Pride & Prejudice
Vajrayana and the perception of otherness
Ngak’chang Rinpoche & Khandro Déchen
"Fear of otherness lies at the root of prejudice. From the point of view of duality, nothing is as ‘other’ or dissimilar as the non-dual state. From the perspective of non-duality, we are prejudiced against our own natural state."
Tantrikas develop vajra pride which—because it is founded on emptiness—allows the possibility of assuming infinite forms of otherness: otherness of colour, otherness of shape, otherness of gender, otherness of disposition, and limitless other varieties of otherness. Every variant of vajra-otherness is a glorious manifestation of the non-dual state as it sparkles through the appearance of every permutation of our humanity.
Fear of otherness lies at the root of prejudice. From the point of view of duality – nothing is as ‘other’ or dissimilar as the non-dual state. From the perspective of non-duality, we are prejudiced against our own natural state.
In the condition of dualistic estrangement – our own beginningless enlightenment becomes alien to us, and we therefore become antagonistic to it in every form it assumes. From this primitive antagonism every type of prejudice arises: racial discrimination, chauvinism, sectarianism, religious bigotry, bias, intolerance, insularity, fanaticism, and narrow-mindedness.
Within the self-created field of dualistic bewilderment, that which is natural seems unnatural – and that which seems natural is unnatural. On the basis of this primitive prejudice against reality, all other forms of prejudice arise – prejudices against: race, gender, physiognomy, sexual orientation, religion, nationality, class, intellectual capacity, age, and appearance – ad nauseam. Whatever form of distinction has existed in the world, prejudice has existed with regard to it. It is evident from this that the focus of prejudice is always empty of the causes of prejudice. The only cause of prejudice is fear of otherness.
Although prejudice—as a distorted aspect of experience—is a phenomenon which people of good heart and humanity have sought to eliminate for several centuries – it still persists. Prejudice persists and will always persist – whilst we remain in ignorance of the natural state.
It is well known within Sutrayana that one practises for the benefit of ‘all sentient beings’, so—as a Buddhist of any tradition—one cultivates the loving kindness one feels toward one’s own mother – toward everyone. This compassionate view with regard to prejudice against other beings is well understood, and moreover exists in only slightly differing forms in every religion. The compassion-view of Sutrayana is well understood – but what is less well known (with regard to prejudice and the undermining or prejudice) is the wisdom-view of Vajrayana.
Vajrayana begins with the premise that dualism is a state of prejudice against non-duality. On the basis of this prejudice against non-duality, infinite forms of prejudice will manifest in order to obfuscate our beginningless enlightenment. The tantric phase of Vajrayana employs the dimension of symbolism in limitless ways – because we are symbols of ourselves. We do not experience ourselves as real—whilst we cling to duality—and therefore what we experiences ourselves to be, is always symbolic of what we actually are.
Because we exist at the level of symbolism – Vajrayana employs symbol in order to transform symbol. Even though we are symbolic, the dualistic symbols that we are – are radiant with the energy of the non-dual state. We may exist in a state of distortion – but that which is distorted, is a distorted version of the non-dual state. Because of this we are able to employ the energy of the distorted state itself, to enable us to transform what we seem to be into what we actually are. We are self-secret Buddhas, and the powerful methodology of Vajrayana enables us to realise this, through the empty form of the yidam (yi dam – devata – awareness being).
Within Vajrayana there are two styles in which the yidam is practised – external-arising and self-arising – Kyépa dang dzogpa (bsKyed pa dang rDzogs pa – utpattikrama and sampannakrama – also known as the development and completion phases).
Both styles of visualisation are central to the ecstatic and vivid appreciation of otherness. In order to approach the otherness and ‘foreignness’ of our own beginninglessly enlightened state, we need to approach what we are through the medium of pure vision.
Pure vision requires entry into the symbolic world of empty-form, in which we either perceive or become the yidam. To effectuate such a transformation there can be no obstacle to our devotion toward the visualised form. The form of the yidam is none other than the Lama from whom one has received transmission. The yidam therefore—whatever the hue, gender, or appearance—must never be separate from one’s devotion to the Lama.
