About Me

My photo
I study, and try to practice, Vajrayana Buddhism. My main areas of interest are Chod, Kagyu and Nyingma traditions as well as Buddhisms interactions with the West, pop-culture and engaged Buddhism.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

So this is xmas

Having mum and dad visiting me in Boudha has been even more amazing than I could have imagined. It's been logistically tricky with mum in a wheelchair, but she managed the stairs at Swayambhu and a fair bit at Namo Buddha, so she is obviously healing well.

Dad seems to have enjoyed helping out at the Rokpa soup kitchen which he had previously supported financially. I think actually being there in person and feeding people made it all more "real" for him, both in terms of understanding how a lot of people have it here, and seeing donations to a charity actually hitting their target. Visiting Thrangu branch monastery with him was also quite moving.

Tomorrow we are staying around Boudha, just with some local visits and lunch and dinner with friends. Thursday might be a trip to Patan.

Christmas Eve we are doing nothing much and Xmas day we are having lunch with my Tibetan family.

They go back on Sunday and I then have a week off before we start back in Shedra, however the first week back is only two hours of oral translation per day, although I will probably have some more language exchange with my Khenpo friend from Sakya college. I would have liked to do retreat for a few days, but have been told to relax a bit, and after the last seven months feel like I need it.

Monday, December 6, 2010

It's exam week, so everything has a sense of winding down. Next week we only have two hours a day of translation training/practice, although I might have to miss a day or so for practice reasons.

I've also met a Khenpo from Sakya College who is here for a few months and we are doing language, which so far seems to be the most fun and effective way to improve my colloquial Tibetan.

This week will also see the 900th anniversary of Dumsum Khyenpa, the First Gyalwang Karmapa. I'm not sure what is happening here in Boudha, but will try to do something meaningful.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Virtual Karma

Most of my internet use here is keeping in touch with people back home, or wherever in the world they are. With things like Facebook, I'm noting this becoming increasingly general and less personal than individual e-mails.

Whilst this at first appears to be time saving it's not. Finding out what people I barely have any sort of relationship with on Facebook, or getting distracted by links posted takes up far more time than sending individual and in depth e-mails to close friends and family.

Facebook is also horribly tied into all sorts of crap I don't like, like personal data sharing, targeted marketing as well as potentially being used to spy on people.

Similarly this blog has developed from being somewhere I wanted to share ideas into a narcissistic platform rather than anything of value.

Much in the same way I've gleamed hours of fun from subverting various websites from their intended use, it now seems a lot of my own online habits are showing at similar development.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Stop chasing ghosts.

As the response to this little gem was colourful to say the least, I though I'd continue with another few points.

Point 4: Stop chasing Ghosts.

In a meditative sense this could mean stop clinging to the past. More broadly it means not being so involved in everything, including a conceptualised idea of our practice. Obsessing over numbers of prostrations, recitations or whatever is unlikely to help you or anyone else. This is one of the few things I can attest to from personal experience. In the words of someone with a slightly lesser beard than mine:

Thou shalt not return to the same club or bar week in, week out just 'cause you once saw a girl there that you fancied but you're never gonna fucking talk to.

The Buddhist cliche of living in the "now", being present and all that other mindful and awareness stuff is for your own good, right now. Whether you are barely interested in the Dharma or you are practicing the most profound practices of the Vajrayana, this is something that brings immediate fruits.

Point 5: Fuck your snowflake mentality.

Buddha taught 84,000 methods for overcoming the suffering or cyclic existence, however most of us don't have a clue how much we are suffering. Every time we suffer, or rather become aware of suffering, bring attention to the fact that this is the living reality of everyone. You are not special and insisting you are won't help others and with some tragic irony will only prolong and fuel your own pain.

Point 6: Your teacher doesn't give a shit about your drama.

There are thousands of people who have a sincere interest in the Dharma, but do not have a teacher. Yet morons who get access to the greatest living teachers have a tendency to insist on wasting everyones time with irrelevant questions about their relationships and minutae of their personal lives. This is a pretty natural consequence of samsaric mind, so getting angry at these people, people like me, is pointless.

Point 7: You are your own Final Boss of all this.

Whichever vehicle you are practicing, ultimately you are responsible for yourself, your actions and your practice. In the Vajrayana and some other approaches, the teacher is essential, but this doesn't mean an abdication of responsibility. People are very good at showing all manner of outward signs of Guru devotion, but how good are they at investigating the qualifications of the teacher? Being famous doesn't make someone a qualified teacher btw.

Point 8: Make sure the stick doesn't return to your ass.

So you've been practicing for a number of years, received the highest empowerments, done several long retreats and been given some titles. Why still so uptight and angry? This reminds me so much of the stories of Patrul Rinpoches students who did Ngondro 100 times or more. No matter how good people tell you you are, if you take shit too seriously you are still mired in the eight worldy Dharmas and need to maintain the foundation, if it was there to begin with.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

How to practice Buddhism without being a fucking retard

Point One: Remove the stick from your ass.

One of the most common issues with Western Buddhists, both those who 'convert' and those born into it is a strong tendency to take the Dharma, and more worryingly themselves, way too fucking seriously. See previous entries for examples of me doing exactly this.

Taking shit too seriously is a guaranteed way to become tense. When various authentic teachers talk about "practicing like your hair is on fire", or as my teacher told me in retreat "practice like you are fighting for your very life", they mean this in the sense of practicing consistently and genuinely, NOT becoming uptight, humourless and puritanical. The Tibetan word "brtson-’grus" (Sanskrit Virya) is variously translated as "effort," "vigor," "diligence," "zeal," or "energy.", however the best explanations of it I've heard have also imply a sense of joy, or joyous effort.

A few years ago Gyalwa Karmapa gave a teaching to a group of Westerners and people from Taiwan, in other words classic "stick up ass" people. He was teaching how to do Vajrasattva practice, and he explicity stated that Vajrasattva was smiling because people are practicing the Dharma. Similar sentiments are expressed in numerous commentaries.

Even myself as someone who barely knows the real meaning of taking refuge, can attest to the importance of relaxing and not posturing in relation to practice. We start where we are, and if that means laughing at jokes about the Holocaust then we do that. Pretending to be "nice" is self-deceit and hypocrisy and won't benefit ourselves, let alone the limitless beings we are pretending to want to lead to liberation.

In A Brilliant Sun, Patrul Rinpoches commentary on the Bodhicaryavatara, he explicitly talks about "the courage of resting when tired". Laughter and a general sense of lightheartedness go a very long way to making practicing our mind relax which is essential for meditation.

Point Two: Nobody gives a shit about your Scout badges, so don't show them off.

Having done three year retreat, having your picture taken with the Dalai Lama, wearing Ngakpa shawls, being fluent in Tibetan/Pali/Sanskrit/Clingon or having a letter saying you are a Tulku, Lama or whatever does not make you special. To quote one particularly pretentious asshole:

You're not your lineage. You're not how many empowerments you've received.
You're not the Lama you claim to have. You're not the contents of your book collection.
You're not your fucking mala. You're the all-singing, all-dancing, intellectually speculating, orientalist asshole of the world.

If you have encountered authentic teachers and Dharma, this is fucking awesome and you are extremely lucky. If you have done this and are actually putting this to use and practicing, I prostrate to you and aspire to be like you one day. When master Kagyu troll Trungpa spoke of "spiritual materialism" he was referring to how it's very easy to fuck up and let practice build and maintain ego, rather than destroy it, but in this case it's much more coarse than that.

Sitting around telling people how close you are to whichever awesome Lama, which empowerments you've received, how long you've spent in retreat and similar is just a Dharma themed pissing contest. You will probably benefit beings and your practice more by posting pictures of your cock on the internet along with your phone number. You never know, that consort you've been looking for might contact you.

On the puritanical front, meat, or rather non-meat eating springs to mind. If you don't then great, there are far more reasons to avoid meat, according to all three vehicles, than to eat it, but preaching about it and feeling superior about it probably destroys the benefits accrued from it. The same goes for drinking etc.

Point three: You are still in the material, so called real world.

Western Buddhism is generally a white middle class hobby, much in the same way a lot of left-wing political activism is. In the context of Vajrayana, there has also been some historical precedent for this, both before and after it left India.

Being in a position of privilege where you can actually help people, but not doing so due to general laziness of procrastination, lacking renunciation and/or compassion or the very common situation of laziness of self-deprecation, can only really be remedied by ourselves, by watching our own minds, being mindful of whatever shit is going on and dealing with it accordingly. Claiming to be practicing compassion, in a conventional sense, not anything as profound as Bodhicitta, whilst sitting around watching the world burn and very real people suffer, seems grotesquely hypocritical. You have some capacity to help others right now, even if it's just making an unhappy stranger smile in the street.

Point four: It's ok to fail.

The word practice means just that, it's something you do and as your experience grows, hopefully something you become better at. Hopefully Western Buddhists will become better at practicing the Dharma, rather than being good at being Tibetan, Thai, Japanese or whatever nationality they relate to via their particular school of Buddhism.

We're not going to be perfect right away, for example, whilst Tibet produced some amazing practitioners, through most of Tibetan history from the first transmissions up to an including the present day, most Tibetans know fuck all about Buddhism, especially Vajrayana. All we can do is do our best and practice diligently without becoming uptight assholes or despondent because we're not having auspicious dreams/seeing deities or whatever.

The Buddha taught suffering and it's cessation. Most of us have no idea how much we are actually suffering, or how much future suffering we are setting ourselves up for, however if we have some appreciation for the notion of kindness, maybe we can also extend that to ourselves and walk our respective paths with a sense of joy and easy.

The above was intended as a mostly satirical take on the traditional Lojong mind training of the followers of Atisha and as a troll directed at Western Buddhists who take themselves too seriously, such as me, however should any of it be of use to anyone or make them smile, then this is good. If it offends then my troll has been successful. Anyway I'm off to post a facebook status about how awesome my Dzogchen practice is and post pics of me on a night out drinking in a brothel with the Tulku of Drukpa Kunley.

