vows, commitments and modern life:  How to rely upon the Spiritual Guide

The commitments of reliance.

The commitments of reliance are to rely sincerely upon our Spiritual Guide, to be respectful towards our vajra brothers and sisters and to observe the ten virtuous actions.

To rely sincerely upon our spiritual guide means, quite simply, to regard him or her as a Buddha and to sincerely put into practice the instructions we have received.  It is said that we have the realization of reliance upon the spiritual guide if when we think of Buddha, we think our spiritual guide; and when we think of our spiritual guide, we think Buddha.  When we have both directions simultaneously our understanding is correct.

The reason why it is important to view our spiritual guide as a Buddha is because if we view him in this way, we will receive the blessings of all of the Buddhas through him.  The spiritual guide acts like a focal point through which all of the Buddhas can help us.  He is like the internet browser through which you access the enlightened internet.  If we view our spiritual guide as an ordinary being, we will only receive the blessings of an ordinary being.  Ultimately, our ability to gain Dharma realizations depends entirely upon receiveing the blessings of our spiritual guide.

Likewise, the benefit we receive when listening to teachings depends almost entirely upon our view of our spiritual guide.  Two people, one full of faith the other full of criticism can listen to the exact same teaching and the former will receive great benefit whereas the latter will actually just accumulate negative karma.  The former will feel like they are being given the answers to all of their biggest problems, whereas the latter will spend the whole time cataloging all the faults of the teacher in front of them.  Geshe-la explains that when we receive teachings, we should believe the living Je Tsongkhapa enters into our spiritual guide and teaches through him.  Our actual spiritual guide is Lama Tsonngkhapa, and the person sitting on the throne in front of us is like a stereo speaker.

Additionally, if we ourselves are a teacher we could try give the teachings ourselves, but we would most likely just make a mess of things.  Instead, we should bring our living spiritual guide into our heart, generate a pure motivation wishing to transmit the Dharma that the people in front of us need, and then request him with faith to teach through us.  If we do this correctly, we will feel the spiritual guide enter into us and we will sometimes be amazed at what comes out of our mouth, things we have never understood before.  We can also do this when we are simply with friends, listening to their troubles.  We imagine that they are not telling us their difficulties, but rather they are telling our spiritual guide at our heart, and we don’t give any answers, but we request him to speak through us.

Further, regarding our spiritual guide as a Buddha is the lifeblood of our tantric practice.  When we engage in our self-generation practice we imagine not simply that we are generating as our Tantric Yidam, but rather we are actually mixing our mind completely with our guru’s mind in the aspect of our Yidam.  By doing this, all of the Buddhas of the ten directions enter into our self-generation practice and give it great power.  During the meditation break, we view all forms as the guru-deity’s body, all sounds as his pure speech, and all thoughts as arising from his omniscient wisdom.

To sincerely put his instructions into practice means to just be happy to do our best.  There is no expectation that we be able to put the instructions into practice perfectly.  All of our Dharma training ultimately is a process of creating new mental habits for ourselves.  This takes time and it takes effort.  So we need to be patient and not expect immediate results.  Likewise, we should not expect the virtuous habits we are trying to cultivate to feel “natural” or “spontaneous” in any way.  Many people think that feelings like love, compassion and bodhichitta should be natural and spontaneous to be genuine, and so when it doesn’t feel that way they conclude it is “artificial” and “not real.”  Gen-la Losang explains that what is natural is simply what is familiar.  Right now, delusions come naturally and spontaneously and our virtues feel forced and weak.  This is normal.  But with enough effort over a long enough period of time, we will gradually develop new habits of mind.  At that point minds of love, compassion and so forth will come naturally and spontaneously.

We should understand that progress with realizations is not a linear, where day after day, year after year, things get better.  Sometimes we will be focusing really intently on overcoming a particular delusion and then for many years it will not arise strongly.  We may think we’ve got that one down, and then all of a sudden, out of left field, the delusion rises up with a vengeance.  When this happens, it is easy to become despondent thinking we are regressing.  But actually, this is just the beginning of Round 2 with that particular delusion!  We have countless deluded tendencies similar to the cause on our mind, and just because we work through one doesn’t mean there are not more after that.  But normally we will found Round 2 easier than Round 1, and Round 3, when it comes, will be easier still.  Even if it does get harder, that will merely mean we are opposing a stronger deluded seed, not that our mind is any weaker.

The commitments of reliance also mean we should act respectfully to our vajra brothers and sisters.  The reality is we are social beings.  Whoever we spend time with, we naturally become socialized into their way of being.  It is said we become the average of the five people we spend the most time with, so choose who that is wisely!  If we spend time with people who get drunk all of the time, we will probably do the same; if we spend time with people who practice virtue all of the time, we will likewise probably do the same.  We often think we learn the most from the teachings we listen to, but the reality is we learn the most through osmosis of hanging out with our spiritual friends.  It is very easy for us to neglect the importance of the Sangha Jewel.  We know the Dharma jewel is our ultimate refuge and we see the value of the Buddha Jewel in our life, but we tend to forget about or belittle the importance of the Sangha Jewel.  As a result, it is very easy for us to begin to drift away from our Sangha friends more and more until eventually we never see any of them.  Then we become re-socialized into being a samsaric being.  It is said that everytime we do a puja with our Sangha friends we create the collective karmic causes to do the same thing again in the future.  When we deeply understand how truly hard it is to find a precious human life, spending time with Sangha will become a big priority for us.  We don’t have to do pujas all of the time, we can just go get a coffee together or even chat on Facebook.  The point is make it a priority to cultivate close relationships with your Sangha friends.

Lastly, the commitments of reliance also mean relying upon the 10 virtuous actions.  The 10 virtuous actions are the karmic opposites of the 10 non-virtuous actions.  It is not enough to just abandon our non-virtue, we must also train in their opposites.  It is not enough to just abandon killing, we need to proactively save life.  It is not enough to avoid divisive speech, we need to proactively try heal divisions between people, and so forth.  Engaging in the 10 virtuous actions are called paths because engaging in such actions lead us to the higher realms, liberation and full enlightenment.