The Tantric journey

The meditation we did in that last article — Highest Yoga Tantra: the quick path to enlightenment — was to provide a taste of what we can expect in Highest Yoga Tantra, where we purify our mind at its deepest level.

If everything is the nature of our mind, and we can gain the experience that everything is the nature of our very subtle mind of great bliss, then it follows that everything will be exceedingly blissful day and night in life after life.

To understand how everything can be a manifestation of great bliss, we need to understand the different levels of our mind. Then we need to know how to manifest and use our very subtle mind. This is where Highest Yoga Tantra really comes into its own.

Buddha didn’t talk about levels of mind in Sutra. If we practice Sutra alone, we’ll gain all the realizations of Sutra, including emptiness, with our normal waking awarenesses. In Highest Yoga Tantra, we learn to realize emptiness and everything else with our very subtle mind, the so-called “clear light of bliss”.

The different levels of mind

In the modern materialistic world, it is generally assumed that reality is what we experience when we are wide awake – at that time we are considered to be in tune with reality, whereas when we’re dreaming everything is highly subjective and not real at all.

This is because most people don’t know much if anything about their deeper levels of mind or awareness. Our waking mind is the grossest level of our mind and, as it happens, the most dualistic and mistaken. All those solid real things appearing to it right now don’t exist at all; these are just mistaken appearances. Therefore, our waking mind is, in important ways, our least reliable mind. It is also just as subjective as our dreaming mind. And our dreaming mind is also unreliable, as we know already. It turns out that the only mind we can fully trust is our very subtle mind.

This is all explained succinctly and powerfully in How to Understand the Mind:

The gross mind 

During our waking life we normally use gross minds such as our eye awareness through which we can see things, ear awareness through which we can hear sounds, nose awareness through which we can smell, tongue awareness through which we can taste, body awareness through which we can experience tactile objects, and mental awareness through which we strongly think ‘I’ and ‘mine’. These awarenesses are gross minds because they are relatively easy to recognize. Without these awarenesses we cannot communicate with others and we cannot perform our daily activities.

We must be awake to do most things at the moment! And so must all the other people around us. We can only get our to-do list done and communicate with each other while using our grosser levels of awareness. However, as Geshe Kelsang says, all these awarenesses, even the good ones, are mistaken awarenesses!

What is mistaken about them?

They perceive inherently existent objects, which do not exist, and therefore they cause us to experience suffering.

And there you have it. Nothing is really there but it appears to be. Right now we have little choice but to use our gross waking minds, and yet they are all mistaken in this way, which leads directly and indirectly to our daily suffering. So that sucks.

For example, when our mental awareness thinks ‘I’ or ‘me’ through perceiving either our body or mind, we mistakenly perceive our body or mind to be our self.

Although we perceive it (or appear it), there is no self anywhere to be found in our body or our mind. Right now, for example, as you read this, you can ask yourself, “Who is sitting here reading this?” Ans: “I am.” That me or I seems to be sitting right here reading. But if we go looking for this I, we will not find it anywhere either in our body sitting here or in our mind comprehending what we are reading, or in the combination of the two. This searching and not finding is the meditation on the emptiness or true nature of things.

However, if we don’t go looking for it, our self will continue to appear to exist somewhere within our body and mind, and:

Because of this when our body is sick we think ‘I am sick’, when our body is old we think ‘I am old’, and when our mind “experiences suffering or pain we think ‘I am suffering’ or ‘I am in pain.’

There is no I there, but we believe there is, so our waking mind is in a constant state of hallucination! Is it any wonder we experience one pain after another? As Venerable Geshe Kelsang says:

We experience suffering and problems throughout our life and in life after life without end.

If all our waking minds are mistaken awarenesses, then definitely we are not tuned into reality when we are awake. We all keep trying to make this work, to find real happiness within this hallucination. But we can’t. Grasping at it produces more and more delusion, contaminated karma, and suffering — samsara just gets longer. As Geshe Kelsang says:

This is our normal painful situation. Understanding this we should develop renunciation, the sincere wish to liberate ourself permanently from this hallucination by realizing the true nature of things, the emptiness of all phenomena.

The subtle mind

Dream minds are called subtle minds because they are difficult to recognize and to use.

During sleep while we are dreaming we use subtle minds such as our dream eye awareness, ear awareness, nose awareness, tongue awareness, body awareness and mental awareness, through which we experience the appearance of various kinds of dream things. All these appearances are mistaken appearances.

It’s hard for us to keep any mindfulness together when we’re dreaming, which explains why our dreams are so weird, except while they’re happening when they seem completely normal. That’s the point – we don’t usually know we’re dreaming and so we just believe it’s all happening and go along with it, even when the story line is totally random and things are popping up all over the place. With no mindfulness we cannot keep the plot together for any length of time at all.

We have the same reactions and delusions in our dreams as when we’re awake because the ignorance is the same — asleep or awake, we believe that what we’re seeing has nothing to do with our mind, that it is out there, really happening. However, we only notice our mistake and feel somewhat foolish once we wake up.

