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Action Tantra

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How to progress on the path of action tantra

This has four divisions:

1. How to become a vessel suitable for meditating on the path

2. How to keep the vows and commitments purely after becoming a suitable vessel

3. How to approximate the deity while keeping the commitments

4. How to establish the siddhis having achieved approximation

How to become a vessel suitable for meditating on the path

First train your mind well in the shared paths according to the Great Stages of the Path and the Condensed Stages of the Path. Then enter the maṇḍala of any of the three lineages of action tantra and receive empowerment in reliance on a qualified vajra master and in accord with the explanations of the different classes of tantra.

First we are advised to train our mindstream by following the paths shared by sūtra and tantra, and then to find a qualified tantric master. One of the first subjects discussed in the stages of the path (lamrim) literature is the way to properly rely on a qualified teacher and the need to examine any potential tantric master fully before requesting tantric empowerment. There are different sets of qualities we should examine before relying on a teacher. The Guru Pūjā lists the qualities of teachers of Vinaya (monastic discipline), Mahāyāna, and tantra in three separate verses. Verse 43 emphasizes the importance of moral discipline and stability in a teacher of Vinaya:13

We make requests to the elders who maintain Vinaya,

who are born from an array of jewels of extensive study

within the great ocean of ethics that is the source of good qualities

and who are lords clad in saffron, like the second appearance of Munīndra.

Verse 44 expresses the qualities of a Mahāyāna teacher according to the stages of the path:

We make requests to spiritual friends of the Supreme Vehicle,

who possess ten qualities and are qualified to teach

the paths of the sugatas to those who are suitable,

and who as lords of Dharma possess the entire heritage of the conquerors.

Verse 45 summarizes the qualities of a tantric master:

We make requests to the supreme holder of the vajra,

who possesses both sets of ten qualities, including restraint of the three doors,

great mind, patience, integrity, freedom from pretension and deceit, knowledge of mantra and tantra, and skill in composition and explanation.

A tantric master has “skill in composition and explanation” since he is expert in explaining and composing tantric texts and commentaries. Further he should possess a complete knowledge of the tantric rituals that are specific to each tantra, such as the complex and unique rituals of Kālacakra. Thus having trained our minds, found a qualified master, and requested empowerment, we should then enter the maṇḍala of any of the lineages of action tantra and receive empowerment. We should ideally receive empowerment in all three lineages, but it is said that we may enter the maṇḍala of any one of the three lineages.16 Within action tantra the three lineages are

(1) the tathāgata,

(2) the lotus, and

(3) the vajra. Each lineage includes a vast number of deities, and in general Mañjuśrī is regarded as the protector of the tathāgata lineage, Avalokiteśvara the protector of the lotus lineage, and Vajrapāṇi the protector of the vajra lineage. Even so, Avalokiteśvara, Mañjuśrī, and Vajrapāṇi also exist within the other three classes of tantra, namely performance, yoga, and highest yoga tantra.

Types of maṇḍalas

Question: In what maṇḍala is the empowerment bestowed?

Reply: The empowerment may be bestowed in a colored-sand or painted-cloth maṇḍala. For some special beings it is conferred in an absorption maṇḍala. In general, a suitable candidate may receive empowerment in either (1) a sand maṇḍala made of colored granules or (2) a painted-cloth maṇḍala. Some special beings may receive initiation in (3) an absorption maṇḍala, where empowerment is conferred on the basis of a maṇḍala established through the meditative projection of both the tantric master and the student.

In action [2b] tantra there is no body maṇḍala and so on. Even the terms body maṇḍala, relative-bodhicitta maṇḍala , lotus maṇḍala, and ultimate-bodhicitta maṇḍala are not used in the three lower classes of tantra because these four maṇḍalas are features of highest yoga tantra alone. Thus in action tantra, empowerment can only be bestowed in three types of maṇḍala, namely the (1) sand, (2) painted-cloth, and (3) absorption maṇḍalas. The four other types of maṇḍalas—the body maṇḍala,17 the relative-bodhicitta maṇḍala, the lotus maṇḍala, and the ultimate-bodhicitta maṇḍala—are not used in the lower tantras, and even their names are not mentioned. Such maṇḍalas are found only in highest yoga tantra. Thus highest yoga tantra employs seven types of maṇḍala while the lower tantras use only the first three.

The type and number of empowerments

Question: What empowerments are bestowed?

