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Introduction to vajrayana

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I THE ORIGINS OF THE VAJRAYANA
                                       by
                             Dr Peter Della Santi...
time.) In addition to the tantras, there is a large amount of commentarial literature, which is
attributed to Nagarjuna an...
The phenomenon, which we can identify as the Vajrayana, originated in India between the 3rd
or 4th century CE and the 7th ...
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Introduction to vajrayana

  1. 1. I THE ORIGINS OF THE VAJRAYANA by Dr Peter Della Santina Let us begin by looking at the Vajrayana briefly in the content of the Mahayana. The Mahayana is divided into two paths, one path being the practice of the perfections (Paramitayana), and the other path being the practice of the Vajrayana (Mantrayana). The Vajrayana is a part of the Mahayana tradition. In terms of their starting point (the experience of suffering), and their goal (Buddhahood) there is no distinction between the two paths. The only difference between the two paths is a difference in methodology in that whereas the accomplishment of the path of the perfections requires three aeons, the methods of the Vajrayana enable one to accelerate the rate of progress and thereby bring about a more rapid progress towards enlightenment. There are three names by which the Vajrayana tradition is best known, and they are Vajrayana, Mantrayana and Tantrayana. Vajrayana is the way of the adamant or diamond. Vajra means diamond, the substance that is more durable than any other substance. The Vajra is also the thunderbolt wielded by Indra, the king of the Brahmanical gods. The Vajra is therefore a symbol of indestructibility and also a symbol of mastery over the universe. A mantra is a short formula, which has in general three purposes. It is used as an aid to concentration. Just as one can use one’s breath, an image of the Buddha, a blue flower or a tea cup as an object on which to concentrate one’s mind. Similarly, one can use the mantra ‘OM MANI PADME HUM’ for example, one remembers not only the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, one also remembers skillful means and wisdom, and the necessity to unite both of them. Lastly, mantra has the power to enhance one’s spiritual development, in that the repeated use of mantras by meditation masters over many centuries have charged these mantras with a particular spiritual potency. The word mantra is composed of two parts - ‘man’ and ‘tra’. ‘Man’ comes from the term ‘manas’ which means mind and ‘tra’ from the term ‘tranam’ which means to protect. The term mantra therefore means something, which protects the mind. In general, the term mantra also means the esoteric or secret vehicle. Tantra means the extension or continuity of knowledge. Literally, tantra is derived from the continuity of a thread in a fabric and, by extension, it means following the thread of knowledge through extending it to encompass all knowledge. In regard to the literature of this tradition, there is a distinction, which may be drawn between the literature of the Vajrayana and the literature of the Mahayana. Just as the Mahayana is composed of the Paramitayana and Mantrayana, similarly, the Mahayana literature is composed of the sutras and tantras. Both the sutras and tantras were spoken by the Buddha. They form the canonical literature of the Mahayana and Vajrayana respectively. There are a large number of tantras, some of the more important ones are the Guhyasamaja (a collection of the hidden or secret meaning), the Hevajra Tantra (the tantra of adamantine bliss), and the Kalacakra Tantra (the tantra of the wheel of 1
  2. 2. time.) In addition to the tantras, there is a large amount of commentarial literature, which is attributed to Nagarjuna and Candrakirti, and also to the 84 men of great attainment (Mahasiddhas). Let us spend a moment on the origins of the tantras because it is often asked whether the tantras were taught by the Buddha. In ascertaining the truth of a teaching, Buddhism uses three criteria - perception, inference and testimony. Perception means seeing it, hearing it and reading it for oneself. Inference means that it ought to stand up to logical reasoning, examination. Testimony means that it ought not to contradict the other teachings of the Buddha, the other Buddhist scriptures. Let us consider these three tests in the case of the tantras. In the Mahayana, it is generally accepted that Mahayana masters received instructions through extraordinary means. For example, the five fundamental texts of the Yogacara (Mind-only) school were taught to Asanga by the future Buddha Maitreya. The tantras too were transmitted in this extraordinary way to the Mahasiddhas. Moreover, if we examine these teachings, we find that they are not illogical. Finally, the tantras do not contradict other Buddhist scriptures. This will become clearer as we proceed with our lectures. Given these three criteria, there is therefore no doubt that the Vajrayana literature is authentic. Vajrayana arose in a climate of the re-emergence of three movements or tendencies, tendencies which were already present even in the Buddha’s own days. These are the democratic tendency, the magical or ritual tendency, and the symbolic tendency. The democratic tendency sought to avail the laymen of the highest fruits of the religious life (enlightenment). An example of this democratic tendency in the early period of the Buddhist tradition is the attainment of Arahatship by the Buddha’s father, Shuddhodana while still a layman. In the Mahayana, this tendency is accelerated and intensified, so that the figure of the household Bodhisattva became almost the norm in the Mahayana tradition. In regard to the magical or ritual tendency, there are accounts in the Pali Canon of the Buddha giving Parittas (formulas of Protection) as protection against snake bites and against the dangers involved in child birth. There is also the account of the Buddha’s conversion of Kshema, wherein the Buddha created the vision of a lovely maiden who then in a matter of moments, as Kshema watched, became old and decrepit and tumbled to the ground. In this instance, the Buddha used extraordinary power to create an apparition in order to teach in the truth of impermanence. We have this happening with great frequency in the Mahayana literature where we find the Buddha assuming various forms in order to teach. In the Mahayana too, there is an increasing use of dharanis and also the continuation of the various rituals of the early Buddhist period, rituals for ordination like the removal of the hair and the putting on of the yellow robes. The use of symbols was also present in the Buddhist tradition from the earliest period. For example, the symbol of the wheel as an illustration of the Dharma, and the symbol of the lute as an illustration of the Middle Path. In the Mahayana, this use of symbols continued to play an important role. Through the intensification of these three tendencies - the democratic, the magical or ritual and the symbolic tendencies - we have the main streams that go into the growth of the Vajrayana. 2
  3. 3. The phenomenon, which we can identify as the Vajrayana, originated in India between the 3rd or 4th century CE and the 7th century CE. By the 7th century CE, Vajrayana was very widespread throughout India. The personalities who played major roles in the origin and growth of Vajrayana were firstly Nagarjuna and Asanga, and latterly the figures of the 84 men of great attainment (Mahasiddhas). You may be surprised to find the names of Nagarjuna and Asanga occurring in this context. In fact, the Vajrayana tradition is unanimous in calling Nagarjuna and Asanga the founders of the Vajrayana. We will understand why this is true from the conceptual point of view when we examine the philosophical and religious background next week. For today, let us look at the traditional biographies of Nagarjuna and Asanga because this will help us to understand the environment in which the Vajrayana originated and grew. According to the traditional Tibetan biographies of Nagarjuna, it was predicted that he would not survive beyond the age of seven. The biographies tell us that being unwilling to see him die at the age of seven, his parents sent him away with companions and provisions when his seventh birthday drew near. The accounts tell us the Nagarjuna proceeded north and eventually reached Nalanda. At Nalanda, Nagarjuna met an adept professor by the name of Saraha. When Saraha heard of Nagarjuna’s predicted early demise, he counselled him to recite the mantra of Aparamitayus (the Buddha of Limitless Life). After reciting the mantra of Aparamitayus, on the night of his seventh birthday, Nagarjuna escaped the death that had been predicted for him. Whether or not we want to credit this account as history, we can still learn something rather important about the climate in which this account was accepted as biography. It was a climate in which there was an acceptance of the power of the use of mantra to influence reality. In the biographies of Nagarjuna, we also learn that during a famine, he sustained his colleagues in the monastery by transforming ordinary base objects into gold. In this instance, we have an example of the symbolism of alchemy. This symbolism became important in the Vajrayana tradition because just as the alchemist transformed base objects into gold, the methods of the Vajrayana transforms the impure and defiled experience of ordinary human beings into the experience of enlightenment. If we look at the biographies of Asanga, we will find very revealing stories contained therein too. According to the biographies, Asanga retired to a cave to meditate upon the future Buddha Maitreya. He meditated for three years without success. Discouraged, he left the cave at the end of the third year and came upon the figure of a person rubbing a piece of iron with a feather. When Asanga asked him what he was doing, he said that he was making a needle. Asanga thought that if people had such patience even in accomplishing worldly tasks, then perhaps he had been too hasty in leaving his meditation. In all, Asanga meditated for twelve years without any meditative experience of Maitreya. At the end of the twelfth year, he left the cave. This time he came upon a dog lying by the side of the path, ill with festering wounds in which there were maggots. Having meditated on Maitreya for twelve years and thereby having developed great compassion, Asanga was 3
