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Emptiness Meditation in Kalachakra Practice
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Dr. Alexander Berzin
In the practice of Kalachakra, and any other anuttarayoga tantra, there is a special way of meditating on voidness (emptiness) in which we meditate not just on the actual meaning of voidness, but also we try to simulate doing this with a clear light mind. This we do because the clear light mind – which is the subtlest mind that we have, that actually provides the continuity from lifetime to lifetime and into enlightenment as well – is actually the most efficient level of mind for gaining the nonconceptual cognition of voidness. This is because this level of mind does not have any grasping for true existence, and it also doesn’t even make an appearance of true existence. According to the Gelug tradition, all levels of mind grosser than the clear light mind do make these appearances of true existence. But this level of mind is much more subtle than that, and is totally free of all disturbing emotions, disturbing attitudes, and unawareness. And, in fact, this level of mind is the only level of mind that is capable of cognizing the two truths about anything simultaneously and manifestly. So it’s this level of mind that actually becomes the omniscient mind of a Buddha, not any of the other grosser levels of mind, which are all samsaric.
This clear light level of mind is something that we have underlying every moment of our awareness of our entire existence, but it only becomes manifest on our basis level in certain very special situations. The main situation in which it becomes manifest in an actual definitional way – not just something similar to it, but in a definitional way – is during the phase of death existence. That’s not just one moment; it could be a slightly longer period before bardo occurs. But death existence of course is still samsaric: And, in order to achieve enlightenment, all we need to do is kill ourselves? It’s not that easy. So this clear light mind at death existence still has, imputed on it, the habits of grasping for true existence.
This word “grasping” that’s used in “grasping for true existence” actually has two meanings. “Grasping” isn’t the best translation, but it’s very difficult to find a word that covers both meanings. The Tibetan word is dzin (’dzin), the Sanskrit word is graha, and this has two meanings. One is to just cognize, to take something as an object, and so here we’re talking about making an appearance of true existence and just perceiving it. Taking it as an object. That’s one meaning. And the other meaning is to – well, it’s more the English word “grasp,” which is to actually believe that it’s referring to something that is real. So, believing in it. So it has these two meanings.
Although, at the time of manifest clear light death, those habits are not producing an appearance of true existence, they are not producing a perception of it, they’re not producing a grasping and believing that it’s true, and they are not, in theory at least, preventing cognition of the two truths simultaneously – nevertheless, one can still impute those habits on that clear light mind, because all these things that they produce will recur with attainment of the bardo existence and then rebirth. So they’re still present. In addition to that, this clear light mind of death does not have any understanding. Although it’s capable of perceiving the two truths, and although it produces an appearance that is similar to the appearance that would arise with the understanding of voidness, it has no understanding of voidness.
So what we want to do is make that clear light mind into the instrument that will cognize voidness and, in addition, what we want to do is to make that clear light mind into a blissful awareness that will be a blissful awareness of voidness. When it is like that, then it actually is – that clear light mind will be the immediately preceding cause for an omniscient mind of a Buddha. Whereas the clear light mind on the basis level, which is the point of view that Gelug explains it, is not blissful. In other words, the death consciousness itself is not blissful. When Sakya explains it as blissful, they’re speaking from the point of view of the path, because it can be transformed into a blissful consciousness. When Nyingma and Kagyu speak of it as blissful and as having innate deep awareness, they’re speaking from the point of view of the result – of what is the case with a Buddha. So one has to understand these different explanations from the point of view of the analysis that is given by Jamyang Kyentse Wangpo Rinpoche: that these different traditions in Tibet speak from different points of view – of basis, path, and result.
Now I hope that you understand how it is that the clear light mind is able to cognize the two truths simultaneously. Clear light mind does not make an appearance of true existence. Grosser levels of mind do according to Gelug. Now non-Gelug says that non-conceptual cognition doesn’t make an appearance of true existence, but this is something else. If you want to be technical, everybody says that nonconceptual cognition of voidness with a grosser level of mind does not make an appearance of true existence. But the non-Gelug say that non-conceptual sense cognition and non-conceptual ordinary mental cognition, like with ESP, also does not make an appearance of true existence; whereas Gelug says that it does.