Reply: Only the vase empowerment is bestowed. The three higher empowerments do not exist in the three lower classes of tantra. The term empowerment implies granting permission to engage in certain activities. In secular life as well as in Dharma practice, our level of skill tends to determine our level of authorization, and improvement in skills leads to higher authorization, granting us access to more areas and activities. In general there are three types of empowerment: the maturing causal empowerment, the liberating path empowerment, and the liberated resultant empowerment.

The maturing causal empowerment grants permission to practice a particular deity, and this is obtained during the initiation ceremony. At that time, the minds of students are matured by hearing the words of the initiating master as he guides students through the initiation ceremony of that deity.18 The ritual itself acts as the cause of maturation. Students obtain the liberating path empowerment by progressing through the learner paths. By obtaining the wisdom derived from study, the wisdom derived from contemplation, and finally the wisdom derived from meditation on the deity, they obtain, respectively, the path of accumulation, the path of preparation, and the paths of seeing and meditation of this particular tantra. When the students obtain the non-learner path—the path of no-more learning—they obtain the liberated resultant empowerment that is the highest level of authorization.

The second issue this verse raises is the number of empowerments received, and again there is a difference between the three lower tantras and the highest yoga tantra. In highest yoga tantra there are four empowerments—the vase, secret, pristine wisdom, and word empowerments—but in the lower tantras only the vase empowerment is bestowed.

There is a difference in the number of empowerments bestowed in the four classes of tantra. Action tantra has just the water and crown empowerments and the presentation of ritual objects at the end of the ceremony.

In action tantra initiation is conferred by the water and crown empowerments 19 that are included within the vase empowerment. Tsongkhapa states that in the water empowerment, the water in the vase is generated as the deity, and the empowerment is given on the basis of that blessed water. In the crown empowerment, each of the five facets of the crown is adorned with the emblem of one of the five buddha families, and empowerment is bestowed after invoking the buddhas of the five families, each of whom blesses his respective emblem. These two empowerments are followed by the presentation of certain ritual objects at the end of the ceremony. The term just emphasizes that only a small number of initiations are given, and this indicates the relative lack of maturity of those taking the initiation. Performance tantra has just five knowledge empowerments, consisting of the former two plus the vajra, bell, and name empowerments, as well as the presentation of ritual objects at the end.21 Yoga tantra has just these plus the vajra-master empowerment, as well as the presentation of ritual objects at the end.

In brief the number of empowerments increases from two empowerments in action tantra, to five in performance tantra, to six in yoga tantra. These six empowerments, collectively called the vase empowerment, together constitute the first of the four empowerments of highest yoga tantra. In other words, if we obtain the water, crown, vajra, bell, name, and vajra-master empowerments, we obtain the vase empowerment.

Highest yoga tantra has four empowerments consisting of that empowerment plus the three higher empowerments. Full initiation into highest yoga tantra requires, in other words, the vase empowerment plus the secret, pristine wisdom, and word empowerments. Kālacakra as a specific highest yoga tantra has sixteen empowerments—seven emulating childhood, four higher empowerments, four highest empowerments, and the empowerment of the great lord vajra master.

The Kālacakra tantra possesses a unique system of enumerating the empowerments. If empowerment is given according to the system of Śrī Abhayākaragupta, they may be bestowed on the basis of a painted-cloth maṇḍala in which only the four empowerments are received. But when empowerment is obtained on the basis of a sand maṇḍala, there are, according to the instruction of Tsongkhapa, a total of sixteen empowerments.

First (1–7) the group of seven empowerments emulating childhood are bestowed, then the four higher empowerments that include (8) the higher vase, (9) the higher secret, (10) the higher pristine-wisdom, and (11) the higher word empowerments, then the four highest empowerments are bestowed, namely (12) the highest vase, (13) the highest secret, (14) the highest pristine-wisdom, and (15) the highest word empowerments, and finally (16) the great lord vajra-master empowerment.

Since the four higher and the four highest empowerments are similar, they can be grouped together. The higher vase empowerment can be grouped with the highest vase empowerment, the higher secret with the highest secret empowerment, and the higher pristine-wisdom empowerment with both the highest pristine wisdom and the higher word empowerment. The highest word empowerment stands alone. This alternate method of enumeration therefore has twelve components: (1–7) the seven empowerments emulating childhood, (8–10) seven empowerments condensed into three (vase, secret, and pristine wisdom), (11) the highest word empowerment, plus (12) the great lord vajra-master empowerment.