Eyes wide open  

Recently, I’ve been helping care for someone dementia. He has periods of lucidity when he knows moreorless what is going on and what things are, and periods of dullness and confusion when he might think the bed is the chair or not recognize his surroundings, “I am in someone else’s house.” Over the months and years that this dementia has been growing, I have several times tried to get to the bottom of how he feels and, as I suspected, when he is not lucid he fees as if he is asleep and dreaming, even though he is wandering around with his eyes open. “I haven’t woken up yet”, he says, whilst trying to navigate the room. At those times we have far less shared reality, so it is harder to converse or get him to follow simple instructions, and he panics more easily.

I have been thinking that we are all a bit like that – sometimes we’re lucid, but sometimes we feel dull, out of it, half-asleep, or perhaps day-dreaming, and just want to be left alone.

I have also been thinking that even when we are lucid, it is still only a relative lucidity. Our delusions are still relating to things that are not actually there! When we get angry, for example, the inherently unpleasant person we’re angry with doesn’t exist at all, no more than the chair as a bed – we too are in our own private fantasy. When we develop non-deluded minds such as compassion, things are still appearing as real, ie, we still have mistaken appearances. However, we are not apprehending or believing these inherently existent things, which is a huge improvement that’s taking us in the right direction.

The only true lucidity is when we know we are hallucinating.

No real meaning

Geshe Kelsang then says something a little bit devastating:

Because the appearances in our dreams and during our waking life are all mistaken appearances and hallucinations, our normal activities both in dreams and while we are awake have no real meaning.

Hang on a minute! No real meaning?!!! That’s a bit strong! Can it be true?

Let’s say we have a dream where we believe it’s all happening and we do lots of activities, really thinking we are going places – travelling, getting things done, meeting people, having a rich full life. Then we wake up.

Where did that go?! And where is the meaning in it?

It is the same with this waking life. We run around all our life going places trying to get things done. Then we die, and all these appearances dissolve away. (They even dissolve away each night when we fall asleep.) Why do they disappear? Because, however real they seemed, they were only ever appearances to begin with.

This is not to say we should just give up and be lazy and not bother being kind, etc. If we do good things in our dreams, for example, we will experience a happier more harmonious life and create good karma. Karma is definite precisely because everything is empty of independent existence and therefore totally dependent-related – being kind to others will result in happiness and being cruel will not. Therefore, if we don’t want to suffer, we have to observe the laws of karma.

So, what we do is not completely meaningless – that is not what’s being said here. Because our normal activities do have relative meaning, practicing the method teachings such as compassion, moral discipline, faith and all the rest will make our life meaningful and joyful. More about that here. However, our normal activities have no real meaning because we keep buying into something that just isn’t there.

If our normal activities in dreams and while we are awake have no real meaning, where does that leave us?!

It leaves us with the need to learn how to use our very subtle mind as explained in Highest Yoga Tantra.

Out of time, hoping to carry on in the next article … comments and questions welcome below!

Just a couple of practical points before you go …

I’ve been writing these recent articles in preparation for the Highest Yoga Tantra Festival coming up in two short weeks. The empowerments of Heruka and Vajrayogini take place from Friday to Sunday at 4 set times, so people will have to carve out the weekend to attend. They are also longer than other Tantric empowerments, with no intervals, so best not to plan lunch in the middle. And, while this may sound obvious, given our (my!) increasingly casual approach to livestream events, I think we’ll get the most out of these precious empowerments if we approach them with a more mindful mindset and planning to be as undisturbed as possible. The subsequent commentaries are available to view more at our leisure as needs be over the next couple of weeks.

Related articles 

Find all the articles on Tantra in one place

Highest Yoga Tantra: the quick path to enlightenment

Today I read an alarming statistic about loneliness in people aged 13-24 and all the reasons for it, which are sad. I was thinking, “If even our young are lonely, what does that say about our old? Those who can barely make it to their own front doors even when there isn’t a raging pandemic?” Despite brief flashes of excitement — such as England almost but not quite winning the European Football Championship last night* — there are so many recurring and new problems in the world, including loneliness. It has always been like this in samsara. According to Buddha, the only way to solve suffering for good is to realize our enormous spiritual potential by transforming our mind and heart.

Everyone’s going to attain enlightenment one day because we have Buddha nature and because the methods for attaining enlightenment exist — so the way I see it is that we may as well do it now rather than wait several more aeons. Waiting for conditions to improve isn’t going to work. Nor is waiting for rest of the world to change. I think that’s pretty clear by now.

As mentioned in the last article, the Tantric opportunity:

In his Sutra teachings Buddha gives us great encouragement to accomplish the ultimate goal of human life. ~ Modern Buddhism

This ultimate goal is the full realization of our spiritual potential, aka enlightenment, which gives us the ability to help each and every living being every day through our blessings and emanations. It’s hard to imagine a higher goal. And as Geshe-la goes on to say:

This goal will be accomplished quickly through the practice of Tantra.