Monday, November 15, 2010

When the great and the good discuss the state of the Dharma in the West, there is at times mention of the massive lack of material support, for ordained persons, retreat centres, monasteries, printing of texts etc. Then there are the more personalised issues around the watering down of key points of Buddhist doctrine, such as karma, re-birth and assorted philosophical tenets. The latter of which have been the subject of Buddhist debate for millenia.

One thing which does seem to escape attention, even in the blogosphere, is that people get angry and are actually experiencing the kleshas. No matter how many times you've paid for the title Lama or met the Dalai Lama, you are still a human being experiencing all the same poisonous shit as everyone else. Being fluent in Sanskrit, having received Dzogchen teachings or tantrically fucking someone from Lithang doesn't change this.

True, you may have access to the most effective methods for dealing with these emotions, but it's not an overnight thing, and denying them and pretending they are not there isn't sincere.

This post isn't in any way related to being in Nepal, but rather a pre-lude to a satirical commentary on the Lojong I may or may not write.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

There are many seemingly basic points which are overlooked in our practice. Particularly hope and fear, or rather not being concerned with them, during whichever sitting practice. In my limited experience, and from talking to others, it seems hope and fear come up a lot in relation to Yidam/Deity meditation. Then once the hope and/or fear are there, it becomes harder to do the actual practice and we potentially enter a destructive cycle and become uptight.

It doesn't have to be like this. If we relax, the whole thing will be more beneficial. When we are having problems visualising, we can simply relax for a bit before going back to the actual practice.

Worrying about the visualisation being unclear or somehow not complete is also pointless as Jamgon Kongtrul points out "the murky/unclear visualisation is also mind".

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Again I'm blogging about school. :/

Being back from retreat and back in Boudha is actually ok. I'm trying to work out a way of having a year to practice and study Tibetan before going straight into a Phd.

I've decided to carry on with Tibetan family homestay for the entire year rather than move in with Beavis and Butthead, this is due to linguistic, financial and other reasons.

The Thangka I've ordered is now at the ready to paint stage. In other words all the outlines are on the canvas and it looks amazing.

It also seem there will be an influx of visitors from back home which could be fun.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Schools out

On this auspicious day, we finished Patrul Rinpoche's "Brilliant Sun", a commentary on the Bodhicaryavatara.

Monday, October 18, 2010

In the Hagekure, imagining being shaken to death by a great earthquake is listed as part of a general meditation on inevitable death. Last night I was awake when I felt two aftershocks from a quake up near the border. I've experienced earthquakes before, but not quite like this. A nice little reminder of what is important.

Monday, October 11, 2010

I want a clean slate. Ironically that's exactly what we have all the time, but we insist on putting all kinds of crap on it. This isn't something to blame ourselves or anyone for, it's just a bad habit.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

This week we briefly covered generosity with Lama Pema in the class on Patrul Rinpoche's "A Brilliant Sun". There is no way I can really comment on this, but I am noticing how badly misdirected my own attempts at practicing this paramita can be, nto so much in the material sense, but rather in terms of the generosity of "emotional availability" and time when neither are really that important or appropriate.

All the Mahayana perfections need to be practiced in the context of the four thoughts that turn the mind to Dharma, unless genuine renunciation is actually present and they need to be practiced with impartiality, otherwise it's another ego game, and like Gampopa said "Dharma practiced incorrectly can become a further cause of samsara".

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

So after roughly two weeks of being sick on and off I've decided to actually take medicine rather than go with the "letting it wear itself out" approach.

This week, and over the weekend, I definitely noticed an improvement in my Tibetan. Due to studying all the time, I'm sort of worried that this blog will just turn into a blog about that, which is annoying as I'm feeling very inspired to write again, but simply don't have the time.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Despite feeling the most de-motivated I have for a long time this morning, I did some "extra" practice and it helped put me in a more positive mindset. I'm definitely making progress and it seems I will be able to stay here a while longer and continue studying.

Also as well as reminding myself that rejoicing in others happiness equals more happiness for myself, it's also worth remembering that some people are just nice.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The most frustrating thing about learning any language is the difficulty in accurately assessing your progress. Various people say I'm improving, but then there will be things like the huge variety of how people say things, and I don't just mean in terms of regional differences or shesa, but much more random variations.

This weekend Pema and I went away and spoke Tibetan for roughly 60% of the time, 100% on one evening and she seems to think I'm doing ok, yet she trolls me about my Tibetan all the time.

No concrete answers on how much longer I'll be able to stay/whether or not I can continue to study, but I'm feeling optimistic, plus the chaotic uncertainty is definitely a good antidote to excessive attachments of all sorts.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Received Guru Rinpoche empowerment from HH Sakya Trinzin today. He hit me very hard on the head and later a very clear Buddha head shaped cloud appeared. Good Times.

Going away this weekend. There might also be some interesting news in the next few weeks, but I'll be posting it on facebook as it's something worth sharing with more than two people.

Thursday, September 23, 2010


Excluding the issues around studying, there have in the last few days emerged news from home which is putting everything I'm doing here in jeopardy, however the real problem is the way other people are being affected.

This should conventionally make me sad, but it feels like my Lamas blessing as it's given me a bit of a kick and a timely reminder of the actual living hell that cyclic existence is. No matter how much honey there is on the razor blade, the razor blade is still there and will always cut us.

Part of the issues are financial, so I will not have as much internet access as before, thus this might be my last blog for a while.

It's also Shakyamuni day, so let's all try to develop some genuine revulsion with samsara and compassion for all who suffer there, rather than writing big words we have zero actual experience of.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

I've blogged about my overall sense of disappointment with the set up here before, so won't bother rehashing it again, sufficing to say I'm having trouble deciding what to do about it all from a samaya perspective as that's really all that matters at this stage.

Despite most aspects of the course being disappointing in how they are set up and varying levels of un-professionalism, I am enjoying most of it despite it being very obvious that there will be no real benefit to completing the course.

Outside school things are the same as ever, I have some awesome friends here, an am seeing someone who isn't excessively needy or high maintenance, but given the choice I'd rather be in retreat.

About twelve years ago I obsessively wanted to be a monk, I still do at times, then when I looked at why I wanted to be one, and why I at one time did take vows, my motivation seemed somewhat mixed and confused.

With retreat it's a similar thing. Retreat is simply doing practice, admittedly in conditions which are in some ways better than those in the 'normal' world, however it's still doing the same thing.

I've gone off on a tangent.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Grant your blessing so that my mind may become one with the Dharma.
Grant your blessing so that the Dharma may go along the path.
Grant your blessing so that the Dharma may clarify confusion.
Grant your blessing so that confusion may dawn as wisdom. - Gampopa.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

In this life I have never benefited a single living being, however I've benefited myself in a very short term way which will be the cause of my own future torment countless times.

Being deluded, the above doesn't fill me with fear. I am actually convinced being aware of it is a great leap forward.

Friday, September 17, 2010

On the study front I sort of feel I'm going backwards rather than forwards. See my previous post on perseverance for an explanation as to why I don't really give a fuck.

In other news, well nothing much dramatic. One of the nicest human beings I've ever met left this week, but every meeting is the beginning of separation.

After morning practice and breakfast I went to the stupa to do sang offering. After I'd placed the burning stuff into the fire, it "simmered" until I'd consecrated it, said some prayers and dedicated any merit. At this point it burst into a blazing intense fire with white smoke billowing everywhere. I took this as a good omen, following a similar experience a few years ago in India.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010


Buddha of the Three Times Gyalwa Karmapa, Precious Root and lineage Lamas, hold me and all beings without exception in your compassion.

May the sickness experienced in my head purify the sickness of ego and pride in all beings.

May the sickness experienced in my throat purify the sickness of negative speech in all beings.

May the sickness in my chest purify the sickness of hatred in all beings.

May the sickness in my stomach purify the sickness of greed in all beings.

May the aches in my muscles purify the complacency with samsara in myself and all beings.

May the sickness of ego-clinging, not seeing mind for itself and the false taking of appearances as real, be immediately healed in all beings.

Whatever roots of virtue I may accidentally have generated, may they be the cause of unsurpassed Buddhahood, already inherent, in all beings throughout space.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Why I am not a Buddhist

One of the things which tends to make me rage hard in relation to Western Buddhists in general, is the idea that you can get stoned and do meditation that has any value whatsoever. You can't, it really is that black and white.

Rather than going off on one of my usual judgemental fundamentalist rants, which are purely based on my own limited intellectual understanding of Dharma, rather than wisdom born in meditation, I'm taking the above issue of contradictory attachment and applying it to myself.

My main obstacle to practice is, and has always been women. Yet I convince myself that it's possible to combine some sort of relationship with genuine practice. In my case, I think this level of self-deceit is pretty astronomical. I could of course try to explain that desire, be it for emotional or physical intimacy is simply a manifestation of mind and thus empty of inherent existence and so on. This however would be an act of stupidity on par with the "monk" I met in a Thamel nightclub who said experiencing what he was there was helping him overcome dualistic attachment, or some other moronic statement based on something read in a book on Dzogchen or similar.

Facts. I gave up being a monk and retreat to enter into a relationship which was more negative than positive. It helped fuel my own clinging and attachments as well as encourage them in others. Nothing positive came from it apart from two women eventually taking refuge in a probably superficial way. In hindsight, there was no other reason for disrobing and leaving retreat than attachment to concepts.

Similarly, when I lived in Dharamsala, lots of practice opportunities were wasted because of my attachment to a woman. At this point there was no negativity generated by disrobing or similar, but there was the usual furthering of delusion and possibly some samaya issues, but those are a permanent fixture.

In summary, when I am in retreat, on vows or otherwise not overwhelmed (over dramatic much?), my practice is steady and some revulsion with samsara arises.

So avoiding women seems like the sensible thing to do?

When I asked Gyalwa Karmapa about taking proper ordination, he said think about it after four years retreat. Think about it, not do it.

When I asked another Lama, whom I consider my main teacher, whether or not I should give up women he said no.