When the mind makes an appearance of true existence of conventional truth of something – in other words, the appearance of something – it can’t possibly also cognize “no such thing as true existence.” Either you have no true existence or you have an appearance of true existence. That’s why you can’t have simultaneously the two truths with the grosser levels of mind that make an appearance of true existence. But the clear light mind, it does not make an appearance of true existence, and therefore it is capable of cognizing the two truths. But it ordinarily doesn’t cognize the two truths – it’s capable of it.
So what happens, what’s the natural cycle of samsara, is that we go through life with the grosser levels of mind and, when we die, the mind withdraws from the gross physical body, the mind naturally gets more and more subtle, the gross levels of mind cease to function – cease to arise from the clear light mind – and we get to this clear light mind of death. But, because there are still the constant habits or instincts of grasping for true existence and the habits or instincts of karma, what happens is that the mind leaves this most subtle state and gets to a medium subtle state (which would be a bardo) with subtle appearances of true existence, and then will go to a grosser state (which is the state of rebirth) with our usual appearances of true existence. And we have this same type of cycle when we look at, for instance, falling asleep, going to deep sleep, and then the dream state with subtle appearances, and then being awake.
And, although the Three Bodies of a Buddha are attained simultaneously and always occur simultaneously, nevertheless we could look at the Three Bodies of a Buddha as having the same type of structure. Dharmakaya would be similar to the most subtle level without appearances – that’s the mind of a Buddha – and characteristics of that mind: voidness, its bliss. The Svabhavakaya, the Nature Body, which is part of Dharmakaya, in the other systems (other than Kalachakra) is the voidness of the omniscient mind of a Buddha, and in Kalachakra is the blissful awareness of the omniscient mind of a Buddha. So this Dharmakaya is similar to the clear light mind of death, and then Sambhogakaya is a subtle movement and appearance-making of the subtlest energy-wind associated with that. In sutra we have – and, I believe, in the lower tantras, though I can’t remember exactly; I think that they agree with sutra here – that Sambhogakaya are subtle appearances of a Buddha that teach arya bodhisattvas Mahayana in the pure land realms, forever, with all the major and minor signs of a Buddha. In the other anuttarayoga tantra systems besides Kalachakra, Sambhogakaya is the speech of a Buddha. And in Kalachakra, Sambhogakaya is both these subtle appearances and speech. So this is similar to bardo. And then the Nirmanakaya, which are the grosser appearances of Sambhogakaya, are similar to the rebirth state.
So, in anuttarayoga tantra, what we do – what is the heart or the essence of anuttarayoga tantra, including Kalachakra – is that we meditate in a manner which is similar to this cycle and, in doing that, we transform it so that instead of this rhythm producing a samsaric situation, it produces an enlightenment situation. And we do this on the generation stage – that’s the first of the two stages of anuttarayoga practice: generation stage and complete stage – we do this on the generation stage by working with our imagination. Then, on the complete stage, you do this by working with the subtle energy-system.
So we go through a process that is similar to what happens with bardo and rebirth while, at the same time, in imagination – in other words, conceptual – imagining that we have an understanding of voidness – so that’s a conceptual understanding of voidness – and also imagining that we have a blissful awareness. Because we always want to try to have a blissful awareness of voidness in tantra, because a blissful awareness is the most conducive for getting to a more subtle level. It’s not necessarily itself subtle, but it is a gateway that makes it much easier to get to a subtle level. And we also imagine, in the generation stage, the appearances that appear to the mind – or that the mind produces – as it gets more and more subtle, going down to the Dharmakaya-like death state, and then the appearances that would arise with bardo, and Nirmanakaya instead of rebirth.