  4. 4. greatly moved to ease the suffering of the dog. He thought of removing the maggots, but reflected that if he were to remove the maggots with his figures, he would injure the maggots. In order not to injure the maggots and yet at the same time to relieve the suffering of the dog, he bent down to remove the maggots with his tongue. The moment he did that, the dog disappeared into a burst of rainbow-coloured light and the Bodhisattva Maitreya appeared before him. Asanga asked, ‘Where have you been all these years?’ Maitreya replied, ‘I have been with you all along. It is just that you were not able to see me. Only when you have developed your compassion and purified your mind sufficiently were you able to see me.’ In order to demonstrate the truth of this, he asked Asanga to take him upon his shoulders and walk through the village. No one saw the Bodhisattva sitting upon his shoulders except for an old woman who asked Asanga ‘What are you doing with that sick dog on your shoulders?’ In the biographies of Asanga, we find another important truth, that is, whatever we experience (reality) depends upon the conditions of our mind. In the biographies of these two founding fathers of the Vajrayana, we can see the various elements that are important to the Vajrayana - the magical or ritual element, the alchemical element, and the element of the apparitional or mind- dependent nature of reality. While these two figures are credited with being the founding fathers of Vajrayana, the 84 Mahasiddhas undoubtedly performed the works of disseminating the Vajrayana throughout India. The Mahsiddhas constitute a new kind of religious personality. Not necessarily monks of orthodox Buddhism or priests of old Brahmanism, the figures of the seekers are now laymen, naked ascetics, boatmen, potters, kings. If we look at the accounts of these new figures, we will appreciate the climate at that time. Let us look at the biographies of two of these figures, Virupa and Naropa. Virupa is responsible for the origin and transmission of many important Vajrayana teachings. He was a professor at Nalanda University and he taught philosophy all day and practiced Vajrayana all night. He practiced Vajrayana for years and recited thousands of mantras without success. Finally he got fed up and threw his rosary into the latrine. The next night, while he was sleeping, a vision of the Goddess Nairatmya (the Goddess of Insubstantiality) appeared before him. The Goddess Nairatmya told him that he had been reciting the mantra of the wrong deity. The next day, Virupa retrieved his rosary from the latrine and went back to practice Vajrayana, reciting and practicing the meditation on the goddess Nairatmya. He achieved success and thereafter left his professional appointment and wandered as naked yogi throughout India. Three important things are said of him. It is said that he stopped the flow of the Ganges so that he might cross. It is said that he drank wine for three days in a wine-shop while he held the sun motionless in the sky. What do these accounts mean? 4
  5. 5. ‘Stopping the flow of the Ganges’ means stopping the river of the afflictions, breaking the cycle of birth and death. ‘Holding the sun motionless in the sky’ means holding the light of the mind in the sky of omniscience. ‘Drinking wine for three days’ means enjoying the supreme bliss of emancipation. In the biographies of Virupa, we have an indication of the premium which the Vajrayana places on experiential, direct knowledge. Virupa was a professor at Nalanda University, but that was not enough. In addition to the acknowledge that he acquired through study, he had to acquire direct, immediate knowledge in order to realize the truth for himself. Naropa was also a professor at the University of Nalanda. One day, while he was sitting in his cell, surrounded by his books, an old woman appeared before him. The woman asked him whether he understood the letter of all his books. Naropa replied that he did. The woman was very pleased and then asked whether he understood the meaning of all his books. Naropa thought that since she had been pleased that he understood the letter of the books, he replied that he also understand the meaning of the books. The old woman became angry, and said that the first time he had told the truth, but the second time he told a lie. The old woman was Vajravarahi, another Goddess of Insubstantiality. By the force of this disclosure that he did not understand the meaning of what he had read. Naropa too left his professorial appointment and went forth as a seeker of the truth. Let us conclude with a few ideas from the verse, which are attributed to these men of great attainment. From these verses, you will see the new type of religious personality, not necessarily monks and priests, but potters, boatmen, kings and other laymen. You will also see the use of various types of symbols to convey the importance of the transcendence of duality. ‘Dombi’ (the name of an outcast woman) your hut lies outside the village. You are touched by the bald-headed and by the caste-conscious brahmins. I am a naked Kapalika (an ascetic who wears a garland of skulls). I have no prejudices. I will take you for my maid’. ‘Dombi’ is a symbol of Nairatmya. ‘Your hut lies outside the village’ means that in order to really understand emptiness, one has to transcend conventional limitations. The rest of the verse means that although emptiness may be touched by the monks and brahmins, only the yogi (the new type of seeker) who has no prejudices can make emptiness his maid, that is, identify with emptiness. ‘The wine woman brews her wine. The wine drinker sees the sign on the tenth door of the wine- shop and enters’. ‘The wine woman’ is a symbol of Nairatmya. ‘Wine’ is the wine of non-duality, of going beyond duality. ‘The sign on the tenth door’ means the tenth stage of the Bodhisattva path (Buddhahood). The verse means that the wine drinker enters the door of Buddhahood through abiding in non-duality. 5
  6. 6. With the help of magic, ritual and symbolism, and the forces of the new democratic extension of availing the highest fruits of religion to all types of persons, Vajrayana became exceeding widespread throughout India within a few centuries. *** 6
  7. 7. II THE PHILOSOPHICAL & RELIGIOUS FOUNDATIONS OF THE VAJRAYANA It is important to examine the philosophical and religious foundations of the Vajrayana because we will then understand how the Vajrayana fits into the whole Buddhist tradition as we continue to look more specifically at the Vajrayana in the subsequent lectures. The three religious and philosophical ideas that are prevalent in the Mahayana which we will look into today are the idea of emptiness, the idea of the importance of the mind, and the idea of expedients (skill-in-means). Last week, I had occasion to refer to the fact that Nagarjuna and Asanga are regarded in the Tibetan tradition as the founders of the Vajrayana. I also mentioned that there is a more significant way in which they could be considered the founders of the Vajrayana, and that is in their advocacy and explanation of the idea of emptiness (Shunyata) and the idea of Mind-Only (Cittamantra). There are a number of Vajrayana works in the Tibetan collections which are attributed to Nagarjuna and Asanga, though this attribution is disputed by modern scholars. Whether or not Nagarjuna and Asanga actually did write specifically Vajrayana works, it is quite clear that without the ideas put forward by them, the Vajrayana would certainly be unintelligible and very possibly impossible. Let us look first at the idea of emptiness that is so common in the writings of Nagarjuna. Last week I referred to an accident in the life of Nagarjuna in which he is said to have transformed ordinary base objects into gold. This can be seen as a metaphor for the project with which Vajrayana is concerned, transforming common experience into the experience of enlightenment. If we look at this analogy of alchemy, we will see that in order for the transformation to be possible, the base object cannot have any real, permanent nature of its own. For instance, if a piece of coal were to have an unchanging intrinsic nature, it could never be changed into anything else. Yet we know that this piece of coal can under certain conditions be changed into a diamond. This idea of the unchanging, independent character is expressed in sanskrit by the term Svabhava which means own-being or self-existence. The absence of own-being or self-existence. The absence of own-being is Nisvabhava which is synonymous with emptiness. Emptiness is of course not nothingness. It is rather a situation in which phenomena exist dependent upon causes and conditions. It is a kind of openness. Although this idea of emptiness is most commonly associated with Nagarjuna and the Middle-way school, like the other important doctrines of the Mahayana, it also exists in the Theravada tradition. For example, in the Majjhima-Nikaya, the Buddha has likened all phenomena to the flame of an oil lamp which exists dependent upon the oil and the wick. The flame is nothing in itself. All phenomena depend upon causes and conditions. In the Mahayana, where this idea is elaborated at great length, all phenomena are likened to a magical illusion. In such an illusion for instance, an illusory elephant appears dependent upon some basis, like a hill of earth or a piece of wood, and is brought into being by a magician using certain magical spells and so forth. This illusory appearance comes about dependent upon certain causes and 7
  8. 8. conditions. Similarly, all phenomena exist dependent upon certain causes and conditions. They have an existence which is dependent upon causes and conditions. It is because of this dependence upon causes and conditions, this emptiness, that transformation is possible. Nagarjuna says in the Vigraha Vyavartani that if there were any own-being (Svabhava), transformation along the path of liberation would be impossible. In other words, if that lump of coal which we referred to a moment ago had an unchangeable nature, it could never be changed to anything else, it could never become a diamond. Similarly, if each and every one of us has an own- being or permanent existence as ordinary defiled sentient beings, if this were our identity, then no matter how much we practise the dharma, we can never become enlightened beings. It is because we are subject to afflictions - ignorance, attachment and aversion - that we have the nature of ordinary defiled sentient beings. But if we replace ignorance by wisdom, attachment by lack of attachment, and ill-will by love and compassion, we can change these conditions. And by changing these conditions, we can change the nature of our being and we can become Buddhas. Emptiness is therefore absolutely necessary to allow for transformation from the situation of samsara to the situation of nirvana. Let us look at the idea of the role of the mind in experience. Asanga and his younger brother Vasubandhu have in this respect made two general points, and they are first, that objects have no stable or fixed form of appearance, and second, that objects appear even without an external stimulus. The first of these points is evident in a number of Buddhist texts. Like the other major tenets of the Mahayana and the Vajrayana, these ideas are not absent from the Theravada tradition. For example, there is the incident of the Elder Tissa who was asked whether he had seen a woman upon the road, but replied that he was not aware whether it was a woman or a man going upon the road. He only knew that he had seen a heap of bones going upon the road. Objects have no stable or fixed form of appearance. What appears as an attractive woman to one man appears as a heap of bones to another. This is further elaborated in the Mahayana tradition, by recourse to the experiences of a number of altered states of consciousness. One feels the earth move, or one feels that one has enormous power when one has imbibed too much alcohol. Similarly, under the influence of other psychedelic substance, one’s perception of objects is different. Vasubhandu in his twenty verses on Perception-Only substantiated this with his explanation of the experience of the six realms in terms of the diverse manner in which objects appear depending upon the subjective conditions of the perceiver. For example, to us this cup of coffee is a cup of coffee. To the gods, it is a cup of nectar. To the hungry ghosts, it is a cup of blood or pus. To the hell-beings, it is a cup of molten iron. Objects appear in different shapes and forms to different sentient beings according to their karmic conditions. 8
