By Adam Friedensohn
Vajrayana, the Buddhist tantric path, relies on a purified view that we are all buddhas. We all have the enlightened mind of the Buddha in seed form, and all we have to do is recognize this fact without doubt and maintain this awareness.
For most of us, religious pursuits comprise a view or belief, some kind of meditation or reflection, and activities geared towards an altruistic ideal or revealing the true meaning and purpose of existence.
Both positive and negative karma are accumulated via the three essential doors of body, speech and mind, which are also the means by which we either wind up migrating continuously through the realms of samsara (cyclic existence) filled with suffering, or enter the portals by which we become liberated from illusory self-imposed bondage.
Historically, the teachings of the Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, (the exalted luminary of the Shakya clan), during his time, were simple and predominantly oriented towards human beings’ desire to get out of samsaric existence and end suffering. This could be achieved by following a path laid out by him called the Vinaya (the prescribed rules of conduct for the Buddhist community or sangha). But Shakyamuni Buddha was not isolated from the culture and religions of his time. For years he followed and dedicated himself to various extreme ascetic disciplines and either kept company with yogis or remained in solitary meditation in the wild. The Buddha was therefore well versed in these practices and had experienced their results.
Tantra was one such path that existed at the time, and it could be said that the Buddha was the king of Tantrikas, refreshing and excelling the realization of the yogis and wise men of his era. In this context, Buddhism was never separated from Tantra. Buddhism, or the practice of the teachings of the Buddha, was none other than the expression of his enlightened compassion and intention to benefit innumerable beings.
But in order to commence the process of transmitting his indescribable realization, the Buddha first had to cut through a number of quasi-pursuits and superstitious views that prevailed in his time. So he distilled, simplified and focused his vast realization on the essential points of suffering, its origin, and the path to its cessation. He began by establishing his teachings initially through the Vinaya, as particular skillful means, which if practiced, would eventually lead to the end of the suffering of the practitioners. This path, also called the Hinayana or the ‘small vehicle’, is still held and transmitted purely today in an unbroken succession of lineage holders from the Buddha’s time.
The Buddha’s essential being was fully enlightened, omniscient, and filled with open compassion and miraculous intent. He was complete with the potency of fully matured liberation and wisdom; so all phenomena arose for him as the limitless nectar of compassion’s radiance for all beings. From this perspective, Tantra was already complete within his being, and the only reason we do not call his first turning of the wheel of dharma (his first teachings) as ‘Tantra’ was because of his need to communicate to the propensities of the disciples of his time and for those of the future through the propagation of the Vinaya system.
The fact remains, however, that when practicing solely for one’s own benefit or cessation of one’s own suffering, whatever may be done or accomplished, an illusion still remains, no matter how subtle it may become. Buddhism’s Mahayana, or the ‘great vehicle’, has as its central point the vow to work for the benefit of all sentient beings and to remove them from suffering until samsara is fully emptied. Mahayana arises for those who feel they cannot be completely devoid of suffering when others in samsara still suffer. The characteristic of a developed Mahayana practitioner is that in fact they can stand their own suffering more easily than the suffering of others. The result of following the Mahayana path over a long time is ultimate enlightenment or the attainment of complete Buddhahood. Both Hinayana and Mahayana are called ‘causal vehicles’ because they are vehicles that use cause and effect as the basis of spiritual progress.
Vajrayana, the Buddhist Tantric path whose name means the ‘adamantine vehicle’, is based on the tenets of Mahayana Buddhism but relies on a purified view that we are all Buddhas. We all have the enlightened altruistic and open mind of the Buddha in seed form, (Tathagatagarbha) and all we have to do is recognize this fact without doubt and maintain this awareness once we have been introduced to it by a capable lama or guru.
In Vajrayana, we begin with the result instead of the cause, and jump over several stages of practice. The result is therefore more or less immediate, equally possible in a snap of our fingers as it is over a lifetime, and practitioners must simply employ skillful means to remain in this state of awareness to assure it deepens and becomes faultlessly stabilized. In essence, Buddhist Tantra entails seeing things directly as they really are, immediately, and committing not to fool oneself by becoming entangled in the play of samsara again. From this perspective, there is nothing to attain that we do not already have, nowhere to arrive that we have not already reached, and nothing to accomplish that we have not already accomplished, as everything is continuously self-accomplished.
When asked why he did not reveal Tantric teachings during his time, the Buddha replied that doing so would destroy the newly established Vinaya system. If lofty views beyond the relative notions of karmic cause and effect were brought into the picture early on, vast misinterpretations could arise yielding a more or less demonic understanding and activity. For this reason he entrusted the Tantric teachings to his disciple Varjapani, called ‘the Lord of Secrets’, for future times when it could be disseminated to disciples without destroying the Vinaya. There are other lineages of Buddhist Tantra other than that of Vajrapani, but for now it will suffice to say that this was perhaps the most direct in human terms.
No matter what we say about this vast topic of Vajrayana Buddhism, perhaps the most important thing is what Tantric vehicles mean or can mean to us in our lives. Of what practical use is the Vajrayana path? How does it improve our situation or transform it? Where will it lead humanity and us?
