The Divisions of Tantric Practice
At this point, I step out of my depth, having never had the opportunity to stay close to one of my Lamas for more than three months at a time. If they taught me precious truths, that was due to their compassion and not to my deserts. Certainly, they did not teach me much that is meant for advanced mystics, for I was not qualified to receive it. Yet, this book would not be complete without some mention of the further stages of the path, and I have tried to supplement what I learned from my Lamas by reading the works of Western scholars. For part of the subject matter of this chapter, I am indebted to those modern pioneers of the Adamantine Way, Lama Govinda, Evans Wentz, Edward Conze, and Herbert Guenther. Though I have not had the good fortune to share with them an initiation, as I did with John Driver, they are all in a sense my “Vajra-brothers,” and will, I am sure, generously accept my apologies. What I term “advanced practice” covers:
All three categories overlap. Though there are meditational practices in which the part played by the body is limited to postures and Mudrās, there are no psycho-physical practices that are divorced from meditational techniques or that do not utilize the force of the emotions where that is desirable. The Tantras can be divided into four or six classes, but there is some disagreement among the sects as to the boundaries between them, and many Tantric works contain elements of several classes. The classification given here is that of the Nyingmapas. It is said that the Gelugpas do not use the term Atiyoga, but divide Anuyogic works into Father Tantra, Mother Tantra, and Non-Dual Tantra, of which the third category perhaps corresponds more or less exactly to Atiyoga. The Nyingmapa classification is:
Mahāyoga Tantra entrance to which is gained by the three Siddhis (super- (also called the normal powers), and the defilements of body, speech, and “basis of all mind are cleansed through Body, Speech, and Mind. The Dharmas”)
three Samādhis obtainable by this form of Tantra are those of Jñāna (Innate Reality) and Śūnyatā (Void); of manifes- tation or unwavering compassion towards all phenomena; and of cause, which is meditated by a special symbol. This is the yoga used for opening up the psychic channels and for the visualization of deities.
stream of compassion for the beings of the Triple World, and reveres his Lama as one who has discovered jewels in the infinite ocean of Sagsāra. This yoga is used for the sacred breathing; the deities appear of themselves.
Atiyoga which is devoid of distinctions of depth, extent, and (also called the difficulty, and resembles a spontaneously achieved state of “fruit”) unity in which no rules remain to be kept. This yoga is for certain mysteries.
This description is incomplete, and even what has been said contains meaning within meaning; but, as a rough guide, it will serve.
The physical body, which cannot be considered apart from mind by those who think in terms of non-duality, is the sacred vessel into which liberating wisdom can be made to flow. The psycho-physical exercises are not aimed at achieving strength, grace, or poise, but at purifying the vessel of Liberation. Principally, they are concerned with breath control, the control of some of the body’s fluids, and the cleansing of the psychic channels that link the Cakras, or psychic nerve centers, to all parts of the body. The force that passes along the psychic channels is sometimes called Vāyu (wind) but, like the Qi (Ch’i) or Ki (K’i)
of Chinese Daoist (Taoist) adepts, it is of a kind much more subtle than the air we breathe. These Tibetan yogic exercises, though applied in a strictly Buddhist context, are generally not of wholly Buddhist origin but can be traced back to their Hindu and Daoist (Taoist) counterparts. The physical techniques (embodied in special Sādhanas) are practiced by many adepts day after day for months or years at a time. Those who wish to make them their main practice, and perhaps to acquire psychic powers as a means to rapid progress, live apart as togdens (yogis) who wear their hair very long and dress in an eccentric manner as though to emphasize their unconventional approach. Though they are not monks, they generally remain chaste to conserve the whole of their energy to assist in their arduous practice.
Before outlining the yogic practices in their spiritual context, it may be of interest to mention some of the psychic powers that incidentally (or more rarely by design) result from them. Deliberate pursuit of such power is generally frowned upon by the more advanced adepts who, if they happen to acquire them, take pains not to display them except in circumstances that fully warrant their immediate use. By far, the most common is telepathy; one cannot have close contact with Tibetan Lamas without discovering so many instances of it (in widely varying degree) that it ceases to astonish. Another common kind of extrasensory perception is the ability to predict — before illness or danger strikes — the day and place of one’s own death and, in some cases, the locality and surrounding circumstances of one’s rebirth.