In all the other anuttarayoga tantras, other than Kalachakra, we do this process with getting down to the Dharmakaya-like state by simulating the appearances that occur in eight stages of the dissolution of the gross levels of consciousness. In other words, where the clear light consciousness disconnects with the gross elements of the body and becomes more and more subtle. So we have eight stages of appearances. Although it doesn’t say this in the texts, it seems to me that in this process – I mean, what it does say in the text of course is that what is happening is that also we are imagining that we are losing the appearance of true existence, and so, again, it seems to me that one could also imagine that the appearance of true existence gets thinner and thinner in these eight stages. Although it doesn’t say this specifically in the texts, that seems to make sense.
Then, in the other anuttarayoga tantras, other than Kalachakra, we have a subtle type of appearance, or a simple type of appearance, to represent Sambhogakaya. So it could be a seed syllable, it could be a simpler form of a deity, it could be a drop – it’s different in each of the different tantras. Well, I wouldn’t say a symbol, because it could be – like Manjushri in Yamantaka. And then, for Nirmanakaya, we have the full deity.
Kalachakra is slightly different. First of all, instead of eight stages in the dissolution, we have ten. And, secondly, we don’t have this Sambhogakaya stage similar to bardo. That’s unnecessary, it says in the Kalachakra teachings, because by purifying death and rebirth, automatically one purifies bardo; it’s not necessary to do it as a separate step. But of course there is a much deeper reason for this, and this concerns the type of body that we will achieve on the complete stage, when we are working with the subtle energy-systems that will act as the obtaining cause (nyer-len-gyi rgyu) – in other words, what will transform into the Form Bodies of a Buddha. An obtaining cause is that which transforms into the result and no longer exists at the time of the result.
In the other anuttarayoga tantras we have in general what’s known as the illusory body; that’s primarily discussed in father tantra. And in mother tantra we have a presentation of a rainbow body, which is slightly different. But, in the general discussion of the theory, one usually just generalizes in terms of illusory body. Illusory body is something which is created from the subtlest energy-wind. And so when we are doing the meditations on the complete stage concerning illusory body before we have gained non-conceptual cognition of voidness – in other words, before we have achieved a clear light stage – we do practices of illusory body not during total absorption on voidness, but during the subsequent attainment period.
The total absorption on voidness is when we are focusing here, conceptually, on the voidness that is like space. So just focusing on “There’s no such thing as true existence.” And the subsequent attainment phase, that’s sometimes translated as “post-meditation,” but that’s extremely misleading and not at all the meaning of the word, because we’re still meditating. It could also be, of course, in between meditation sessions, but the main emphasis is when we’re still meditating on voidness, but it is now on illusion-like voidness in which we have an appearance. So here are appearances which lack true existence – what we understand as true existence. That’s the subsequent attainment, what you attain after, and only after you have had total absorption on voidness. So, in that subsequent attainment period, we are working with the subtlest energy, which we have tamed, through an incredible amount of practice before that, to make that subtlest energy-wind appear in the form of an illusory body, which we understand lacks true existence.
Whereas, in Kalachakra, we don’t meditate in this manner. Meditating on illusory body is similar to Sambhogakaya, a subtle form of body. In Kalachakra we don’t do that. Instead, the obtaining cause for a Form Body of a Buddha – in other words, what transforms into the Form Body of a Buddha – is what is known as the “devoid form.” It’s a form that is devoid of atoms, of particles. The word “devoid” here is not referring to “void of true existence,” because everything is devoid of true existence, and that’s meaningless to explain it that way. It is devoid of being made of gross particles. When we speak about these devoid forms, these devoid forms are what naturally appear when the energy-winds start to enter the central channel. They don’t have to be fully dissolved at the heart chakra, just enter the central channel.