Then more recently various Nyingma Lamas have been similarly unhelpful, in one case trolling me by suggesting I'd achieve rainbow body in this life.

The issue isn't really anything to do with whether or not I put my cock inside someone or not, or whether I wear funny clothes and shave my head. It's about how much I allow myself to become attached to the ideas themselves.

The whole essence of the BuddhaDharma is to watch ones mind, and root out attachments, both coarse and subtle. This is something I entirely fail to do, thus I am not a Buddhist in anything other than name. Names and titles mean nothing other than an extension of ego.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Last night I did a quick Dorsem before bed, this was after the aily teachings on "Words of my perfect teacher" which Sonam is teaching at Lama Wangdu's monastery every evening. Before this I'd spent some time practicing colloquial with Pema, although I admit wanting to spent time with her is not entirely motivated by wanting to learn Tibetan.

I had extensive dreams last night, possibly due to the thunderstorms. They were mostly involving various monks I know and the Buddha of the Three Times, Gyalwa Karmapa. During this mornings prostrations and Dorsem it really felt like he and my other Lamas were there.

Monday, September 6, 2010


A combination of living in a country which has been ruined by communist retards, being ignored by my Lama, various samaya issues, my own attachments and feeling bad about having invested my inheritance in a course which doesn't seem to be that effective in terms of actually making me competent at Tibetan, let alone as a translator, has left a somewhat bitter taste in my generally overactive mouth.

Unsolicited advice from well meaning people have added to the overall sense of "things not going as planned" and I'm borderline homesick for the first time in my life. The latter is probably more due to the general sense of isolation I'm feeling rather than wanting to be in Europe. On the flipside, Patrul Rinpoche, and others, always point out that loneliness leads to concentration. This does to some extent seem to be true, however the real benefits for me personally from the current situation is a reminder of the importance of seeing things through. When I was 18 I nearly killed myself just to "serve" in a military unit that was seen as somewhat prestigious. What then of determination when it's vaguely Dharma related?

Practicing Dharma involves some hardships, but these are minimal when compared with what most of the world does daily simply to survive in the destructive capitalist hell we have created, as Shantideva points out. He didn't mention the capitalist part though.

With the right determination there is nothing that is impossible. About ten years ago I was having a hard time with various things and went into retreat. My Lama said I would benefit greatly from the retreat. Upon completion, I felt like I could walk through a mountain. It is all a matter of being certain about ones own motivation. Once that is clear, everything else is secondary.

There is something to be learned from a rainstorm. When meeting with a sudden shower, you try not to get wet and run quickly along the road. By doing such things as passing under the eaves of houses, you still get wet. When you are resolved from the beginning, you will not be perplexed, though you will still get the same soaking. This understanding extends to all things.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

So translator training proper has started. It's more fun that the language only stuff, intense, but interesting.

Over the weekend I went out, which is unusual for me these days. The highlight of this was being threatened with having my eyes gouged out and having a bottle of Gurkha beer smashed into my face, this was unfortunate, partly as the aforementioned beer is a shitty chemical fare, rather than anything decent. It was nice to have this opportunity to sit through this whole experience without reaction how I would have done 12 years ago.

Over the last two days the shit has sort of hit the fan on a personal level in relation to my so-called practice and a few other things, combining this with various things not working so well, or at all, in school this has led to me experiencing something approximating stress. After the experiences of pretending to be in retreat, it's nice to have this stuff all coming up.

I don't want to be here and experience this shit, but I am and that's the whole point of practice. Dealing with reality, not some form of escapist fantasy.

The influx of new people hasn't brought with it the high numbers of orientalist weirdoes I had hope would come to irritate me, however I seem to be doing quite well on my own.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

The Stupa

At the Northern side I prostrate to Master of Oddiyana, Peerless Longchen Ramjab and others of the old schools. May your direct link to the state of knowing remain forever, benefiting beings through the teachings on the Great Perfection and the blessing of the natural state.

At the Eastern side I prostrate to the Buddha of the three times, Gyalwa Karmapa, Dhagpo Lhaje and others of the father-son lineage. May your pristine teachings on Buddhahood in one life remain forever, benefiting beings through the path of joyous effortless effort and the blessing of the natural state.

At the Southern side I prostrate to the Glorious Drakpa Gyaltsen, Jamyang Khyentse and others of the Sakya school. May your mastery of tantra remain forever, benefiting beings through The Hundred Sadhanas and the stainless teachings of the six Ornaments of the land of snow.

At the Western side I prostrate to the Manjushri emanation Lord Tsongkhapa, Tsangyang Gyatso and others of the virtuous ones. May your admantine intellect remain forever, benefiting beings through The Great Exposition of the Stages of the Path and Yamantaka.

Having completed a circuit I pray all samaya breakers, including myself, connect with genuine lineages, develop sincere devotion and compassion, liberating concepts instantly and in this very instant realise Buddhahood for the sake of beings to the ends of space.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Deity Meditation

Sadhana practice is one of the most common and important forms of Tantric Buddhist ritual practice. It was practiced at the height of Tantric Buddhism in India and is practiced in all schools contemporary of Tantric Buddhism, Tibetan Vajrayana, Korean Milgyo and Japanese Shingon. A Sadhana is a ritualised meditation on a chosen deity, or ishta-deva (yi dam); its mantra and the liturgy that goes with it. Whilst there is a great variety of Sadhanas practiced, depending on factors such as lineage and classification of Tantra, they all are fairly similar in terms of contents and method. This paper aims to explore how Sadhana is practiced in the Tibetan Vajrayana tradition. The basic premise of Tantric deity meditation is that it is a method for transforming ones ordinary perception of reality and ultimately experience and understand the nature of reality, or become enlightened. Here it is useful to briefly mention a couple of doctrines which are essential to understanding Vajrayana practices.

Emptiness and Buddha Nature

Mahayana, and consequently Vajrayana, Prajnaparamita or perfection of wisdom literature, such as the Heart Sutra, The Diamond Cutter Sutra and other texts expound the teachings on emptiness or Shunyata (stong pa nyid). The teachings on emptiness were codified and propagated by scholars such as Nagarjuna and others in the Madhyamika (u ma) philosophical school. A necessarily simplified explanation of Emptiness is that all phenomena are ‘empty’ of inherent independent existence and as such only exist in interdependence on other factors and phenomena. This emptiness is not a simple nihilistic absence of anything whatsoever as clearly phenomena do exist on a conventional or relative level according to our everyday sensory experience. This everyday experience of the world could be said to have its basis in conceptual and dualistic intelligence. With this conceptual and dualistic approach to the world comes suffering in all its forms. Once ultimate reality is understood on a deep level, rather than a purely intellectual one, suffering ceases. The enlightenment of the Buddha is simply understanding things how they actually are, rather than how they appear, whilst at the same time not being separate from it.

This ultimate non-differentiation between Buddha and seemingly unenlightened beings is essential to Vajrayana, as it gives a doctrinal basis for Buddha Nature.

The Buddha has said that all beings possess the essence of Buddhahood because the buddhajnana has always been present in all beings, the immaculate nature is non-dual and the Buddha-potential is named after its result. Asanga

Buddha Nature is the belief and doctrine that all sentient beings have the potential to become Buddha. So key to Vajrayana practice is this doctrine, that Gampopa entirely devotes the first chapter of the Jewel Ornament of Liberation to it, describing it as the ‘Primary cause’ of enlightenment. Considering the importance of Asanga in the Karma Kagyu (karma bka' brgyud), it is interesting to note that he quotes from a number of Sutras to support his argument, but does not quote Asanga in this chapter. The potential to become enlightened as espoused by the doctrine of Buddha Nature is understood somewhat differently depending on the tradition, where many Mahayanist would see the path to enlightenment as being a very long process, whereas Vajrayanists believe enlightenment can be realised in a single lifetime through the utilisation of methods such as deity Sadhana practice.

The theory behind deity meditation in Vajrayana is that the yogi can access his true nature, thus understanding the nature of reality and be freed from the dualistic ignorance which keeps him in conditioned existence or samsara ('khor ba).

Misunderstanding this reality, we wander endlessly in the cycle of existence. The disciple must be introduced to the realisation of the true nature of his or her mind by a competent master, and then must meditate. When the disciple effectively reaches this recognition, the waves of the mind are reabsorbed in the immensity of primordial awareness. It is realisation of Mahamudra (phyag rgya chen po) or Maha-Ati (rdzogs pa chen po), the union of intelligence and emptiness, to which the phase of completion leads. Kalu Rinpoche

It is very important to note that the level of ‘reality’ accredited to Yidams varies depending on the practitioners level of experience and understanding. The Vajrayana pantheon serves as a focus for hope and devotion for thousands, few of whom are likely to have the time and resources to engage in the meditational approach that a yogi will take. The cross-cultural devotion to Avalokiteshvara (spyan ras gzigs), the Buddha of compassion, across the parts of Asia where Vajrayana and Mahayana Buddhism are practiced is testament to this. Avalokiteshvara is found in many forms, including two armed, four armed, eight armed and thousand armed. In Vajrayana countries this deity is seen as male, whilst in parts of China and Japan it is more commonly depicted as female and is known as Guan Yin or Kannon. Devotees of the Dalai Lamas and Karmapas view them as incarnations of Avalokiteshvara.

Preparation for Sadhana

Before the yogi can engage in the Sadhana fully there are a number of factors that have to be in place. Firstly, he needs to have a Guru (bla ma) who can initiate and instruct him, and secondly he may have to complete various preliminary practices known as Ngondro (sngon 'gro), although some of the practices of the Ngondro, such as Vajrasattva (rdo rje sems pas) and Guru Yoga (bla ma'i rnal 'byor) are no different from the Yidam deity meditation that shall be discussed in detail later. Ngondro varies slightly between the different lineages of Tibetan Vajrayana, but generally consists of performing 100,000 prostrations with taking refuge and generating Bodhicitta, 100,000 Vajrasattva 100 syllable mantras, 100,000 Mandala offerings and 100,000 Guru Yoga.