Two of the powers gained incidentally from psycho-physical yogas aimed at wholly spiritual ends are especially welcome to the adepts because of conditions in Tibet and may therefore be, to some extent, cultivated for their own sake. They are the effects of lung-gom and tummo. The former enables people in a state of trance to cover great distances at amazing speed, leaping like a ball and negotiating obstacles with supernormal dexterity. In a country devoid of vehicles and telegraphs, this must have been extremely useful for sending messages between monasteries situated far from one another. Tummo is a practice of the
Hathayoga type described later in this chapter; it is aimed at engendering psychic heat as a special means of hastening Liberation, but physical heat also is incidentally engendered; a naked adept seated in the snow in a sub-arctic temperature can melt thick ice by contact with his body. For Kargyupa hermits meditating in icy caves year after year without intermission, this side-effect is most convenient. Powers much more difficult to acquire result from the practice of phowa, which aims at transferring the consciousness at the moment of death and thereby exercising some choice as to the circumstances of the next incarnation. The incidental fruit of this practice is the ability to transfer the consciousness during the adept’s lifetime when and where he wishes. Some of the Sādhana texts have attached to them lists of the supernormal powers they generate, but it is difficult to know whether they are to be taken literally, whether the abnormal phenomena are manifested but only subjectively, or whether the terms used are mystical “code names” for spiritual developments
of a more subtle kind. As the matter is not of much importance, it did not occur to me to ask my Lamas about them. According to the texts, they include the powers: to shrink or hugely enlarge objects (including one’s own body) at will, to make them light as a feather, to make them appear in a chosen place, to be one or many, to transform the five elements one into another, to pass unscathed through fire, water, or solid objects, and so on. It is hard to pass judgment because a man so spiritually advanced as to wield powers remotely resembling these would not be inclined to demonstrate them merely to satisfy curiosity. However, accounts written during the last two centuries or so (some of them recently) by Christian missionaries and others living on the fringes of Tibet speak
of weird phenomena, such as the waxing and waning in size or sudden vanishing and reappearance of small objects in response to mantric commands, so perhaps the hidden meanings contained in the lists of powers are not as far removed from the ostensible meanings as might be supposed. After all, natural phenomena are, like ideas, mentally produced. Those who have thoroughly grasped this principle may be able to manipulate the one as easily as the other. Despite the disinclination to demonstrate unusual powers or even to discuss them, unless to warn pupils to dismiss them as being of no importance, some powers (such as telepathy) manifest themselves under quite ordinary circumstances and are hard to conceal; and others (the rapid covering of great distances and the engendering of bodily heat) are so useful that they are used commonly enough to have drawn the attention of many reliable witnesses. There is abundant evidence that most advanced adepts develop at least some powers that verge on being supernormal, although it is more likely that they are natural faculties of
the human body and mind acquirable, like human speech, by anyone with the knowledge and patience to fulfill the necessary preconditions. It is also likely that Tibet used to provide a physical, social, and spiritual environment that peculiarly favored their development. Since, on the one hand, there were many people prepared to spend long years in solitary confinement to promote their spiritual advancement, and, on the other hand, communication facilities were undoubtedly among the most backward in the world, it is not surprising that some adepts did develop and could make valuable use of various means of speeding up communication, e.g., telepathy and lung-gom traveling. In the modern world of cell phones, the Internet, airplanes, highspeed trains, and expressways, who would care to spend, say, sixteen hours a day for five years on end acquiring the power to cover distances at the pace of a fleet horse?
The reason why supernormal powers are not held in high esteem is that deliberate efforts to cultivate them would distract devotees from the infinitely more rewarding quest for Liberation. Furthermore, once such powers are acquired, they can be turned to profit, and people wielding this means of gaining wealth and fame might be deflected from the spiritual quest altogether. An exception is made in the case of healing power, which is quite another matter because others benefit and not the healer himself. I am not well acquainted with the subject of miraculous healing in Tibet, but I have observed that, quite apart from the medical Lamas who can be described as herbalist doctors, there are many Lamas who compound pills from simple non-medicinal substances and imbue them with power during night-long vigils by transferring to them some of the psychic force from their minds and, perhaps, some of their accumulated stock of merit. I doubt if such pills are intended to cure purely physical ills; whether they have any medical effect other than helping to accomplish faith cures, I do not know.106
transpired a hundred or more miles away; from these, it is clear that a living man and his consciousness can be separated for a while without fatal results. 106 I know personally of only two cases of spiritual healing by Tibetan Lamas. The first occurred many years ago in Hong Kong. A young Cantonese suffering from an eye disease was treated in my presence by a famous Lama on his way from Nanjing (Nanking) to Tibet via Hong Kong and Calcutta. The Lama intoned a Mantra and blew into his eye with, from what I heard a few days later, excellent results; but I never learned the details of the disease or the extent of the man’s recovery. In the second case, I was the patient. While gardening in Bangkok, I managed to get a drop of poisonous cactus juice in my eye. The pain was
frightful, and I was sure that my sight would be seriously affected. Strangely enough, Bangkok’s one and only Tibetan Lama, who had not visited me for two years, dropped in that very next day. He, too, uttered a Mantra and blew into my eye. In a few days, the symptoms of poisoning were gone, and my sight completely recovered. However, I was also under daily treatment by an English doctor, and there is no way to know whether my very rapid recovery was wholly, partly, or not at all due to the Lama’s healing power. Transmutation of Passions and Desires
Apart from the detailed psycho-physical and meditational exercises shortly to be described, advanced practice also covers skill in dissolving passions or transmuting them so that their force can be applied to serve the highest end. I have received only brief instruction and do not know the details of the more potent methods. It is not likely that a Lama learned in this technique could be persuaded to teach it merely to satisfy a foreigner’s curiosity; nor, even had I been specially eager to acquire it, would it have been imparted to me unless I had been able to stay near my instructor for some years so that he could first
gauge my sincerity and, later, guide my progress; for using techniques of this sort is like playing with fire or juggling with high-tension wires. It is doubtful whether, outside the select circle of Tibetan, Mongol, and Chinese Vajrayāna adepts specially instructed in these techniques, there are, in the whole world, more than one or two people qualified to describe them. Tibetan and Sanskrit texts on the subject are available to scholars with a knowledge of those languages, but — as with other important Tantric texts — the essential keys are withheld and laughable misunderstandings result.
In talking of advanced practice, we are, of course, speaking of sages far beyond the stage of people governed by passions and inordinate longings, who have to make the best of an unsatisfactory situation by turning their failures into sad object lessons for their future benefit. Advanced adepts are those who have eradicated not just the rash behavior resulting from passion and desire, but the passions and desires themselves. Mere abstinence from gratifying desires as opposed to getting rid of them altogether is psychologically and, in some cases, physically dangerous. From the first, the aim must be to uproot the desires and not to hack at their branches, thereby causing the foliage to grow all the more luxuriantly. Abstinence leading to severe frustration is a sure way to spiritual destruction.