  9. 9. The idea that objects appear even without any external stimulus is also found in the early Theravada tradition. For example, in Buddhaghosa’s explanation of the three stages of meditation (preliminary, proximate and accomplished concentration), the image of meditation becomes internalized at the proximate stage of concentration. If a meditator at the first stage is using a disc of blue colour, at the second stage that disc of blue colour becomes internalized. He now meditates upon the mental replica of the disc of blue colour so that, whereas on the first stage he is using a physical external object as his object of meditation, at the second stage of meditation, he no longer needs that external support. The object now appears to him without the need of an external stimulus. We can also see this happening in dreams where the dreamer experiences objects without external stimulus. Vasubhandu adds to this the evidence provided by the case of the wardens in hells. If they had been reborn in the hells because of their own karma, then they too would experience the sufferings of the hells. But as they are in the hells simply to torment the beings in the hells, Vasubhandu suggests that the wardens are a creation of the mind of the hell beings, who because of their unwholesome karma, project these wardens of the hells who torment them. In all these cases - the case of meditative experience, the experience of dreams and the experience of the hell beings - objects appear even without external stimulus. That is why it is said in the Ratnakuta Sutra that just as a painter might paint a portrait of the demon and then be terrified by it, so similarly, unenlightened beings paint a picture of the six realms of samsara and are tormented and terrified by that picture. Through the power of our mind, we created the six realms of existence and we circle endlessly. We are able to create these six realms because there is no Svabhava. These two ideas, the idea of emptiness and the idea of the role of the mind in creating experience go together. Objects have no Svabhava. Their existence is relative to causes and conditions, most importantly the mental causes and conditions of ignorance, desire, ill-will, greed, anger, jealousy and the like. Because of these mental factors, and because of the fact that phenomena are empty, the mind constructs and creates experience in a particular form, in the form of the suffering of the six realms. Just as the mind can work unconsciously and automatically to create the experience of suffering in the six realms, so too the mind can be made to work deliberately and consciously to bring about a change in that experience, to bring about the experience of liberation. This is quite clear in the example of meditative experience which we spoke of a moment ago. Ordinarily, the mind functions unconsciously and automatically to create experience. We respond to an object, as for instance a woman, because of our habitual conditioning, because we are subject to desire and ignorance. In meditation, we train the mind to function in a chosen, decisive way to change our experience. Through meditative experiences, we can change our perception of the object in the same way that the Elder Tissa changed his perception so that he was able to see a woman as a heap of bones. Again, ordinarily, we perceive different colors automatically in our undirected and unspecified way. 9
  10. 10. Through meditation, we can alter that situation so that we can at will visualize, create a particular patch of colour within our mental experience. The idea of emptiness and the idea of the creative power of the mind are clearly present in the structure of Vajrayana meditational techniques (Sadhana) which we will be looking at in greater detail in the last session. Emptiness and the creative power of the mind give us the possibility and the method of transforming our experience. We can transform our experience because nothing has any nature of its own, and the way we transform that experience is through using the power of our mind to create and determine the way that we experience objects. As I have mentioned last week, the Vajrayana is one in its starting point and in its goal with the Mahayana. The fundamental idea in the Mahayana is the idea of the enlightenment thought or mind (Bodhicitta). The Bodhicitta is the resolve to achieve enlightenment for the sake of all sentient beings, and the fruit of this resolve is the attainment of Buddhahood with its transcendental dimension (Dharmakaya) and its phenomenal dimension (Rupakaya). The Rupakaya is an expression of the Buddha’s great compassion that expresses itself in skill-in-means. Skill-in-means is the ability to reach all sentient beings at their own level. This is exemplified through analogies in many Mahayana sutras as for instance the parable of the three carts and the parable of rainfall and the light of the sun and moon in the Lotus Sutra (Saddharmapundarika Sutra). The phenomenal dimension of the Buddha appears to all sentient beings according to their particular needs and abilities. It manifests itself in a variety of forms, such as the form of the beautiful damsel for the sake of Kshema. In many Mahayana sutras and shastras, the Buddha manifests Himself in the form of ordinary men or gods in order to assist sentient beings along the path to liberation. It is in this way too that the Buddha manifests Himself in the special forms of the deities of the Vajrayana pantheon according to the needs and propensities of sentient beings. For example, in the case of the five Meditation Buddhas we have an instance of the Buddha manifesting Himself in the special form which corresponds to the particular karmic propensities of sentient beings. The Buddha Vairocana, for instance, manifests Himself specially for sentient beings whose primary affliction is ignorance. Akshobhya manifests Himself to those whose primary afflictions is ill-will, and Amitabha to those whose primary affliction is desire. The Buddha manifests Himself in these different forms to different sentient beings with particular karmic problems. These manifestations of the Buddha interact with sentient beings in order to bring about their liberation. There is a kind of interdependence between the manifestations of the Buddha in the various forms of the heavenly Buddhas and deities of the Vajrayana pantheon and the development of sentient beings through the practice of meditation. To illustrate this, let me return to the story of Maitreya and Asanga. Asanga meditated for twelve years before he was able to perceive Maitreya. Maitreya was with him all along. But Asanga had to develop his vision so that he might be in a position to experience Maitreya directly. In the same way, the manifestations of the Buddha are around us all the time. But in order to perceive them directly, we have to develop our mind through 10
  11. 11. meditation, through the careful purification of our being. One might liken this process of purification to the tuning of a television set to receive a particular transmission. The transmission is there all along. But unless and until the receiver is tuned to the correct frequency to receive the transmission, the picture cannot be seen. If we remember these three principle - the principle of emptiness, the principle of the power of the mind to create the nature of our experience, and the principle of skill-in-means, we will also be able to understand how the Vajrayana path can work. We will also be able to understand the diversity of the forms and images which the Vajrayana uses in order to expedite the process of transformation. *** 11
  12. 12. III METHODOLOGY OF THE VAJRAYANA As I have mentioned in the first session, in terms of the initial situation (suffering) and in terms of the goal (Buddhahood), the Vajrayana is not different from the Mahayana. Both share identical views in regard to the beginning and the end of the path. Where they differ is in terms of methodology. The special claim of the Vajrayana is that it provides a more skillful and rapid means of getting from the initial situation to the goal of Buddhahood. It is therefore clear that a look at the methodology of the Vajrayana is particularly important in the understanding of the Vajrayana. Let us begin by looking at the machinery of the initial situation of suffering. The fundamental cause of suffering has traditionally been called ignorance. But ignorance if we spell it out means the dichotomy or duality between subject and object, between self and other. There are different ways by which one can de-construct or dismantle this duality which is the foundation of ignorance. In the Abhidharmic tradition, the emphasis of the process of dismantling the subject/ object duality is on the dismantling of the self. By taking apart the self (one pole of the duality), the subject/objects duality is dismantled. What this means is that ultimately the dismantling of subject will imply the dismantling of object too. This is why a great emphasis is placed on the analytical dissection of the self. This has been the main thrust of the Abhidharma Pitaka, there is also the important book of Relations (Patthana) where the object as well as the subject is dismantled. In the Mahayana and Vajrayana traditions, there is slightly different approach. These traditions begin by attacking the object. It attacks the object in various ways, as for instance in last week’s session, where we discover how the object is not stable in its mode of appearance, and how object can appear even without any stimulus. The object is like an object seen in a dream. It is unreal. The discovery that the object is unreal raises the question of the status of the self. In the Mahayana and Vajrayana, the general procedure for de-constructing the subject/object or self/other duality follows these lines. We begin with the subject and object duality. By showing that the object is dreamlike and unreal, we then apply our understanding of interdependence to discover that, if the object is unreal, then the subject (which is dependent on the object) is also dreamlike and unreal. If the seed is unreal, the sprout too must be unreal. This brings us to the understanding of the emptiness of subject and object. This process is to an extent reflected in the attitudes of two main Mahayana schools - Cittamatra which focuses upon the dreamlike nature of experience. and the Madhayamaka which focuses upon the idea of interdependence. In addition to this fundamental duality - subject/object or self/other duality, there are many other dualities which have to be removed if one is going to achieve enlightenment. The other major duality which is productive of suffering and which the Mahayana and the Vajrayana focus upon is the duality between samsara and nirvana. In general, this is a duality between what is conditioned and what is unconditioned. Samsara is conditioned and nirvana is unconditioned. This is reflected in 12