Whilst the teacher is important to varying degrees in most schools of Buddhism, in Vajrayana Buddhism he is a key figure, without whom practice is impossible for the yogi. In Vajrayana the Guru is seen as a Buddha.

Although in their realization they are Buddhas, in their actions they are attuned to how we are. With their skilful means they accept us as disciples, introduce us to the supreme authentic Dharma, open our eyes to what we should do and what we should not do, and unerringly point out the best path to liberation and omniscience. In truth, they are no different from the Buddha himself; but compared to the Buddha their kindness in caring for us is even greater. Always try, therefore, to follow your teacher in the right way, with the three kinds of faith Patrul Rinpoche

The reason for the centrality of the Guru in Vajrayana lies in the difficult concept of the transference of ‘chinlap’ (byin rlabs), which is varyingly translated as grace, empowering energy, inspiration or blessing. It is difficult not only due to the lack of a perfect translation, but also because it is something which is difficult to study academically as an outsider to a tradition. Kalu Rinpoche compares it to electric power in that it flows from the Buddha, through the lineage of transmission to the yogi. Consequentially the Yidam is seen as inseparable from the Guru, in fact the Sadhana liturgical text used for this paper sees the deity addressed as Lama.

Assuming the Guru has this ‘empowering energy’, the yogi has to have certain corresponding qualities for the transference to work. There exists a great deal of writing, both Tibetan and Indian on the requirements of both Tantric Gurus and their disciples, Jamgon Kongtrul devotes several chapters of his encyclopaedic Treasury of Knowledge to exploring these qualities as well as how the yogi should follow his Guru as well as how the process of finding a suitable Guru should be undertaken, similarly Patrul Rinpoche has a whole chapter on the topic in Words of My Perfect Teacher. Ashvaghosa’s Fifty Stanzas of Guru-Devotion is a more condensed and poetic description, which Jamgon Kongtrul extensively quotes from and comments on. In brief, the qualities required of the Guru are summed up as being honest, compassionate and loving towards all sentient beings, having a tamed mind and being knowledgeable about the tantras, sutras and shastras. Kongtrul also talks about the different types of Guru in terms of whether or not they are a layperson or ordained to novice level (dge tshul) or have full ordination (dge slong), where he concludes by saying that a fully ordained Guru is best, unless he or she is someone who has reached the first bodhisattva Bhumis as the realisation that goes with this supersedes any issues of which vows they have as ‘support’.

The aspiring yogi must have certain qualities which Jamgon Kongtrul lists as: devotion, ability to understand the ‘profound view’ or pure view (dag snang), confidence or faith in Tantric practice and the ability to keep pure samaya (dam tshig). It is generally accepted that keeping a pure view of the Guru is essential to the maintenance of samaya, and that samaya is established once a connection is made between a Guru and a yogi. As Tantric commitments and samaya are seen as extremely serious business, it is important that the Guru and prospective disciple examine each other very closely rather than immediately rushing into a relationship which could be detrimental to both of them. Patrul Rinpoche quotes Padmasambhava:

Not to examine the teacher, is like drinking poison. Not to examine the disciple is like leaping from a precipice.

Once the basis for a proper Guru disciple relationship has been established, the Guru can then empower the yogi to practice. According to Stephan Beyer there are five types of “transmission of lineage and authority”, ranging from the more fantastical “revelatory” and the hidden treasure (gter ma) tradition of Padmasambhava to the more commonplace “lineage of initiation, textual transmission and instruction”. When discussing Sadhana in a general sense it is most expedient to focus on the latter, although there are many Sadhana practices that come from the hidden treasure tradition of the Nyingma lineage.

Vajrayana empowerments have three parts: the actual empowerment ritual (dbang), the reading transmission of the liturgical Sadhana text (lung) and the actual meditation instructions (tri) for the deity. The empowerment ritual itself can be more or less elaborate, but always contains the vase empowerment, secret empowerment, knowledge-wisdom empowerment and speech empowerment. Irrespective of how elaborate the initiation ritual itself is, it can be summed up as giving the aspiring yogi the permission and ability to meditate on himself as the deity in order to understand the union of appearance and emptiness, the permission and ability to meditate on the union of sound and emptiness through receiving and reciting the mantra of the deity and also to meditate on the union of emptiness and compassion through the mind of the deity being given. In order for the empowerment ritual to be successful, the Guru must be motivated by love and compassion, as well as having some experiential meditational accomplishment of both the development (bskyed rim) and completion (rdzogs rim) stages of the deity of whom the empowerment that is being given. The aspiring yogi must also trust the specific ritual and the Guru, and the symbolic ritual objects must be in place. Refuge and Bodhisattva vows are also included in all empowerments. After being initiated and receiving instructions the yogi is then ready to start practicing the Sadhana of the particular deity in question.

Structure of a Sadhana.

The ritualised structure of most Sadhana practices is pretty similar, so for the sake of simplicity I will illustrate by primarily focusing only on one relatively common Sadhana, All-Pervading Benefit of Beings, The Meditation and Recitation of the Great Compassionate One. This is a short Avaloketishvara (spyan ras gzigs) Sadhana by the ‘renaissance man’ figure of Tangtong Gyalpo9 (thang stong rgyal po), which is practiced across Kagyu, Nyingma and Shakya (sa skya) lineages. It belongs to the Kriya class of Tantra.

Like all Vajrayana rituals the Sadhana starts with taking Refuge and generating Bodhicitta (byang chub kyi sems). Taking Refuge in the Three Jewels, is what makes this meditation specifically Buddhist, whilst the generation of Bodhicitta is what marks it as a Mahayana practice. Vajrayana Buddhism has Mahayana philosophy and ethics as its foundation, the techniques and practices described in the Tantras are what make it different from other the other Mahayana traditions.

Depending on time and the elaborateness of the ritual, after this there may be inserted various other prayers of aspiration such as the Four Immeasurables (tshans pa'i gnas bzi) or various lineage prayers, either to the general lineage of the yogi or the lineage of transmission of the particular practice. There may also be offering prayers or some sort of Mandala offering. However in this particular Sadhana there is not. During this part of the Sadhana the deity, in this case Avaloketishvara, is visualised as appearing in space in front and above the yogi, thus the deity is supplicated for Refuge as well as being an object of offering.

From the HRIH, appears noble and supreme Avalokita. He is brilliant white and radiates the five lights. Handsome and smiling, he looks on with eyes of compassion. He has four hands: the first are joined in anjali; the lower two hold a crystal mala and a white lotus. Adorned with ornaments of silk and jewels, he wears an upper garment of deerskin. Amitabha ('od dpag med) crowns his head. His two feet are in the vajra posture. His back rests against a stainless moon. He is the embodiment of all objects of refuge Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche

The syllable HRIH is the seed syllable of Avalokiteshvara. When meditating, the yogi will visualise radiating lights from this syllable, which is standing on a lotus and moon. These lights are seen as going in two directions: Firstly the lights go ‘down’ to relieve the suffering of sentient beings in samsara, they do this by taking the suffering and bringing it back to the HRIH. Then the lights go ‘up’ to all the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas carrying offerings, the lights return then return carrying the blessing of these deities which transforms the HRIH into Avalokiteshvara. The physical features relate to various Buddhist teachings or have other symbolic meaning, in some cases multiple meanings. The four hands correspond to the Four Immeasurables; the joined hands are holding a jewel which is representative of Bodhicitta. The mala represents the drawing of beings towards liberation, whilst the white lotus is symbolic of purity and working in the world without being tainted by it. Sitting in the vajra posture symbolises the union of compassion and emptiness, the deer skin represents the legendary kindness of the deer. Amitabha is visualised on top of Avalokiteshvara as he is his teacher in the traditional mythology of Avaloketishvara.

After this the liturgy contains a short supplication of verbal prostration to Avalokiteshvara. In the fasting ritual of the thousand armed Avalokiteshvara (smyung gnas), physical prostrations are performed whilst chanting this particular supplication prayer.

Next comes the seven branched prayer, various versions of which are found in most Sadhanas, it is also found in all Mahayana Buddhist schools. In this Sadhana text the words are given, but this is not always the case.

The act of homage functions to reduce pride and foster a sense of devotion, whilst offering is intended to generate merit (bsod nams), whilst also being an expression of the Bodhisattva perfection16 of generosity (sbyin pa) and a way of reducing greedy tendencies. Confession, if done sincerely and in conjunction with Four Powers, is believed to reduce the effects of negative karma, or even purify it completely. Rejoicing in the virtues of others is a way of generating merit, habituating oneself to valuing virtue, effectively functioning as mind training. Requesting the teachings generates merit and also serves to express and develop further appreciation for the teachings. Requesting the Buddhas to not enter Nirvana is similar to requesting the teachings and dedicating the merit makes the whole practice a Mahayana practice and aids the development of Bodhicitta. Whilst the above order is generally how the seven branch prayer is performed, the 9th Gyalwa Karmapa Wangchuk Dorje (dbang phyug rdo rje) states that Refuge is occasionally added between making offerings and confession.

After the seven branched prayer there is a supplicatory prayer called, “The supplication of calling with longing”, where the relationship between negative emotions and their corresponding samsaric realm is laid out. This reminds the yogi to be mindful of these emotions, develops renunciation by contemplating the suffering of samsaric existence and develops compassion as each verse ends with a supplication that beings from the realm mentioned be born in the presence of Avalokiteshvara, which can be taken literally or as an aspiration that all beings develop the non-dual compassion embodied in Avaloketishvara. This part of the liturgy concludes with aspirations to carry out the activities of Avaloketishvara, as up until now the visualisation has been of the deity as something external ‘in front’ of the yogi. This changes during what could be considered the main part of the visualisation.