There is a slow way to enlightenment and there is a fast way. According to Sutra, it takes literally aeons to become a Bodhisattva, practice the six perfections, and attain enlightenment. According to Tantra, we can get the job done in one lifetime! Once we’re interested in attaining enlightenment, therefore, who wants to go the slow poke way? Not me.

There are many reasons why Highest Yoga Tantra is so fast, one of the most important being that we learn to manifest and use our very subtle mind. This is exceedingly powerful and can derail our samsara almost instantly. In completion stage Tantra we learn the precise mechanics for transforming our actual very subtle body and mind into the body and mind of a Buddha. There is nothing vague about these instructions. More on this coming up in the next article.

Taking advantage of emptiness

Another reason it is the quick path is because we take advantage of everything being empty of inherent existence to deliberately create a whole new world for ourselves and others.

As explained in Modern Buddhism – Volume 1: Sutra, our world does not exist from its own side; like a dream world, it is a mere appearance to our mind.

This is a key understanding for Tantra – if  we understand about emptiness, we can understand how Tantra is the method to directly purify ourself, our enjoyments, our activities, and our world. Contemplating dreams is a helpful way into emptiness:

In dreams we can see and touch our dream world, but when we wake up we realize that it was simply a projection of our mind and had no existence outside our mind. In the same way, the world we see when we are awake is simply a projection of our mind and has no existence outside our mind.

The moment we wake up, we realize that our dream world never had any existence outside our dream mind. This is similar to realizing emptiness, when we realize this waking world also has no existence outside our waking mind. As Milarepa said:

You should know that all appearances are the nature of mind, and mind is the nature of emptiness.

It is our mind that is creating everything, projecting everything. Therefore if we want to change things – our world, our self, our body, or anything at all — we need to change the creator, our mind. Geshe Kelsang gives an example:

We know that when our mind is impure because we are feeling angry with our friend, we see him as bad; but when our mind is pure because we are feeling affectionate love for the same friend, we see him as good.

This is an obvious example that all of us understand – when we’re in a bad mood with a good friend or family member, they seem deliberately annoying and we may even tell them as much. When our fondness for them returns, they seem sweet and we once again enjoy their company. This is the same person, right? Whom within minutes can turn from bad to good and back again, depending on our thoughts. It doesn’t really have anything to do with them – they just want to be happy, have a good day, perhaps have us be nicer to them – but we see them as our enemy through our anger. All this is explained in Sutra – it is a simple example, but profound, because it shows how we create things with our mind.

Therefore, it is because of changing our own mind from pure to impure or from impure to pure that for us our friend changes from good to bad or from bad to good. This indicates that everything that is good, bad or neutral for us is a projection of our mind and has no existence outside our mind.

Purifying our mind at its deepest level

And what this means is that, if we purify our mind, we purify our entire experience of the world and all that is in it. Since there is no world outside of our experience (try and point to one!), we purify everything.

Tantra, also known as ‘Secret Mantra’ or ‘Vajrayana’, is a special method to purify our world, our self, our enjoyments and our activities; and if we put this method into practice we shall very quickly attain enlightenment.

Our entire Dharma practice can be seen as purifying our mind – making it less impure, deluded, and painful, and at the same time increasing our pure, peaceful, positive states of mind. However, there are many different levels of purifying our mind, and:

The subtle mistaken appearance of our mind cannot be purified through the practice of Sutra alone; we need to engage in the practice of Highest Yoga Tantra.

What is subtle mistaken appearance? It’s the appearance of things existing outside the mind.  The things we normally see seem to exist out there, independent of the mind. It feels as if there is a gap between our mind and its objects, between me over here and everything else over there; so this is also called “dualistic” appearance.

Due to this, when we see something we are scared of, for example, we develop aversion wanting to push it away or get away from it. If we see something attractive, we feel we have to somehow grab it and pull it towards us, run towards it, merge with it. From this aversion and attachment come all the other mental poisons, as explained more here. And these give rise to all our negative karma and suffering.

If we see a big bear running toward us in a dream, we probably develop fear – why? There is only the appearance of a bear – the bear has no existence from its own side and no actual power to eat us. We develop fear not because there’s a bear there, because there isn’t! But because we believe there is. It’s the same when we are awake. In fact I read an article just yesterday about a man who sees, hears, and feels bears whenever he goes anywhere near nature – even though every encounter he has had thus far with a bear has turned out to be an encounter with a large rock, a branch brushing his arm, or the wind growling in the trees. He loves hiking but this fear of bears has put a stop to that.

All our suffering arises from believing mistaken appearances. If we never had any mistaken appearances to believe in the first place, we’d be enlightened. We can purify our delusions and impure appearances to a large extent through our practice of Sutra – for example, through our practice of love people appear to us as lovable as opposed to unpleasant. However, to completely purify our mistaken appearances such that we never have any at all, we need Tantra.

The four complete purities

Through practicing Tantra we shall completely purify our mind and thus experience the complete purity of our world, our self, our enjoyments and our activities – the ‘four complete purities’.