And so the other tantras say that the winds never go into the central channel while we are awake – well, they never go into the central channel at all before we reach a clear light state. But Kalachakra disagrees with that. It says that the winds shift back and forth between one nostril and another during the course of the day twelve times. And, when it makes that shift, there are a few breaths that actually do go into the central channel – it’s called the deep awareness breaths – and at that time, even on the basis level, we have devoid forms at the basis level. So we have devoid forms at the basis time and at the path time when we actually, in our meditation, make the winds go into the central channel.
And what we do then in the Kalachakra practice is that, since the devoid forms are associated with the winds going into the central channel, then the meditation in which we simulate these devoid forms can be done during the total absorption phase. We’re not working with the subtle winds here. Because it can be done in the total absorption phase, we don’t need to do something similar to the subsequent attainment phase of a bardo simulation. For that reason, we don’t need to have a stage which is Sambhogakaya similar to bardo in our purification process, because the process happens naturally. In other words, how do you meditate on the devoid forms? You meditate on it during the total absorption on voidness. That these devoid forms will automatically appear, rather than, in a sense, constructing them out of the subtlest wind during the subsequent attainment period. What is the cause for the Form Bodies of the Buddha – they’re different in Kalachakra.
Throughout the entire process of any tantra practice, we need to always be aware of voidness. Everything is done within the context of voidness. And, in fact, one of the most important and perhaps one of the most difficult of the tantric vows is to remind ourselves six times a day, so that we refresh our understanding – whatever our level of understanding of voidness might be. But when we are doing a specific practice of tantra, then we need to reaffirm our understanding of voidness as part of this process of meditating on transforming death into Dharmakaya. We do this in a sadhana. A sadhana is a practice for – drubtab (sgrub-thabs) – a method for actualizing ourselves here in our imagination as a Buddha-figure.
The six-session Kalachakra practice that people do as part of the beginning level of Kalachakra practice in the Gelug tradition is not a sadhana – a sadhana has more parts than that – it has many aspects of a sadhana included in it, but it’s not a full sadhana. Although for doing a retreat on Kalachakra on a very simple level – not really an actual retreat, but sort of a simulation of it beforehand – people do six-session practice, but please don’t call it a sadhana. It’s not. The Six-Session Kalachakra Guru-Yoga combines a six-session practice with a guru-yoga. A six-session practice is a practice that fulfills the nineteen close bonding practices (or samayas) with the five Buddha families. The usual six-session practice that we do, the normal one, is not a guru-yoga.
Now there is a Kalachakra guru-yoga, and this combines it with the six-session practice, because you have the visualization of His Holiness as Kalachakra and reciting His Holiness’s name mantra, so that makes it guru-yoga. In that six-session guru-yoga we have a part where the guru dissolves into us, which helps us to generate a blissful mind. And then we have a meditation on voidness, and then we arise as Kalachakra ourselves. So we have this in all six-session practices as well, not only the Kalachakra one. And, in most commentaries on the practice, it says one just does instantaneous arising as the figure: one just goes into the understanding of voidness without going through a whole dissolution process. But in Pabongka Rinpoche’s commentary to the ordinary six-session practice, he says that it’s possible to do at that point this taking death as Dharmakaya practice, and so on, in which we go through the dissolution in eight stages (or in Kalachakra it would be ten stages). So if we want to include in this six-session practice more elements from the sadhana itself, then we would do that full meditation at this point in the six-session practice. There’s this dissolution of the guru once the guru goes into your heart – that’s there, in any case – but then, when one does the meditation on voidness, you have the ten stage appearances, going down to clear light mind. That can be added here – and usually it is, in the explanations of this text.
When we do this six-session practice and we have the guru dissolving into us and we get blissful awareness and we have the mediation on voidness, we can either then have dissolution of the elements or not. But usually with this six-session Kalachakra practice, we do the dissolution process. Pabongka commented on that with the regular six-sessions practices; so, similar to that, we can do it with this six-session. But some people disagree with Pabongka, because in the regular six-session practice you don’t have anything similar to Sambhogakaya as bardo, so they say this is a bit artificial. But here it fits quite well because there isn’t any Sambhogakaya in any case.
