Common Misunderstandings about Tantra
Dr. Alexander Berzin
It’s quick, it’s easy, it’s mysterious. A lot of misunderstanding about tantra has arisen due to clever marketing. People are interested in “secretive” and advanced practices, but they also want something fast. This article looks at some of the most common misunderstandings and separates fact from fiction.
There are many misunderstandings about tantra. Often these misunderstandings come because of clever marketing. For whatever reasons, many Tibetan or Western teachers market tantra or dzogchen as being the easy path, the speedy path, the highest path. And because of that marketing, students get the wrong idea and think that tantra or dzogchen really are easy paths.
Why would people be attracted to these practices they think will be quick and easy? As one of my teachers pointed out, it could either be because they’re lazy and so don’t want to put in the hard work required, or they want to find a bargain. It’s like getting enlightenment cheaply, the way that we look for bargains when we go shopping in a store. We often have that mentality when we’re looking at various Dharma methods: “What’s on sale this week?”
The hard facts are that tantra practice and dzogchen are tremendously subtle, difficult practices that require an enormous amount of hard work. As a start, all such practices specify that before even starting, you need to do preliminary practices, ngondro, with 100,000 or more prostrations and so on. That’s not very easy – it could take years!
Even if we accept that we need to do these preliminary practices such as prostration, it’s a misunderstanding to imagine that we’re going to get miracles from them. This also can be from marketing, or it could just be from our own overestimation of the power of these preliminaries. “I’m so desperate. Just tell me what to do. Okay, throw myself on the ground 100,000 times, repeat some syllables in another language 100,000 times, and then all my problems will go away. Great, I’ll do it.” This is a misunderstanding. But, out of desperation, you do it and expect that at the end some miracle cure is going to happen. And it doesn’t. Then you become completely disillusioned about Dharma practice and drop it.
Now, of course, purification practices can be effective, but not effective when 99.9% of the time your mind is wandering, not focused on what you’re doing, and there’s no feeling or understanding behind it. Or you don’t have a strong, proper motivation. In order for these practices to be effective – and even when they’re effective, they don’t produce miracles – that means doing them properly, with complete concentration, full, proper motivation, a deep sincerely felt sense of putting a safe direction in your life (taking refuge), with a good understanding of what that means, and so on. That’s not easy, is it?
It’s also a mistake to think, after completing 100,000 repetitions, “OK, I’ve paid my dues. Now let’s get on with the good stuff.” In a sense, such an attitude is almost like begrudging these preliminary practices, like having to pay some entrance fee. You just want to get them over with and don’t really see the value that they have, in and of themselves, to purify some negative potentials and build up some positive force – for instance, by over and over again putting the positive safe direction in your life indicated by the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. “This is the direction I’m going in.” Or, over and again, generating bodhichitta. These type of preliminaries are very, very helpful.
Also in terms of these ngondro preliminaries, it’s a mistake to do them before having even a basic understanding of Buddhism, and therefore thinking of them simply as a way to cleanse our sins, as it were. Sometimes it happens in the West that you go to a Dharma teacher and immediately, before any teachings or gaining any understanding, you're told, “Do 100,000 prostrations!” And what's amazing is that some people actually do it!
So you ask yourself, “Why would they do this?” And usually it’s out of desperation, thinking that some miracle will happen from it. Or, like entering a cult, they give up taking responsibility for their lives and just obey a strong teacher, like in the army. That’s a mistake, to think that the relation with the teacher is like the relation with some officer in the army whom you obey unquestioningly.
It’s very important never to lose our critical faculty. His Holiness the Dalai Lama always emphasizes that. Be critical. That doesn’t mean criticizing, although the word sounds the same in English. “Critical” means to examine what’s going on. “Criticize” has the connotation of arrogantly looking down on someone, with an aggressive, negative attitude, and thinking, “I’m so much better, and you’re terrible.” So it’s important if we’re going to do these ngondro practices that we have a good foundation in the basic Buddhist teachings and we understand what we’re doing and why. And that doesn't mean just knowing the details of a complex visualization, but being clear about the state of mind we are trying to generate and ingrain in ourselves.