If you check, our life is pretty much comprised of our self, our environment or world, our deeds (or what we do all day long), and our enjoyments. These are all the nature of mind, not objective truths that can be found outside of the mind — we cannot find even one atom of them when we explore them. Everything is mere appearance of the mind, like a dream – there is nothing there to grasp at. This means that when our mind is impure, appearances are impure; but when we purify our mind they become pure.

Point being, we don’t just purify our mind or our self such that we are wandering around all pure and blissful in an impure suffering world — ALL areas of our life are completely purified and transformed through our practice of Tantra. We transform ourself into a Buddha in a Pure Land, with pure enjoyments and performing pure deeds. This is what is known as the “four complete purities”. As Geshe Kelsang says:

When we completely purify our mind through Tantric practice, our world, our self, our enjoyments and our activities also become completely pure – this is the state of enlightenment. Attaining enlightenment is therefore very simple; all we need to do is apply effort to purifying our mind.

Generally we make our life pretty complicated. But this could be because we don’t spend much time trying to purify our mind – instead tying ourselves in knots in the attempt to make everything work out there, outside the mind. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but it’s very hard to get things to work all the time – indeed, there are periods when we can’t get things to work any of the time. And even when things do work, it’s usually only a matter of time before they stop working.

Just this morning I heard someone bemoaning the “planned obsolescence” of modern life, how everything we buy quickly breaks down and needs to be replaced rather than repaired, creating mountains of plastic in our world. It struck me that everything in samsara is doomed for obsolescence, planned or not. In fact, just as I am writing this, a very polite Englishman sitting next to me in Costa has just dropped his glass and it is smashed into pieces all around my toes. He is being terrible apologetic, and I am replying, “No worries at all, these things happen!” Because they do. All the time.

This is where our renunciation and compassion are needed – in understanding that we and everybody else have tried since beginningless time to make samsara work, but samsara is the creation of ignorance and delusion and so it CANNOT work. Nothing lasts, for a start.

Quick thought experiment: imagine you have finally managed to pull it off – you don’t have a single problem left in this life and by some miracle you have gathered everything you’ve ever wanted!

In our human realm, of course, it is highly unlikely this’ll ever happen. In the god realms we have a better chance of this, and things are pretty nice for a while. But let’s say by some miracle we have pulled this off  …

We still drop dead.

Even gods drop dead. That is samsara for us. Now we have dropped dead, we almost immediately have to take another uncontrolled rebirth. So what was all that about? We have to start all over again. Due to our ignorance and mistaken appearances, we are still hallucinating a world that is not there. We have lost everything we strove for and are now suffering from a whole bunch of new problems. Perhaps we even have fur and a tail.

Where has all our hard work in this life gotten us, let alone the hard work in all our previous lives? We have worked so hard and so long to solve our problems and get happy, but where has that left us? Precisely nowhere.

There has to be a different way and, thank goodness, there is. If I use Tantra to purify my mind, I will purify my self, my world, my enjoyments, and my activities. I will experience everything as pure and blissful all the time, forever. This is not some make-believe world – it is more realistic than the hallucinatory world I am trying to live in now, with all its loneliness and other problems. And this new reality will not only be joyful but profoundly meaningful because we will be able to help everyone else in the same way every day.

I thought I could end this article with a meditation to bring together some of what I have been talking about in this and the previous article. You can do it now or come back to it later!

Meditation

We can begin by sitting comfortably with a straight back, happy to be here doing this. We can drop into our heart where our very subtle mind is located, already starting to sense the peace and clarity we have within. To calm the mind and absorb more deeply, we can spend a couple of minutes following the sensation of our breath as it enters and leaves our nose.

We can imagine that everything outside our body has dissolved away into clear light, including the past and the future.

We are experiencing peace in our heart – a peace that arises naturally whenever we just allow our thoughts to settle. A peace that is teaching us that when we drop our distractions and delusions there is always the potential for peace within us, even bliss.

This peace fills our mind, we just imagine. Because my mind is boundless, so too is my potential for peace. This is my Buddha nature.

Everyone has this – I am not unique. Through Buddha’s teachings on Sutra and Tantra we can all realize fully our potential for enlightenment. How amazing this would be. We can meditate on this for a couple of minutes.

This good heart is already connected to the blissful compassion and omniscient wisdom of my Spiritual Guide, Buddha. To attain enlightenment I need blessings and already my mind is tuned into blessings just by this recognition.

We can understand that our Spiritual Guide is appearing in our life, in our mind, and in the space in front of us, surrounded by countless enlightened beings. He is looking at us with unconditional love.

At this point we can, if we like, do the Liberating Prayer.  

Now all the Buddhas of the ten directions melt into light and dissolve into Buddha in the center. With great delight he comes to our crown and, facing the way we face, diminishes to the size of a thumb. We feel this powerful being at our crown.

With great love for us he then effortlessly descends down our central channel to the very center of our heart chakra in the center of our chest; and we go with him. We feel our mind mixes with his bliss and wisdom like a small stream flowing into a vast ocean. His good qualities pervade our mind and we feel deeply peaceful.

