Practicing Tantra is not as hard as you may think

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As promised in the last article on Tantra, I’m now going to share a little of what I like to do on a daily basis. Please don’t take my word for any of what I’m about to say – once you have your empowerments (next opportunity is in England this Summer), you need to read the commentary to the practice, The New Guide to Dakini Land, yourselves! But in the hopes that some of this might help some of you, here goes …

VajrayoginiYes, as I said here, in general we self-generate as Vajrayogini (and/or Heruka) in dependence upon renunciation, bodhichitta, and wisdom. We can deepen our familiarity with this over time – getting a feeling for how transcendent it is to be a Buddha, so that we can come back to this when we forget.

But … we don’t have to wait to perfect all these minds before we practice self-generation or every time we practice self-generation. Self-generation need not always be the culmination of all our other meditations — it can also function as a jumping off point. (As I explained here, it can be useful to meditate backwards … )

So, whether I am about to meditate on the stages of the path (Lamrim) or on Tantra, I jump straight in as Vajrayogini. I base this self-generation on renunciation, bodhichitta, feeling the Spiritual Guide in my heart, compassion for someone, or anything else — whatever you love about Dharma, start there. I don’t think it really matters which positive mind we start with — you can evoke some familiar happy mind, starting where you are, as it were (explained more here). And then use that as your basis for thinking, “This is me; I’m Vajrayogini”.

Blissings

happy mindI find that instantly the blessings are there, the positive mind becomes far more powerful, and I’m in flow. (It works even better if I think, “I am Guru Vajrayogini”, that is, one with my Spiritual Guide.)

Whenever our mind is peaceful, we are already connected to Guru Buddha’s blessings. So it’s not that much of a stretch to impute ourselves on that.

Blessings lift our awareness and make us happy, and believing we are a Buddha is a quick way to get them. It’s hard sometimes these days to stay peaceful and positive for even an hour without feeling tuned into some kind of blessings. As it says in Essence of Vajrayana:

In these impure times it is only through receiving the blessings of the enlightened beings that we can maintain the mental peace that is the root of our daily happiness.

Then, for example, if I want to meditate on love or compassion, it is within that context that I go on to deepen this. It is not that I am clinging tightly to “I am Vajrayogini, I am Vajrayogini” so much as not approaching my meditation as an ordinary, limited being, with an unbridgeable gap between a rigid immovable unloving state of mind and the blissful fluid universal love I am aiming for.

jump for joy 2In that space that opens up, in that flow of blessings, there is so much more room for Dharma minds, all Dharma minds; and then it’s much easier to gain deep, blissful, sustained feelings for all the Lamrim and Tantra.

If instead we are supposing, “I have to work myself up to generating myself as Vajrayogini — I have to have perfect renunciation, bodhichitta, and wisdom, not to mention get through every practice in the sadhana, before I can authentically be Vajrayogini,” then I think we rarely get there. We probably never even get started, to be honest.

I am a great believer in finding time for a daily Tantric sadhana, btw, long or short depending on time and inclination, and especially in spending quality time dissolving everything into the clear light. But there’s a reason why most sadhanas start with instantaneous self-generation.

Switching channels

As Buddha said:

All phenomena are mere name.

We are not inherently anybody or anything — there is no self to be found behind the name or label. And names have power. “I am Luna” brings up various associations, for example, that free me up to write this blog. “I am mere appearance not other than the emptiness of all phenomena” sets me free. “I am Vajrayogini” brings up enormously positive, light, and blissful connotations.

As soon as we think, “I am Vajrayogini,” then the basis of imputation for ourselves has changed because we have changed the imputed object.

VajradharaFor example, I was asking a monk called Chodor, whose name means “Vajradhara”, if he felt different when he was given that name. “Yes”, he said, “Instantly”. The moment he got his new name he felt a shift. This didn’t mean that he was real Vajradhara — rather that the space and possibility and connotation opened up so that he could flow toward being Vajradhara rather than struggling for many years with no Vajradhara qualities.

Tantra is about bringing the result into the path, so there’s no way around it; we jump in.

I would submit we jump in as often as possible, both in and out of meditation. Switch from the Samsara channel to the Pure Land channel. And then ignore the temptation to switch back just in case we might be missing something — we’re not. There’s nothing on at all.

Changing the trajectory of our lives

We have to change the narrative of who we are if we are to overcome the inertia to escape from samsara. That is, we cannot keep identifying ourselves as an ordinary samsaric being and then expect to ever be a pure being.