The main visualisation is done according to the description in the first part of the liturgy, however the radical difference is that the yogi is now identifying himself with the deity. The initial stage of the visualisation, with the syllable HRIH transforming is done exactly as before this visualisation is known as the ‘pledge being’ (dam tshig pa), this is a complicated concept, but basically means it’s created purely by the yogi, who after receiving initiation is a holder of a pledge, or samaya (dam tshig), with the deity in question. The yogi then visualises lights emanating from a HRIH in his heart, which summons the wisdom deity (ye she pa) who effectively consecrates the initial visualisation. The visualisation is now seen as more ‘alive’, and at this point the yogi will remain in this state whilst reciting the mantra of the deity, which in this case is the six syllables OM MA NI PAD ME HUNG18. This mantra is then visualised as circling the white HRIH inside the yogi visualised in the form of the deity. Each syllable emits lights which pacify a corresponding negative mental state and realm of existence. The 15th Gyalwa Karmapa, Khakhyab Dorje (mkha' khyab rdo rje), lists them in the following way: OM is white, and purifies pride and karma associated with the gods realm. MA is green, and purifies jealousy and karma associated with jealousy. NI is yellow, and is associated with the human realm and purifying desire. PAD is blue, and purifies the karma associated with ignorance and the animal realms. ME is red, and purifies the negative emotion of greed which is associated with the hungry ghosts (yi dags), whilst HUNG is black, and associated with purifying aggression and hatred in the hell realms. All beins are transformed into the deity and all realms are transformed into Sukghavati (bde ba can), the land of bliss. All of this is a rather complicated process of multitasking and simplified versions are encouraged until the yogi is able to carry out the whole process.

This part of the meditation is what is known as the creation stage (bskyed rim). As mentioned this is quite an all encompassing process, however it is essential that the yogi keeps a view of emptiness during the process, as to avoid simply replacing the samsaric ignorance driven reality with another, perhaps seemingly more pleasant one. According to Padmasambhava:

Do not regard the Yidam deity as a form body; it is a Dharmakaya. The meditation on this form body as manifesting from Dharmakaya and appearing with colour, attributes, ornaments, attire, and major and minor marks should be practiced as being visible while devoid of a self-nature. It is just like the reflection of the moon in water. When you attain mental stability by practicing like this, you will have a vision of the deity, receive teachings, and so forth. If you cling to that you will go astray and be caught by Mara. Do not become fascinated or overjoyed by such visions since they are only the manifestations of your mind.

The yogi will do this part of the practice for a certain period of time, which is not specified, although some Sadhanas specify a certain number of mantra recitations for each session. After this the yogi will begin to dissolve the visualisation as part of beginning the completion stage (rdzogs rim). The process of dissolving the deity, much like the creation stage, can be done in a number of ways, but they are either gradual or instant. If it is done gradually, the deity is visualised as melting into the mantra, which melts into the seed syllable, in this case a HRIH, which is then dissolved in stages, until it dissolves into emptiness. Once the visualisation is dissolved, the yogi rests in the natural state into which the Yidam deity has dissolved. According to Vajrayana, this natural state of mind is Mahamudra (phyag rgya chen po) or Dzogchen (rdzogs pa chen po), and is no different from Buddhahood itself. This is effectively a ‘formless’ meditation as there is nothing to cling to and is simply experiencing reality as it is, free from dualistic fixation.

Free from intellectual speculation, it is Mahamudra. Free from extremes, it is the great middle way. Being the totality of everything, it is also called the great perfection (Dzogchen). May I gain conviction that to know this one thing is to understand all. From Rangjung Dorje's "Aspiration of Mahamudra"

Becoming accustomed to, or familiar with this state, is really what Mahamudra and Dzogchen meditation is and as such Yidam deity meditation is an effective way of practicing. How long the yogi rests in this state will depend on his level of experience, although it is probably not very long for most practitioners as any conceptualisation. According to Jamgon Kongtrul this part of the practice lasts while there are no “discursive pursuits of altering, accepting or rejecting”.

For the reasons described above there is no liturgical commentary in the practice text, apart from “rest evenly in your own nature”. The secondary reason for this is that Mahamudra and Dzogchen are not general and open teachings, but are traditionally taught from Guru to disciple only after a proper relationship has been established and trust has been established. As such, the next part of the text concerns keeping pure perception (dag snang) and the pride of the deity, which was developed during the creation phase. These are basically keeping a view of the world as the pure land of the deity, oneself and all beings are the deity and all sound are the mantra. This is not a visualisation, rather an attitude or ‘view’, continuing what has been experienced and learnt during meditation:

During meditation you rest in the inconcrete essence of Dharmata, cognizant but without conceptual thinking. During post-meditation, you realise everything to be empty, without self-nature. Free from attachment to or fascination for the experience of emptiness, you will naturally progress beyond meditation and post-meditation and be free from holding a conceptual focus or conceiving of attributes, just as clouds and mist spontaneously clear in the vast expanse of the sky MahaGuru Padmasambhava

The liturgy then goes into the sealing of the practice with the dedication of merit, which should be done with a continuing understanding of emptiness. After this comes an aspiration prayer for oneself and all others to achieve rebirth in Sukhavati as well as other aspiration prayers for the development and spread of Bodhicitta.

Benefits of this practice

The various commentaries on this practice go into some degree of detail as to the benefits of this practice, and on various other aspects of it. The mantra of Avaloketishvara is ubiquitous anywhere Tibetan Vajrayana is practiced, recited by everyone, painted on rocks, prayer flags and over doors. Bokar Rinpoche points out that Tibetans recite the mantra without having received the initiation and without doing the visualisation, but purely out of “faith and devotion acquired since infancy”. In his commentary, the 15th Gyalwa Karmapa, Khakhyab Dorje, quotes from the "Root Tantra of the Lotus Net":

The Mandala of body that accomplishes meditating on all Buddhas combined is the body of the protector. Through meditating on or even recalling it, the actions of immediate retribution and all obscurations are purified.

His teacher, Jamgon Kongtrul, finishes his commentary on the practice of Avaloketishvara by saying that the benefits of it “cannot be properly conveyed using words” and that it benefits “all those whom it comes into contact (with)”. As if to highlight the importance of impartial compassion, he encourages the sound of the mantra to be shared with animals “from ants upward” and ends by an exhortation for everyone to practice.

Functions of the meditation.

Buddhist meditation can be classified as either calming, or Shamatha (zhi gnas) meditation, which lays the foundations for insight or Vipassana (lhag mthong) meditation. Whilst these can, and are practiced separately in the Tibetan tradition, they are combined within the practice of Yidam deity meditation. During the development stage the details of the appearance of the deity and the mantra serve as a focus for the mind which, with sufficient practice, leads to a gradual calming of the mind. Insight is developed by keeping the visualisation light and non solid as mentioned previously. The union of calm and insight is Mahamudra:

The deity is, therefore, appearance-emptiness. But it is not, on the one hand, appearance and on the other hand, emptiness, sometimes appearance or sometimes emptiness. Being an appearance it does not lose its emptiness; being empty it does not lose its appearance. It is the union of appearance and emptiness, not with the meaning of two things placed side by side, but with the meaning of the two things forming the same indissociable reality. To dwell without distraction in this state of union is the simultaneity of mental calm and superior vision. This is also called Mahamudra and more precisely in this case, the Mahamudra of the deity’s body. Bokar Rinpoche

Earlier it was mentioned how the yogi in post-meditation should keep the view and pride of the deity. This in itself will serve as an exercise in mindfulness as well as further developing devotion and compassion. By doing this it is possible to use “all the circumstances of existence” as part of the yogi’s spiritual practice. When walking the yogi will visualise the deity over his right shoulder so as to transform the walk into a devotional circumambulation, when sitting the deity is visualised seated above his head. When the yogi eats he will imagine the food as an offering to the deity, which he will visualise in his throat, whilst at the same time seeing the food itself as amrita (bdud rtsi). When going to sleep the deity is visualised at the heart emitting light. There are variations on these practices as well as lots of others serving similar functions, the main point is that the “view” is maintained. According to the 9th Karmapa Wangchuk Dorje, appearances are like a “mirage” in post-meditation.

Technical points of meditation.

As we have seen, Yidam deity meditation can be extremely complex, and so far this is without the inclusion of additional factors that may be included in particular Sadhana practices, such as playing ritual music, making physical offerings in the forms of torma (gtor ma) offerings. As such there are a few points which are crucially important to note. Meditation is often portrayed as a way to relax, and whilst relaxation and calming are effects of successful meditation, it is also important to relax before meditating. Rather than worrying about whether or not the whole deity is visualised in glorious three dimensional form, the aspiring yogi should relax and take an approach of focussing on specific parts of the deity in turn, rather than trying to see everything at the same time. Bokar Rinpoche advices against approaching the process in a “rigid and too structured way”, suggesting instead that one begins with simply adopting the thought of being the deity, before moving on to specific parts of the visualisation once one feels more confident. This way, the whole process is gradually built up in a relaxed and natural way.

When a little child is seated in the middle of many toys, he does not consider playing with them all at once. He takes one toy and plays with it for awhile, then when he has had enough, he takes another that he in turn puts away to play with a third, and so on. He has many toys but he does not worry about being able to play with them at the same time. He knows they are there, that one toy is enough and when he is bored with it, he can take another. Bokar Rinpoche

Whilst taking a gentle relaxed approach, it is also important that the yogi does not let the mind wander completely, so a typically Buddhist “middle way” approach is generally recommended. Kagyu Lamas often talk of "little and often" when it comes to formal sitting, not just in relation to yidam practice, so it might be a good approach.


We have seen that Yidam deity meditation is a ritual practice which covers many areas of the yogis training. Yidam meditation allows the yogi to engage in the ‘two accumulations” (tshogs gnyis), the accumulation of conceptual merit by offering the seven branch prayer, and engaging in the Bodhisattva perfections, whilst accumulating non-conceptual wisdom by keeping a view of emptiness both when engaged in the actual visualisation and in the post-meditation. Both relative, and ultimate, Bodhicitta are also developed. Relative Bodhicitta, in the form of dualistic compassion is developed through the recitation of the Bodhicitta prayers, the visualisation of lights liberating the suffering of others and by the dedication of merit, whilst ultimate Bodhicitta is developed by seeing the Yidam deity as the union of appearance and emptiness, as ultimate Bodhicitta is emptiness or the direct experience and understanding of it. The practice simultaneously develops calm and insight, the union of which is considered to be the fruition of Mahamudra or Dzogchen practice. From the Mahamudra point of view, nothing has then been achieved in terms of creating something new, rather what is naturally there has been realised directly and spontaneously as it is, rather than through conventional dualistic mind.