Angst of Existence
Since we are using words as our means of communication and I am claiming to talk about Tantra, we need to ask, “What is Tantra really?” The moment we are in this world, something rubs up against us telling us something is not quite right. We are in a vibrant, real situation where pleasure and pain are wrapped closely together. Something tells us there is a fundamental duality we have to cope with. We often become enmeshed in a series of mistakes, accidents, uncomfortable situations and feelings, awkwardness and unresolvedness.
There is no doubt that all beings wish to have happiness and don’t know how to obtain it. They also wish to avoid suffering but are experts in obtaining it. We fill our lives with activities designed to correct this situation. We make houses to shelter us, get jobs to bring home the bacon and educate our children, and we seek companionship, sensuality and a bombardment of entertaining stimulation from all corners of the earth—from our spouses to TV to yoga classes, and even in unpleasant intrigue. But somehow, we never relieve ourselves of the basic angst we came into the world with. So we try another technique, and so on. Another product that promises to deal with, eliminate or minimize another problem we face. We are left with our awkward, unsettled, nervous selves once again, if not slightly improved in a temporary manner.
Our gadgets didn’t do the final trick they were supposed to. Our incessant adherence to tradition and formulae also failed us. Our family life only disappointed us since it is impermanent. Our mental trickery and special exercise regimes helped us get a more shapely body and feel good about ourselves, but we still know we will die sooner or later and wonder what was the meaning of all that surrounds us? Are we here only to die or to say, “I got through it!”? In essence we failed to recognize who we are.
So, as soon as we are born, our samsaric soup radiates all kind of ingredients that make us feel deeply dislocated and our society teaches us to spend a considerable amount of time burying this underlying set of feelings. For a Tantrik, these deep, consistent uncomfortable messages are none other than signals for us to wake up. All the spilled blood, disappointments, arguments, struggles and corruption, are signals to us about who we really are, who we have made ourselves into as individuals and as a society. Those who decide they are going to listen to the depth of these unpleasant messages in a fresh way and work with these energies with an open mind, have Tantric propensities. Those that try to use external methods to cover up or avoid these messages are in for a long haul.
Chances are, if you have picked up this magazine, you are looking for something to benefit your life or help you solve a problem or feel better. You may feel that the magazine will hold some clue for you or skillful means but it is unlikely that you will accept or benefit from the simple statement that “everything is perfect the way it is”. Since most people fall into this category and since everyone feels their story is unique, the Tantra of instantaneous transformation helps us reach our true nature.
Since we cannot easily accept that everything is exactly the way it is supposed to be, we feel compelled to act on stimuli and make adjustments and corrections. This is an indelible habit we have picked up like a stain on a white shirt. Employing Tantric teachings gets us into a trend of house cleaning step by step, harnessing all the ‘I must do’ kind of energy and bringing it into the work of discovering our true nature.
Everyone can relate to the idea that they are suffering now and then, or all the time. They can relate with the need to get out of that condition, and have more pleasurable experiences and decrease the unpleasant ones. But the core of the problem is the ‘I’ itself and we seem to be fairly steadfast in our efforts to preserve this ‘I’. Most of us see no real gain in eliminating our ‘I-ness’ and are willing to make any effort, no matter how enduring or extreme, to assure that the ‘I’ does not disappear into the openness from which it came.
For example, for a non-practitioner, to perceive enemies as Buddhas, which is a Vajrayana practice, would seem counter-productive in terms of pursuit of worldly gain.
Path and Its Results
There are, however, many people who have experienced enough to realise the limitation of half-baked cures and can relate to a self-manifesting source of their condition. For these people with reflectivity, people who have accumulated great positive deeds in their past lives, people who really wish to get to the main point now while the fleeting jewel of life remains with them, for these who are willing to let go of that which is superfluous, there is the swift adamantine path.
But there is nothing that offers great speedy gain without corresponding great risk. The Vajrayana path is compared to a snake in a bamboo tube—the practitioner either goes straight up or straight down, with no other possible exit. This is because the highest Tanras, Maha, Anu and Ati Yogas, are ‘resultant vehicles’. They eliminate the need for eons of cause and effect accumulation of merit, and rely on correct view of phenomenon combined with special commitments to make their practice work.
With a high view comes work potential (power) and responsibility to benefit all beings. This is the heart of Tantra. If one were to take the power that comes with a high view, and use it for the altruistic purposes of relieving the illusions, obscurations and suffering of all beings and to bring them to enlightenment, without the interest of the ‘I’, great and miraculous works would be accomplished and enlightenment would be realized.
If that same view and power were to be used for selfish purposes, one would exert a great scope of harm and quickly amass negative karma that would propel one deeper into samsara’s snares, establishing the causes of further solidification of a hallucinated self and enhancing delusion.