However, there comes a time when a distinction must be made between unbridled passion, which cannot but be harmful, and forces within the psyche which, though of a passionate nature, can be directed to assist in the achievement of an egoless state by breaking down the illusory barriers that reinforce our feeling of being individual entities. Adepts who have not taken monastic vows are not barred from sexual intercourse, although it is generally discouraged because the frequent emission of the vital fluid is a waste of the psychic force and because wrongly directed sexual emotion is a fruitful source of karmic hindrances. So, it is recommended that, when sexual activity takes place, the vital fluid should, if possible, be restrained. Whether or not this is possible depends upon
various circumstances, not the least of which is the extent of the adept’s power of control. What is much more important is that the emotion and the resulting bliss should be made to contribute to his realization of not being an individual cut off by his envelope of skin from the rest of phenomena. During enjoyment, he must visualize his desire as “a companion to voidness-bliss, that is to say, as an integral part of the universal play of Void functioning through him but
not belonging to him. Recognizing all beings, including himself and his partner, as the MazTala divinities, he resolves to generate the Jñāna of bliss-voidness and either to restrain the vital fluid or to allow nature to take its course while visualizing the object of desire as the MazTala of the Yidam. Meanwhile, he converts his passion into an overpowering ardor that is replete with the holy power of adoration, not for his partner per se but for the
immaculate bliss-void that she represents. The offering must be attended by joy followed by serenity; remorse or disgust would pollute the offering, the partner, and the adept with gravely injurious results.” To quote Dr. Herbert Guenther: “Since love proceeds from the concrete person to that which is unfathomable, co-existent in, or co-emergent with the concrete, the ‘lure of the flesh’ turns out to be ‘transcending awareness in and through discrimination and appreciation’ as a transcending function.”
Therefore, although Compassion need not and often does not express itself through sexual love, the latter can generally be deliberately elevated to become an expression of Compassion that embraces much more than sexual love’s immediate object. Love is felt by individual sentient beings; yet it does not belong to them or originate from them, for it is part of the universal force of Compassion working through them; hence, even passionate men given to excessive sexual
indulgence are less remote from perfection than loveless men who, by loving nobody, dam the stream of Compassion. To quote Guenther110 again: “stimulation, from whatever source it may come, tears the individual out of his withdrawal from man… The more man comes out of his solitude, the more he will observe that his sense of egoness dwindles in proportion to his growing intimacy with others. Particularly when there is the reality of love as the fundamental actualization of the sublime in man … egoness quickly loses its hold over him and, in a corresponding way also, the idea of the other as an isolated entity disappears.”
The Tantric aim in utilizing sexual love for an exalted end, in cases where that is thought desirable, is to draw upon its power to destroy feelings of isolated egohood and erroneous belief in there being any distinction between subject and object. Even people wholly ignorant of Tantric teaching and uninterested in spiritual endeavor lose themselves in one another at the moment of fulfillment and, very probably, lose the sense of being one or even two. At such a moment, their two bodies become, for them, the entire universe, which is precisely the aim of every sort of yoga. It is to be assumed that an advanced Tantric adept is not in need of a simple object lesson; no doubt, the methods taught aim at enlarging the experience of oneness in such a way that a profound and perhaps prolonged mystical realization of the identity of microcosm and macrocosm is experientially achieved.
The Tibetans divide advanced spiritual practice into the yogas pertaining to the Path of Form and those pertaining to the Formless Path. They are of equal worth, since both aim at full experience of the Void by beings still within the realm of nonvoid. Nirvāza, which is formless, and Sagsāra, which has form, are twin aspects of the one reality — namely, the transcendental Void, which, so far from being mere nothingness, combines the attributes of formlessness with the potentiality of producing an incalculable number of forms. Which of the two approaches will be taken by the adept must depend upon his Lama’s assessment of
his character and abilities. Though the Formless Path may seem to be the higher — as Zen followers clearly suppose —, it is beset with deeper pitfalls; just because of the absence of a diversity of means and the difficulty of conveying in words the steps to be traversed, it is easier for those whose practice is formless to confound success with a sort of “mental woolliness” — a vague happy feeling that “everything is one” and “all is right with the world.” In practice, it is perhaps less difficult to acquire the tremendous energy required for transforming an unenlightened man into a Liberated Being from the yogas constituting the Path of Form.
Most of what has been said so far in this book is based on knowledge acquired from Nyingmapa Lamas. Now, I am compelled to make use of those texts on advanced practice that are available in the languages I understand. For some reason, Kargyupa practice has received more attention than the other Tantric schools. Accordingly, what follows is derived largely from Kargyupa sources. Fortunately, the Kargyupa and Nyingmapa practices are close enough for there to be no cleavage between them.
Among the innumerable yogas of the Path of Form, there are six outstanding ones, concerning some or all of which Evans Wentz, Herbert Guenther, and Lama Govinda have all had enlightening things to impart.
4. The Yoga of the Clear Light, pronounced Odsal, whereby the adept comes face to face with the Suchness of phenomena and achieves the state of thoughttranscending bliss otherwise called ecstatic illumination.
6. The Yoga of Consciousness Transference, pronounced Phowa, whereby the adept learns how to transfer his consciousness from body to body or place to place, and to enter upon a state of rebirth of his own choice.
The Yoga of Psychic Heat: Though this yoga is sometimes valued for its subsidiary effect, which is a great advantage to hermits suffering the rigors of a Tibetan winter in unheated caves, the real purpose is to achieve a state of unequalled unity and completeness in which all the forces of the adept’s being are concentrated and integrated. At the outset, he must accustom himself to doing without thick clothes or a fire to keep him warm; and he must also observe strict sexual continence, since the transmuted sex energy is one of the main sources of psycho-physical heat. The practice often takes years to master and is
usually perfected in solitude. The method used is a form of Hathayoga combined with a Sādhana involving visualizations and breathing exercises. The prime object of visualization is the letter Ah that the adept, by controlled respiration and intense mental concentration, causes to blaze with heat and turn into a flame that fills his body and then expands to fill the universe before contracting and disappearing into the Void. When he has become proficient, the adept
can break his solitude and practice tummo where and when he likes. To test his success, his Guru may require him to sit naked on the mountainside throughout a cold winter’s night, during which he must dry sheets dipped in icy water one after another by wrapping them around himself and subjecting them to the blaze of his inner heat. Madame David-Neel speaks of competitions among newly qualified adepts who vied with one another to dry as many icy, dripping sheets as possible between late evening and sunrise. Another test is to measure the quantity of snow that melts under his body.