  13. 13. the technical description of the phenomena of samsara as Samskrita-dharma and nirvana as Asamskrita-dharma. Samsara is conditioned as it is characterized by origination and destruction, by birth and death. Nirvana, on the other hand, is unconditioned as it is characterized by non-origination and non- destruction. But is this duality real or is it merely constructed? The position of the Mahayana and Vajrayana is that the duality between samsara and nirvana is unreal. It is merely constructed by the mind. It is an illusion of the mind. This shown by an analysis of the characteristics of samsara, and analysis of origination and destruction. There are various ways in which origination and destruction are examined within the Mahayana Vajrayana traditions. One of the ways is the extensive examination of origination in Nagarjuna’s Madhayamika Shastra wherein he considers the possibility of origination from four alternatives - origination from self, from other, from both, or without a cause. But for our purposes today, let us content ourselves with an analogical examination of origination wherein it is said that if objects are like objects seen in a dream, there is then neither any real origination nor any real destruction. In the Samadhiraja Sutra, it mentioned that if a virgin girl has a dream in which she sees that she has give birth to a child, and in that same dream she sees that the child has died, she will experience happiness and sorrow in the dream. But when she awakes form the dream, she will realize that there was no real birth and no real death of the child. Similarly, all phenomena (dharmas) have no origination and destruction. If in reality all dharmas have no origination and no destruction, then the characteristics of samsara no longer hold good as real characteristics. The distinction between samsara and nirvana collapses and we are left with the conclusion which is put by Nagarjuna in the Mahayamaka Shastra wherein he says that there is no subtlest difference between samsara and nirvana. If there is no origination and no destruction, then samsara’s characteristics are the same as nirvana’s characteristics since nirvana is characterized by the absence of origination and destruction. There is therefore no different between samsara and nirvana. To summarize, we arrive at the identity of samsara and nirvana first through a dismantling of our conception of samsara. We define samsara as conditioned. We say that the characteristics of the conditioned are origination and destruction. But we find that there is no real origination and no real destruction. If samsara does not have these characteristics, then its opposite, nirvana, has no independent meaning. In this way, we arrive at the identity of samsara and nirvana. Everything that I have said so far - ignorance being the fundamental cause of suffering, the duality between subject and object and later between samsara and nirvana, and the identity or emptiness of each pole of these dualities - holds good for the Mahayana as well as for the Vajrayana. There is complete agreement between the two up to this point. There is also complete agreement in regard to the distinction between understanding the truth intellectually and seeing the truth directly is of course recognized throughout the whole of the Buddhist tradition, whether we consider the 13
  14. 14. Theravada, Mahayana or Vajrayana tradition. For example, in the Theravada tradition, there is the recognition of the difference between understanding the Four Noble Truths intellectually and seeing the Four Noble Truths directly. Here too, in the Mahayana and Vajrayana traditions, the crux of the matter is whether our knowledge of the identity of samsara and nirvana is intellectual, or direct and experiential. Up to this point, if we have followed the procedures laid down in the Prajnaparamita literature, the arguments spelt out by Nagarjuna, Asanga and Vasubandhu, we would have arrived at an intellectual, indirect understanding of the non-differentiation of subject and object, of samsara and nirvana. It is in the special manner, in the sense of quicker and more skillful methods. by which indirect intellectual understanding is turned into direct and experiential understanding that Vajrayana methodology comes in. The key to an understanding of the Vajrayana methodology per se is an understanding of the emptiness of all dharmas. All dharmas are nothing in themselves. They are what they are as they are constructed by the mind. Let me refer to three examples which come not from the Vajrayana or Mahayana traditions but rather from the Theravada tradition to illustrate this point of the emptiness or neutrality of all dharmas. In the parable of the water-snake and the parable of the raft (Alagaddupama Sutta), the Buddha has likened all dharmas to a water-snake and to a raft. The Buddha has said that one who is skilled in handling a water-snake can capture and handle a water- snake without coming to grief. But one who is not skilled in handling water-snake will come to grief if he tries to capture one. Similarly, a knife is neither true nor false, but one who grasps it by the blade is surely in error. Dharmas are like the raft in the sense that you do not need to hold on to the dharmas in the way that you do not hold on to the raft once you have crossed the river. The Sutra expresses very brilliantly and succinctly the emptiness and neutrality of dharmas. All dharmas are neither this nor that. They are neutral, depending on how you take or use them. It is not in the nature of a water-snake to cause grief. Rather it is in the manner in which the water-snake is taken. Similarly, if we grasp a knife by the blade we are going to hurt ourselves. But if we grasp it by the handle we will be able to use it. If we use a raft to cross a river, we are using it properly. If we carry the raft after crossing the river we are making a mistake. The usefulness or otherwise of the dharmas lies not in the dharmas themselves but in the way we use them. This is true not only of objects but also of mental states like desire and aversion. For example, in the Theravada tradition, there is the story of the Buddha’s instruction to his cousin Nanda who was persuaded to join the Order on the day of his marriage. After his ordination, Nanda began to miss his fiancee. He began to regret that he had entered the Order. The Buddha was aware of this. He took Nanda on a trip to the heavens to show him the lovely heavenly damsels. Nanda was infatuated by the maidens in the heavens that, when he was asked how they compare to his fiancee, he relpied that compared to those heavenly damsel, his fiancee looked like the skeleton of a female monkey. The Buddha advised that if he wanted to enjoy the heavenly damsels in the next life, the 14
  15. 15. best way to do it was to remain in the Order and practise the dharma. Nanda went back with great zeal to practise the dharma. When the other monks found out why Nanda was practicing the dharma so diligently, they teased him. Eventually Nanda realized the shallowness of his motivation, and he eventually became an arahat known as the “foremost of those who are able to control their senses”. This is an example of the neutrality of the mental state of desire. At a particular point in Nanda’s progress, desire was used by the Buddha as a motivation to get Nanda to settle down to practise the dharma more diligently. Not only are objects like the water-snake, knives, rafts and so forth neutral, dependent upon how you take or use them, mental states too are nothing in themselves. They depend on how you use them, whether for spiritual progress or for spiritual retardation. This is why the Buddha said ‘Killing anger benefits the killer’. Aversion is neither good nor bad. If one is adverse to unwholesome actions, this is conducive to the goal of liberation. But if one is adverse to wholesome actions, this is not conducive to the goal. All dharmas are basically neutral, empty. How they affect our progress depends on how we take them, on how we use them. This is the insight or attitude which has been developed in the Vajrayana, and which has enable the Vajrayana to use particular methods that utilize all phenomena (dharmas) for spiritual progress. This is the key to the acceleration which the Vajrayana methods bring to spiritual progress. In as much as we can use only part of our experience to make progress towards the goal of liberation, our progress is to that extent slower. For example, how much do any of us spend in meditation or in recitation? Most of our time is spent instead on eating, sleeping, or gossiping, amongst others. We are wasting all that time and all that experience. It is not being used to make progress towards the goal of enlightenment. The Vajrayana makes use of this idea of the basic neutrality or emptiness of all dharmas, for since all dharmas are empty, why not make use of all dharmas - all sights, sounds and mental states for spiritual progress. That is why the Vajrayana is said to regard all sights, sounds and mental states as deities, mantras and Dharmakaya. Everything that we see is neutral. If we take these sight in a particular way, as expressions of the deities, as expressions of the pure vision of enlightenment, we can utilize these sights in a particular way to contribute to our progress towards enlightenment. I will be explaining this in greater detail in later sessions, but let me give you an example at this point. The cup that I am holding belongs to the aggregate of form (Rupa Skhanda), which is a manifestation of the transcendental Buddha Vairocana. The object which belongs to the aggregate of form is therefore not simply a cup but a dimension of the Buddha Vairocana. This is what is meant when it is said in the Vajrayana that one regards all sights as the deities, as the particular manifestation of a transcendental, purified reality. By a particular act of the mind, we can similarly regard all sounds as mantras and all mental states as the Dharmakaya, as the transcendental dimension of the Buddha. 15
  16. 16. This utilisation of sights, sounds and mental states is specially constructed in the institution of the Vajrayana ritual or meditative practice (Sadhana). In this context, the Vajrayana Sadhana may be likened to a raft. It is a raft that is made up of sights, sound and mental states so that in the Vajrayana rituals, for example, there is the visual component, which is the visualization of any one of the deities, the auditory component, which is the use of mantras, and the mental component, which is the particular intention. The identification of the meditator with the object of meditation and the cultivation and realization of the understanding of that visualization as non-dual, as identical with emptiness. This will also become clearer in the light of later sessions. For the time being, I would like to mention that the rituals of the Vajrayana meditative practice utilizes these three components - visual (sights), auditory (sounds) and mental (intention) components in order to create a raft of rituals, which utilizes all these three components, and that this provides a particularly efficient form of meditative practice. Those of you who practice breathing meditation or other forms of meditation will see the truth of this. If you are attempting to meditate only on your breath, there is a point where your mind may become tired of trying to concentrate simply on the breath and you mind begins to wander. If you are chanting, your mind may become tired of words of the chant. If you are doing vipasyana (insight) meditation, your mind may get tired of the penetrative analysis of phenomena. In the Vajrayana Sadhana, because of the multi-component character (visual, auditory and mental), when the mind gets tired and irritated and is no longer able to concentrate on the visualized form of the deity, it can concentrate on the mantra. When the mind get tired of that, it can go back to the visualized form of the deity. Due to the multi-dimensional character of the Vajrayana ritual, it is more effective as a means of meditation because, rather than setting up a confrontation against the tendency of the mind to become distracted, it utilities that tendency. It lets the mind wander, though it is allowed to wander within a particular compass of religious or spiritual meaning, so that no matter what the mind rests on. Whether it be the visualized form of the deity, the mantra, or the identification of the meditator with the visualized form of the deity and on the emptiness of that form, it is resting on something, which has spiritual power. The Vajrayana ritual is also like a raft in the sense that it is not something to be held on to. It is a means or method, and nothing more than that. This ritual is also not to be confined to meditative sessions. It is to be extended to all our activities both within and without meditative sessions so that while in the meditative sessions one visualizes the form of the deity, recites the mantra, and cultivates an understanding of the identity of the meditator with the form which one meditates upon. An understanding of emptiness of that form, this view has to be extended beyond the meditative session to encompass all one’s activities. Wherever we are and whatever we do, the totality of our experience is made a part of this raft of meditative practice so that we can incorporate and utilise all this energy and experience into our practice. As we go about our daily activities, we perceive sights, sounds and mental states in this special transformed way. In other words, we grasp all the dharmas of our entire experience by the handle and not by the blade. We learn through the techniques of Vajrayana meditation to handle these sights, sounds and mental states in the right way so that we do not come to grief. We can handle objects that we see, sounds that we hear, and mental 16