Now to increase this bliss we can bring a worldly enjoyment to mind. Something romantic. Beautiful music. Diving into a pool. Watching England score a goal a mere two minutes into game. Whatever it is, we bring this to mind and allow a good feeling to arise in our heart. We feel our mind become more concentrated and more blissful.

Normally we think that the source of our bliss is outside so we grasp at these things with attachment. Now we can ask ourself: “Is this pleasure coming from outside the mind or from inside the mind?”

When we observe that it’s coming from inside, we are free to let go of whatever it was we were thinking about. This pure enjoyment fills our heart and we can offer it to our Spiritual Guide.

Allowing ourself to bathe in the waves of bliss that arise from our root mind, we are reminded that our mind is naturally joyful and, at its deepest levels, very blissful.

We can now remember that the objects outside our mind don’t even exist – like last night’s dream world, today’s waking world is mere appearance to the mind. We allow our mind of bliss to mix with the mere absence of all the things we normally saw, which is emptiness. We can meditate on this for as long as we like.

As we prepare to arise from our meditation we can consider that when the next object of enjoyment presents itself we can enjoy it with the recognition that the actual bliss is coming from within – this attractive person or these Walkers Crisps or whatever it is are just reminding me of my own Buddha nature. I can offer that enjoyment at my heart. We can make some plan to transform our attachment into the quick path to enlightenment.

More on its way … 

More coming soon on Highest Yoga Tantra in preparation for this Summer’s International Kadampa Festival. Meanwhile your comments and questions are most welcome!

Related articles

The Tantric opportunity

Living in a virtual world

 

Aligning with reality

 

Perspective is everything

 

Can you find anything?

*Re. the football, I also remembered Venerable Geshe-la’s advice to a football fan to have compassion for those who lose (which isn’t hard, those penalties were brutal) and rejoice in those who win (nice job, as always, Italy!)

The Tantric opportunity

 

If there’s a silver lining to our strange pandemic days, it could be that someone invented accessible live-streaming just in time. Most of us have been taking advantage of it all year; and this Summer it means that anyone who’s ready can receive Buddha’s teachings on the quick path to enlightenment, called Highest Yoga Tantra.

Throughout the centuries, whether in ancient India, Tibet, or even our modern world, people have travelled for days or even weeks to receive these empowerments and commentaries. But because it’s not safe for everyone to congregate in their thousands, and because this has been delayed once already, Venerable Geshe-la recently gave permission for them to be given online for the first time ever, at least in this human world.

Many people have been waiting for these empowerments for years, you might be one of them! They’re only granted every two years, either in England or elsewhere — the international Festivals are indubitably unique and life changing, but if we don’t live near those places it can be challenging to get to them in terms of time and money. This year is the exception. And because several people have asked me about this, I thought it might be helpful to spend a few articles talking about some of the special features of Highest Yoga Tantra, especially for those of you who are not sure what they are or whether you’re ready.

What is a human life for?

In the Modern Buddhism chapter “The Preciousness of Tantra”, Geshe Kelsang says:

In his Sutra teachings Buddha gives us great encouragement to accomplish the ultimate goal of human life. This goal will be accomplished quickly through the practice of Tantra.

All Buddha’s discourses are included in Sutra and Tantra, Sutra being those teachings that Buddha gave publicly to everyone. Most of the weekly classes given at Kadampa Centers, for example, come from Buddha’s Sutras, which boil down to three things:

  1. Renunciation
  2. Bodhichitta
  3. The wisdom realizing emptiness

For example the stages of the path to enlightenment (Lamrim) is presented as 21 (or 14) step-by-step meditations, and all of these funnel into these so-called “three principal aspects of the path”. We need to have some appreciation for these before embarking on Highest Yoga Tantra because it is both impossible and pointless to practice Tantra without Sutra, which provides both the motivation and the wisdom we need.

With renunciation, we make a decision to leave samsara by destroying all our delusions and suffering, and with bodhichitta we want to free everybody without exception by attaining enlightenment. These motivations are the only reason for engaging in Tantra, regardless of what you may have read about couples’ intimacy-improving retreats in Hawaii. It is even said to be dangerous to practice Tantra without some renunciation and bodhichitta, the big picture.  

It is in Sutra that Buddha extensively explains how to realize emptiness, which is the beating heart of Tantra. If things existed from their own side, as more than mere projection of mind, then Tantra wouldn’t make any sense at all. But because the things we normally see do not exist, Tantra makes perfect sense.

Sutra is the foundation of Tantra, and Tantra gives our spiritual practice vision, bringing our Sutra insights alive. I’ll stick my neck out here to say that in these degenerate times it might be almost impossible to gain deep realizations of renunciation, bodhichitta, and emptiness without practicing these in conjunction with Tantra.