Still, the Vajra Garland of Maṇḍala Rites explains that five knowledge empowerments are bestowed in action and performance tantras. In the standard presentation, only the water and crown empowerments are conferred in action tantra, while performance tantra has those two plus the vajra, bell, and name empowerments. However, Abhayākaragupta in his Vajra Garland, which he composed after encountering Vajrayoginī directly and receiving from her a series of empowerments and explanations, states that five knowledge empowerments 23 may also be conferred in action tantra. Master Abhayākaragupta therefore implies that we can be initiated into action tantra by attaining either two or five empowerments, but this point requires further investigation.24 The text now discusses the different types and number of commitments in the different classes of tantra.

How to keep the vows and commitments purely after becoming a suitable vessel

Second, one who is capable of taking prātimokṣa vows should take any of the seven types of prātimokṣa vows—or at least the ethics of abandoning the ten nonvirtuous actions—as the basis of tantric practice.

Both lay and ordained disciples may obtain tantric empowerment, in this case in action tantra. Two types of prātimokṣa vows are open to lay practitioners, namely one-day vows and lifelong vows, and holding such vows makes lay practitioners suitable bases for this practice. Practitioners who hold neither type of prātimokṣa vow should at least maintain the ethics of abandoning the ten nonvirtuous actions, because a person first becomes a Buddhist by taking refuge and following the Buddha’s advice pertaining to refuge, which includes abandoning the ten nonvirtuous actions. Refuge also acts as the basis for either male or female lay practitioners holding either one-day or lifelong vows.

In general there are three types of vows—prātimokṣa, bodhisattva, and tantric vows. The author states that there are seven types of prātimokṣa vows, while Tsongkhapa states there are either seven or eight.25 The eightfold presentation includes (1) the one-day vows that are obtained by either male or female practitioners but enumerated as one category. Vows taken for the duration of a life include (2) male and (3) female lay vows, (4) male and (5) female novice vows, (6) male and (7) female full-ordination vows, and (8) trainee nun vows.

When empowerment is conferred, only bodhisattva vows are taken, because tantric vows are not taken in action and performance tantra. Therefore guard against root downfalls of the bodhisattva vows alone. Nevertheless there are many specific mantra commitments to be protected, which you can understand from authentic tantras quoted in Mantric Stages, while the root downfalls may be examined [3a] in the Central Path to Enlightenment.

When taking initiations in action and performance tantras, bodhisattva vows are taken,26 and we should be aware of what constitutes a downfall in this class of vows. Though tantric vows are not taken27 and we need not be concerned with tantric downfalls, there are still many specific commitments to be aware of.28 These issues are discussed in the first of the eleven chapters of Tsongkhapa’s Central Path to Enlightenment.

Strive to never commit the root downfalls through properly understanding them. If you incur such faults, do not ignore them but purify them through confession. Those incurred during the day should be remedied at night, and those incurred at night should be remedied during the day, as mentioned in Mantric Stages. There are eighteen root bodhisattva downfalls and forty-six secondary downfalls to protect against. They are enumerated in the Six-Session Guru Yoga as well as in Central Path to Enlightenment. If a downfall does occur, we should confess and purify it immediately or at least at the first opportunity. If a downfall occurs during the day, we should not leave it unconfessed until the next day but rather confess it that night. Similarly if a downfall occurs at night, we should confess it at the first opportunity the following day. It is said that when Atiśa was first traveling to Tibet, he slowed the group’s progress by frequently dismounting from his horse to confess and purify even the smallest breach of his vows. We should follow such inspiring examples. How to approximate the deity while keeping the commitments

The third has two parts:

1. Absorption with recitation

2. Absorption not reliant on recitation

The third part of this section deals with the two ways to approximate the deity. (1) The first is to combine meditation on the deity with recitation of the deity’s mantra. (2) The second is to meditate on the deity without mantra recitation. The term approximation refers to how we meditate on the path. It is called approximation since it functions to “accomplish through approaching,” signifying that the actions we engage in draw our mind as close as possible to the enlightened mind of the deity.29 The main type of approximation in the three lower tantras is meditation that identifies our body, speech, and mind with those of the deity. Mantra recitation is also called approximation, but this is a secondary function of approximation where we recite the mantra of the deity to invoke the deity’s blessings.

Absorption with recitation

You generate yourself as a deity by relying on the six deities, inviting the wisdom beings to the place in front of you and making offerings to them and so forth, and reciting mantras without deteriorating the four branches through combining restraint with vitality exertion.