The Yoga of the Illusory Body: The purpose is to recognize the illusory nature of the adept’s own body and of all objects in the universe. The practice begins with contemplation of an image in a mirror. Mirrored images are remarkable in that they have every appearance of depth, though they are in fact perfectly flat. Contemplating them is an excellent means of undermining faith in the trustworthiness of perception and thus in the individual reality of
physical objects. Next, the image is contemplated as standing between the adept and the mirror, and, finally, the difference between adept and image is abolished in an act of pure sensation. Next, he contemplates the image at length and in various contexts until he ceases to regard it as admirable or reprehensible, an advantage or disadvantage to himself, a cause of fame or disgrace, or a source of pleasure or pain. Regarding himself as in no way different from the mirrored form, he thinks of them equally as being like a mirage, clouds, reflections of the moon in water, the substance of dreams, and so forth. Then, a picture of Vajrasattva or the Yidam is reflected in the mirror, and its image is meditated upon until it becomes animated. If the adept is highly
skilled, the image, now regarded as standing in front of the mirror, presently becomes substantial enough to touch; whereupon, the adept must visualize all visible forms as being the body of that deity. As a result, all phenomena are recognized as being the play or emanations of the Yidam, i.e., of the Void. Next, the adept, freeing his thoughts from past, present, and future, fixes his mind one-pointedly on an empty space in the sky; and, having caused his vital force to enter the median psychic channel in his spinal column, he perceives such signs as flaring heavenly bodies or the outline of a Buddha-form like the reflection of moon in water. Ultimately, by viewing the moving (Sagsāra) and the unmoving (Nirvāza) as a unity, he attains to a state of non-duality and, when the yoga has been thoroughly mastered, the full realization of final Truth dawns in his consciousness.
The Yoga of the Dream State: In this yoga, the adept is taught to enter the dream state at will, to explore its characteristics, and to return to the waking state without any break in his stream of normal consciousness. Thereby, he discovers the illusory nature of both states and learns how to die, traverse the
bardo, and be reborn without loss of memory, in the same way that he passes back and forth between dreaming and wakefulness. This practice is an excellent way of coming to recognize that the apparently substantial universe and everything contained in it are illusory and wholly lacking in objective reality. However, mere comparison made during waking hours between dreams and the phenomena of waking life is of rather limited value. For the yoga to be effective, it is necessary to remain fully conscious while dreaming and thus experience the identical nature of the two states.
The Yoga of the Clear Light: It is held that, shortly after death, every being beholds the Clear Light of the Void, which is none other than reality in its pure, fundamental state — the pure Nirvāzic Consciousness of a Buddha! It appears just before the dead man’s karmic propensities burst forth and cause him to stray into rebirth with its attendant sufferings. A very advanced adept, able to recognize the Clear Light for what it is and not terrified by its radiance, is sure to escape rebirth, but most people are terrified and flee as fast as they are able from what, could they but remember, would ensure their instant
Liberation! Therefore, if the Clear Light can be beheld from time to time during this life, the benefit is incalculable, for, after death, such people are more likely to gaze upon it unafraid and thereby swiftly attain their goal. Moreover, the ecstatic experience, while it lasts, will enable the adept to enter into the feelings and perceptions of a Buddha! The unobscured, primordial condition of the mind, which shines between the cessation of one thought and the birth of the next, is “the Mother Clear Light.” That which dawns in the mind when imagining, thinking, analyzing, meditating, and reflection cease, thus leaving the mind in its natural state, takes the dual form of voidness and phenomenal appearances — it is called “the Offspring Clear Light.” The blending of
these two is called “blending the Nature of the Clear Light and of the Path into Oneness.” The same experience can be made to occur at the moment that divides waking from sleeping by performing a short Sādhana after going to bed. Again, the Clear Light can be made to dawn in the “Mother” form during deep sleep. Finally, the highly skilled adept can, at the moment between sleep and awakening, perceive “the Resultant Clear Light,” the experience of which is generated by the blending of the “Mother” and the “Offspring.” This results in the attainment of a state of illumination as to the nature of reality from which no relapse into unenlightened views of man and the universe is possible. Like the Yoga of the Illusory Body, this yoga can, by itself, lead to Liberation if it is mastered perfectly.
The Yoga of the Bardo: This practice is based on the Bardo Thödol. According to its doctrine, when, as usually happens, a newly dead man flees the opportunity of Liberation afforded by the dawning of the Clear Light of the Void, karmic accretions from the life just ended begin to stir. As the consciousness wanders through the bardo, it sinks downward stage by stage until the last lingering ray of the Clear Light has faded. Immersed in hallucinatory
delusions arising from his Karma, the wretch rushes about in terror until he runs at last to the shelter of a womb and thereby destines himself to yet another rebirth, one of a seemingly endless chain of existences. On the other hand, if, while still alive, he has grown proficient in the Yoga of the Bardo, at the moment of death, he will enter deep Samādhi and, retaining his consciousness, prepare to hold fast to the experience of the Clear Light’s dawning. Thus liberated from the necessity of rebirth, he will await a favorable opportunity for incarnation in a form consonant with his Bodhisattva’s vow to work for the Liberation of all beings. Thenceforth, he will continue from life to life with his stream of consciousness unbroken, always choosing forms of rebirth that suit his purpose well. Thus, this yoga can lead directly to Bodhisattvahood.