This is indicative of a larger misunderstanding, which is engaging in tantra practice prematurely, even if we start it with doing a ngondro. For example, in traditions that present strong emphasis on ngondro, these preliminary practices, there’s a shared or common ngondro, which are the four thoughts that turn the mind to the Dharma. This basically covers the same material as found in the lam-rim material (the graded stage material). Only after that, comes the uncommon, unshared preliminaries, which are the prostrations and so on. Skipping over, or trivializing, or minimizing these shared preliminaries (the basic lam-rim teachings) and just jumping immediately to prostrations and so on often leads to a very unrealistic attitude toward the prostrations, the 100-syllable mantra recitations, etc. After a while, you start to question, “Why in the world am I doing this? What’s the point?” Whereas if beforehand you have, at least to a certain level, a clear understanding of the importance of building up positive force, eliminating negative potentials (or at least minimizing them), because you want to achieve this and this type of spiritual goal, then the preliminaries made some sort of sense.
The problem here is not just getting into ngondro practice prematurely, but getting into tantra prematurely. Why does this happen so frequently? It could be because we ask visiting lamas to give initiations, even if our group isn’t ready for being able to practice them. Or the visiting lamas themselves offer initiations, even when the audience is mostly unprepared. So we are not totally responsible for this misunderstanding of the overemphasis on tantra and its practice being presented prematurely for most people.
Why would we ask for an initiation? There can be many reasons. We might think because it’s so high. It's the real stuff. It’s exotic. Or the people who run the Dharma center might think it will attract more people, which means that they will collect more money, so that they can actually pay for the visiting teacher and support the center. So it could be for financial reasons; which is most unfortunate that that happens.
The teachers themselves could be motivated by thinking, “Okay, they’re not going to practice, but it will plant seeds for their future lives.” Well, most Westerners don’t believe in future lives, so that’s a misunderstanding. Or teachers themselves don’t really understand that the Westerners don’t have the background to be able to practice tantra effectively. Or they could be pressured to raise money to support their monasteries and the monks back home.
There can be many reasons for asking for initiations or for a teacher to suggest offering initiations. But what’s always advised is that if there’s a visiting teacher, to ask them for the basic teachings. And if it’s more advanced teachings that we want, then ask for advanced sutra teachings on bodhichitta or voidness (emptiness).
The fact is that many people receive tantric initiations before they are sufficiently prepared to engage in the practice. But some feel that if they were to give up the practice, they would be bad Buddhists and go to some hell. So they try to maintain the practice, but with almost no understanding of what they are doing or why, and soon they develop a hostile attitude toward their practice. It’s a mistake, however, to think that the only alternatives are torturous practice or torture in hell.
Serkong Rinpoche gave very helpful advice for such people. He said that, in such cases, you should regard your having taken the initiation as having planted seeds for the future on your mental continuum. If, after honestly examined yourself, you find that you're not yet ready to engage in the practices, then in your imagination place the practices on a high shelf in your mind. Do that, however, with full respect and the sincere intention that you will take them down from the shelf and practice when you are better prepared.
It’s a misunderstanding to think we can gain liberation or enlightenment without having to overcome biology, specifically our sex drive. This is a particularly difficult point. Despite the fact that in tantra it’s possible, on advanced stages, to use desire and sexual energy in order to get rid of desire and sexual energy, this is only when we are on extremely advanced stages and have control over our subtle energy system. It’s a serious mistake to consider tantra as a method for having exotic sex. We are aiming to gain liberation. Liberation means liberation from this type of samsaric physical body with all its biological drives and so on. We’re aiming to have the type of body of a liberated or enlightened being: made of light and not subject to these biological limitations. Often, however, we’re looking for a bargain in our Buddhist practice. We want to gain liberation and enlightenment cheaply, without having to give up bodily pleasures. This is a big misunderstanding. Thinking That the Most Important Part of Tantra Practice Is Visualizing All the Details Correctly
Also when involved with tantra and wanting instructions on how to practice, it’s a misunderstanding to think that the main emphasis in the practice is the visualization and so to worry so much about getting all the little details correctly. My teacher Serkong Rinpoche used to use an example for this Western misunderstanding, “People are coming to me and asking does Yamantaka or Vajrayogini have a bellybutton? This is ridiculous. They’re missing the important points in these practices.”