The text briefly lists here the different stages of the practice. In the first stage we generate our own body, speech, and mind as the enlightened body, speech, and mind of the deity. In the second stage we invite the wisdom beings to the space in front of us and present offerings to them and so on.30 In the third stage we engage in mantra recitation through combining restraint with vitality exertion (prāṇāyāma). We focus single-pointedly on the focal object, such as the body of the deity, and recite without allowing the four branches to deteriorate. These branches will be explained later.

In the four classes of mantra there are two types of deity generation—self-generation and front-generation. In self-generation, we visualize our ordinary body, speech, and mind as the divine body, speech, and mind of the deity. In front-generation, we visualize the deity facing us in the space in front of us.

The author here explains that self-generation31 is accomplished by relying on the six deities: (1) the empty deity, (2) the sound deity, (3) the letter deity, (4) the form deity, (5) the seal deity, and (6) the sign deity.32 This crucial statement implies that when practitioners, especially beginners, engage in such practice, they need an external aid. For example when an old man tries to lift himself up from a chair, he relies partly on the arm of the chair and partly on the support of a cane. So, too, the self-generation is achieved partly through the mental effort of the practitioner and partly through the words of the ritual that guides the practitioner through the practice of the six deities. For success in this practice, you need to rely on texts that clearly describe the gradual transformation from the first to the sixth deity.

Empty deity

The first is called the empty deity to remind us that at the beginning of our practice we must meditate on emptiness.33 In the sādhana, or practice text, this initial process involves meditating on emptiness, reciting either of two Sanskrit mantras depending on the sādhana (oṃ svabhāva śuddha sarva dharmā svabhāva śuddho haṃ or oṃ śūnyatā jñāna vajra svabhāva ātmako haṃ), establishing emptiness as the foundation of the deity, and generating yourself as the deity.

When engaging in deity meditation it is important to distinguish between the definitive deity and the interpretive deity. The definitive, or actual, deity refers to pristine wisdom realizing emptiness. Once the definitive deity has been established, then certain aspects of this pristine wisdom manifest as the interpretive deity—the embodied deity.34 In this process we initially call to mind the suffering of the six types of beings and generate renunciation focusing

on their suffering. Then, while maintaining our focus on their suffering, we generate love—wishing that all such beings find happiness—and compassion—wishing that such beings be freed from suffering. In time our renunciation will awaken love and compassion, and from these will arise bodhicitta. Put another way, meditating on the empty deity refers to developing ultimate bodhicitta, and this must be preceded by the generation of relative bodhicitta. Relative bodhicitta is the thought “may I obtain the state of complete enlightenment for the sake of all sentient beings,” and ultimate bodhicitta is the

realization that all phenomena, or dharmas, are empty of inherent existence. In this way, meditation on the empty deity combines method and wisdom. If we were to meditate on emptiness alone, then wisdom would remain separate from method, and the union of method and wisdom would not arise. In brief, to arrive at the emptiness meditation that is the basis for generating the deity, we first focus on suffering sentient beings and generate renunciation, then compassion, and then bodhicitta, and finally on that basis we generate the realization of emptiness. In this way we combine method and wisdom through developing the three principal aspects of the path: renunciation, bodhicitta, and correct view. Deity meditation is therefore supported by the three principles of the path.

Sound deity

The sound deity is the empty resonance of the deity’s mantra. In the sādhana of Avalokiteśvara, for example, we first meditate on emptiness. Then the pristine wisdom realizing emptiness focuses on the sound of the mantra of Avalokiteśvara—oṃ maṇi padme hūṃ—which resonates naturally in the space in front of us. The sound of the six syllables of the mantra manifest the pristine wisdom realizing emptiness. This pristine wisdom possessing both the nature of the realization of emptiness and the aspect of resonant sound is the very essence of meditation on the sound deity.35

Letter deity

The third deity is the letter deity, and in this meditation, we see the sounds of the six syllables crystallize, descend, and alight on a lotus base in the aspect of the syllables of the mantra.36

Form deity

The fourth deity is the form deity, the complete form of the deity, such as Avalokiteśvara, with four or one thousand arms, seated on a lotus. Each meditation begins with the contemplation of emptiness that is the non-inherent existence of dharmas, which is comprehended by correct view. This empty deity then manifests as the sound of the mantra resonating in space in the aspect of the sound deity. The sound deity then appears as the letters of the syllables, such as oṃ maṇi padme hūṃ, that constitute the letter deity. Finally these syllables combine to establish the form deity.37

Seal deity

The fifth deity is the seal (mudrā) deity. Following the generation of the deity’s form, we bless certain parts of the body using particular hand mudrās while reciting the mantra oṃ padma udbhāvaye svāhā. This represents the seal deity.38 Up to this point, we have relied on reciting certain words or reading the sādhana to construct this visualization step by step.