The present mind having been released freely into the state of naturalness, the unmodified spontaneous perfection of whatever arises, there is no attachment towards external and internal phenomena. (In the present mind,) as there are not thoughts of rejecting or accepting, the state of non-duality of the mind remains ceaselessly. As there are no gross thoughts, the wildly roaming mind has been liberated from the thoughts of the desire (realm). As the projecting thoughts have arisen in naturalness, the mind has transcended all diversion to the form and formless realms. Having no apprehension as “this”, the tranquillity has been accomplished spontaneously. As the naturalness (so ma) (of the mind) has arisen spontaneously, the insight has been accomplished spontaneously. As there is no separate and projecting and dwelling, their union has been accomplished spontaneously. As it has been liberated in the instantaneous state itself (or instantaneously in its own state), the wisdom has been accomplished spontaneously. As there is no dwelling, the absorption has been accomplished. As there is no apprehension of liberation-upon-arising (of intrinsic awareness), the primordial wisdom has been accomplished spontaneously. As all the faults are present through the aspect of apprehension, they are liberated in freedom from apprehension and hindrances. As all the virtues arise in the awareness wisdom, they are progressing. It is the mind perfected in its own naturalness, and it is the supreme accomplishment of the Great Seal (Mahamudra), in this very lifetime. Longchenpa

To conclude, the yogi, through the practice of the Yidam deity meditation, simply comes to see himself, and the world as they are. According to Vajrayana Buddhism, ultimately everything is pure, but through dualistic thinking, rooted in a belief in a separate and inherently existent self, things appear and are experienced as impure and painful, as such the Yidam meditation becomes the yogis corrective glasses.

This is a rehash of an acadmic essay I wrote, minus the footnotes and bibliogrpahy. Should any merit have been generated, may all beings benefit from it.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Retreat was awesome, both in terms of the actual practice and some 'networking'. Nothing more needs to be said. I hope both my readers are well and happy.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Finished and managed to pass summer school. Am off to Namo Buddha in a few hours to spend a week in retreat, then it's back here to have some fun whilst getting ready for the next semester.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Vajrayana foundations

When beginning any process, whether it is traveling, building a house or making a meal, it is essential that all the necessary factors for successful completion of the process are in place. This is also true in Vajrayana Buddhism. The so called Tantric preliminary practices, or Ngondro (Tib. sngon 'gro), are common to all schools of Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhism. The differences in how they are practiced are relatively minor and primarily focus on factors such as which figures are visualised and liturgies chanted, although there can also be some differences in actual practices performed as part of a ‘complete’ Ngondro. The main focus of this paper is how preliminaries are practiced in the Karma Kagyu (Tib. karma bka' brgyud) and Nyingma (Tib. rnying ma), with only occasional reference made to other lineages. In the case of the Nyingma Ngondro, the main information comes from the Longchen Nyingthig (Tib. klong chen snying thig) lineage. Availability of material and word limit is the reason for focussing on these two lineages.

Ngondro overview

The word Ngondro literally means ‘that which goes before’, however it might be better to view the practices of the Ngondro as foundation practices rather than preliminaries in the sense of something which is simply done and then forgotten about. One does not build a house and neglect the foundations whilst maintaining the other parts of the house. As such there are many practitioners who complete Ngondro multiple times. A complete Ngondro generally consists of the Four Ordinary Foundations, or thoughts which turn the mind to Dharma (Tib. blo do nam shi). These are precious human birth, impermanence, karma and the suffering of conditioned existence or samsara (Tib. 'khor ba). These contemplations are also common to Hinayana and Mahayana schools of Buddhism. Following these are the Four Extraordinary Foundations consisting of taking of refuge and engendering Bodhicitta 100,000 times, followed by meditation on Vajrasattva (Tib. rdo rje sems pas), Mandala offering and Guru Yoga (Tib. bla ma'i rnal 'byor ), which are also done 100.000 times each. With taking refuge 100,000 full prostrations are also performed. The Four Extraordinary Foundations are specific to Vajrayana Buddhism and are seen as the foundations for advanced Tantric practices as well as Mahamudra (Tib. phyag rgya chen po) and Dzogchen (Tib. rdzogs pa chen po). Generally Mahamudra is seen as a Kagyu practice whilst Dzogchen is associated with the Nyingma.

The Four Ordinary Foundations

The first meditation topic concerns the precious human life endowed with every freedom and asset. It is difficult to get and can easily be destroyed, so now is the time to make it meaningful - 9th Gyalwa Karmapa Wangchuk Dorje

The first of the Four Ordinary Foundations is precious human birth. Whilst there are various definitions as to what makes a human birth precious, it is generally seen as such primarily in terms of being an opportunity to engage in spiritual practice. This opportunity presents itself as human birth is generally viewed as having less of the obstacles that other births come with. Gampopa classifies precious human birth into two factors of body and three of mind. The two factors of body are leisure and endowment, whilst the three factors of mind are trust, longing and clarity.

Leisure and endowment effectively mean having the freedom, time and ability to engage in spiritual practice. Human birth entails suffering; however it is not on the scale of the lower realms or with the distractions of the upper realms. Birth in the non-human realms are seen as lacking the freedom to practice for the following reasons: The hell realms, whether hot, cold or ‘miscellaneous’ involve unrelenting constant pain and misery making anything other than suffering impossible. The pretas (Tib. yi dags), or hungry ghosts are similarly in constant pain caused by thirst and hunger as well as exposure to the elements. Animals are constantly busy trying to feed themselves whilst avoiding being eaten or exploited by humans . In brief the lower realms are believed to be too painful as to allow the freedom to anything other than suffer, let alone engage in spiritual practice. Those born in the god realms are too busy indulging in what appears unending pleasure to be interested in spiritual practice whilst the Auras (Tib. lha min) or jealous gods are too busy fighting the god and being jealous of their pleasure.

Gampopa goes on to classify endowment into two groups of five personal qualities and five external qualities of a precious human life. The five personal qualities are being human, being born somewhere with access to Buddhist teachings, having all senses, some sense of morality and some devotion to the Buddhist teachings. The external factors are: the appearance of a Buddha in the world, the Buddha teaching, the teachings continuing, and followers of the teachings being around and there being “love and kind support” from others. Having these qualities and circumstances present is also seen as precious due to the relative rarity of this happening, Gampopa, Patrul Rinpoche, Shantideva and numerous others use the example of the blind turtle to illustrate the statistical chances of precious human birth.

Suppose this whole earth were an ocean and a person threw in a yoke that only had one hole. The yoke would float back and forth in all the four directions. Underneath that ocean, there is a blind tortoise who lives for many thousands of years but who comes up above the surface once every hundred years. It would be very difficult for the tortoise’s head to meet with the yoke’s hole; still it is possible. To be born in a precious human life is much more difficult - From Gampopas "Jewel Ornament of Liberation"

Gampopa the continues to describe the three factors of mind trust, longing and clarity in the following way: Trusting faith is the belief in the law of karma, longing faith is the wish to become Enlightened and clear faith is taking refuge in the Three Jewels.

The practitioner meditates on the precious human life in order to motivate themselves to really use the opportunity to practice whilst they have the chance, before moving on to contemplate impermanence and certain death.

Secondly, the universe and everything that lives therein is impermanent – particularly the lives of beings which are like water-bubbles. The time of death is uncertain and when you die you will become a corpse. Dharma will help you at that time, therefore practice it diligently now. - 9th Gyalwa Karmapa Wangchuk Dorje

Impermanence is one of the key doctrines of Buddhism. In the context of the Four Ordinary Foundations it is essential to understand that impermanence here isn’t a doctrine to be understood intellectually as an abstract concept, or something to be believe in as an article of faith, but rather it is to be experienced and internalised as this will then make the practitioner more able to deal with it as it arises in everyday experience and be less affected by it as well as being mindful that the opportunity to engage in spiritual practice is itself not something to be taken for granted and as such must be prioritised. According to the 9th Gyalwa Karmapa quotes Nagarjuna when explaining how failure to meditate on impermanence will make liberation impossible.

Patrul Rinpoche devotes the second chapter of "Words of my Perfect Teacher" to explaining how to meditate on impermanence. He suggests progressively contemplating the impermanence of the external universe, sentient beings, holy beings the impermanence of those in positions of power. He then moves on to miscellaneous examples of impermanence. The function of this is to remind the practitioner of his own mortality and thus spur him on to practice. Linked from this is a reminder that the uncertainty that comes with impermanence also applies to the moment of death as the causes and circumstances of death are varied. He quotes Aryadeva:

Causes of death are numerous, Causes of life are few, and even they may become causes of death.

The remainder of the chapter is devoted to extolling the benefits of meditation on impermanence. He does this by quoting a number of sources including the King of Yogis Jetsun Milarepa, Gampopa and Buddha Shakyamuni, whilst illustrating the points using examples and language which is highly accessible and clearly intended as a manual for practitioners rather than simply for intellectual study. Patrul Rinpoche states that meditation on impermanence will engender deep renunciation and as such serves as a gateway for spiritual practice. Kongtrul concurs on this describing it as the “root of the entire Dharma”. Gampopa states that the benefits of mediation on impermanence are renunciation, the development of faith as well as something which leads to less attachment and aversion.

Summarising the meditation on impermanence we can say that it is practiced to develop renunciation and to serve as an antidote to procrastination encouraging the practitioner to make use of their precious human birth. On a meditational level, becoming familiar with impermanence leads to being less attached to thoughts, emotions and experiences. It logically follows the meditation on precious human birth and precedes the meditation on karma.