When you want to develop single-pointed concentration through tantra visualization practice, you certainly need all the details, but that’s not what you focus on or emphasize in the beginning. What you need to focus on is a basic understanding of what Tsongkhapa calls “the three principle aspects of the path,” and how they relate to the tantra practice of visualizing yourself in the form of a Buddha-figure, such as Chenrezig or Tara.
Bodhichitta – we’re aiming to achieve enlightenment. These Buddha-figures represent our own future enlightenments that we are aiming to achieve. So to help achieve that more quickly, we imagine that we’re there now. Without bodhichitta, why would you imagine yourself in this form and imagine doing all the activities of benefiting others? We want to be like this in order to benefit others.
Voidness (emptiness) – we understand that we don’t exist truly like this now, but we have the potentials to become Buddhas, like what these figures represent. But we also realize that to attain enlightenment, we need to put in the effort. In other words, we understand how voidness and the functionality of cause and effect, and dependent arising, go together. We don't deceive ourselves into thinking we actually are Tara – or Cleopatra, for that matter.
So if we’re going to ask for teachings on tantra, be sure that they're on this type of level. This is what we need to emphasize: what the point of all this tantra practice is and what we’re trying to do with it. That’s why we need all the preparation beforehand and not just worry about all the tiny little visualization details: what does the jewelry look like, and stuff like that. Although there are the instructions of what it looks like, don’t emphasize that, particularly not in the beginning.
It’s interesting that at the Kalachakra initiation in Toronto, Canada, in 2004, His Holiness the Dalai Lama gave as a preliminary three days of teachings on one of Nagarjuna’s texts on voidness, Root Verses on the Middle Way, Called "Discriminating Awareness." After that, he gave the initiation. It was very noticeable that many more people were there for the initiation than were there for the teachings on voidness. His Holiness told the assembly that he really appreciated those people who came only for the teachings of Nagarjuna and didn’t stay for the initiation, rather than the people who did the opposite – who skipped these initial basic teachings, and just came for the initiation. That tells us a lot.
It’s a further misunderstanding of tantra to look at the Buddha-figures, the yidams, like saints that we pray to for help: Saint Tara, Saint Chenrezig, and so on, and worshiping them. This misunderstanding is not limited to just Westerners. Many traditional Buddhists think like that too, though not in the analogy of Christian saints. These Buddha-figures may inspire us, as can Buddhas and the lineage gurus, but we need to do the work ourselves to become enlightened.
Some of this misunderstanding comes from a translation issue when we make requests to the various gurus and Buddha-figures in the prayers of request. First of all, the word “prayer” to us carries the connotation of praying to God: “God, grant my prayers.” Or it connotes praying to a saint to act as an intermediary to God, so that God will grant me something. This is an interpolation from Christianity, and not appropriate.
What we request for in these so-called “prayers” is what is called in Tibetan chin-gi-lab (byin-gyis rlabs) and that’s usually translated as “blessings.” We request in translation, “Bless me to be able to do this. Bless me to be able to do that,” as if all that we need is for these figures to come and bless us and, all of a sudden, we get all our realizations. This is not Buddhism.
Translating with the word “blessings” gives a completely different and misleading connotation than what the term actually means. The Tibetan term literally means to uplift and brighten. The original Sanskrit term, adhisthana, means to put someone or something in a higher position, to uplift. I prefer to translate the term as “inspire.” We request the Buddha, the gurus, the Buddha-figures to inspire us to achieve this or that realization. But these figures, from their own sides, by their own power, can't grant us our wishes and do everything for us and that all we have to do is submit to them. That again is an interpolation, projecting a Western idea or concept onto Buddhism. The main emphasis is always that we need to do the work ourselves. The Buddhas, the gurus, can inspire us, they can teach us, they can guide us, but they can’t do the work for us. We have to understand, ourselves.