Abandoning attachment

One reason is because we’re riddled with attachment, which makes it pretty hard to develop even the slightest wish to leave samsara, let alone muster up the energy to free everyone else. Within renunciation we’re taught to abandon attachment to our worldly enjoyments; but even hearing something like this in the desire realm, where we live, can be disconcerting, “How am I supposed to do that?! That’s where all my happiness lies – in pizzas, romance, sunsets, and money. What are you asking me to do here?! What am I going to replace them with? I can’t and don’t want to imagine life without them.”

This is not a surprising reaction given that we have turned to attachment for our happiness since beginningless time. Without Tantra, can we envision what it’s like to be completely free from attachment and other delusions, to enjoy everything endlessly with a mind of great bliss?! I don’t think we can.

All the teachings on renunciation are absolutely applicable to Tantric practice. We envision what it is like to be a totally liberated person and this both encourages us and accelerates our path to liberation. I remember how much easier and more fun renunciation became when I started to practice Highest Yoga Tantra. I could immediately tell that this pure blissful alternative to samsaric bodies, environments, deeds, and enjoyments is vastly superior – we taste this through the power of correct imagination and blessings. Also, what does it mean to give up worldly enjoyments and experience pure enjoyments instead? In Highest Yoga Tantra we learn how to manifest our innate great bliss and transform our experience of worldly pleasures into rocket fuel for spiritual development. More on that here.

Freeing the world

In Sutra we learn that all living beings are suffering in this wretched ocean of samsara and we develop the compassion that wants to permanently liberate them all, from the tiniest ant to the highest god. From this we develop the good heart of bodhichitta, wishing to attain enlightenment so that we can liberate them. This sounds pretty wonderful, no?! Maybe we appreciate this, and we do all the meditations on love and so on, and we do really want this a lot of the time. But there is this niggling part of us, “Me, attain enlightenment?! Really? Have you met me?!” We feel pretty ordinary, not like someone who could liberate all beings. We have no vivid concept of what that would even be like without Tantra.

We do get a bit of taste with the Sutra practice of taking and giving, where we imagine taking away everyone’s suffering and our body transforming into a wishfulfilling jewel bestowing on them all endless happiness. Taking and giving is similar to Tantric practice, as Venerable Geshe-la explains in How to Transform Your Life. So if you like taking and giving, you’re going to love Tantra.

Beyond that it can be hard to wrap our mind around being a Buddha who goes around liberating each and every living being every day, bestowing blessings on everyone we meet and think about (which will be everyone) all the time! But once we receive the empowerments we do generate ourself as such an enlightened being, bringing the future result of our practice into the present, realizing the aims of our bodhichitta in the here and now. We practice this through correct imagination (the other side of the coin from wisdom realizing emptiness), and our bodhichitta becomes very joyful, this vision deeply encouraging us to be a Buddha like Vajrayogini and Heruka.

Moreover, it is Tantric practice that finally removes the mistaken appearances from our mind permanently – we cannot completely purify our minds through Sutra practices alone. Sooner or later, if we want to attain actual enlightenment, we have to practice Tantra. More on why later.

Even when we are a novice to Highest Yoga Tantra, straightaway it starts to increase our enthusiasm and confidence for the Dharma of renunciation bodhichitta, and emptiness – these practices start to come alive and inspire us deeply. This is even in the early stages, when we are not that good at it yet.

Am I ready?

In terms of whether or not we’re ready for Tantric empowerments, in my observation there are a few useful questions to consider. One important thing about these empowerments is that they’re for life, so if you know your interest in Buddhism is a passing fad, perhaps it’s best not to embark on these earth-shaking practices. You can ask yourself, “Do I like Buddhism enough to want to be a Buddhist for the rest of my life.?” Clearly you cannot practice Buddhist Tantra if you are not a Buddhist. “Do I trust Buddha enough and like the teachings enough to know I want to remain a Buddhist?”

Within this, do I have a feeling for and appreciation of the teachings on renunciation, including overcoming all my delusions? Do I want to do that? This renunciation doesn’t have to be fully qualified by any means, we may forget it 23 hours a day; but generally speaking we have to be interested in attaining liberation by getting rid of our self-grasping, negative karma, and suffering. We have to think that this is something we would like. If you can say “Yes!” to that question, that’s a good start.

Then, do I want to free others? Do I care enough about others and their suffering – even if it is only some of the time and only a little — to want to free them by becoming a Buddha? How interested am I in this, is it something I’d like to pursue with this life? This bodhichitta is the other motivation we need to receive the empowerments and start practicing.

Of the three principal paths, it is perhaps most important to have some renunciation and bodhichitta because these will motivate us to learn more and more about emptiness. However, the more understanding we have of emptiness the better, because, like I said, it is only because everything lacks inherent existence that Tantra works; it would be impossible to practice Tantra if things were real.

One important point is that we don’t have to do things sequentially, that is, wait until we have perfect renunciation before we develop bodhichitta, perfect bodhichitta before we develop the wisdom realizing emptiness, and perfect wisdom before we practice Highest Yoga Tantra. This is just as well because, if we did, none of this would never happen. Why? Because Sutra and Tantra are mutually supportive and both accelerate and perfect each other.