Thirdly, after your death you will have to experience your own karma, having no degree of control over what happens. So give up harmful actions – all your time should be spent in the practice of virtue. Thinking this was, evaluate your life daily. - 9th Gyalwa Karmapa Wangchuk Dorje

The third of the Four Ordinary foundations is the meditation on karma (Tib. las). Karma is a fundamental doctrine in Buddhism and one that is very often misunderstood. Whilst acknowledging its centrality and complexity, he sums it up by stating that a negative cause will generate a negative result, whilst a positive cause will generate a positive result. After this he lists actions which lead to Samsaric birth and those which lead to liberation. At the end of his chapter on karma he talks about the primacy of motivation in the formation of karmic results, citing examples of seemingly positive acts which will yield negative results due to their motivation, whilst at the same time warning against committing negative actions even if they are positively motivated, urging the practitioner to avoid judgement of others actions.

In “The Jewel Ornament of Liberation”, Gampopa deals with karma in a similar way to Kongtrul, but goes into greater detail generally, including when talking about the actions which lead to birth in formless realms. The reasons for the greater details are probably due to the Jewel Ornament of Liberation being a somewhat scholarly text dealing which covers topics such as the six Bodhisattva perfections, Buddha nature and the ten Bodhisattva Bhumis or levels (Tib. lam lnga), whereas Kongtrul’s “The Torch of Certainty” is purely a practice guide. It is also worth pointing out that karma is acknowledged to be so profound that only a Buddha fully understands its working as it is said to be “unthinkable”.

The meditation on karma as part of the Four Ordinary foundations is to make the practitioner be mindful of his actions in general, but more specifically to think how karma will affect him even after inevitable death. This is why it comes after the meditation on impermanence and before the meditation on the suffering of samsara.

One is constantly tormented by the three kinds of suffering. Therefore samsaric places, friends, pleasures and possessions are like a party given by an executioner who will then lead on to the place of execution. Cutting through the snares of attachment, strive for enlightenment with diligence. - 9th Gyalwa Karmpa Wangchuk Dorje.

The suffering of samsara is the final of the Four Ordinary Foundations. Gampopa, Kongtrul and Patrul Rinpoche all list the specific forms of suffering associated with each realm as described previously when discussing the precious human birth. The “three sufferings” mentioned in the above quote are: suffering itself, the suffering of change and what is generally referred to as all pervasive. Suffering itself includes the physical pain involved in birth, sickness, ageing and death as well as the emotional pain that can go with these. Gampopa and Patrul Rinpoche elaborate on these in great detail, whilst Kongtrul is much more concise. The suffering of change is losing that and those one is attached to as well as being faced with that and those whom one finds unpleasant, such as meeting a carjacker and consequently losing one’s car. All pervasive suffering is the sense of not having what we want or being attached to conceptual ideals and then suffering when experienced reality fails to live up to them. Jamgon Kongtrul states that the first two sufferings are rooted in the coming together of the five aggregates and that it is latent in all samsaric existence. Samsara is also described as a state of mind where there is continuous fear and attachment As with the preceding meditations, the practice of meditating on the suffering of samsara is seen has having multiple benefits.

The meditation on the sufferings of samsara is the basis and support for all the good qualities of the path. It turns your mind towards the Dharma. It gives you confidence in the principle of cause and effect in all your actions. And it makes you feel love and compassion for all beings. - Patrul Rinpoche.

The Four Extraordinary Foundations
According to the Ngondro text The Chariot for Travelling the Path to Freedom, after completing the Four Ordinary Foundations one should be a “fit vessel” for taking refuge. Refuge and Bodhicitta, performed with prostrations make up the first of the Four Extraordinary Foundations. In this practice the yogi recites a refuge prayer whilst performing full prostrations in front of a visualised assembly of the sources of refuge. Vajrayana refuge includes the teacher (Tib. bla ma), meditational deities (Tib. yi dam) and Dakinis (Tib. mkha' 'gro ma) as well as the Three Jewels or Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, which are common to all Buddhist schools. The Lama is seen as corresponding to the Buddha in terms of giving the teachings, the Yidam corresponding to the Dharma path one is practicing, and the Dakinis to the Sangha as the spiritual community. Kongtrul refers to these six sources of refuge as the Three Jewels and Three Roots, whilst stating that they are all embodied in the Lama. The purpose of this practice is to prepare the mind for so called advanced practices as well as to purify negative karma.

The visualisation varies depending on the lineage, although there are several similarities. Both the Karma Kagyu and Longchen Nyingthig Ngondro describe the refuge visualisation as a three on an island in a lake with the various lineage gurus seated on the branches and various Buddhas and Bodhisattvas on other branches. Protector deities (Tib. chos skyong) are lined at the front branch. In the centre of the tree is the practitioners own root teacher, visualised in the form of Vajradhara (Tib. rdo rje ‘chang) for Kagyupa practitioners and Padmasambhava (Tib. gu ru rin po che) for Nyingma practitioners. The yogi prostrates to the visualised refuge tree, whilst imagining his parents, and all sentient beings surrounding him. At the same time he chants a refuge prayer with each prostration. Jamgon Kongtrul and Patrul Rinpoche both describe their respective refuge trees in great detail and describe the benefits of refuge. In "The Torch of Certainty" Kongtrul states:

If you practice Taking Refuge continuously and it never leaves your thoughts, you become a Buddhist. Your minor wrong-doings are purified; your major ones decrease. Human and non-human obstacles cannot affect you. Your vows, studies and other wholesome activities become more and more fruitful. If you truly rely on the Precious Ones, you will not be born in the lower realms even if you feel yourself being pushed in that direction.

And Patrul Rinpoche concurs by saying taking refuge is the source of all goodness in samsara and ultimately will lead to Buddhahood. Once the main visualisation and prostrations are done, the practitioner visualises the refuge tree melting into themselves and then rest in the natural state.

After taking refuge comes the engendering of Bodhicitta (Tib. byang chub kyi sems), or the Enlightened attitude. Bodhicitta is an integral part of Mahayana, and consequently Vajrayana, practice and philosophy. Liturgically this is done in the "The Chariot for Travelling the Path to Freedom", by chanting the four immeasurable contemplations; that all beings have happiness and its causes, are separated from suffering and its causes, have happiness untainted by suffering and that they may have unbiased impartiality free from attachment and aversion. In addition to the four immeasurable contemplations, Jamgon Kongtrul also recommends generating Bodhicitta by, practicing the six perfections and reflecting that all being have at some point been ones kind parents, and as such one would not wish to see them suffer, but rather to help them have the freedom of Enlightenment. He also recommends practicing “sending and receiving”:

When you are beset by illness or demons, tormented by gossip or by an upsurge of conflicting emotions, take on the misfortunes of all other sentient beings. Knowing that your former deeds are the cause (of present sorrow), do not be depressed when sorrow strikes, but take up the sorrows of others. When you are happy, use your wealth, influence and merit to perform wholesome acts. Do not sit idly by, but engage your body and speech in wholesome acts such as praying for the happiness of all sentient beings.

I have no personal experience of Bodhcitta, or really even conventional compassion, but can attest to the above being worthwhile generally and in relation to "practice".

Patrul Rinpoche approaches generating Bodhicitta by starting with the four immeasurable contemplations, followed by a classification of the types of Bodhicitta, before moving on to the Bodhisattva perfections. He classifies Bodhicitta by degrees of courage as well as distinguishing between relative and ultimate Bodhicitta. The degrees of courage are that of a king, boatman and a shepherd. The king rules over his subjects, so this type of courage is described as being that which aspires to attain Buddhahood in order to bring others to the same state. The boatman like courage is taking others along on the path to Buddhahood. The shepherd puts the safety of his sheep first and as such this form of arousing Bodhicitta is when one wishes for others to have Buddhahood first.

The benefits of Bodhicitta are universally lauded in the Vajrayana tradition, according to Patrul Rinpoche it represents the “quintessence” of the Buddha’s teaching, Jamgon Kongtrul calls it the “Heart of the entire Dharma” and the previous Kalu Rinpoche stated that a single instant of it purifies aeons worth of negative karma.

After Refuge and Bodhicitta follows the purifying practice of Vajrasattva (Tib. rdo rje sems pa). The purpose of this practice is to purify the “four veils” which obscure our own true nature of mind, which, according to Vajrayana theory, is Enlightenment. Ignorance of one’s own Buddha nature, the dualistic belief in inherently existing self and other, negative emotions and karma.

The fundamental purity of our mind is hindered by veils and faults. Veils refer here to what prevents us from recognising the real nature of our mind. Faults designate negative karma we experience with painful consequences, as if we were beating ourselves. - Kalu Rinpoche.

At this point it is worth commenting on this “fundamental purity of mind” or Buddha nature. An understanding of Buddha nature and faith in it is essential in Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism. The practice of Vajrasattva highlights the importance of this belief and understanding as the whole practice would be futile without this as a basis. To this end Gampopa devotes the first chapter of “The Jewel Ornament of Liberation” to it. Similarly the peerless protector of beings, the Third Gyalwa Karmapa, Rangjung Dorje, in his “Aspiration of Mahamudar”, goes to great lengths throughout this text to point out Buddha nature and Enlightenment as never being separate from ones experience, even in the depths of samsara.

The importance of confidence in one’s own Buddha nature, and the acknowledgement of possible lack of this confidence, is played out in the visualisation of Vajrasattva. The initial visualisation (Tib. dam tshig pa) after being built up is then effectively empowered by invoking the wisdom deity (Tib. ye she pa) who consecrates the initial visualisation giving it power and vitality. The wisdom deity could be seen as the ‘real’ Vajrasattva, although this is a less than ideal explanation and could easily be misinterpreted as theistic. Religion can bee seen as imaginary friends for adults, but in Buddhism we acknowledge them to be imaginary, just like ourselves. To counter this, the yogi should remember to keep the visualisation as transparent rather than solid. Vajrasattva is also seen as being a manifestation of the yogi’s root teacher. In the Longchen Nyingthig Ngondro, Vajrasattva is visualised with a consort, whilst in the Karma Kagyu this is not always the case. Kongtrul acknowledges that both are done in the Karma Kagyu.