Sign deity

With the sixth deity, the sign deity,39 we stop reciting words or looking at the text. We have already established the visualization, but now we need to ascertain the quality of the visualization so that the mind can maintain the focal object, single-pointedly, for as long as desired. Sign deity refers to the concentration focused single-pointedly on the sign or image of the visualization that is the basis for cultivating insight into emptiness.

Four branches of recitation

The four branches of recitation are recitation committed while concentrating on and maintaining (1) oneself as the basis, (2) another as the basis, (3) sound as the basis, and (4) mind as the basis:

1. Recitation with oneself as the basis is recitation focusing on oneself possessing the body, speech, and mind of the deity.41

2. Recitation with another as the basis focuses on the deity that has been invited to the space in front of you.42

3. Recitation with sound as the basis focuses on the resonance of the mantric letters and syllables.43

4. Recitation with mind as the basis focuses on seeing our own nature as the same as the light or resonance at the heart of the visualized deity.44

This visualized deity can be either ourself as the deity or the front-generation. In other words, we see the focal object as one in nature with our own mind.

Vitality exertion

The term vitality exertion (prāṇāyāma) exists in the three lower classes of tantra, in the corpus of the Ārya system of Guhyasamāja, and in Kālacakra, but its meaning is not the same in each.

These differences in meaning will be explained in the relevant parts of the text.

The meaning of vitality exertion for the three lower classes of tantra is that vitality refers to the wind that circulates through the doors of the senses and so on and through the pores of the body and the head, and exertion is the mindfulness aware of distraction when the mind is diverted to other focal objects. Therefore the meaning of restraint through vitality exertion is the retention of those winds internally without letting them disperse externally.

According to sūtra, vitality ( prāṇa) or life force refers to heat and consciousness, and this is extensively explained by Vasubandhu in his Abhidharmakośa. Heat and consciousness form the basis of life, and their presence or absence determines whether someone is alive. According to the lower tantras vitality refers to wind and its circulation through the doors of the senses. As such, the eye awareness and the wind associated with it circulate through the doors of the eyes. Similarly ear, nose, tongue, and body awareness and their associated winds circulate through the doors of the ears, nose, tongue, and the skin of the body. Coarser winds also circulate through the various openings of the body, such as the nostrils in the case of inhalation and exhalation or the pores pervading the physical body.45 There are also winds that circulate through the anus and genitals.

Exertion (āyāma) means effort or control and here refers to mindfulness and nondistraction.46 When both terms are combined as vitality exertion (prāṇāyāma),47 mindfulness and its supportive wind are bound to an internal object, preventing their dispersal or distraction to external objects. In brief, we concentrate the mind on its focal object, such as the deity, and apply effort to stop any tendency to distraction to external objects such as sounds and forms.

Presentation of form and awareness in sūtra and tantra

In the sūtra presentation, form and awareness are mutually exclusive. This is extensively explained in texts such as the Abhidharmakośa, which present a threefold classification of functional phenomena as form, awareness, and other.48 Awareness itself is further classified into six main minds and fifty-one mental factors in various sūtras, and the different mental factors are explained in lorig manuals.

In tantra this issue is treated differently. Here wind and mind are held to be inseparable, and in the same way that a person rides a horse, awareness is said to ride on wind, which is a form. Although this assertion is not clearly presented in the lower tantras, it is a central theme in the completion stage of highest yoga tantra, where there is no mind separate from wind and no wind separate from mind. Thus not only is wind form, but awareness itself is regarded as form in the sense that wind and mind are inseparable.

Another unique feature of tantra is that the union of wind and mind has three different levels of subtlety: (1) coarse wind-mind, (2) subtle wind-mind, and (3) extremely subtle wind-mind. Also even though this union of wind and mind is indivisible, their individual functions can be distinguished. The function of the mind is to be clear and cognizant, in accordance with the definition of awareness. The fact that an object appears clearly, like a reflection in a mirror, and is cognized, is due to the function of awareness. The function of wind is to facilitate movement of the mind and to carry the mind to various objects. The wind acts as the mount of awareness, and the mind’s capacity to move is due to the function of wind. Within the sphere of awareness these functions always coexist.