The Yoga of Consciousness Transference: This yoga is practiced for a time by nearly all initiates. At death, in accordance with their skill, they will be able to transfer themselves to realms of radiant light, into an apparitional existence, or at least into a desirable rebirth. For, if they are fully successful in mastering this yoga, they will succeed in transferring the consciousness through an aperture that can be opened in the crown of the head at the
sagittal suture where the two parietal bones come together or, if less skillful, from various other parts of the body, of which the mouth, anus, and penis are the least desirable. The practice is performed daily until success is signaled by lymph or blood oozing from the crown of the head at the spot just mentioned. That this indeed occurs and that a small hole spontaneously opens there as a result of the yoga has been attested by numbers of reliable witnesses in China and in the Indo-Tibetan border regions. Furthermore, when the newly opened aperture is first touched by Kuśa-grass, the adept feels himself pierced from top to
bottom of his frame. Sometimes, when this strange sensation ceases to occur, a stalk of Kuśa-grass is planted in the aperture, which is deep enough to give the stalk sufficient support to remain erect. It is not left there forever, but worn in that position by newly successful adepts as a sign of their success. These extraordinary physical results, to which should be added a rather painful sensitivity of the top of the skull for several days after the aperture appears, indicate that the yoga is dangerous and should not be attempted except under the guidance of a fully experienced Guru. The yoga takes the form of a Sādhana in which a certain deity is visualized above the head; psychic force is gathered from the Cakras (psychic centers in the lower, middle, and upper parts of the body, forced upwards through the median psychic channel, and driven to the top of the head. This median channel is contained in (or runs parallel to) the hollow of the spinal column and is connected with the other channels at the Cakras that are situated at the base of the spine, at the center of the sex organs, at places near the navel, heart, throat, and forehead, and at the top of the head. The psychic force, starting as moon fluid or transmuted sex-force, meets and blends with a force generated in the head; the result of this union is bliss, which, like heavenly ambrosia, feeds all
parts of the psychic body from head to toe. It coalesces in the form of a fluffy ball about the size of a pea and can be made to ascend and descend rapidly time after time. Once skill has been acquired, the technique can be used for various purposes besides preparation for death. The consciousness can be transferred anywhere at any time the adept chooses.
Treading the Formless Path involves performing yogas of the mind without the support of detailed visualization or the manipulation of the psychic centers and channels. Because no specific physical changes are looked for, there is a danger that adepts will delude themselves into exaggerating their progress. However, an accomplished Lama can, by subtle questions, gauge it accurately, phrasing his questions so that no one less accomplished could divine the expected answers.
The texts of two important yogas of this kind are available in English — the Mahāmudrā and the Great Liberation; since their practice is by no means confined to any one sect, they will serve as good examples of the formless method.
Formless Vajrayāna practice is, like Zen, rooted in the knowledge that all beings possess Buddha-nature (Tathāgatagarbha) and, in a profound sense, are already Buddhas. When an ordinary man is considered apart from the karmic accretions built up during life after life of bondage to Sagsāra, there is no distinction between his “reality” and the reality of the Buddhas. The Dharmakāya, or Void Being of the Buddhas, is not something to be won; from the first, it has never been lacking. Liberation consists in becoming experientially aware of it. The Buddhas may be likened to dazzling jewels shining in the Void and ordinary men to jewels of no less loveliness, whose brilliance is cut off by wrappings of mud-clotted leaves — except that they are not really separate, but emanations of that great Vajra-Jewel that is the Void itself. Even during the last stages before Enlightenment, they may appear separate, since they are glimpsed through the lingering mists of delusion; but, during profound meditation, the sense of separation vanishes.
Based on this same doctrine, Zen differs from the formless aspect of the Vajrayāna only in two ways. As one would expect, its outward trappings lend it a Chinese-Japanese fragrance instead of a Tibetan one; and it is less clearly graduated to suit people of varying capabilities. Not everyone will agree with Dr. Evans Wentz that the Mahāmudrā transcends all other paths. Indeed, that could not be; of the many paths leading all the way to Liberation, none can be loftier
than another, only longer or shorter, more or less direct. Perhaps Dr. Wentz shared the Western predilection for methods of realization that dispense with elaborate detail — an attitude that does not commend itself to many Asians. If, even in Tibet, the Mahāmudrā is one of the yogas most widely practiced, the reason is probably not a distaste for magical aids, but a conviction that the Mahāmudrā practice is relatively less difficult and attended by less danger. On the other hand, even its warmest protagonists assert that the Path of Form is a surer way to Liberation in this life, because the psycho-physical and visualization techniques are particularly effective in building up vast reserves of psychic power.
The Yoga of the Mahāmudrā: “Mahā” means “Great,” “Mudrā” commonly means sacred gesture, but its Tantric connotation embraces the idea of an aid to practice. (For example, in the case of Nyingmapa Lamas married to female adepts, the latter are sometimes referred to as Mudrās.) Here, Mahāmudrā means the experience of non-duality, that is to say, of the Dharmakāya that, in this context, Guenther felicitously renders “authentic being.” It also connotes the bliss experienced when Sagsāra’s ties are broken; above all, it points to the actual merging in the adept’s mind of the relative and of (what comes nearest in Buddhist terminology to being) the absolute — the merging of the manifold and the indivisible, from which results the unimpeded consciousness of things as they really are that constitutes Supreme Unexcelled Enlightenment.