Once the visualisation is in place the yogi then chants a liturgy of confession and imagines white elixir pouring from Vajrasattva. If the visualisation is of Vajrasattva without a consort it is seen as flowing into the yogi via his right foot, whereas if it is from Vajrasattva with consort it drips from where they are joined in sexual union. This forms the main part of the practice and is done whilst simultaneous reciting the one hundred syllable mantra of Vajrasattva. Whilst this is taking place the yogi imagines all their negative karma, illness, broken vows and so on are washed out of their lower body by the elixir coming from above. This process of taking on what is positive and eliminating what is negative is done whilst imagining one’s own body to be hollow and light. Once this is done, the six syllable mantra of Vajrasattva is also recited, after which a prayer of confession is recited before the visualisation is dissolved into light which then dissolves into the yogi.

It is emphasised by Jamgon Kongtrul, Patrul Rinpoche and Kalu Rinpoche that Vajrasattva practice, or any other purification practice, must be done in conjunction with the Four Powers. These are the power of regretting past negativity, the power of making the resolve not to commit it again, the power of support, which means taking Refuge and Bodhicitta, and the power of positive action as antidote. Another point of agreement is that the practice of Vajrasattva is beneficial in accordance with the effort put into it by the yogi.

It is said that if you strenuously (practice this meditation and recite this mantra) your minor and moderate misdeeds will be completely purified. Your major misdeeds will not increase but be suppressed and gradually purified. Generally speaking, if you truly believe in (the doctrine of) action and result you will inevitably regret your harmful deeds. Then your confession will be genuine. All this seem to imply that realisation will inevitably follow purification. But those of us who merely mouth the prayers and affect the practices of the monastic life, without true faith or regret, will achieve no more realisation than a tortoise has hair. - Jamgon Kongtrul

So pretending to be engaged in Ngondro whilst consciously engaging in the generation of harmful acts ranging from smoking to genocide seems at best futile.

Having completed the purifying practice of Vajrasattva, the yogi then moves on to the third of the Four Extraordinary Foundations, the Mandala (Tib. dkyil khor) offering. The Mandala is an imagined universe containing anything of value one could offer; the purpose is the accumulation of the two accumulations of merit and wisdom.

In this practice, the aspirant perfects his accumulation of merit by the supremely meritorious act of repeatedly offering the entire universe to the sources of refuge. He perfects his accumulation of transcending awareness (wisdom) by maintaining the understanding that this offering, it’s recipients and the giver himself are not things in themselves but empty. - Jamgon Kongtrul

The accumulation of merit also functions as part of the Bodhisattva training in the six perfections and one a psychological level deals with attachment, which in meditational terms means the ability to let go of thoughts and concepts.

In the visualisation the object of offering is the refuge tree is as in the first of the Four Ordinary Foundations, although here the tree is inside a palace rather than in a lake. Again the central figure is seen as inseparable from the yogi’s root teacher. The Mandala which is offered takes a physical and visualised form, the physical acting as a support for the visualised. In some cases two physical Mandalas are offered, one which is more elaborate and is placed on the shrine (sgrub pa’i), representing the sources of refuge, and a second more simple version (mchod pa’i) which is the one which is offered 100,000 times. The physical and visualised Mandalas represent the traditional universe of Buddhist cosmology, along with the symbols of the seven possessions of a Chakravartin , the eight auspicious symbols and the eight auspicious objects. The visualisation can be even more elaborate, but what it most important is that the yogi really generates a sense of giving everything he can imagine as generosity and non-attachment are the goals of this practice. The practice session finishes with the visualisation of light from the sources of refuge granting the completion of the two accumulations and then dissolving into light which dissolves into the yogi, as with all Vajrayana practice the session is ‘sealed’ with the dedication of merit.

The Mandala offering is obviously a key component to Ngondro practice, but like the other practices it is also something that has a place central place in Vajrayana outside Ngondro, as it is always part on any big ritual such as empowerments, consecrations and other special occasions.

In order to practice true Dharma, it is of great importance first to seek an authentic spiritual friend, a teacher who has all the necessary qualifications. Then you should obey his every instruction, praying to him from the very depths of your heart and considering him to be a real Buddha. - Patrul Rinpoche.

The Final of the Four Extraordinary Foundations is Guru Yoga (Tib. bla ma'i rnal 'byor). The purpose of this practice is for the yogi to receive the blessing of his Guru in order to realise Mahamudra or Dzogchen. The visualisation and ritual here is almost identical in Karma Kagyu and Longchen Nyingthig. First the yogi visualises their root teacher, in the form of Vajradhara or Padmasambhava, surrounded by the various masters of the lineage in front of him in space. Then the seven branch prayer is offered as a succinct method of gathering the two accumulations. The seven branches are prostration, offering, confession, rejoicing in the virtues of others, requesting the teachings, requesting the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas to remain and dedication of merit. After this there are more prayers, mantra recitation, after which come the Four Empowerments, which could be described as the primary section of the Guru Yoga. Here the yogi visualises a white syllable OM radiating light from the forehead of the visualised deity, this is absorbed into the forehead of the yogi, purifying obscurations of the body and empowers him to meditate on the development stage ((Tib. bskyed rim) and to realise Nirmanakaya (Tib. sprul ku). The process is then repeated with a red AH at the throat which removes obscurations of speech and enables the yogi to meditate on the subtle channels (Tib. rtsa rlung) as well as to realise the Sambhogakaya (Tib longs spyod rdzogs pa'i sku). The third empowerment takes the form of a blue syllable HUM, radiating from the heart of the deity to the yogi as before which this time purifies the obscurations of mind enabling the yogi to practice “absorptions” (Tib. snyom 'jug) and to realise the Dharmakaya (Tib. chos sku). Finally the all three lights simultaneously radiate into the same parts of the yogi as before, enabling him to practice Mahamudra, the fourth empowerment also makes the yogi a Svabhavikakaya (Tib. ngo bo nyid sku). After receiving the four empowerments the visualisation is dissolved into light which is then absorbed through the top of the yogi’s head. The yogi then rests in this state, before dedicating merit. Kongtrul describes the signs of successful practice as lessening mental attachment to the concerns of this life and glimpses of realisation. It is crucial the yogi tries to keep a sense of unity with the Guru at all times, in between sessions. This is done by doing things like visualising the Guru in the throat when eating and similar activities.

This is all well and good, but utterly pointless if you don't have a Guru. Without a Guru there is no Vajrayana and consequently no Ngondro. So who is a Guru?

Due to the variety of lineages and overall decentralised nature of Vajrayana, this could potentially be an area for widespread abuse and corruption and it is fair to say that this has and does happen. In an attempt to safeguard against false teachers simply citing names of their teachers and lineage, various ideas have developed.

To understand the at times seemingly overemphasised importance of the Guru in Vajrayana we need to understand the concept of ‘byin rlabs’. This word has no direct English equivalent, but has been translated as blessing, grace, consecration, inspiration, stream of empowering energy and flowing blessings. One of the most influential meditation teachers of the 20th Century, Kalu Rinpoche, likened ‘byin labs’ to a powerful electric current flowing to the practitioner from the Buddha, via the Guru and lineage. There is some implication of this blessing or empowering energy flowing in a wavelike fashion. However it is interpreted it is clear that it is seen as something ongoing and not simply a one off event received during a formal empowerment ritual (dbang). In fact requesting ‘byin labs’ is a common part of all Yidam meditation liturgical texts, and it is also often found in other prayers too, as it is seen as really being what powers the spiritual progress and realisation of the practitioner.

In spite of the formality, etiquette and seemingly cultic devotion sometimes presented in Vajrayana, it is crucial to note that the reception of ‘byin labs’ is not a purely passive experience on the part of the practitioner either. To benefit from the ‘byin labs’ the practitioner must obviously have confidence in the practice itself.


The preliminary practices as we have seen are very much interconnected and not something to be completed by the yogi in a linear process, simply to move on to something else. For the yogi these practices become something do be done now and not something to be aspired to at some future point in time.

This very moment is the watershed between the right and wrong direction of your entire existence. This opportunity is like finding something to eat when you have only had one meal in a hundred throughout your whole life. So make use of the Dharma to free yourself while you still can, taking death as your spur at all times. Cut short your plans for this life, and diligently try to practice good and give up evil – even at the risk of your life. Follow an authentic teacher and accept whatever he tells you without hesitation. Give yourself, in body and mind, to the Three Jewels. When happiness comes recognise it as their compassion. When suffering comes, recognise it as the result of your own past actions. Apply yourself to the practices of accumulation and purification with the perfectly pure motivation of Bodhicitta. Ultimately, through immaculate devotion and samaya, unite you mind undissolubly with that of a sublime teacher in an authentic lineage. Capture the stronghold of the absolute in this very life, courageously taking on the responsibility of freeing all beings, our old mothers, from samsara’s dungeon. This includes all the most crucial instructions. - Patrul Rinpoche

The Four Ordinary Foundations set the worldview and motivation for the yogi who, once convinced on more than an intellectual level of the futility of samsaric existence, is the spurred into the practice of the Four Extraordinary Foundations which all to some extent contain each other and which also further detach the yogi from attachment to samsaric illusory existence and thoroughly preparing him for the higher Tantric practices and possibly Enlightenment itself. By practicing Ngondro sincerely, under the blessing of a genuine Guru, all manner of obstacles are overcome and experiences are gained. However, simply going through the motions without paying attention to ones own mind and actions is hypocrisy and pretence. As the Master of Oddiana said:

"My view is like space, but my attention to actions like dust"

I'm recycling old essays as blog posts as someone enjoyed the last one. Footnotes and bibliography are missing and I've added a few comments in places. This is an academic essay and is unlikely to benefit anyone on a practice level.

Blog Archive