Now when we do any tantra practice, whether it’s a sadhana or a six-session practice, what is said is that we need to have done all this thinking and meditating on voidness beforehand, so that in the sadhana we just remind ourselves of our understanding, and generate understanding without having to go through all the extensive lines of reasoning. Now one has to be very careful because it’s very easy to then just skip any lines of reasoning, and not really have any understanding of voidness, and just pretend that you do. So one has to be very careful not to just make this voidness meditation here trivial and meaningless.
The way in which the voidness meditation is done here is in terms of the four gateways to liberation, they’re called. Now there’s a difference between mother and father tantra here. Mother and father tantra are divisions of anuttarayoga tantra. And, in Gelugpa, Tsongkhapa explained it as mother tantra puts the emphasis on clear light, and father tantra on illusory body, and since Kalachakra does not have an illusory body practice, by default it is a mother tantra.
So, in mother tantra, first you – when you do this type of practice – first you imagine that you have the understanding of voidness. That’s not a very nice way of saying it. You have a conceptual understanding of voidness and then, with that understanding of voidness, you imagine that the mind gets more and more subtle with the dissolution process. In father tantra, like Guhyasamaja, we do it the other way round, and you imagine that the mind gets more and more subtle with the dissolution process and then, at the end of it, with that subtle mind you get the cognition of voidness, which in a sadhana and a generation practice is necessarily conceptual.
Now in the sadhana there is a verse from Vimalaprabha (The Stainless Light), a commentary to The Abbreviated Kalachakra Tantra, with which this meditation is done. It also appears in Guhyasamaja as well. Now we don’t really have time here for me to go through the verse and give a word-for-word commentary on it of these different levels of meaning. I’ll do that in St. Petersburg because there’s more time. So the verse has a literal meaning, and it also has a general meaning which is common to sutra and tantra, and it’s in this general meaning that we find the verse interpreted according to three gateways to liberation in Guhyasamaja and four gateways to liberation in Kalachakra.
So, if we follow the order that we have it in the verse itself, then we have the gateway regarding the void nature itself. Now it is interpreted in the commentaries to the sadhana, particularly the commentary by Detri Rinpoche, as referring to understanding the voidness of voidness. So, if we take voidness as something truly existent, which is how it appears in conceptual cognition of voidness, then that’s not proper meditation – that’s not correct – so we have to understand that voidness doesn’t have true existence. So there’s nothing on the side of voidness itself that establishes it as voidness – voidness in terms of the mental label “voidness.” Now, by extension from this explanation, the way that it is practiced, the way that Serkong Rinpoche explained it, is that in addition to this we apply this understanding of voidness to the appearances – the ten stages of dissolution that will follow this meditation. That none of these signs, none of these appearances, which are devoid forms – so that’s another way of understanding the voidness of voidness here, playing on words – that none of these appearances that will occur in the dissolution have true existence.
Then the second gateway is the gateway of signlessness – no sign – and that’s referring to no sign of a truly existent cause. So here we have to remind ourselves that – What are the causes for achieving enlightenment? What are we doing? Compassion, bodhichitta, these sort of things – and Buddha-nature if we want to bring that in, although Gelugpa doesn’t emphasize that so much, but other traditions do – that none of these have true existence in terms of the causation process. So here we have familiarized ourselves with the analysis of the lack of true existence of causes – that the cause is not truly existently the same as the result, nor truly existently different from the result.
We might make that mistake in terms of thinking of Buddha-nature as the cause for enlightenment and that’s the same as enlightenment, truly existently. That certainly is not the case. And we could include compassion here as part of Buddha-nature. Or we could make a mistake in terms of one of the causes for enlightenment is the inspiration from the guru, and the guru dissolving into us, and we generate bliss, and so on – which is part of this practice – that we could also misconceive of the guru as a cause for enlightenment that’s totally separate, truly existently separate from the result.