  17. 17. states like desire and aversion that we experience, in such a way so that, instead of being ensnared by these experiences, we can use them for our development in our progress towards the goal of enlightenment. *** 17
  18. 18. IV MYTH & SYMBOLISM IN THE VAJRAYANA In last week’s session, we have talked about how the particular characteristic of the Vajrayana is the utilisation of the totality of experience in order to achieve a direct or immediate knowledge of non- duality. In the process of turning the totality of experience to the use of our spiritual or religious endeavor, it is important that we select elements of experience which are particularly powerful and meaningful. This does not preclude the use of the totality of experience for our spiritual progress. This is because within that totality of experience, we focus first on particular types of experience which are particularly powerful and meaningful. We utilize them as the building blocks of our transformed experience. We then go on to extend that transformed experience so that it eventually covers all experiences and include even those elements which were originally less powerful and less meaningful. Here, what we are concerned with initially is the selection of certain elements of experience that are particularly powerful and meaningful. What occurs in the process of selection is that certain archetypal elements of experience are isolated. Archetypal elements of experience are those elements that have a very deep-seated mode of existence within our individual consciousness and collective consciousness (the sum total of all individual consciousness.) Let us look at some specific examples of archetypal types of experience. The first of these belong to the realm of myth. The most dominant feature of myths is the struggle between good and evil. This is perhaps the primordial fundamental mythical theme. You will find this theme worked out in mythologies from the beginning of time right up to our present day. For example, the story of the contest between Rama and Ravana in the Ramayana is about the struggle between the forces of good and the forces of evil. This is something which continues to be a dominant theme in most myths. Even today for example, in our myths we see the theme of the movie ‘Star Wars’. We see this theme also in the attitudes of people, as for example, when Reagan talks about the evil empire, he is using a mythological theme. He is seeing the struggle between the free world and the communist world, in terms of the struggle between good and evil. This is a very important theme in human experience. When we call this theme a mythological theme, it is not to devalue it. If anything, it increases its value because it makes it of superhuman proportion. It does not make it unreal. Instead it makes it more real. Good and evil is of course a duality. The transcendental of the duality of good and evil, the mastery of and assimilation of evil by good is represented symbolically in the appearance of the deities of the Vajrayana pantheon. Last week we talked about how we could transform elements of experience and put them to the use of our spiritual progress. What we have here is the mastery of what normally in mythical terms we think of as evil. We have the mastery of evil by good, and we have the assimilation and transformation of this mythical totality of evil in the form of the specific elements of the Vajrayana pantheon. This explains the appearance in general of the deities of the Vajrayana pantheon. Those of you who have seen tantric paintings and sculptures may have wondered why the Vajrayana deities wear necklaces of severed heads, ornaments of bones etc. and 18
  19. 19. also at the prevalance of animal skins, skeletons, weapons, etc. Why, in the Vajrayana iconography, is there so much of the macabre? The answer is that all of these, the ornaments, weapons etc., are the paraphernalia of the forces of evil as they are conceived of in the collective consciousness. The fact that they are now worn and wielded by the Vajrayana deities symbolizes firstly, the victory of enlightenment over evil (the successful taking of the water-snake). Secondly, the use of the forces of evil by forces of enlightenment for the purpose of liberation; and thirdly, the union and transcendence of duality, of good and evil, of samsara and nirvana. On a mystical scale, this is how we are to understand the particular nature of the appearance of the Vajrayana deities, as an expression of the mastery and transformation of evil, and as an expression of the transcendence of the duality of good and evil. There is also in the Vajrayana the equality of objects of desire and aversion. This equality implies the transcendence of the opposite of desire and aversion, good and evil. In the symbolism of the Vajrayana, we find objects of desire and objects of aversion in close proximity. For example. we find jewels and severed heads; a desirous female form and a corpse; lotuses, sun, moon and blood, meat, bones, side by side in the same portrait. All these things occurring side by side are symbolic expressions of the transcendence of duality. They represent the erosion, the dismantling of our habitual tendency to dichotomise, to create duality between good and evil, desirable and undesirable, pure and impure, etc. Let us examine, in slightly more concrete terms, the particular signification of some of the archetypal symbols that we find in the Vajrayana, many of which have still to do with the transcendence of duality. Firstly, let us consider the union of male and female which is so dominant in the Vajrayana. This is a symbol which is archetypal in the sense that it has been an important part of the experience of sentient beings. It is a deep seated element in the individual and collective consciousness of sentient beings. The union of male and female has in arts, poetry, and literature in most cultures at one time or another served as a symbol of the union of opposites, as in the union of heaven and earth more than anything else. In the Vajrayana, we find the prevalent use of this very powerful and meaningful element of experience to depict, to symbolize the union of emptiness and form, nirvana and samsara, skill-in-means and wisdom. The female aspect stands for emptiness, nirvana and wisdom, as we saw in the course of the first lecture where Nairatmya was more often than not represented in the female form. The male aspect stands for phenomena, form, samsara, compassion and skill-in-means. The female can also stand for emptiness, and the male for luminosity. In the use of this archetypal symbol, we find an expression of the union of samsara and nirvana, form and emptiness, compassion and wisdom. Another prevalent symbol used in the Vajrayana iconography is the tree which is a symbolism of life, growth, upward development. In the taking of refuge at the start of Vajrayana Sadhana, the 19
  20. 20. meditator often pictures the object as placed in a tree. Like the union of male and female, the tree is an archetypal symbol which has cross-cultural significance. I have been impressed to find the appearance of the tree in the symbolism of almost all the various religious and cultural traditions throughout the world. In the Christian tradition, there was the tree of knowledge in the Garden of Eden. In the Buddhist tradition too, the tree is an important archetypal symbol. Specifically, it may be identified with the tree of enlightenment or the pipal tree. But the tree of enlightenment goes back to a period in Indian cultural history before the time of the Buddha Sakyamuni. It seems also to have been important to the people of the Indus Valley Civilization which flourished in the 3rd Millennium B.C. If you look at Vajrayana iconography, you will often find the deity placed upon a throne in a tree. The throne is an archetypal symbol of royalty, of sovereignty, and master as is the crown and the sceptre. You will remember that in the first lecture we said that the Vajrayana takes its name form the Vajra, the sceptre of Indra which is a symbol of mastery. There is no doubt that these symbols are important in our individual and collective consciousness. Even in republican societies, there is a great fascination with royalty. American probably read more about the English Royal family than Englishmen. There are more television documentaries, dramatizations about the English Royal family produced in American than in England. Even the institution of the presidency has been associated with all kinds of symbols of sovereignty. Like the symbol of the tree, royal symbolism is found in most of the religious traditions. Jesus spoke about the Kingdom of God, and is called the King of the Jews. The Buddha has been called Dharmaraja, and the actual name of the Dhammacakkappavattanna Sutta is the establishment of the Kingdom of the Dharma. Fire, light and water also occupy prominent places in Vajrayana symbolism. Fire often surrounds the deities. Light is an important medium for identification between the meditator and the visualized form. Fire and light have been very important and meaningful elements of our experience. It is probably through the discovery of fire that man became civilized. All of this is still very clearly represented in our experience. We all like to kindle, watch and manipulate fire. Fire in the Vajrayana stands for the flame that consumes, destroys ignorance. Water is more crucial to our existence than food. It is necessary for the fertility of the earth Water plays an important role in Vajrayana symbolism. It is the symbol of initiation, the stimulation of the seed of spiritual potential. Just as by watering the soil the seed of grain comes to life, similarly by sprinkling the disciple in the ritual of initiation, the seed of spiritual potential puts forth its sprout and grows into the fully realized and transformed mode of being, the experience of Buddhahood. The symbol of the lotus is not peculiar only to Vajrayana iconography. It exists in all Buddhist iconography. It is a more culturally specific symbol than the other symbols we have considered so far. It is perhaps most closely linked with the Indian experience than with the experience of other 20