The text of this yoga begins with instructions regarding posture and the achievement of mental tranquility, followed by one-pointedness of mind attained with or without the help of an external object. Next come the complementary techniques of inhibiting thought, letting the thoughts wander freely but without reacting to them, and alternating tension with relaxation. These lead up to the very subtle technique of abandoning both cognizer and cognition — of substituting objectless awareness for “knowing something” and, at a higher level, experiencing the oneness of knower, knowing, and knowledge. If visions result from these exercises, they must neither be clung to nor inhibited; instead, the practice must be effortlessly continued until the mind, of its own
accord, prevents thought from arising. By these means, moving and quiescent mind — observed and observer — are investigated and found to be identical. Now, a higher stage of consciousness is entered; the adept, while doing no more than taking note of the arising of his thoughts, comes to perceive their voidness. By meditating upon the yoga of uncreated Mind; by observing that the past is past, the future not yet come, and the present ungraspable; by reflecting also that mind is neither material nor otherwise — being void of singleness and multiplicity — he comes face to face with reality. (Zen followers will recognize the passage about past, present, and future, which is found in the writings of all schools of Mahāyāna. Only the present is real, and even that is ungraspable because, as we stretch out our hands to it, it passes. Reminiscence and speculation are both time-wasting hindrances to immediate liberating activity. The present is the time to act, but even that is fluid. Realization that the mind abides not in the past, nor in the present, nor in the future, brings the adept nearer to understanding its true condition, which is timeless and non-abiding.)
The next step is to bring phenomena and mind into a state of perfect unity by discovering the identical nature of waking and dream experience and by seeing that objects and mind, bliss and voidness, the Clear Light and voidness, wisdom and voidness are related to each other like ice to water or like the waves to the sea. Non-cognition permits everything to be transmuted into the Dharmakāya by Immaculate Mind, otherwise known as Mahāmudrā. The adept sets himself face to face with Immaculate Mind by attaining quiescence and by utilizing past experience gained during eons of existence. (Very advanced adepts can, by yogic means, recover memory of what transpired during their previous lives — not necessarily in the form of detailed recollection of each incident, but in essence. That is to say, the essential lessons drawn from numberless incidents become present to the mind. Moreover, there have been numerous reports of specific incidents from the immediately previous life being remembered in detail, and, at the time of his Enlightement, Śākyamuni Buddha is reported to have remembered what took place in many previous lives, both human and animal.)
The adept is now able to distinguish clearly between the various yogic states and knows the fruit of each. Impediments are cleared away by reflecting that they are void. The four errors in meditation — going astray in the Void, dogmatic thoughts, inhibition of thought, and over-fondness for yogic exercises — are remedied by employing the remedial technique for each of them. The adept now makes the proper distinction between mere theoretical knowledge and actual experiential knowledge of the true nature of mind — hearing about it and pondering its implications belong to the realm of theory; being conscious of mind free from duality is experience.
The Yoga of Great Liberation: This yoga begins with the knowledge imparted by the Lama that Mind is the only reality — the container of Sagsāra and Nirvāza in inseparable unity. The adept is advised to reject all dualistic attachments and beliefs, especially belief in the existence of an ego, for it is these that
have caused his wanderings in Sagsāra. He must recognize Mind as the originator and container of the cosmos; as one with the ultimate wisdom he is seeking — as immaculate, clear, non-dual, timeless, uncompounded, the unity of all things and yet not composing them. (A widely used Buddhist analogy is to liken Mind’s functioning to that of a mirror. The images cannot exist without the mirror, and, yet, the mirror remains itself, neither composing nor sullied by the images. Yet, were there are no images, the existence of the mirror could not be detected — except by reference to its surroundings, which are excluded from the analogy. Mind is the container of all things, none of which could exist apart from it, but it is imperceptible per se.) The adept is then taught to perceive that his own mind and the minds of all sentient beings are inseparably one. (This concept presents difficulties. What I
know and think does not correspond exactly to what others know and think, so it is natural to suppose that our minds are separate entities. However, Western psychology has demonstrated that our minds contain vast stores of knowledge that cannot be summoned to conscious thought in the absence of suitable stimuli; and some psychologists have gone so far as to suggest that, at least a part of the unconscious area of our minds, is common property. These two reflections, coupled with the difficulty of envisioning the separate existence of entities not governed by the laws of space, may make it easier to grasp the Buddhist concept of all the knowledge in the universe being present — though the individual may not be aware of it — in our common mind. When the karmic accretions responsible for the illusion of separate egos have been dissolved, what remains is Mind — pure, clear, luminous, and indivisible. )
Now, looking deeply into his mind, the adept perceives that all appearances are his own preconceived concepts, and this knowledge makes them vanish like clouds. He finds that the very Dharma exists only in his mind; where else could it be? Continuing his introspection, he becomes aware that Mind shines neither internally nor externally, being omnipresent. Not subject to life, death, or defilement, possessed by all beings, it is not recognized by them, so they engage in their fruitless search for values elsewhere. (This is a cardinal Mahāyāna teaching. Illusory bodies live and die; illusory persons defile themselves; but the reality that is Mind remains unaffected, just as the surface of a mirror is unaffected by events occurring to the images it reflects.) His meditation gradually becomes all-embracing, devoid of mental concentration and imperfection. Recognizing his mind as the unfaltering light of unique