Normally we abide with the self we normally perceive – impoverished, exhausted, isolated, deprived, insecure, in pain, worried, overwhelmed, stressed, bitter, or angry (just for starters) … and we cherish this self and protect it at all costs. All our thoughts are wrapped around this self, off in the hallucination

narrative of samsara

That’s enough – we need to think, “I don’t want to do this anymore!” We cannot make samsara work. It’s always frustrating – every step we take gives rise to some inconvenience. We’re so used to it, we think it is normal. A mildly disturbing day is seen as a “good day.” Self-grasping disturbs our inner peace all the time. Even our happiness is inadequate, a changing suffering. We do not want to fully accept that samsara is miserable so we tend to be ½ in and ½ out. We need to leave samsara, also, so we know how to get other people out of it.

We need to switch channels. We need to go to the Pure Land and stay there.

We need vision

There is a question posed in the Tantras that we answer on the occasion of receiving empowerments:

Who are you and what do you seek?

This shows the need for bringing the result into the path, identifying right now with who we want to be and what we really want out of life. This is based on the wisdom understanding that we are not inherently anyone and so can be anyone (as explained more here)

It is worth really thinking through each day who we want to be and what we really want. Everything depends on this – what we do all day, what delusions we have or don’t have. Samsara doesn’t deliver the goods. Wouldn’t it be incredible to have renunciation, bodhichitta, wisdom, and spontaneous great bliss instead?

The answer we give on this occasion is:

I am a fortunate one seeking great bliss.

A “fortunate one” (in Tibetan “Kelsang”) means a Bodhisattva. So, we are identifying with – or thinking “I AM” — a Bodhisattva seeking the great bliss that is the quick path to enlightenment.

Please note that the answer is not: “I am a hopelessly inadequate one seeking some vague sense of peace if at all possible, though knowing my luck it probably isn’t …”

We need that divine pride, that self-confidence, if we are to conquer our discouragement and other delusions – we have to feel stronger than them or they will continue to trample on us.

samsaric lifeOn this point, next time you have a delusion, check who you think you are at that time and as a result what you think you need. Chances are you are identifying with being an ordinary being in samsara who really needs things like jobs, money, relationships, and reputation to go well. For example, “I can’t be happy if I’m not coupled up; I’ll just be lonely my whole life!” Or “I need to accomplish something in my career or I’m just a failure!” Or the guilty, “I’m such a good for nothing son/partner/parent/person.” Or thinking we actually are this meaty body, “I’m so fat and ugly and getting stiffer every year!” etc, etc.

If we are identifying as Vajrayogini or Heruka, with built-in renunciation, compassion, and wisdom, these concerns are no longer an issue and so we drop our delusions with respect to them. We love everyone and are surrounded by Dakas and Dakinis, so there is no basis for loneliness. Far from being a failure, we are spontaneously benefiting all living beings. Far from being fat, ugly, or uncomfortable, we are blissful Deities made of wisdom light, transcending samsara and lifting everyone else out as well. And so on. Switch channels from ordinariness to pure view … and see why Buddha has always wanted to introduce us to this incredible spiritual technology.

Dakas and DakinisAs the Tantric Master Geshe Kelsang Gyatso puts it:

When we cling to being an ordinary person, thinking “I am Peter”, “I am Sarah”, etc, we are developing ordinary conceptions. Because we cling to an ordinary identity, if someone attacks us we feel fear, or if we run out of money we become anxious. If instead of clinging to an ordinary identity we were to overcome ordinary conceptions by developing the divine pride of being Heruka or Vajrayogini, we would not develop fear, anxiety, or any other negative state of mind. How can anyone harm Heruka? How can Vajrayogini run out of money?  ~ Tantric Grounds and Paths page 14.

More coming up soon on how Tantra helps us to destroy our everyday delusions. Meantime I hope you’re enjoying these articles and, if you don’t have them already, might be inspired to receive empowerments soon … 😇❤️😊

Doing meditation retreat

divingJanuary is just around the corner – which means for a lot of lucky people that they get to do extra meditation because this is traditional retreat month in the Kadampa Buddhist tradition.

So, I thought I’d say something about retreat in the hope that some of you can do some. I know a lot of you, probably most, have to work and are not able to take a month or even a week off for retreat; so this article is also a bit of encouragement simply to get meditating in general ☺️

On retreat we stop all forms of business and extraneous activities so as to emphasize a particular spiritual practice. ~ New Guide to Dakini Land 

Starting several decades ago, when Geshe Kelsang first came to the West in 1977, up to six weeks each year have been put aside in the larger Kadampa centers for retreat. I personally benefited from this for many years, when I lived at Madhyamaka Centre and everything closed down for retreat. Sometimes we were even snowed in = bliss. We didn’t have Facebook back then to lure us away from thinking deep thoughts – heck, we didn’t even have the Internet. I count myself lucky that I didn’t need any will power whatsoever back then to turn all the gadgets off.the-internet

And I can honestly say that I have never gotten bored in retreat. Quite the opposite. It is those mindless habits of wanting or expecting endless distraction that really bore me. I tend also to have fewer delusions on retreat – and delusions are pretty tedious.