  21. 21. people. Yet the lotus as a symbol of spiritual growth and transformation is important, meaningful and powerful within the context of Indian cultural consciousness. For this reason, it appears in the Vajrayana as a symbol of spiritual growth, transcendence and transformation. In the Vajrayana, there is also the very particular use of letters, words and mantras. This is again something which is archetypal, in the sense that it is a deep seated and powerful element in the individual and collective consciousness. For primitive people and for ourselves, the name of a thing is a source of power in regard to that thing. Primitive people achieved mastery over the forces of nature by giving them names, as for instance, by calling thunderstorm Indra, the old Brahmins established a mechanism of control over the thunderstorm. By giving them names, we achieve a degree of power over those things. This is of course clearly reflected even in our own experience. If someone side-swipes against your car in the parking lot, you do not have any power if you do not know his name. Names are therefore power. A name in a sense creates the reality of the object for which it stands. For example, when I say the name ‘diamond’ in the sense the reality of that object is created for all of us. It is because of the recognition of this power of letters, names and words that the Vajrayana employs them in the form of mantras in order to bring about a certain kind of reality. What we have happening in the Vajrayana is that the naive assumption of the power inherent in names that was characteristic of the early period of man’s existence, is overthrown and replaced by a critical understanding of the way in which names and words work to create a particular reality. The way in which they work is through the power of the mind. It is the power of the mind (intention) that enables letters, words, names and mantras to possess a particular kind of creative reality. So we find in the Vajrayana symbolism, a liberal, conscious and critical use of these verbal symbols as vehicles for concentrating that power of the mind to create and transform. For example, we symbolise the mind with sanskirt syllable ‘HUM’ and we use that symbol as a vehicle for representing visually the mind as the seed of the various deities of the Vajrayana pantheon. There is a deep seated archetypal role, which is played by letters, words and names in our individual and collective consciousness. This archetypal role is used by the Vajrayana in its symbolism in order to portray and make easier the use of the mind to master and transform experience. There is also a recognition of the importance and significance of colors as symbols of certain tendencies and attitudes. This is something which has been recognized by modern psychologists. There was a famous psychologist in the mid-30’s in America who persuaded one popular cigarette company to change its logo on the package from green to red, and overnight sales of those cigarettes shot up by 50-60%. When that limited run of packages with the red logo was finished, the manufacturer went back to selling cigarettes with the green logo, and the sales dropped by 50-60%. When the logo colour was changed to red again, the sales shot up again. The fact that the logo of this brand of cigarette was red rather than green affected the sales of cigarettes to that extent, and advertisers and designers have ever since placed very special attention to the effects that colour have on prospective buyers. This is also recognized in the Vajrayana tradition. There are particular roles 21
  22. 22. and uses for particular colors. White, for example, is a symbol of purity, a significance which is common, and universal, and apparent. But it is also a symbol of opaqueness, ignorance or a symbol of universal wisdom. This is why for example in the mandala of the Buddhas of the Five Families, Vairocana is portrayed in white, and in the Vajrayana pantheon, Vajrasattva is portrayed in white. Blue or black is a symbol of immutability. Black, unlike any other colour, cannot be changed. Blue is, on the one hand, a colour which symbolizes hatred, and on the other hand, is a colour that symbolizes the wisdom which reflects all phenomena without distorting them, like the colour of the ocean which reflects mirror-like wisdom. Red, which is the colour of fire, is a symbol of desire, and also a symbol of discrimination. These colors are used not only with the Buddhas of the Five Families but also with other tantric deities to carry certain symbolic messages. These may often operate at an unconscious or subconscious level. Nonetheless, they have a particular significance which triggers off certain emotions or reactions. This can happen on a subconscious or unconscious level. Individuals who bought the cigarettes with the red logo instead of those with the green logo did not know why they were doing so. Let us look at some of the more particular objects that we find in Vajrayana art and iconography and the specific meaning of these objects - the support or base of Vajrayana deities, the objects that the deities hold in their hands, and the ornaments that adorn their bodies. In regard to the support of the Vajrayana deities, there is for instance the Vajrayana deity Vajrakilaya who tramples on two deities that belong to the Hindu pantheon, Shiva and Parvati. Initially, one might think that this is merely a kind of one-upmanship on the part of the Buddhists to show one of their deities trampling on Hindu deities. However, the significance of this is far more important. Shiva and Parvati stand for the extremes of eternalism and nihilism. This is a symbol of the transcendence, the avoidance of the extremes of eternalism and nihilism. Again, we find the Vajrayana deity Mahakala standing on a corpse. The corpse represents his triumph over the idea of self or substance. Many of the Vajrayana deities hold knives in their hands. This is anticipated in the Mahayana iconography where we find Manjushri holding a sword in his hand. The significance of this is that it is with the sword of wisdom that Manjushri cuts through the net of ignorance. In the hands of the Vajrayana deities too, knives are the instruments which stand for the wisdom with which the deities cut through the net of ignorance. We also find deities drinking from skull cups that are filled with blood. Blood represents the defilements (Klesha). The deities drinking this blood symbolizes their ability to assimilate and neutralize these defilements. We find the deities commonly holding the vajra and bell. The vajra is a symbol of means (Upaya), and the bell is a symbol of wisdom (Prajna). Their holding the vajra and bell stands for the unity of wisdom and means, emptiness and form, samsara and nirvana. With regard to the ornaments, many of the Vajrayana deities have crowns of five skulls. These five skull stand for the five transcendental wisdom which belong to the Buddhas of the Five Families - the wisdom of Dharmadhatu, the mirror-like wisdom, the wisdom of equality, the 22
  23. 23. wisdom of discrimination and the wisdom of accomplishment. Many of their bodies are adorned with the six ornaments of bones - bracelets of bone stand for the six perfections of generosity, morality, patience, energy, concentration and wisdom. The fact that we find such objects prevalent in Vajrayana iconography does not indicated that we have merely a kind of fascination with bizarre and macabre objects. Rather, these objects are very closely connected with several levels of meaning. The very deep unconscious or subconscious level of meaning; the level of meaning that has to do with cultural archetypes; and the level of meaning that are very specific and precise, and are related to particular elements within Buddhist teachings. On the broadest level, we have been dealing with great, sweeping dualities, mythological themes, the themes of good and evil, the archetype of male and female and so forth. More specifically we have been dealing with a particular power or meaning to sentient beings, the archetypes with a particular power or meaning to sentient beings, the archetypes of the tree, throne, fire and so forth. On an even more specific level, we have objects which relate to particular and specific items of Buddhist teachings, like the extremes of eternalism and nihilism, the values of means and wisdom, the five transcendental wisdoms and the six perfections. What I have tried to do today is to give some indication of the way in which Vajrayana myths and symbols work, and the meaning of the various kinds of portrayals and imagery that we find in the Vajrayana. It is a mistake to regard the imagery, symbolism of the Vajrayana as being in any way arbitrary, accidental or simply sensational for the sake of being exotic, or any other such arbitrary or superficial motive. *** V PSYCHOLOGY, PHYSIOLOGY & COSMOLOGY OF THE VAJRAYANA 23
  24. 24. In the Vajrayana tradition, psychology, physiology and cosmology are closely interrelated, and today I would like to show how that is the case, and to sketch in general terms the positive contents of this interrelation. Let us begin by referring once again to the idea of interdependence and interpenetration. Interdependence is synonymous with relatively or emptiness and it is one of the two pillars of the Vajrayana tradition. In this particular context, interdependence has a specific meaning, and that is interpenetration. In so far as everything depends upon everything else for its existence and nature, so everything holds within itself the seeds, the causes and conditions of everything else. Specifically, we can understand this by focusing on the idea of the interdependence of the parts and the whole. The nature of the whole depends upon the nature of the parts and the nature of the parts depends upon the nature of the whole. This is the interdependence of parts and whole. Traditionally, we see this idea elaborated in the Mahayana in parables, like the parable of the net of Indra (Indrajala). In this parable, each part of the net depends for its existence and nature on the other parts of the net and each small part of the net in a sense contains in miniature the characteristics of the net as a whole. This idea of interdependence or interpenetration of parts and whole became very important in China also. It is probably the single most important idea in the Hua-Yan philosophy, the philosophy of totality. This idea of interpenetration of parts and whole also has its place in the Vajrayana tradition. We can see this expressed in the term tantra refers primarily and literally to the idea of the weave in a piece of cloth or fabric. Using the analogy of cloth or fabric, we can also understand the interpenetration of parts and whole, because in a small section of fabric you will see the weave which extends throughout the whole fabric. This idea of interpenetration of parts and whole is expressed with reference to the individual and to the universe in the terms microcosm and macrocosm. In the Vajrayana tradition, the idea of the interpenetration of parts and whole is expressed in the notion of the interdependence of the individual as a part and the universe as whole. The idea of the interpenetration of parts and whole, of the individual and the universe, of microcosm and macrocosm is the first idea that I want to put toward to you by the way of introduction to a more specific treatment of psychology, physiology and cosmology in the Vajrayana. In addition, in order to understand the dynamic role of psychology, physiology and cosmology in the Vajrayana tradition. We need to recall the second fundamental idea of the Vajrayana tradition, and that is the idea of the variability of experience, which is expressed in the experience of Asanga who experienced Maitreya first not at all. Then in the form of a diseased dog, and finally in his celestial and transformed form. This idea is also expressed in the fact that the beings who inhabit the six realms of existence view phenomena in different ways, as for instance, the example of the cup of coffee which I mentioned in the third lecture. The variability of experience depends upon the nature of one’s mind. This is the second important idea that we have to keep in mind in treating 24