In Je Tsongkhapa’s Kadampa tradition, we emphasize the union of Sutra and Tantra. Venerable Geshe-la’s Guru’s Guru was a spiritual giant in Tibet called Je Phabongkhapa, who taught extensively, including, unusually for the time, large numbers of lay people. He explained that we should sow five seeds together and reap their five crops together — this is how a Kadampa should practice Dharma to attain enlightenment. The first three seeds are the three Sutra paths mentioned above, and the other two are the generation and completion stages of Highest Yoga Tantra. I’ve always found this advice on how to do a fully integrated spiritual practice very helpful, trying to touch on all five every day even if emphasizing one or another of them. It also indicates that we don’t need perfect renunciation and so on before we are ready for our Tantric empowerments.

By the way, once you have your empowerments, it’s not like you’ll be left hanging and won’t know what to do. You will know exactly what to do because there are teachings during the Festival and you can read the books and receive other teachings over time as you wish.

Commitments

We also promise to observe various Tantric vows and commitments, especially a four-line verse that we contemplate six times a day. If we are sowing the five seeds we’re going in the right direction and don’t need to be concerned that we’re breaking these commitments. This is because we are not promising to keep them perfectly from day one, we are simply promising to keep the intention to keep them. And they are all very cool, if you ask me. For example, there’s a commitment to generate great bliss six times a day. When I first heard this, I was, like, “Who wouldn’t want to do that?!” Then our practical observation and understanding of these gets better and better as the years go by.

Further reading

As I write these articles, I’ll be dipping into various books to give you a general idea. For starters, I recommend that you download this free gift of Modern Buddhism if you haven’t done so already, go to Part 2, and read four chapters in there: the Preciousness of Tantra, the Tantra of Generation Stage, the Tantra of Completion Stage, and the Completion Stage of Mahamudra. Don’t feel like you’re supposed to understand it all already, by the way! These chapters provide a general explanation of Highest Yoga Tantra. They don’t go into too much detail on how to do the various Tantric practices because we only engage in these once we’re empowered to do so, Buddha is very clear on this. You’ll have time to read and practice these chapters again, as well as the following chapters on Heruka body mandala and Vajrayogini, after you’ve received the empowerments and commentary.

Here is the next installment: Highest Yoga Tantra ~ the quick path to enlightenment.

Please leave any questions or comments below. Feel to answer other people’s questions and comments as well for I am by no means the authority on any of this 🙂

Here is the International Kadampa Summer Festival 2021 website.

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8 mins read. 

What you been up to today? Has it been a blissful care-free day! or have you been worried about things? Have you felt a bit burned out or annoyed or sad? Have you been craving or missing anyone lately? On top of your own personal selection of things that are not quite working out, have you felt overwhelmed at all by any of the seemingly impossible problems experienced by people all over the world? How real and solid has everything seemed?

If today has not been a perfect day, we know we’re not alone. I think it is fair to say that most of us get very caught up with the appearances of this life – sucked in one minute, desperate to escape the next – day after day after day. Yet, none of these things that we normally see exists. Whereas we see everything as solid, real, and existing from its own side, out there, everything is mere appearance not other than emptiness, and the same nature as our mind.

I was just driving through Suffolk this morning, like you do, and after a while wondered if I had reached Norfolk yet. How would I know?! Only if someone put a sign there “NORFOLK”. Norfolk is just another label, another imputation of mind, another idea if you like. And for it to exist and function we have to collectively agree that it is Norfolk and not, for example, Klofron.

However, if we try to point to Norfolk behind that sign or label, whether within the individual parts – trees, roads, pigeons, and rather cute cottages, etc – or within the collection of all of these, we’ll never ever be able to find it, we will only ever be pointing at things that are not it.

Like the blue of a clear sky, the more we go looking for something the more it disappears. That vivid blue above me is just the clear sky appearing as blue — if I fly through it I quickly discover that not one atom of that blue exists from its own side. Likewise, this screen is just the emptiness of your screen appearing as a screen. Your body sitting there is just the emptiness of your body appearing as a body. Same for everything we normally see, no exceptions.

But that is not of course how it appears normally. Due to the beginningless imprints of self-grasping ignorance, everything we see appears to be really there, existing from its own side; and we believe that appearance to be the truth. This belief is self-grasping ignorance, and it creates yet more imprints for these virtual-reality-like mistaken appearances to arise. A brief sojorn in Norfolk may or may not be a benign episode in my personal Truman show; but what about all those suffering appearances, such as sick and ageing bodies, famines, lower realms, and so on? Do I really want mistaken appearances to shift and change forever without me even knowing it??!

If we realized that we are effectively trying to live and work in an hallucination, this would clearly would have far-reaching implications.This stuff is profound! Yet given the tenacity of mistaken appearances, how are we supposed to realize this?! I don’t think we can without a lot of help from someone who has already seen so totally through the illusion that they can never fall for it again.