These January retreats engendered in me a love for using this bleak mid-winter time to go deep — to dive below the surface of the crazy ocean waves of samsaric suffering & overly complicated conceptual thoughts into clarity and bliss, into Lamrim and Tantra. They are the best possible way to start the new year, and my hands down favorite times.

We could all aim to do a few extra good deep meditations at home this month to get some control over these mad, mad times and set 2018 up in the way we’d like it to continue… how’s that for a new year’s resolution?

And if you haven’t learned to meditate at all yet, now could be a really great time to start 😊

2016

(I wrote this article last year — and 2017 has proved to be an even weirder year in many ways! Retreat is very needed in our world if we have the chance to do some, holding the space for others.)

If ever there was a good time to get some perspective and space from all the craziness, the beginning of 2017 would seem to be it. Still four days of the strange 2016 to go, and the last two days alone have brought us the deaths of George Michael and Carrie Fisher (and just now her mother, Debbie Reynolds). Closer to home, this year, we lost Patti, Tessa, and Mimi.

This is all skirting dangerously close now to the one-by-one steady dropping off of everyone in my generation. Soon, not a person I grew up with will be left. And it is certain that I am no longer going to die young.

Plus, the number of celebrity and personally-known deaths of course barely scratches the surface of the millions of other deaths in the last few days, let alone in the last year. (An average of 55.3 million humans and untold billions of animals and others.) Any illusion we may be under that we are long-term residents of this world is just that, an illusion. We’re here on a month-by-month rental with nary a day’s notice.

Making the most of our precious time

george-michael-leaving-his-home-in-north-london-britain-17-oct-2012Our most valuable and rare possession is our precious human life, but we don’t have a whole lot of time left with it. All we have to look forward to, really, is spiritual realizations, insofar as everything else is dust in the wind. And to gain these realizations – actualizing our full potential and bringing about an end to suffering — we need time.

And it’s hard to love, there’s so much to hate
Hanging on to hope
When there is no hope to speak of
And the wounded skies above say it’s much too late
So maybe we should all be praying for time. ~ George Michael

To have time, we need to MAKE time.

This is what going deeper into our center, our spiritual heart, as explained here for example, can do for us – it can make us more time. It gives us a certain sense of timelessness in fact. Identifying with our pure inexhaustible potential instead of with our annoying off-kilter delusions makes us feel far more alive and present, and so time slows down. We might even feel for a change that we have all the time in the world.

I hear a lot of people, including me, complaining that life is too busy – and ordinarily it can feel that way; but I think that a lot of that feeling of busyness comes not from all that we have to get done but from not having sufficient mindfulness and concentration. These qualities, which improve on retreat, give us all the time, space, and freedom from surplus worrying thoughts we need to do what needs to be done.

We are none of us strangers to suffering, but Dharma gives us the ability to break free, and retreat gives us the opportunity to spend more time in Dharma. What’s not to love about spending several hours each day in freedom and happiness?! Even with poor concentration, we are generally more peaceful on retreat than in our ordinary fast-paced, externalized lives. We can become ridiculously happy.

dream-like-elephantIt’s very relaxing not to buy into the hallucinations of the gross mind for a while — to let these fevered imaginings die down, stop taking them quite so seriously. Meditation gives us the chance to see them for what they are and to let them go so we can enjoy the peace and bliss of our own mind in deep rest. I have yet to find anything more relaxing than giving up on trying to find this peace and bliss in objects of attachment or in getting one over my enemies.

Even one breathing meditation allows us to stop shaking our mind and discover that an unshaken mind is naturally peaceful. A whole week or month of doing this gives us invaluable insight and confidence.

I also think that when we meditate a lot our lives start to flow – we are not so much living second-hand through Facebook or the news or Netflix, trying to get our thrills vicariously, or even in the made up narratives of our own lives, the product solely of our conceptual thoughts. We start to abide in the reality of wisdom and compassion, our true nature, and freedomeverything flows naturally from there.