wisdom, he relinquishes past and future, dwelling in mind’s quiescence. Availing himself of the experience recollected from eons of past lives through introspection, he ceases to stray. He discovers that there is nothing to cognize and, therefore, no knower and no cognition; hence, there is nothing to go astray and, therefore, no straying. Hitherto, he has been using the method of exhaustive contemplation; now at last, cognition is replaced by wisdom, which is free from such distinctions as knowledge, knower, and the act or state of knowing. With attainment of the goal comes awareness that nothing remains to be sought, nor a need to seek, no performer and nothing to perform. Uncreated Wisdom dawns — self-radiant, quiescent, immaculate, and beyond acceptance or rejection. This is the true negation of the ego whereby the Trikāya is made
manifest in self-cognizing Mind. Together with this practice, the adept learns to seek the Buddha in his own mind, the true self-being undiscoverable by those who seek outside the mind. (Seeking the Buddha in the mind is another Mahāyāna saying familiar to Zen followers. The Buddha — as the principle of Enlightenment and urge thereto — proceeds from the Void and will presumably exist as an emanation of Mind for as long as there are beings to be Enlightened. It is a principle that exists nowhere but in the mind. Thus, Enlightenment must come from within, and it is folly to seek it elsewhere.) Mind is primordial consciousness, and Liberation results from allowing it to abide in its own place. Introspection leads the adept to discover that dualistic
error arises, persists, and vanishes nowhere but in his mind. In truth, the one Mind — omniscient, immaculate, void as the sky — is the Suchness; hence, the need to cultivate a state of voidness. (Since reality transcends the categories of existence and non-existence, it cannot be conveyed by any epithets or concepts whatsoever. Phrases like “the Absolute,” “Ultimate Reality,” and so on are all inappropriate because each of them has an opposite or counterpart and, therefore, limits what it describes — consequently, the useful term “Suchness.” “Mind is the Suchness” means that Mind is what may, for convenience sake, be called reality — the only reality.) Since the delusion of there being multiple objects arises from the concept of multiplicity, introspection, coupled with control and understanding of the
thought process, constitutes the sole way to Liberation. Everything — the doctrines of the Buddha, gods, demons, the perfections required of a Bodhisattva, the passing of beings in Nirvāza, existence and non-existence, created and uncreated, all concepts used by the Buddhas and our Lamas to guide us towards Enlightenment — every one of them is a mental concept to be discarded, being nothing more than skillful means that must be relinquished as Enlightenment draws near. (This passage is found almost word for word in certain Zen texts. Since nothing exists but pure, undifferentiated Mind, even the Dharma is ultimately void. It was taught by the Buddha as a network of skillful means for emancipating sentient beings lost in delusion. There comes a time when even these teachings must be discarded. Clinging to them would be to cling to the notion of plurality, to the various pairs of objects such as Buddhas and beings yet to
be Enlightened, virtues and impediments, a Sagsāra to be escaped from, and a Nirvāza to be attained. Until all dual and pluralistic concepts are discarded, Liberation remains but a dream.) The adept is next taught that Mind is knowable, that there is nothing conceivable that is not Mind, but that its Suchness is unknowable. (Mind, formless and invisible, is known through the forms reflected in it. The two are not separable and cannot be known apart. To suppose that pure Mind can be known in essence involves a dualistic view of reality and delusion as separate states or entities.) Therefore, Mind can be experienced only through the myriad forms; there is no underlying reality, nothing separate from the cosmic flux. The realization of the one Mind is the sole means to Liberation; hence, there must be indomitable control of all mental processes to inhibit further error. If the Mind is not known, meritorious action may lead to heaven and evil conduct to hell, but nothing can release men from Sagsāra.
It is the Vast Deep!”
These brief summaries of two works setting forth the Formless Path may at first sight look out of place in a chapter on practice, but it is not so. Every single paragraph, each sentence almost, represents a fact that has to be experienced. Any reasonably intelligent man can understand what is taught here, but understanding unsupported by experience will avail him next to nothing. Being knowledgeable and intelligent is far from enough. Only a great Yogin can
experience each facet of the teaching as vividly as we perceive the warmth of the sun upon our skins or the bitterness of strong tea on our palate. When a burning coal falls upon my hand, the onlookers know it is hot; I do not have to know, I directly experience the burning quality of heat. All Mahāyāna Buddhists recognize that Mind — uncreated, imperishable — is the only reality, yet most of us are as far from Liberation as the moths that fly across the writer’s lamp. Not until I perceive the nature of my mind as clearly as I now perceive the light of my desk-lamp shining on this paper have I the right to suppose I am approaching Liberation.
This is the title given to a large section of the Tibetan canon that corresponds to the Abhidharma of some other schools of Buddhism. As its name implies, it deals with the Perfection of Wisdom (Prajñā). It is not specifically Tantric but, as the whole of the Vajrayāna is rooted in its teaching, it demands an honored place in all books dealing with Tibetan Buddhism. The great Mādhyamika school, which developed in ancient times around the Prajñāpāramitā (Perfection of Wisdom) doctrines, was the forerunner of all the Mahāyāna Buddhist sects now in existence both in and outside Tibet. It is from there that Tantric Buddhism’s central theme of voidness (Śūnyatā) was derived.
What has been said about the yogas of the Formless Path brings us very close to the Prajñāpāramitā scriptures, for those yogas set forth the essence of the teaching of the Prajñāpāramitā in yogic form, that is to say, in a form suitable for staged meditations. Tibetan Buddhists have always held that Enlightenment can be attained in two (overlapping) ways — by the various yogic means of experiencing voidness in the mind, the Tantric way; and by the wisdom method, which consists of making a profound study of the Prajñāpāramitā scriptures and realizing their full meaning during ecstatic meditation. There is, to most Tibetans, no question of the Tantric experiential approach being superior or inferior to the wisdom approach. Which one is selected will depend upon the personality of the adept, whether he is more inclined to mysticism or scholarship, and upon the Guru who accepts him as a pupil.