Once again, the reason for all this commotion is the stagnant, resistant frame called ‘I’. This is the source of all the push and pulls we experience. But it is impossible to act as though we ourselves don’t matter. This is also not correct. We have a sense of self-protection that our bodies (the main focus of our identification as an individuated being) are valuable, fragile and impermanent. We feel we should take care of it and live yet another day to do one more thing. If one were to pretend to forget these natural tendencies, the outcome would be unwholesome. So on the Tantric path, a series of hallucinated stages are made to occur, each slightly less filled with illusion than the one preceding it. In other words, Buddhism provides a staged approach of various vehicles that help us make some notion of progress from being totally obscured by illusion and fixed concepts, to being less obscured and less hung-up as we progress through them.
A Tantrika adjusts his or her approach to solving problems. Whereas we normally try to adjust solely external factors like getting a new girlfriend or boyfriend, asking for a raise, moving to a new place, getting the best of our enemies and so on, we instead take a radical turn. When we enter the path of Tantrayana, we will most likely be initiated into the practice of a sadhana of some kind. This may come in the form of a liturgy with visualizations and mantra recitation. For all intensive purposes there are ‘decrees’ or a kind of correction of our view, meditation and action. We could take it as a decree of correcting our view of our situation and repeat it to remind us of what’s really going on.
Since our world is distorted due to our illusions, these distortions need correcting or ‘righting’ if you will. Some proclamation of the truth is required at least to ourselves and to others if we gain sufficient confidence. We have accumulated both good and bad karma. Our minds beget thoughts and concepts that lead us to talk. Our speech is then used as a tool to effect specific desired changes and finally, our bodies take action of one kind or another. Via these three doors, our entire phenomenal situation emanates. By taking these doors into our control, using sadhanas, they become the chariot that guides us to realization.
Another important feature of Vajrayana Buddhist practice is called Dag Nang or ‘pure vision’. Whereas a deluded person approaching the world from a dualistic perspective will attribute all qualities to external phenomena, a Vajrayana practitioner vows to recognize all external and internal phenomena as projections of his or her own mind. One therefore practices seeing other beings as pure enlightened phenomena, without grasping on to concepts of good and bad, clean and unclean, pure, impure, high and low.
In such a mandala of pure vision, our brothers and sisters appear as heroes and heroines, sons and daughters (reflections) of the Buddha and whatever they do is excellent and beneficial. Even enemies are perceived as being kind due to their compassion in showing us our faults and limitations and because of their contribution in purifying our past negative karma. When both friends and enemies arise as bearers of ambrosial Buddha activity, it is a sign that some level of real equanimity has been reached. This is one aspect of Vajrayana whereby the struggles of life are transformed and used to strengthen and increase vibrancy and accomplishment in practice.
Having accumulated endless karma and habitual tendencies from beginningless time, the Tantrik realizes now is the time we have decided that we wish to look into our mindless behaviour and reverse it by dissection and getting at its root. We realize we must make amends for our foolishness in order to make sure we don’t dupe ourselves again and we must make all efforts to firmly establish our mind streams in the state of awakened reality, rather than continuing to sleepwalk in a ghost town of lost apparitional beings. By all rights, this is a very arrogant process. We are going to turn our back on just about everything we hold dear and precious, call it false, and adapt a totally new inner landscape of our true natures. Surely, this cannot be the way to make new friends in our society, can it?
Slowly, this new inner dialog with ourselves through meditation and sadhana, becomes the method by which we traverse the elaborate maze of our own stupidity and unmask it with firm dedication and unconventional effort. Have you ever left your car unwashed and unwaxed for decades? Imagine the paint finish and the muscle required to clean it?
Now imagine the countless eons we have not taken hold of our wild minds. Birth after birth, we have engaged in illusory behavior, giving it all our might, conviction, striving and desperation. It’s like a huge snowball streaming down a high mountain gathering more snow as it rolls down, until finally it is bigger than a house, and has become unstoppable. Our karma propels us as it wishes and whatever vague idea one may have about the situation, the momentum of this ball is always there for good and for bad. Taking a chunk out of its speed and using the energy of its momentum as fuel for immediate transformation to enlightenment, is the path of Tantra.
On the one hand, we must be prepared to chip away at it little by little in the same way as it had accumulated. On the other hand, we have to be ready to be heroes and heroines and grab a huge hammer and just smash it to pieces right in its tracks by recognizing all phenomena as the immense, all-pervasive and ceaseless display of Buddha’s radiating compassion and enlightened qualities. A Tantrika takes both approaches of grabbing the unruly bull by its horns and also talking to it in order to disarm it and slow it down.
For Tantrikas in this Kali yuga, the prognosis is always good. With all the extremes of today’s world like extreme speed, extreme food, extreme sex, and extreme technology, such extreme energies can be harnessed and put to use to empty the thousand realms from suffering.
Adam Friedensohn (Yugyal Tulku) is a Yogin trained under the Dunjom Tersar Nyigmapa tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. He has received initiations and teachings from several great masters including His Holiness Dunjom Rinpoche and Subur Raharja of Indonesia, among others. A resident of Nepal for the past 14 years, he has practiced extensively in the Himalayan region and lives with his wife Sapana Shakya and son Rahula in Kathmandu. He is establishing a Vajrayana Buddhist meditation retreat center on the outskirts of Kathmandu in the secret holy land of the Dakini, Vajrayogini.
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