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:
- 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.
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.
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.
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.