  25. 25. psychology, physiology and cosmology in the Vajrayana tradition, the idea that reality is dependent upon the conditions of one’s mind. An impure mind will perceive and experience reality in one way, whereas the transformed and purified mind will experience reality in another way. It is important to keep both these ideas - the ideas of interpenetration and the variability of experience - in mind if we are going to understand the relationship between the individual and the universe in the Vajrayana psychology, physiology and cosmology. And if we are going to understand how this relationship functions dynamically in order to bring about the transformation that is the goal of Vajrayana practice. Let us first look specifically at the psychology within the Vajrayana tradition. I have been at pains to show during the course of the sessions that the Vajrayana is a natural and logical development out of the Buddhist tradition as a whole as we find embodied in the Theravada and Mahayana. Given that fact, it is not surprising that Vajrayana psychology takes as its basic building blocks a system which is central to Buddhist psychology. These building blocks are the five aggregates (Skandhas). As in the Theravada and Mahayana, the five aggregates (form, feeling, perception, volition, and consciousness) function as the basic components of Vajrayana psychology. In the impure condition of mind, in the condition of mind which is common to all of us before we have transformed our experience, these five aggregates are associated with the five afflictions or defilements. In respect to the five aggregates of form, feeling, perception, volition and consciousness, these five afflictions are ignorance, pride, desire, envy and ill-will respectively. You will notice the three basic afflictions which are causes of the experience of in addition to the afflictions of pride and envy. These five afflictions correspond to the five aggregates. Incidentally, we can see the five afflictions also in relation to the five realms of existence which are not conducive to liberation. In this context, we can see ignorance as correlated to the realm of animals, pride to the realm of the gods, desire to the realm of the hungry ghosts, envy to the realm of the demi-god, and ill-will to the realm of the hell-beings. It is interesting that the five afflictions are also in a sense constitutive of the causes of birth in the five unfavorable realms of existence. This is the picture of reality as seen from the point of view of the untransformed mode of being, the impure vision which is typical of our experience, and that was typical of Asanga’s experience when he was able to see Maitreya. Even in the Perfection of Wisdom literature, we find statement to the effect that as a Bodhisattva progresses towards Buddhahood, his aggregates become perfectly pure. In the Vajrayana, this general statement is given positive and specific contents so that in the Vajrayana psychology. The five aggregates are transformed and appear in the form of the five conquerors or the celestial Buddhas of the Five Families when the mind has been purified by the cultivation of mental development. In their transformed mode of being, the five aggregates appear as the five celestial Buddhas. The aggregate of form when purified appear in the 25
  26. 26. form of the Buddha Vairocana, feeling in the form of Ratnasambhava, perception in the form of Amitabha, volition in the form of Amoghassiddhi, and consciousness in the form when purified appears in the form of Akshobhya. Some of you may have seen these five celestial Buddhas iconographically portrayed in the mandala, a sacred or magical circle which is a representation of the purified or transformed universe. What the five celestial Buddhas represent are the five components of the psychophysical being in their transformed and purified mode of being. The five celestial Buddhas represent are the five components of the psychophysical being in their transformed and purified mode of being. The five celestial Buddhas together represent the transformation of our impure experience into a purified or liberated mode of being. Incidentally, these five celestial Buddhas are often said to be the Buddhas of the five races - the Buddha, Ratna, Padma, Karma and Vajra races respectively. These are the symbols that stand for the five aggregates in their transformed mode of being. Just as at the untransformed and impure level, the five aggregates are associated with the five afflictions, so at the transformed and purified level, the five celestial Buddhas correspond to the five Transcendental Knowledges. The first of these transcendental knowledge is the knowledge of Dharmadhatu which corresponds to the Buddha Vairocana. The knowledge of Dharmadhatu is the knowledge of things as they are in reality. It stands for the quintessential nature of characteristic of things. In other words, the Dharmadhatu is that essential nature of all phenomena, which is the Dharmadhatu is that essential nature of all phenomena, which is their emptiness, their non-duality. Thus the transformed aggregate of form is the Buddha Vairocana, and this transformation similarly implies a transformation from the affliction of ignorance to the transcendental knowledge of the true nature of all things, of emptiness. Secondly, with the Buddha Ratnasambhava who is the transformed appearance of the aggregate of feeling, we have a transformation of the affliction of pride into the transcendental knowledge of equality. This is the knowledge which makes all things equal. Again, here we have a specific echo of something which occurs in the Perfection of Wisdom literature. In the Heart Sutra, it is said that the Perfection of Wisdom makes the unequal equal. In regard to Ratnasambhava, we have the knowledge of equality sees no distinction between samsara and nirvana. The transcendental knowledge of equality which sees no distinction between samsara and nirvana enables the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas to operate freely in the world. Thirdly, in regard to the aggregate of perception which in its transformed and purified dimension becomes the Buddha Amitabha, we have a corresponding transformation of the affliction of desire into the transcendental knowledge of discrimination. This is the knowledge, which is able to see all things in their individual characteristics. In a sense, this corresponds to the 26
  27. 27. knowledge of the Dharmadhatu, which is the knowledge of that quintessential and universal character of all things (emptiness). As a complement to the knowledge of the Dharmadhatu, we have a knowledge of discrimination, which is the knowledge of the particular individual characteristics of all things. In regard to the aggregate of volition, which at the purified level takes the form of the Buddha Amoghassidhi, we have a transformation of the affliction of envy into the transcendental knowledge of accomplishment. This knowledge is the ability to know with precision the exact situation of all sentient beings so that they can best be helped to progress toward Buddhahood. Finally, the aggregate of consciousness, which at the purified level takes the form of the Buddha Akshobhya, we have a transformation of the affliction of ill-will into the transcendental knowledge known as the mirror-like knowledge, the ability to reflect all things in the manner of the mirror. The mirror reflects whatever is presented to it precisely but itself remains unchanged, unaffected by the image that it reflects. You can see that there is a kind of symmetrical arrangement of basic psycho-physical constituents, the five aggregates on the impure level corresponding to the five celestial Buddhas on the purified level. Similarly, we have a symmetrical arrangement of the five afflictions on the untransformed or impure level, corresponding to the five knowledge on the transformed and purified level. This symmetrical arrangement between an impure and a pure experience is carried over into the building blocks of matter as well. On the purified level, the five elements of the world - earth, water, fire, air and space take the forms of the five celestial female deities who are consorts of the five celestial Buddhas. The element of space, which corresponds to the aggregate of form, is transformed at the purified level into a female deity who is the consort of Vairocana. The elements of earth, fire, air and water which correspond to the aggregates of feeling, perception, volition and consciousness, respectively, are transformed at the purified level into the female deities who are the consorts of the Buddha Ratnasambhava, Amitabha, Amoghasiddhi and Akshobhya respectively. In Vajrayana psychology, we have aggregates, afflictions and elements on the ordinary impure level which, on the purified level, are transformed into the celestial Buddhas, the five transcendental knowledges and the five female deities who are consorts of the five celestial Buddhas. We have two levels of experience which are symmetrical, one mode of experience being typical of an impure form of existence, the other being typical of a purified form of existence. This is the basic scheme of Vajrayana psychology. In the system of Vajrayana physiology, these five celestial Buddhas, with their five consorts, are arranged within the body of each individual. They are situated at the five centers of psychic energy (Cakras) which are found within the body of every individual. The five centers of psychic energy are situated at five points in the body - at the top of the head, throat, heart, navel and genitals. At each 27
  28. 28. place, there is one of the five celestial Buddhas with his consort seated on a lotus throne. The Buddha Vairocana who is the transformed dimension of the aggregate of form is situated at the top of the head, Amitabha (perception) at the throat, Akshobhya (consciousness) at the heart, Ratnasambhava (feeling) at the navel, and Amoghassidhi (volition) at the genitals. There are a number of channels (Nadis) of psychic energy connecting these Cakras. Although there are a great number of these channels, there are three, which are very important. The central psychic channel (Avadhuti) which runs directly form the top of the head to the genitals which, as it were, connects the five Cakras, and the two psychic channels on the right and left of the central channel (Rasana and Lalana). At the level of advanced Vajrayana practice, the practitioner is able to manipulate and direct the flow of psychic energy (which is none other than the energy of mind) along and through these psychic channels. This enables him to unite the opposites (which are reflected in the psycho-physical experience of the individual and in the universe as a whole), in order to realize within himself, in meditation, the absolute union of all opposites, the annihilation of all dualities, the goal of tantric practice. Through this very brief portrayal of Vajrayana physiology, you can see how the basic building blocks of psycho-physical experience, be it viewed from the impure level or from the purified level, are reflected in the physiological make-up of the individual. Through achieving the union of opposite within the psycho-physical experience of the individual, the Vajrayana adept is able to bring about the transformation of his vision of the universe as a whole. He is able to do this because his body is a microcosm of the universe. In Vajrayana cosmology, the features of the universe as a whole are present within the psychophysical experience of the individual. Mount Sumeru, the central mountain of the universe according to Buddhist cosmology, is situated within the body of the individual, just as the sun and moon, the sacred rivers of India, and the pilgrimage places are situated within the body in a microcosmic way. Not only are these features of the universe situated within the body, so too are the primary features of the transformed or purified experience found within the body. We have already seen that the five celestial Buddhas are found within the body in the five Cakras. In the same way, we find that the experience of the celestial or purified universe, so that the body is in fact the heavenly abode of the celestial Buddhas. In Vajrayana psychology, physiology and cosmology therefore, we find the real meaning of the expression that the body is a temple. It is a temple which contains the celestial Buddhas who are none other than the transformed mode of being of the ordinary mode of being (Skandhas). You can see how we can have a kind of correspondence drawn within the Vajrayana tradition between the ordinary level of experience and the purified level of experience. This correspondence is established through using the idea of microcosm and macrocosm. Specifically through using the special Vajrayana physiological scheme of arranging the elements of experience in such a way that 28