Then the third gateway is the gateway of no hope, and this regards the voidness of the result that we’re trying to achieve: there is no hope of a truly existent result, no sign of a truly existent cause, no hope of a truly existent result. So here we are aiming of course for enlightenment as the result of our practice, but it is very important to not grasp at the true existence of that enlightenment that we are aiming to achieve as our result. So for this we need to remind ourselves of the line of reasoning – at least in Madhyamaka – that the result does not either truly exist or totally not exist at the time of the cause. At the time of the cause (which is now, while we’re practicing) it’s not that enlightenment truly exists already and it’s just a matter of quieting down and manifesting it – that it’s there already truly, but unmanifest – that’s incorrect. But then, on the other hand, now, at the time of the cause, it isn’t the case that enlightenment is truly nonexistent. If it was truly, from its own side, nonexistent now, it could never come about. So this is what we meditate on and remind ourselves of here with this third gateway of no hope.
Then the fourth gateway is the gateway of no affecting action. An affecting action would be an action that would be the means for attaining the result. So the voidness of the means. It refers to the voidness of the method for achieving the result. It’s the action that you will do that will affect the change that brings about the result. And here, according to the commentaries, this is explained as understanding the voidness of the three spheres involved in the practice – the voidness of the meditator, what is meditated on, and the meditation itself – that these do not exist in any of the four extremes: truly existent, truly nonexistent, both, or neither.
So this is the presentation of the four gateways to liberation, how we meditate on voidness. But basically, as I said, we’re reminded that if we have to do all this meditation, we need to be very familiar with all of this from study of, for instance, the ninth chapter of Shantideva’s Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior or in Chandrakirti’s Madhyamakavatara (Entering into Madhyamaka) A Supplement to (Nagarjuna’s “Root Verses on) the Middle Way, in which we get these various lines of reasoning used in Madhyamaka for understanding the voidness of cause and effect, the nature of things, the three spheres, and so on. Because of dependent arising, which would deal with these three spheres, it’s a very detailed and wonderful presentation of voidness in these texts. So that here we remind ourselves of that, and then do the dissolution of the ten signs.
Questions Question: Can you say something about the specific form of the main Kalachakra figure. Is it a problem if I visualize it slightly differently, if I can’t visualize all the points and stuff?
Alex: According to the tradition, when Buddha was teaching the Prajnaparamita Sutras (far-reaching discriminating awareness or the perfection of wisdom) on Vulture’s Peak, he simultaneously manifested in the stupa at Amaravati, in South India, and appeared in this form of Kalachakra and taught the different classes of tantra from the four faces. So he taught Kalachakra and, in fact, he taught all the tantra from the different faces of Kalachakra.
So the form is very specific, and it’s not proper at all to change it, because each element in it, each detail in it, has many levels of what it represents. Just as an example, there’s no time to go through all the details of what it represents, but the 24 arms would represent, in a year, the 24 phases of the moon. There’s 12 lunar months, and each month is made of a waxing and waning phase of the moon, so there’s 24 moon phases in a year. So that’s on the external Kalachakra level, in terms of the world system. On an internal level, we have 12 phases of the shifting of the breath from one nostril to the other during the day, so that’s 24 half shifts. And so that’s on an internal level of Kalachakra. Both of these we want to purify, because both external and internal Kalachakra cycles are occurring under the force of karma and disturbing emotions; in other words, they describe samsara. And we can also include in here the distorted view of the Samkhya philosophy, which divides primal matter into 24 factors. So it represents that as well. These are the things that the hands hold; they represent those 24. The actual hands themselves represent what I was saying – 24 factors that primal matter is divided into.
And then the alternative Kalachakra, which is the practice that will purify this whole samsaric level in Kalachakra: We have a presentation of 12 bhumis, very advanced levels of mind, and each of those are divided into halves, so we get 24 phases. There’s also 24 phases in terms of stacking of drops that are associated with these bhumis. There’s many, many levels that these 24 represent. And it is like that for everything.