Absorption not reliant on recitation

Absorption not reliant on recitation is absorption on fire, absorption on sound, and absorption that bestows freedom at the limit of sound. These three classifications are explained clearly by Tsongkhapa in his Mantric Stages. Deity meditation differs in sūtra and tantra. Deity meditation in sūtra involves first inviting the deity to the place in front, like a guest, and then making offerings and requesting blessings to attain our temporary and ultimate aims. Self-generation is not part of sūtra deity meditation.

As explained above, generating ourselves as a deity begins with contemplating the suffering of sentient beings, then generating renunciation, love, compassion, and bodhicitta, and finally meditating on emptiness to seal these realizations. Since the mind comprehending these three principal aspects of the path appears as the divine body, speech, and mind of the deity, they are not separate. In a conventional sense, our current body, speech, and mind are far removed from the enlightened resultant states of the divine body, speech, and mind of the deity. However, in an ultimate sense, they are not distant, because all entities share the same taste of emptiness. As the Guru Pūjā states, in the context of blessing the offerings:

In essence they are pristine wisdom, and in aspect the inner offering and various types of offerings.

The essence of the offerings is emptiness, and emptiness is made manifest in the various offering substances. This principle also applies to our body, speech, and mind. Their essence is pristine wisdom realizing emptiness, and we visualize and meditate on them as divine.

A humorous anecdote from Amdo illustrates the importance of correctly understanding this transformation. Once two monks from Tashi Gomang Monastery visited a house in order to perform a ritual. There they met some lay tantric practitioners, who raised the issue of consuming alcohol. “Since you are fully ordained monks, you are not allowed to drink any beer are you? We lay tantric practitioners drink it after transforming it into nectar,” commented one of the laymen. The junior monk, who had little understanding of how substances are transformed into nectar and how self-generation is established, retorted, “There is no problem. We simply visualize ourselves as yaks, and when we drink the beer, we visualize it as water!”

When we understand that our present physical, verbal, and mental bases can be purified, we also understand that attaining the divine body, speech, and mind of an enlightened deity is possible. With that goal, we thereby meditate on the three principal aspects of the path and visualize ourselves as deities. We cultivate this visualization until it fully corresponds to the resultant deity and our body, speech, and mind are blessed by the divine body, speech, and mind. Within that state, stains are purified, and it is this purification that ultimately transforms us into that deity. We must engage in deity meditation with this understanding or our self-generation will not be effective, just as merely saying the words “I am blessing this offering” does not transform it into nectar. Our mistake would be similar to the monk who boasted he could drink beer by visualizing himself as a yak drinking water.

Absorption on fire

In the first of these practices, the absorption on fire, we visualize ourselves as the deity, and at our hearts we visualize a seed syllable, such as hrīḥ, that emits rays of light. These rays are in the nature of light, and we meditate on heat by focusing single-pointedly on this syllable. Meditative absorption on fire is a way to obtain calm abiding by focusing on glowing light.51

Absorption on sound

In absorption on sound, we visualize a seed syllable surrounded by the syllables of the deity’s mantra at the heart of the deity. For Avalokisteśvara, for example, we visualize the seed syllable hrīḥ at the deity’s heart upon a moon disk. The syllable is encircled at the edge of the disk in a clockwise direction by the six syllables Oṃ maṇi padme hūṃ, and we imagine that we can actually hear the sound of the mantra. Meditative absorption on sound is a way to obtain calm abiding by focusing on sound.52

Calm abiding

With our eyes focused on light, our ears focused on mantras, and our minds focused on the deity’s form, we develop calm abiding in reliance on the unique methods of tantra.53 In this context, we engage in the path of accumulation of action tantra marked by the cultivation of calm abiding. You establish calm abiding in the stages up to and including meditative absorption on sound.

Calm abiding is obtained by focusing on light that includes absorption on fire and through focusing on sound on the level of absorption on sound. “Up to and including” here explicitly includes the stage of meditative absorption on sound.

Absorption bestowing freedom at the limit of sound

From the limit of sound, you meditate on insight.

From the third stage onward, we meditate on emptiness by focusing on the non-inherent existence of the deity and its mantra. Having developed meditative absorption that bestows freedom at the limit of sound, we cultivate insight on that basis, and we progress from the path of accumulation to the path of preparation.

Union of calm abiding and insight

If you apply analytical wisdom excessively, you will disrupt the previously developed stability. Therefore you need to alternate analysis and placement until you have successfully united calm abiding with the insight realizing emptiness.