  29. 29. they can be subjected to the direct and efficient manipulation of the mind. This way of arrangement is by means of the scheme of the centers of psychic energy and the channels through which the psychic energy flows. What I have attempted to do today is to indicate that we have in the Vajrayana system of psychology, physiology and cosmology, as we have in Vajrayana myths and symbols, not an arcane and exotic portrayal of haphazard or arbitrary forms. Rather, we have a very carefully designed system which ties in with the plan of the Buddhist way of transformation and liberation in the very specific and special way. What we have here is really just a specific or, if you like, a colorful or rich portrayal of the suggestions which we have in the earlier Buddhist traditions, in the Abhidharma psychology, the Perfection of Wisdom literature and so forth. In the Vajrayana tradition, all of these receive a very definite positive content in the shape of particular representations - rich, colorful, bright, attractive representations of the various components of psycho-physical experience, and how their transformation is brought about through the gradual purification of one’s mode of being. *** VI PRELIMINARY PRACTICES OF THE VAJRAYANA What I have tried to do in the last five sessions is to outline what we might call the universe of experience of the Vajrayana. That is why I have begun with a consideration of the culture and intellectual climate in which the Vajrayana first appeared, and went on to consider the religious and philosophical background, the methodology, the myths and symbols, and the psychology, 29
  30. 30. physiology and cosmology of the Vajrayana. In the last three sessions beginning today, I hope to look at the actual stages in the practice of the Vajrayana path. In general, there are three stages in the practice of this path, and they are the preliminary or preparatory stages, entry and actual practice. I have divided the preliminary stage into two categories - general and specific. I have mentioned at the very outset that the Mahayana and the Vajrayana are in fact two components of a single tradition. Their starting point and goal are identical. They differ only in regard to the methods in getting from the starting point to the goal. We can understand from this that, in terms of general preliminaries, there is a great deal of similarity between what is required for Mahayana practice and what is required for Vajrayana practice. We need to touch upon the preliminaries briefly to emphasis again that the Vajrayana practices are not practices that can be undertaken without the proper kind of preparation. In fact, the general preliminaries that are required for Vajrayana practice are identical with the whole of the Mahayana path. In this category of general preliminary practices, we commence with the taking of refuge, followed by contemplation of suffering, the Law of Karma, death and impermanence, the opportune and fortune nature of the human situation, cultivation of love and compassion, and production of the enlightenment thought (Bodhicitta). We conclude with a cultivation of one-pointedness or concentration (Samatha) and penetrative insight (Vipasyana). All of these serve as a general preliminary to Vajrayana practice. With a few exceptions, the general practices of the Vajrayana are similar to those of the Mahayana. One of the exception is the way in which the taking of refuge is practiced. Whereas in the Mahayana tradition there are the three objects of refuge - the Enlightened One, His teachings and the Noble Assembly (the Irreversible Bodhisattvas), in the Vajrayana, in addition to these three refuges, there is the fourth refuge of the preceptor (Guru or Lama). In certain traditions within the Vajrayana fold, there can even be more than four objects of refuge. There may be as many as six objects of refuge. The two additional objects of refuge are the tutelary deity (Istadevata or Yidam) and the dakini. The tutelary deity is the special esoteric form of the Buddha who is anyone of the major tantric deities (Hevajra, Cakrasamvara etc.) meditation upon whom is a complete path to enlightenment. The dakinis (Khadroma) are female deities who are symbolic or representative of insubstantiality. In the Vajrayana pantheon, the dakinis occupy a position which is in some way analogous to the position of the Noble Assembly. They are special tantric or Vajrayana forms of the Noble Assembly. Although we do have, in certain traditions and certain contexts, references to these six objects of refuge, it is far more common to find the four objects of refuge - the Triple Gems and the Guru. The Guru is particularly important in the Vajrayana tradition. Let me take reference to two ideas which illustrate the role and importance of the Guru in the Vajrayana tradition. Firstly, the guru performs a function which is similar to the function of a magnifying glass power. We know that the sun is undoubtedly very hot and that it has great power. Yet, without a device like the magnifying glass we cannot harness the heat of the sun to kindle a fire. Although the Buddha and His teachings 30
  31. 31. are very powerful, yet without the guru, they are unable to kindle the fire of wisdom within the disciple. The Guru functions as a means of concentrating, harnessing the power of the Buddha, His teachings and the Noble Assembly in such a way as to make it effective and immediately applicable to the disciple’s own needs. Recognizing this role of the guru has always been of the greatest importance. We can understand this if we consider the story regarding Marpa, one of the more famous Tibetans who journeyed to India in order to receive the Vajrayana teaching from Naropa. Marpa made three journeys to India and studied at length with Naropa. It is said on one occasion when the manifestation of the tutelary deity appeared before him, Marpa made the mistake of bowing to the appearance of the deity rather than to his guru Naropa. The karmic consequences of this lapse were that in the course of his life Marpa was to lose his sons as a result of accidents, and that he was to have no descendants to whom he could pass on the teachings that he had received. This is one of a number of stories which indicates the importance of recognizing the role and importance of the Guru within the Vajrayana tradition. I will be showing in the last session how the last two components in these general preliminaries, the cultivation of single-pointedness and penetrative insight are applied to one’s meditation in the context of the Vajrayana Sadhana. For the time being, let me repeat that these general preliminaries are indispensable perquisites to serious Vajrayana practice. No tradition within Tibetan Buddhism encourages commencement of Vajrayana practice without having spent a really substantial amount of time on these preliminary practices. All the Tibetan Vajrayana traditions have extensive oral and literary material dealing with the cultivation and practice of these preliminaries. Although it does some time happen that people go on to Vajrayana practice without having spent an appropriate amount of time on these general preliminaries, they do so at their own risk. However, I do not mean to indulge in scare mongering. What I mean is that if you do somehow manage to go on to your university education without having undergone pre-university training, you are liable to have a much more difficult time in your university education. I would like to make one more observation before I go on to treat the particular preliminary practices that are special to the Vajrayana. I have gone to some lengths in the course of these sessions to show the integrated nature of the three major Buddhist traditions - Theravada, Mahayana and Vajrayana, and I have tried to show that the Vajrayana represents a natural extension of elements that we find in other Buddhist traditions. I would like to draw your attention to two steps in these general preliminary practices - the taking of refuge, and the awakening of the enlightenment thought or the taking of the Bodhisattva vows. I would like to remark that one can see the taking of refuge and the taking of the Bodhisattva vows as initiations. Another practice which may be seen as analogous to initiation is the novitiate, the entrance into the Order. All these three practices may be seen as initiations. All of them involve entrance into a community with a 31
  32. 32. particular set of practices. In the case of the refuge, the ceremony represents entrance into the Buddhist community. In the case of the novitiate it represents entrance into the monastic community, and in the case of the Bodhisattva vows, entrance into the lineage, the family of the Buddha. All these three ceremonies are in a sense initiations which involve the taking upon oneself of certain commitments. When you take the refuge, that brings along with it the commitment to try to observe the precepts of a layman. When you enter the monastic order, it brings with it the commitment to observe the precepts of a novice. When you take the Bodhisattva vows, that brings with it the commitments of the Bodhisattva. All these ceremonies involve entrance into a community, and taking upon oneself the commitments to observe certain precepts. The aspects of these practices - refuge, novitiate and Bodhisattva vows - are common with important elements in the Vajrayana initiation. Let us go on to look at the specific preliminary practices that are generally required for Vajrayana practice. It is not imperative that one has to complete these preliminaries before beginning any kind of Vajrayana practices. It is also not imperative that one has to complete these preliminaries before receiving Vajrayana initiation. It is however imperative that one has to complete these specific preliminaries before undertaking meditational retreat upon any one of the major Vajrayana tutelary deities. For really serious Vajrayana practice, these specific preliminaries are required. The term of these preliminaries in Tibetan is Nondro which literally means ‘going before’. These practices go before serious Vajrayana practice. There are four or five specific preliminary practice which are common to all the Vajrayana traditions, and they are refuge, confession, guru- yoga and offering. Each of these practices has to be performed 100,000 times. In addition to these four, certain traditions require the performance of prostrations and certain other require the performance of certain other rituals. In the Vajrayana context, the practice of refuge entails the taking of refuge in the four objects of refuge. It involves the visualization of these objects of refuge either separately or collectively. One can visualize one’s guru, the Buddha, the texts and the Noble Assembly separately. Alternatively, one might visualize the four objects of refuge as integrated, combined in a single figure, in the figure of the tutelary deity. Some of you may have seen this visualization portrayed in painted scrolls (Thankas). You will find some of the symbols which I referred to in the lecture on myth and symbolism. For example, you may find the object of refuge placed in a tree, upon a jewelled throne or upon a lotus. Using this visualization and the four objects of refuge, we recite a refuge formula 100,000 times. For convenience, I have called the second specific preliminary practice confession because it has commonly been referred to by this name. However, it is important to remember that we are not concerned with confession as a means of securing forgiveness. We do not use the term in the same sense in which it is used in the semitic religions where the confession of sins is followed by 32

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