Meditation upon teachings that have first been intellectually mastered is, of course, very different from the Tantric approach, with its emphasis on visualization and manipulation of psychophysical processes; that they overlap is due to two circumstances, the first of which is that the ecstatic introspection that follows upon study is itself a kind of yoga. The second is that many followers of the wisdom school attach a special significance to a Mantra that is held to contain the whole essence of the hundreds of volumes comprising the Prajñāpāramitā section of the canon. They find that the repetition of this Mantra induces a state of profound meditation in which the true meaning of the teaching can be realized. Some of them have gone even further and personified Transcendental Wisdom as a goddess who fulfils a function similar to that of Ārya Tārā and the other female deities on whom the Tantrists meditate. The power of the Mantra, and, therefore, of the goddess, resides in its being able to confer yogic insight and its being the root from which springs forth a complete categorical chain of vast logical deductions that, taken all together, comprise the Doctrine of the Void.
How truly sublime has been this reaching up to lofty heights by a people whose long isolation in their grim mountain fastnesses, intensified by a guarded attitude to strangers, has kept them so much apart from the rest of the world that one might well have expected to find them savages. Beset by intimidating hardships, unsoftened by such basic conveniences as vehicles, roads, hospitals, or a postal service, these extraordinary people have bent their powers of mind
and spirit to the task of self-conquest. Their mastery of psychological processes and the profundity of their studies are such that, given a common language, Tibetan scholars could debate on at least an equal footing with Europe’s most highly trained philosophers and psychologists. Western men of learning, whatever their attitude to the content of Tibetan scholarship, cannot fail to admire the amazing feat of the Tibetans in reaching so high an intellectual level, especially when comparisons are made with the cultures of other mountain and island kingdoms isolated for centuries from the mainstream of progress. In all history, no other people, hindered by comparable difficulties of climate and terrain and cut off from the wellsprings of world civilization, has advanced to such heights. The systematic destruction of their age-old culture by the Chinese Communists is doubly tragic in that it was the very last to survive more or less unmodified from the ancient world.
If the Tibetans had originally been a highly civilized people like the Chinese or the ancient Egyptians, one could explain their present standard of learning and intellect as a survival from a glorious past. In fact, this was not so. When Buddhism reached Tibet from India and China in the middle of the eighth century C.E., the Tibetans were a primitive people forever engaged in feuds among petty rulers. From India and China, they took relatively little besides Buddhism. Even their adaptation of an Indian script to suit their own tongue was dictated not by the wish for a written language per se but by the desire to have a means of perpetuating Buddhism in their country. So, it seems to have been Buddhism alone that has raised them to their present stature. Whether, if Buddhism had not appeared in their land at about that time, they would have responded to some other cultural stimulus and progressed as far cannot
be known, but it is certain that the Vajrayāna has suited them most admirably. Some idea of its breadth can be gleaned from this book. Its followers include simple illiterates content with concentrating on the Mantra Og Mazi Padme Hūg; scholars capable of debating the most delicate of metaphysical subtleties; mystics able to visualize whole universes of shining deities and to perform elaborate rituals in which every sound and gesture is calculated to produce a particular psychic response; thinly clad hermits living in desolate caves on a diet of nettle-soup, with no possessions but a cooking pot and a heap of rags to shelter them from the arctic cold of Tibetan winter nights; yogis with powers that transcend what are generally taken to be natural limits; and several other categories of adept, each with special forms of practice. Indeed, advanced adepts are to be found among monks, nuns, recluses, yogis, married Lamas, lay disciples, government officials, busy householders, and housewives.
To all of them, the Vajrayāna offers appropriate paths within their capacity. No one is too intelligent or too deluded, too wise or too stupid to find within its system a method of spiritual advance suited to his abilities. No aspect of life is omitted from the practice, which can be performed in a shrine room blazing with light and color or on the bare hillside, in bed or even in a bus, until the time comes when practice is abandoned and the accomplished adept emerges from his state of bliss solely in response to a heart-felt urge to communicate his joy to others. In the Tibetan view, people by and large are like the king in the Buddhist fable who spent his time searching high and low for the wish-fulfilling gem that shone from an ornament bound upon his brow. Traversing the kingdoms of India, he never thought to look for it on his own person. Men pursue wealth or
knowledge or seek Enlightenment or God, without dreaming that true happiness is to be found nowhere but in their own minds. The Lamas teach that the only pure, unfailing happiness is the jñānic bliss generated from within; that discursive knowledge pales beside this wisdom; and that Enlightenment is wholly a function of the mind. Whether mystics call the object of their search God, Wisdom, or Enlightenment, what they will find in the end is none other than the immaculate, uncreated Mind of the cosmos itself that is reflected in every constituent atom. We in the West may well pause to wonder whether the Tibetans have much reason to envy our fantastic progress in conquering the external world. It is now apparent that each step of progress made in the pursuit of happiness and well-being outside the mind only adds to our distress. To take just two examples, in
the underdeveloped countries that comprise three quarters of the world, recent successes in exterminating the chief causes of early death have resulted in a population problem that threatens millions with starvation. In the advanced countries, science — the great healer and ameliorator of the human condition — is being used to forge weapons that turn living human beings into ashes, to say nothing of those other weapons that have the capacity to exterminate all life on this planet.
Perhaps the followers of the Vajrayāna are right to regard us as pilers of delusion upon delusion, forever strengthening the grim palisades of our ego-prisons. This is a viewpoint that has been held throughout the ages by certain individuals of all faiths. It could be urged that people with the mystic’s gift of finding joy within themselves are rare and that the rest must make the best of the world as they find it, were it not that the Tibetans furnish an example of an entire nation bent on developing their inner resources to an extent comparable with Western man’s mastery of his environment. How pleasant the world would be if all human beings were taught to concentrate their destructive energies on rooting out the ego and if they took wisdom (Prajñā) and compassion (Karuzā) as the only guiding forces of their lives. May the wisdom of the Lamas flourish!