Prior to this union, calm abiding and insight are discrete states susceptible to disruption—too much analysis can undermine stable focus, and overemphasizing stability can undermine analysis. We should proceed, therefore, by alternating analytical meditation and placement meditation until we obtain the union of calm abiding and insight.

When you [3b] obtain insight realizing emptiness, you progress to the path of preparation, and when you perceptually comprehend emptiness, you progress to the path of seeing, just as you do in the Perfection Vehicle.

In action tantra, we progress from the path of accumulation to the path of preparation when we develop fully qualified insight. This means that we realize emptiness by way of a generic image or a generic sound, but emptiness does not appear to us clearly like an object right before our eyes. We progress to the path of seeing when we perceptually or directly comprehend the emptiness of the deity we have been focusing on. This tantric presentation is similar to the progression described in the Perfection Vehicle, where calm abiding is obtained on the path of accumulation, insight is obtained on the path of preparation, and the perceptual comprehension of emptiness is obtained on the path of seeing.

You must first establish the four branches of recitation and the three absorptions to properly accomplish the limitless feats of the special siddhis that are stated in the action and performance tantras. Mantric Stages, however, mentions that they may not be necessary to establish many of the minor siddhis. On attaining the path of seeing, we begin progressively accomplishing the ten grounds (bhūmi). At this time, too, we obtain various siddhis , or supernormal powers. In general there are two types of siddhis, common and supreme. The supreme siddhi is the attainment of the state of Vajradhara, the peak attainment of

the path. The siddhis called the eight great attainments include such powers as speed walking, the sword, and so forth.56 These powers may be obtained through the practices of action and performance tantras, through approximation relying on the four branches of recitation, or through approximation without recitation, such as the attainment of calm abiding and insight through meditative absorption on fire, sound, or the limit of sound. Such a combination of concentration and recitation seems to be necessary for obtaining any of the eight major siddhis, but this does not appear to be the case for other more minor siddhis.57

How to establish the siddhis having achieved approximation

The fourth has three types of siddhi—supreme, intermediate, and lesser—and there are many ways of categorizing them in three. The attainment of siddhis,58 whether supreme, intermediate, or lesser, depends on whether we assemble the causes necessary to produce them. There are many ways of categorizing siddhis, such as (1) by means of their nature, (2) by means of their signs, (3) by means of their basis, (4) by means of the bestower, and (5) by means of lineage.59

(I) By means of nature

By means of nature, the supreme siddhis are the knowledge bearer, higher perception, and knowing all the treatises. There are three examples of siddhis that are supreme by nature. The first is becoming a knowledge bearer (vidyādhara).60 The second is gaining higher perception (abhijñā), such as the divine eye, or clairvoyance. Though these may manifest to different degrees, any manifestation of higher perception, whether minor or fully developed, is considered a supreme siddhi. The third is knowing all the treatises, naturally and spontaneously, without need for study. The intermediate siddhis are invisibility, extracting the essence, speed walking, and so on.

The siddhis that are intermediate by nature are also illustrated with three examples. The first is invisibility, where we can conceal the appearance of our body. The second is extracting the essence, the siddhi of the pill.61 The third is speed walking, the capacity to move swiftly after blessing our feet with special mantras.

There is a story involving invisibility. At one time Phadampa Sangyé was traveling in Tibet, and in due course he reached Lhapchi, where the mahāsiddha Milarepa was living. Milarepa was aware of Phadampa Sangyé’s approach and manifested as a lotus in Phadampa Sangyé’s path. But Phadampa Sangyé ignored him and Milarepa thought, “He cannot see me!” He again manifested as a lotus flower on the path, and once again Phadampa Sangyé ignored him. When he manifested as a lotus for a third time, Phadampa Sangyé announced, “Stop it with these tricks. Assume your normal form so we can meet and talk!” The lesser siddhis are subduing others, killing, expelling, and so forth.

The siddhis that are lesser by nature endow us with the power of subduing, killing, and expelling others. Many Indian and Tibetan tantrikas are known to have used wrathful means to prevent harm to the Dharma. Such a qualified practitioner may take the life of someone who is harming the Dharma and then establish a new physical basis for his or her consciousness, ensuring that that person has the chance to enter the path. Though killing is nonvirtuous, establishing a proper basis for their rebirth permits a positive outcome. Ra Lotsāwa employed such extreme measures when he took the lives of thirteen vajra-holders. Later he composed averse about this:

I have taken the lives of thirteen vajra-holders,

but even if I were to go to hell,

I bear no regret,

for I did it for a purpose.