Silence is golden

Whether in retreat doing the traditional four meditation sessions a day, or in the space of our own house once a day or so during January, we can let go of the demands of our daily life and reconnect to the stillness within ourselves. We can be quiet, for a change, verbally and mentally. As it mentions here, and I’ll now loosely quote:

“Silence is powerful. It creates space in our mind and fundamentally changes the way we connect with the teachings and meditations. Observing silence is a powerful method to disengage us from busyness, and it leads us naturally to deeper levels of being. Our heart begins to open and we feel the blessings of all Buddhas pouring into and filling our mind.

Through deepening our experience of meditation we can take our spiritual practice up to the next level (and this will keep us going in the following months when we are back at work.) By integrating this meditative experience into our daily activities we will improve the quality of our life and bring happiness to our family and friends.”

I think diving deep below the froth of the ocean waves is also an incredibly important way to identify with our pure potential and disengage from endless feelings of hopelessness, inadequacy, and lack of control that come from identifying with a limited, painful self. We need self-confidence during these difficult times if we are to be of any help to anyone. We don’t need discouragement.

Who am I?

In each of the stages of the path (Lamrim) meditations, therefore, we can get into the habit of identifying with our Buddha nature and the result of that meditation, asking each time, “Who am I?” For example, instead of “I am angry”, “I am lonely”, “I am hurt”, “I am useless at this”, etc., we can think, “I am someone with a precious human life”, “I am someone who is on their way out from this prison of samsara”, “I am someone who has compassion for everyone”, etc.

In this way we can enter the Pure Land of Lamrim, enjoying ourselves each day with these beautiful minds, getting in the habit of identifying with them so much that we can then keep doing that the whole rest of the year.

Blessed monthheruka-vajrayogini

January is also Heruka and Vajrayogini month. Again, even if our concentration is not brilliant yet, there are a lot of blessings flying around this month, so we may as well tune in the radio receiver of faith as often as we can.

Check out this Onion article if you get a moment, ‘I Can’t Do This Anymore,’ Think 320 Million Americans Quietly Going About Day. Spoof though it is, it still shows how we can all fall prey to humdrum mediocrity, even when things are not going particularly wrong in our lives; and how mediocrity doesn’t make us happy. If you have a chance to do some Tantric retreat, this immersion can be a swift way to transform these ordinary conceptions and appearances into an experience of great bliss and emptiness, transforming your world into the real Pure Land of the Dakinis.

(All this makes me think it should be called “Advance”, really, not “Retreat”.)

One day at a time

I’m gonna swing from the chandelier, from the chandelier
I’m gonna live like tomorrow doesn’t exist
Like it doesn’t exist ~ Sia

Some of my best advice on doing retreat is to take one day at a time – once you’re in retreat you put up so-called “retreat boundaries” of body, speech, and mind, which basically means you’re not thinking of anything outside of the retreat; so there is in fact no need to plan. (And there is never any need to wallow in nostalgia). This means you have a good shot at living in the moment, remembering that today is your first and possibly also your last day. This is really quite unbelievably relaxing.

Practical plan

kailashIf you have lots of time, you could think about booking into one of the big residential KMCs such as KMC Manjushri or KMC New York, or into an other-worldly retreat center such as Kailash in Switzerland. And, now, in 2017, we have the incredible International Retreat Center (IRC) Grand Canyon just opening up, and the opportunity to do six weeks of Lamrim retreat with Kadam Morten.

These IRCs and KMCs all offer incredibly special retreat programs with experienced meditation leaders that “address the needs of anyone wishing to deepen their experience of Kadam Dharma in modern day times.”

If you have medium amounts of time — say a day here or there, or a few days, or a week — check out this link for retreats near you, including in Denver, where I live.

If you can’t take any whole days off, you could think about using January to get along to some inspiring meditation classes and establish a good meditation habit for 2018. Check out this link for meditation classes in your area.

Over to you. Do you have any encouragement to share from retreats you may have done in the past?

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Reflections in a clear lake

flying crowMahasiddha Saraha was a Mahamudra master who gave some very helpful analogies to help us settle the mind, explained in Clear Light of Bliss. One is about a crow and a boat. In the olden days, before GPS, sailors would take a crow with them and periodically let it go to see if they were near land. If they were, the crow would not return; if they were not, it would fly around a bit and then have to return to the boat.

(I am continuing from this article on Mahamudra.)

Where do you want to land?

We can be the same with our various distractions – we do not give them anywhere to land. We don’t let them land, we just watch them. They’ve arisen from the mind and are the nature of mind so — although they’ll give us reasons as to why we SHOULD think them, fascinating or useful as they are — if we just wait they will rejoin the meditation object, the mind itself. And we don’t need to worry that we have lost anything, a useful train of thought for example, for we have lost nothing. In fact, we have gained a great deal.