Question: Can you say a bit more about bliss? I don’t understand what exactly “bliss” refers to when we say blissful awareness, etc.
Alex: When we speak about blissful awareness, we are not talking about ordinary physical happiness or bliss of orgasm, certainly not that. But, rather, we’re speaking about a very, very subtle level. Once we have actually gained mastery over the subtle winds and we have managed to get those winds to go into the central channel, then it is a blissful awareness. So it’s in the category of bliss or happiness that is experienced with a subtle level of mind on the basis of the winds being in the central channel. So it has to do with, basically, things like tummo (gtum-mo) practice (the inner heat practice), in which certain drops and substances are moving within the central channel and not at all being released, and you have complete control over the energies. Well, tummo starts once the winds have been gathered as the preliminary to light the flame. And by experiencing that – and there’s many, many stages of it, and so on… This is a method for getting the winds to actually dissolve in the various chakras in the central channel, so we can get to the clear light level. So it’s an incredibly advanced stage, and not our ordinary usual experience.
Question: On the creation stage, we don’t use this notion of bliss?
Alex: On the generation stage, we imagine that we have this. But the actual blissful awareness is achieved on the complete stage when you actually have managed to gain control of those subtle energy-winds. On the generation stage everything is in terms of imagination.
So when the guru dissolves into us, for example, we imagine that the guru goes down the central channel to the heart chakra. So that’s like – well, it’s called the melting of bodhichitta in the central channel. It’s done in tummo. So it is similar to that, and acts as a cause for being able to eventually achieve that – not just in our imagination. And, because we have a strong feeling toward the guru, it is a happy experience that the guru joins with us. We’re not talking about any sexual thing.
Question: Would you give some advice for the Kalachakra retreat. Would you do reciting 100,000 mantras? Any specific advice?
Alex: If one can do a retreat, of course that’s wonderful. And the Westerners have started doing the retreat – and it’s been authorized, it’s okay – on the basis of the six-session practice. That’s certainly not a traditional retreat of Kalachakra, because, as I said, it’s not the full sadhana, and it’s only working with the mantras of the central figure and the figures in the first ring around them – the powerful ladies or shaktis. But there are practices like that, even with the sadhanas, with only that number of deities. So, if you can do that, that’s wonderful. But you need very, very good instructions in order to able to do such practice. But, within the traditional form of practice that’s done in the Gelug tradition, the shortest retreat is with the full mind mandala, which is 46 deities and all of their mantras, and with the fire puja at the end of it, and so on.
This new custom of doing a retreat on the basis of this six-session practice, that they do the fire puja at the end – that, I’m not sure. But I would be surprised if, on the basis of doing a retreat on this text, if one were then permitted to do the self-initiation afterwards. Maybe that’s authorized, but I would be surprised. I would think you’d have to do a full sadhana. The self-initiation, by the way, is unbelievably complicated. Doing it at top speed – I mean, really, really top speed – the way that His Holiness’s monastery does it, it takes them six hours nonstop. For us, it would take forever.
Question: I’ve heard that in the Kalachakra Tantra there’s a specific chapter on Manjushri-nama-samgiti that one can use as a separate practice, that particular chapter. Can you say a few words about that?
Alex: I translated it as A Concert of Names of Manjushri; it’s actually what the Sanskrit word means. And that’s not actually a chapter of the Kalachakra Tantra; it’s a separate text within the Kalachakra tradition. Samgiti is something that’s sung together in a group, literally. The Tibetans translate it with the word “praise,” which has nothing to do with the Sanskrit word. By the way, I have that translated on my website. It's a very important text. It basically is speaking about all the qualities of the deep awareness of the clear light mind – the clear light mind’s deep awareness – as manifested as Manjushri. Basically it’s all about the clear light mind.