The term vajra-holder (vajradhara) is an epithet for an ārya and here refers to a tantric practitioner who has attained the path of seeing.

(2) By means of signs

By means of signs, there are three: igniting substances, making them emit smoke, and heating them. When classifying siddhis by means of external signs, there are three. The supreme siddhi is the capacity to cause the substances of the inner offering to blaze and boil within the skull cup.62 The intermediate siddhi is the power to cause the substances of the inner offering to emit smoke. Finally the lesser siddhi is the capacity of a yogi to merely warm up the substances of the inner offering.

(3) By means of basis

By means of basis there are siddhis of body, substances, and resources.

From the point of view of the basis, the supreme siddhi is full control of one’s body and the capacity to manifest a magnificent appearance.63 The intermediate siddhi is the capacity to gain mastery over and use various substances.64 The lesser siddhi is the capacity to use and enjoy various extraordinary resources.65

(4) By means of the bestower

By means of the bestower, there are mantras of ārya beings, deities, and earth deities.

Siddhis that are supreme from the perspective of the bestower are accomplished by relying on mantras bestowed by the deity we visualize or by ārya beings. Intermediate siddhis are accomplished in reliance on mantras given by worldly deities. Lesser siddhis are accomplished by relying on mantras bestowed by nonhuman beings abiding above the earth.66 Through receiving mantras from such beings, we receive extraordinary blessings, and we can gain specific powers through recitating these mantras. For example, it is said that King Aśoka was able to establish thousands of stūpas throughout his empire by reciting the mantras of yakṣas.

(5) By means of lineage

By means of lineage, Mantric Stages states:

The actions of pacification, increase, and wrath are achieved respectively by those of the tathāgata lineage, the lotus lineage, and the vajra lineage. This is how the supreme, intermediate, and lesser siddhis are attained.

In action tantra there are three lineages, and we obtain different powers by relying on different lineages. Each of these powers has an internal and an external dimension. The supreme siddhi is pacification that is achieved by relying on the tathāgata lineage.68 External pacification is the pacification of natural disasters, diseases, and so on. Internal pacification is the pacification of intense afflictions, such as attachment, aversion, and confusion, so that

the mind is not influenced by them. The intermediate siddhi is increase that is achieved by relying on the lotus lineage.69 External increase is, for example, an increase in your external resources or wealth. Internal increase may include increase of your merit and lifespan. Such increases can provide excellent conditions for practicing Dharma. The lesser siddhi is wrath that is achieved by relying on the vajra lineage.70 Internal wrath could be, for example, the subjugation of internal demons. External wrath might include the ability to influence people’s minds and direct them to religious activities. Wrathful activities achieve their results both internally and externally through the use of force as opposed to persuasion.


Also each lineage has three siddhis and the three actions of pacification, increase, and wrath. From among these, the lord of each lineage, the consort of each lineage, and the wrathful deities of each lineage, respectively, perform the three actions of pacification and so on.71 Khedrup Rinpoché’s General Classes of Tantra and other sources mention that in each lineage, three types of beings may be identified: the lord, the consort,

and the wrathful deities. By relying on the lord of the lineage, we perform the actions of pacification considered to be supreme siddhis. By relying on the consort72 of a lineage, we perform actions of increase that are considered to be intermediate siddhis. By relying on the wrathful deities of a lineage, we perform actions of wrath that are considered minor siddhis.

These statements alone do not clarify the issue. Also I have not seen this point clearly explained by later scholars. We should investigate other sources for further information on this subject.

Clarification of difficult points

One scholar says: There are disciples of action tantra with sharp faculties [4a] who attain enlightenment in one life through accomplishing the siddhi of the knowledge-bearer permitting them to live for many eons.

Reply: This is not stated clearly in Mantric Stages. Further General Classes of Tantra states: The action and performance tantras present no system of enlightenment other than that presented in the Perfection [[[Vehicle]]] system. This should be analyzed, for if this is true, then that being would attain enlightenment in the supreme buddhafield called Gaṇḍavyūha. There is some debate about whether you can attain enlightenment in a single lifetime by relying on the practices of action tantra. Tsongkhapa in his Mantric Stages and Khedrup Rinpoché in his General Classes of Tantra state that the system of action tantra does not differ from the Perfection Vehicle on this point.74 The author does not take a position on this issue but rather advises the reader to examine this matter further.

Kriya Tantra