Misunderstandings about Protectors
Similarly, it’s a misunderstanding to overemphasize protector practice. This often happens at Dharma centers where, every week or every month, they do a group protector practice. And even newcomers are welcomed to participate in the group recitations without having the slightest idea of what they’re doing. People caught up in this situation regard the protector as the one that will protect them (as the word protect implies) from all obstacles and dangers. They lose sight or never even realize that we need to protect ourselves, in terms of refuge and karma.
Concerning refuge, we go in the safe direction indicated by the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha in order to avoid worse rebirths. This is the lam-rim initial scope motivation. It isn’t that we go to a protector in order to avoid worse rebirths. Nowhere does it say that in the teachings, does it? We look to the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha for that, but they’re not going to protect us in the sense of saving us. They teach us what to do in order to avoid such disastrous rebirths, and then we have to do it ourselves. They set the example. And as for karma, we protect ourselves from worse rebirths by avoiding destructive behavior.
What does it mean to go in that safe direction of Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha? The safe direction primarily is indicated by the Dharma, namely the deepest Dharma Jewel, which refers to the third and fourth noble truths. The third noble truth is the true stopping of the causes for suffering, and through that, the true stopping of suffering. The fourth noble truth is the true path or pathway mind that will lead to that true stopping, namely the understanding of voidness, as well as the true understanding that results from it. These two noble truths exist in full on the mental continuum of the Buddhas, and exist in part on the mental continuums of the Arya Sangha. That’s the direction we’re going in, to become like them and achieve what they have. If we do that, we protect ourselves from suffering. Dharma, the Sanskrit word, comes from the root dhr, which means to hold back. The Dharma refers to preventive measures we take that will hold us back so that we avoid suffering.
Protectors can't do that for us. A protector is like a supplement to the main practices. Actually, there are many ways of viewing protectors. Serkong Rinpoche used to describe them as being like large vicious dogs. He said if you are in the center of a mandala palace as a Buddha-figure, let’s say as the strong, forceful figure of Yamantaka, you need to be able to have the power to control these protectors that you summon into your mandala and order them to serve you. For instance, although you could stand at the gate and chase away robbers, why do that when you can get a dog to do it for you? But you have to be the master; you have to be in control. So even if we think in terms of a protector as helping us, in terms of chasing away interferences, robbers and so on, we are the ones that basically need to be in control of all that.
If we take protectors as actual beings – spirits or whatever – which Tibetans do, the only way they can help us is by providing the circumstances for our own karmic potentials to ripen. If we haven’t built up the karma potentials that could ripen, what protectors can do will be of no help. It's the same mechanism when we perform Medicine Buddha pujas and long life pujas. They are not the causes for us to get better, they are merely a circumstance for our own positive karmic potentials to ripen. In some cases with protectors, there’s a slightly different mechanism involved. Their help comes in the form of providing circumstances for our negative karmic potentials to ripen in a very trivial way, so that it burns away more serious obstacles that we would have in the future that would prevent success. Protector rituals can work in many ways.
But the mistake here, the misunderstanding, is to overemphasize the protector practices and make them our main focus, rather than Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. Then protector practice runs the danger of becoming the worship of some sort of spirit. Many problems can come from that, as is illustrated with the controversial protector issue among the Tibetans. So we need to be really careful about that.
I think that it is not very wise for a Dharma center to have a public protector practice every day, week, or month, in which anybody can come, especially newcomers. Especially if these protector puja texts are recited in translation into your own languages, they’re pretty heavy – “smash my enemies,” and so on. They can easily be misunderstood.