The yidam takes infinite forms because there are endless styles of misconstruing the non-dual state. These myriad forms, however, are classified in three groups – as ‘peaceful’, ‘joyous’, and ‘wrathful’. These three are associated with the three distracted tendencies of the dualised condition: ‘indifference’, ‘attraction’, and ‘aversion’.
Because it is common for Vajrayana practitioners to receive empowerments into all three categories of yidam it is necessary for practitioners to have a vital and vigorous appreciation of each form, in whatever colour, gender, body-type, or mode of appearance the yidam displays. Because devotion to the form of the yidam is crucial to Vajrayana practice, there can be no thought in our minds with regard to negative æsthetic considerations.
If we are to practise external-arising in order to receive the wisdom of the yidam through our practice – we must envision the yidam through pure vision. If we see the yidam as visually unattractive, unpleasing, gross, or hideous – how can we approach such a being in order to receive wisdom?
If we are to practise self-arising in order to experience the non-dual wisdom of the yidam through our practice – we must self-arise as the yidam and develop the vajra pride of being the yidam. If we see the yidam as visually unattractive, unpleasing, gross, or hideous – how can we experience the non-dual qualities of our own enlightened state through wearing the body of visions?
If one has a yidam such as Seng-gé Dongma—the lion-headed dakini who has enormous sagging breasts – how can one visualise this yidam if one finds such a form repulsive in everyday life? Unless we can appreciate the sensuous glory and power of such a woman in everyday life – how can we approach Seng-gé Dongma with pure vision?
If one has a yidam such as Dorje Tröllö—the crazy wisdom manifestation of Padmasambhava who has a copious belly—how can one self-arise as such a yidam? If we revile our own forms – and we happen to have forms similar to Dorje Tröllö, how can we have devotion to Dorje Tröllö?
Yidams can appear conventionally beautiful or conventionally ugly. Yidams can appear as young or old. Yidams can appear as conventionally well-formed or conventionally misshapen. Yidams can even manifest the appearance of handicap – they can lack eyes and display a single breast in the style of Ekajati. The forms are innumerable and even the forms which are known to exist represent no limitation on the forms which could exist in the future through the agency of gTérma.
Because we are all symbols of our beginningless enlightenment—and because all beings are symbols of their beginningless enlightenment—there can be no form of being which is not essentially sacred according to the pure vision of Vajrayana.
Although we all have our predilections with regard to what is attractive – we need to implement a vision of wider scope, in terms of how we see our world and those many beings who ornament its environment.
We can accept the limits of our styles of appreciation for what they are—there is no need to crush individuality—but as practitioners of Vajrayana, we need to recognise that we have to be able to take the pure vision of our yidam practice into the nirmanakaya. We need to practise to become open to the dimension of the everyday world as nirmanakaya – the kyil’khor of the yidam.
If we are to manifest the vajra pride of our chosen yidams – we need to recognise that the forms of our yidams are sacred forms, and that therefore the forms of all beings are equally sacred in terms of the pure vision of Vajrayana.
Although one has one’s personality and one’s personal predilections; it is not possible, as a Vajrayana practitioner, to choose a yidam which accords with one’s personal preferences. The Lama might find one’s choice inappropriate. One might find oneself practising a yidam one finds relatively displeasing.
One cannot even agree to view the yidam with pure vision in the special context of practice whilst despising forms which resemble the yidam in one’s everyday life. This would be utterly divisive and merely betray samaya. The practice must be integrated – one has to arise as the yidam, and celebrate every manifestation of the yidam’s appearance. One has to experience all vision as the kyil’khor of the yidam. One has to experience all sound as the mantra of the yidam. Because of this, one cannot retire into abstractions – keeping the yidam in one compartment and one’s prejudices in another. This is not possible if one is to practise as an authentic practitioner.