It has many levels of meaning and interpretation. Right? The best text on it, His Holiness always refers to, is the commentary by the Second Dalai Lama. It has a huge literature of commentaries, both in India and Tibet. It can be understood on a literal level, on a level of yoga tantra, on a level of general anuttarayoga tantra, and on a Kalachakra level. As a practice, it can be done usually in terms of a yoga tantra practice, but it’s not necessarily limited to that. But when I say as a yoga tantra practice, what I’m referring to is the visualization of the mandala or whatever that you would visualize while reciting and thinking about the meaning. But then it wouldn’t actually be a yoga tantra sadhana, and it’s certainly not a Kalachakra sadhana. But the way that it is most commonly done would be that you would visualize yourself as White Manjushri, and you would visualize White Manjushri in front of you, and recite it or chant it – while of course trying to be mindful of the meaning. And it becomes a very profound meditation on the clear light mind and the deep awareness and various aspects of the clear light mind. But it requires a tremendous amount of teachings to understand what it’s talking about.
Naropa said: without understanding this text, the Concert of Names of Manjushri, there’s no understanding of Kalachakra or of tantra. Undoubtedly, the vast, vast majority of monks in all four traditions memorize this text. I don’t think that you can make a statement that absolutely everyone, but it is a standard part of the training of any monk, in any of the four traditions, that they memorize this thing. It’s 167 verses. And it is an extremely helpful practice, even if we don’t understand it terribly well, to read it or recite it every day, if one has the time and is really serious. But at least it’s nice to read it or listen to it once. On my website I have it not only in written form but also an audio file of me reading, so you can hear it.
Question: If you don’t know the symbolism behind all the implements and attributes of Kalachakra, for example, or any other tantric deity, would it still be beneficial to visualize it?
Alex: As a start, it is beneficial to visualize it. But it’s important to try to learn what it means – what they represent. You see, visualizing these deities is pretty weird, if you think about it, with all the things that they’re holding. “And so what?” is what we would normally think. “So what? I can visualize all these arms and all these various implements.” Just leaving it on that level becomes incredibly trivial and fairly meaningless. And so what one wants to do is to use this as a method for keeping in mind all the things that they represent.
You see, we’re training to become omniscient. And tantra is an advanced stage in which we have developed, one by one, so many different things in the sutra practice – the perfections (the far-reaching attitudes) and compassion, concentration, and all these sorts of things. And, in tantra, what we are trying to do is to put them all together and have them all in our awareness simultaneously. And so we represent it in a graphic form – with all these arms and faces and legs – because it’s easier to hold all of that in one moment of consciousness than it is to just try to do this abstractly. And so it’s a method for being able to get simultaneously so many things in our awareness which will then act as a cause for becoming omniscient. It’s a very profound method.
Of course we need to study what all of this represents, and we need to know at least some of the things that they represent, so that we can start to put them together. But, even if we don’t have that to work with here, we are trying to open up our minds to be aware of many things at the same time. That’s a very helpful thing. But, as Tsongkhapa said, when we do these visualizations, the method is first to just get a general, vague mental picture. Don’t worry about the details. As our concentration improves, the details will automatically come into focus. So this is a big mistake when people work with visualizations, is that in the beginning they worry so much about all the details: What does this piece of jewelry on this deity look like? And so on.
There’s a famous story of one practitioner, one Westerner, asking – I think it was Kirti Tsenzhab Rinpoche that they asked – “Does Yamantaka have a belly button?” Or this type of question, which is just a hopeless, ridiculous way of looking at it. So don’t get too fixated on these details, because then you’ll get very frustrated and give up, because there’s no way that you can do all the details in the beginning. I love that story.
Question: Can you maybe give us a shortlist of texts that are a must for tantric practitioners to start. They must know them.
Alex: The “must” would be Shantideva’s Bodhicharyavatara (Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior). This would give us the Mahayana basis for doing any tantra practice. That’s the most important.