Misunderstandings about Initiations
Concerning tantric initiations, it’s a misunderstanding to take a tantric initiation without examining the teacher or the practice beforehand. And even if we do examine them, it’s a mistake or misunderstanding to take the initiation with no intention to actually practice the tantra system afterwards. The purpose of an initiation or empowerment, after all, is to activate, strengthen and enhance our Buddha-nature factors so as to be able to engage in the practice of a specific tantra system. That’s the whole purpose of it. “Our “Buddha-nature factors” refer to our potentials that enable us, when fully developed, to become Buddhas ourselves. The various rituals and visualizations during the initiation ceremony activate our Buddha-nature seeds of potential and plant more seeds, so that we can engage in a specific practice. Literally, it is an initiation to start that practice.
When we misunderstand this, we indiscriminately attend any initiation by any lama into any practice and go either for the so-called “blessings” or because of group pressure. But going to an initiation, an empowerment, is serious business. We need to examine the teacher fully, “Do I want to establish a special relationship with this teacher as my tantric guru?” Most of us have no idea of what that actually means. “Do I want to do this specific deity practice as opposed to another one?” “Do I seriously want to engage in its daily practice now? If not immediately now, do I fully intend to get into it later?”
Obviously we can go to the initiation as an anthropological event, as an anthropologist to see what these mysterious natives are doing in some sort of esoteric ritual. His Holiness the Dalai Lama says if you want to go, as he calls it, as a neutral observer, that’s not a problem. But to just go blindly, without considering why we are going, runs the danger of misunderstanding the initiation process. Thinking That If We Attend an Initiation Just for the “Blessings,” We Have Taken the Vows and Commitments
It’s a further misunderstanding to think, if we go like that to an initiation as an anthropological event, or just for blessings, or out of group pressure, that we’ve received the vows and commitments from merely being present at the initiation. You only receive vows if you knowingly and willingly take them on. Just being there doesn’t mean that you’ve taken the vows or that you’ve received the initiation. Tibetans take their dogs with them to the initiation. It doesn’t mean that the dogs have the vows and that the dog now has the initiation into the practice. But do we want to attend the initiation just like a dog? This is the point. Or to go with the hope of getting high on it, like taking a drug?
On the other hand, it’s equally a misunderstanding to think we can receive an initiation and engage in the practice without having taken on and keeping the vows. One of the most important aspects of an initiation is the vows. It’s said very clearly in many texts: “There is no initiation without the vows.” At minimum, in all initiations of all tantra classes, including dzogchen, there are the bodhisattva vows.
Tsongkhapa and Atisha emphasize that the bodhisattva vows require some sort of basis in general ethics. Therefore, we also need some sort of level of pratimoksha vow for individual liberation, even if it’s just the lay vows. We don’t need to take all five of them – avoiding killing, stealing, lying, engaging in inappropriate sexual behavior and taking intoxicants, specifically alcohol. We can take any number of them, even just one. Further, if we’re taking an initiation into the two higher classes of tantra, yoga tantra and anuttarayoga tantra, we need to take the tantric vows. That’s absolutely essential. And we need to take all these sets of vow very seriously, examining beforehand whether or not we can keep them.
If there’s a practice commitment with an initiation, it’s a misunderstanding that we can bargain with the teacher to lessen the commitment, like haggling with a shopkeeper in an Oriental market to get a cheaper price. Sometimes I’ve seen Westerners do that. When His Holiness the Dalai Lama gives an empowerment in Dharamsala, the usual commitment is to do the practice every day for the rest of your life. The Westerners want to go to it, but they will try to bargain, “We have a busy life; do we really have to do it? Can we just do it sometimes, when we have the time?” They try to get the initiation at a cheaper price. Even when His Holiness sets several levels of commitment, many Westerners still want to get the minimal commitment at a cheaper price.
Especially if we go to receive the instructions and teachings on a tantric practice, the whole point of going is that we want to do the practice. We’re serious about it. Otherwise, why get the teachings? Just out of curiosity? That’s not the point. These teachings are supposed to be precious, something sacred that you only would study on the basis of really wanting to do the practice and having a proper motivation for so doing. This, of course, becomes a difficult issue with the Internet and books on tantra practice readily available. Therefore, His Holiness the Dalai Lama says that so much information on tantra is available anyway, and so much of it is wrong information, it’s better to have the correct information out there.