Normally we are very good at giving our thoughts somewhere to land … indeed a sofa to sit on, a house to live in, a bed, a family, a history, a town … Distraction is like poison. If we get sufficiently stuck in one thought it can derail our entire life, it has that power. Any depression or fury that we’ve had started with one thought.

reflection in lakeSo in the meditation on the nature of the mind we learn to let go, and we learn that it is safe to let go, because the thoughts arose from and subsided into our own mind, nowhere else. And once they’re gone they’re gone but we are not missing much, if anything.

Delirium

Bear in mind, after all, that we are hallucinating like crazy most of the time! Whenever we are suffering from the delusions of anger, attachment, and even just our underlying ignorance, the engaged objects of our mind don’t exist, as explained in detail in How to Understand the Mind. I spent time in a ward for people with so-called “confusion” not long ago. Some of the patients were clearly hallucinating like crazy due to infections, “delirious” as the doctors put it, and, you know something, I couldn’t help thinking that they were not really that much more “delusional” than anyone else, it was just that no one was sharing these particular narratives with them. No more than people share our dreams. Not that it was pleasant for anyone concerned, but no hallucinations are pleasant, not really, and they just go on and on and on, which is why Buddhists have had enough and want samsara to end.

Let it be

When we are meditating and we get distracted, eg, by the sound of someone moving around, then instead of going immediately out to this distraction we can remember Saraha’s crow analogy and let it be. We can stay focused on the clarity and know that the distraction will rejoin it. One corner of our mind is observing that a thought is arising, but we also know that it will rejoin the mind. This is the same for any awareness or thought we have – they are all equally mind, or clarity, so however compelling, or however far they threaten to take us away from the meditation, in fact they can’t if we don’t let them.

So we are not conceptually pushing the thoughts away, rejecting them – there is no aversion, we are just letting them rejoin the object and dissolve away, quite naturally. We are relaxed – concentrated for sure, yet in a state of acceptance rather than resistance. And both our concentration and our wisdom are improving all the time.

Being alive

In How to Understand the Mind, Geshe Kelsang says that our very subtle mind “holds our life”. It seems to me that when we are tuned into the clarity of our mind, this is really feeling alive. I also think we can do this to a certain extent anytime, not just in deep meditation – be aware of the awareness rather than fixated on its objects. We tend to stay more in the heart too when we do this, which feels more peaceful and spacious.

We do not need to go OUT to objects any more than a lake needs to go out to its reflections – they are mere aspects/appearances. This really helps us stay in the present moment for how can a reflection in a lake be in the past or in the future?

Have you ever noticed what happens when you are starting to feel a bit disturbed or deluded – how your mind wants to go OUT? It starts to feel unsettled. We can feel our energy winds going outwards, if we observe carefully – trying like the crow to find somewhere to land. When we allow ourselves to absorb inward by remembering that there is nothing actually out there to go to, we experience contentment, and eventually non-dual bliss.

We can get a taste of how it is possible to enjoy endlessly, without craving, with the blissful Heroes and Heroines (the Tantric Buddhas) of Heruka’s mandala; and learn to bring everyone else in. As we pray in the Heruka tsog offering:

Please bless me so that I may experience delight with the messengers of the vajra mind family.

Quick meditation on the mind

Here are a few quick pointers to the Mahamudra meditation again.

With a decision to apply ourselves, we can breathe out our obstacles and open up the space in our mind to inhale radiant light, the nature of our Mahamudra master’s fully realized consciousness. We can draw peaceful blessings deep into our root mind at our heart with each inhalation. Through enjoying this process, we allow our own awareness to be drawn in too, until we feel centered within this light, peaceful, experience at our heart. 

While relaxing here, we ask: “What is the mind? What is it that is aware of the sounds, sensations, thoughts?” So that instead of focusing on these we use them to help us become aware of awareness itself, which is like an inner empty space that has the power to perceive. Then we abide within the experience of the mind itself, recognizing it as the root mind at our heart, moment by moment.

The moment we notice that our mind is distracted outward and wants somewhere to land, we can remember the crow analogy. We can ask, “What is it that is aware?”, and stay inwardly focused on the clarity of the mind.

Fancy winter retreat here at Madhyamaka Centre? It’s near (old) York, in England.

You may or may not have much time to practice this meditation over the holiday period, but I hope these Mahamudra articles so far have given some of you a little appetite for retreat in January 2016 (also Heruka and Vajrayogini month). Meditation retreats will be taking place at residential and non-residential Kadampa centers all over the world, for example in upstate New York. It’s always been my favorite part of the year.