In Ocean of Nectar, Venerable Geshe-la invites us to imagine that a magician or illusionist has conjured up the appearance of a horse:

In the case of an ordinary member of the audience who is taken in by the spell, the horse appears to be real and he conceives it to be a real horse. In the case of the magician himself, a horse also appears to his mind but he is not taken in my the spell, and so he does not conceive it to be a real horse. In the case of a member of the audience with great wisdom whose mind is not affected by the spell, there is no appearance of a horse to his mind, and he does not conceive there to be a real horse.

If we are still sucked in by appearances because we believe they are real, we are like an ordinary member of the audience. If we have more wisdom and, although we still see the horse, know directly that this horse is not real and that we in effect created it, we are like the magician. We already have more control over the appearances of our life, rather like someone flying around in a lucid dream. If we don’t even see the mistaken appearance of a horse, much less believe it, we are like an enlightened being. We can never get fooled again. We are utterly free. And to help others, we can appear whatever we want to from our mind of great bliss.

To me, this analogy shows how much we need an enlightened Spiritual Guide. They can show us that these mistaken appearances do not exist and so there is no point in continuing to grasp at them with ignorance, anger, attachment, anxiety, and so on, all our actions or karma contaminated by this ignorance; and there is literally no point in suffering the needless endless way that we do. Once we have found this person, there are various ways in which we can rely upon them. This carries straight on from the first way I talked about in this last article.

(2) Practice the instructions

We can practice the instructions and teachings of Buddha as revealed to us by our Spiritual Guide. Nothing helps us or pleases him more

Once we have met a qualified Spiritual Guide, the way to rely upon him or her is basically very simple. All we have to do is to develop faith in him (or her) and put his instructions into practice to the best our ability. If we do this, our Dharma realizations will naturally increase and we will quickly attain enlightenment. ~ Great Treasury of Merit 

Teaching this in the recent International Spring Festival, Gen-la Khyenrab said:

Whatever is your ability, whatever that is, just try. A realization is a stable understanding of a virtuous meaning that will protect us from suffering — for example, love will protect us from anger.

We can do that today. Then we do the same tomorrow, doing our best. Gradually our wish and capacity to do this will improve and we’ll be moving ourselves along the spiritual path. Something in my heart works much better when I actively want to rely on a Spiritual Guide and take on board the instructions he has given me.

And anyone can do this, regardless of their history and background – even if they are a mass murderer! There is the famous example of Milarepa to give us hope:

To begin with, Milarepa was very evil. Using black magic he killed 36 people before he met his Guru, Marpa. Later, by relying sincerely upon Marpa he was able to purify his mind completely, accumulate merit and wisdom, and finally attain enlightenment in that same life.

The whole point of finding and relying on a Spiritual Guide is to make spiritual progress so that we can at long last get rid of all the causes of suffering and bondage in the mind and be able to help others do the same. This sickness and ageing stuff to which I currently have a front row seat (until I’m called to join the actors on the stage) is only going to be followed by rebirth, and then more of the same. It’s been this relentless grinding cycle since beginningless time, when will I have had enough?!

If we meditate on the stages of the path to enlightenment with the help of an enlightened Spiritual Guide, we can break this cycle and experience endless bliss. And just a reminder that in Buddhism we don’t trust blind faith. Relying on a teacher’s wisdom gives us the the tools to explore our own sense of truth from every angle, questioning and researching every step of the way – we have to do the work.

Enlightenment is reality; we are in unreality. I find this passage from Venerable Geshe-la’s Festival teachings on the Kadampa Way of Life incredibly encouraging in this respect:

“What is enlightenment? Enlightenment is not external light, it is inner light, the nature of omniscient wisdom. Our ignorance is an inner darkness that obscures our understanding of the ultimate truth of phenomena or reality.

Because this inner darkness is so powerful, all our environment, the place or house where we live, our enjoyments, food, drink, clothes, friends and other objects and necessary conditions, our body and our mind are polluted by this  inner darkness. Because of this all our environments, enjoyments, body and mind are contaminated phenomena and their nature is impurity and suffering. This is because of the inner darkness of ignorance.

To destroy this we need to engage in spiritual paths as mentioned in Lamrim teachings such as The Meditation Handbook where 21 meditations are listed. Each one of these meditations is very practical. If we develop 21 realizations through these meditations, these are the spiritual paths to enlightenment.

By engaging in the spiritual path and developing these realizations we will gain a good heart such as great compassion and the mind of bodhichitta, and we will definitely gain the wisdom understanding ultimate truth directly. Through further improving these two, eventually our inner darkness will completely disappear, together with its imprints. Nothing will be left except the inner light of omniscient wisdom.

Our mind will become inner light, the nature of omniscient wisdom and bliss. Our environments, enjoyments, and everything we perceive will become inner light, the nature of omniscient wisdom and bliss. We will only experience wisdom and bliss; this is enlightenment. This is our ultimate happiness. When we attain this enlightenment, we experience wisdom and bliss day and night life after life without ceasing.”

Coming soon … 3 more ways we can rely upon a Spiritual Guide. Meantime, I’d love to hear from you below.

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