As His Holiness sometimes jokes, “It’s better to go to a hell with correct understanding than to go with the wrong understanding. With correct understanding, you bounce out of it much more quickly.” Whether that’s to be taken literally or as a joke, I don’t know, but it gives us something to think about. But because things are available in books and in the Internet is no excuse for not practicing. If we are taking an initiation and receiving the teachings on the practice, we need to take seriously the commitment to engage in it. When We Have a Daily Practice Commitment, Thinking We Can Skip a Day, or Taking On Too Many Daily Practice Commitments
If there is a daily recitation practice commitment from an initiation we take, it’s a misunderstanding not to take this seriously and thinking we can miss a day when we don’t feel like doing it: “I’ll only do it when I feel like doing it.” Or taking on too many lifelong practice commitments without realistically considering whether or not we’ll be able to maintain them.
That was a very common mistake in the ’70s in India. In those days, the full initiations with the full practice commitments were given much more readily and we Westerners took them. We took these empowerments and took on these commitments, thinking that we could always keep them. But then you look even just ten years later – let alone twenty, thirty, forty years later – and how many people have actually kept them and are keeping on doing them? Only a handful. And even in the days shortly after taking on these commitments, many people really had a struggle to do the daily practice. They said they were too busy in the morning. “Morning isn’t a good time for me.” Thinking that, they would leave it to night, and then they would have two or three hours of practice to do. But they were so tired that they would fall asleep while practicing. They would sit and nod off and then jerk awake, and it would take them half the night to get through the thing. Their tantric practice became a torture. This is a big problem.
If you’re going to take practice commitments, be realistic about what you can actually do. These practice commitments are serious when they entail promising to do the practice every day for the rest of your life. Why would you want to commit yourself to doing something every day for the rest of your life? The only reason is because you’re really serious about gaining liberation and enlightenment and you understand the basic tantra method and are confident that if you practice it properly, it will lead you there. This is very important.
His Holiness always emphasizes that if you’re going to be involved with tantra, it should be on the basis of understanding what tantra is all about and having confidence in the effectiveness of the method. Otherwise, why are you doing this? Especially if you think it just comprises some weird visualization and mumbling some mantras, then after a while you give up because it seems ridiculous: “Why am I doing this?” So it’s important to really consider whether or not we can actually fulfill these commitments. Thinking That Tantra Practice Just Means Reciting a Ritual and Mantras
Lastly, it’s a misunderstanding of tantra practice to consider it merely to be a recitation of a ritual or merely repetition of a mantra. Without strong meditation on bodhichitta and voidness (emptiness), we just recite “blah blah blah …” and although we try to visualize, most of the time we can’t visualize because it’s too complicated. So we want to do the easiest versions of the practices and think that something is going to really happen on the basis of that. Very often our practice becomes just an escape into Fantasy Land without it really being an effective method for putting together all the teachings.
Tantra is a way of putting all the teachings together. For instance, during the script of the ritual, at one point, you generate the four immeasurable attitudes; at another point, safe direction (refuge); at this point, bodhichitta; at that point, you reaffirm the vows; and at that point you do voidness meditation. At different points in the script, you generate different Dharma understandings and realizations. If you haven’t practiced the methods before that, then in the ritual, when the few words appear, “Now I have the understanding of voidness,” what do you do? You’re just reciting words then. But it doesn’t do anything to just recite the words. Because of that, tantra practice requires a great deal of background study and practice. It’s a mistake to think that it’s just going “blah blah blah” with some recitation – which is mostly done with mental wandering anyway.
It’s clear that there are many misconceptions about tantra. Some arise through the way tantra is advertised, and some come about through our own wishes: we all would like a quick and easy way to enlightenment. If we understand the reality of practicing tantra, we’ll be more likely to stick with it and make steady progress, rather than give up at the first hurdle.