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Vajrayana: Tantra Practice

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Tibetan Buddhist mantras are words originally spoken by a Buddha while deep in meditation. Reciting them helps to replace the endless, internal chatter of the mind with calming syllables that purify karmic imprints, bring beneficial energy, focus the concentration, and offer protection and blessings.

Chanting a mantra cannot by itself liberate a person from cyclic existence. While chanting, one also must transform and focus one's thoughts. To engage the mind in this way requires preparation--receiving teachings from a qualified master, reflecting and contemplating on those teachings, and engaging in skillful meditation practice.

Bardor Tulku Rinpoche

Tantric practice harnesses the imagination- a powerful tool we all possess. Thus, to repeatedly imagine achieving a goal is a compelling method for accomplishing it sooner. Suppose, for example, we are unemployed. If, each day, we imagine finding a job, we succeed more quickly then if we dwell, with depression and self-pity, on being out of work. This is because we maintain a positive attitude about our situation. With a negative attitude, we lack self-confidence even to look for a job. Success or failure in life hinges on our self-image and, in tantra, we work on improving ours by means of Buddha-figures. Imagining we are already a Buddha provides an extremely potent self-image to counteract negative habits and feelings of inadequacy.

Alexander Berzin from 'Taking the Kalachakra Initiation'

His Holiness the Dalai Lama

Samsara-our conditioned existence in the perpetual cycle of habitual tendencies and nirvana - genuine freedom from such an existence- are nothing but different manifestations of a basic continuum. So this continuity of consciousness us always present. This is the meaning of tantra.

In yoga tantra, highest dimension of Buddhist practice, there is no distinction between gender. In this final life in which you attain Buddhahood, there is no difference whether you are male or female.

Among the seven branches [qualities of Buddhahood]—complete enjoyment, union, great bliss, non-inherent existence, compassion, uninterrupted continuity, and non-cessation—three are found only in tantra—complete enjoyment, union, and great bliss—and the other four are common to both sutra and tantra, although non-inherent existence can also be put in the group specific to tantra when it is considered as the object ascertained by a bliss consciousness.... In Yoga Tantras the bliss arising from holding hands or embracing is used in the path; in Performance Tantras, from laughing; and in Action Tantras, from looking. The four tantras are similar in that they all use desire for the attributes of the desire realm on the path.

Tantra in Tibet

A single word or expression in tantra can have four different meanings. Corresponding to the four levels of interpretation. These levels are known as the four modes of understanding. They are: 1 the literal meaning; 2 the general meaning; 3 the hidden meaning; and 4 the ultimate meaning.

The initial period of deity yoga is called prior approximation because one is accustoming to a deity through becoming closer and closer to its state, whereupon the deity grants the feat, either directly or in the sense of bestowing a capacity to the mind. Actually effecting the achievement of feats is done by way of carrying out prescribed burnt offerings or repetition of mantra, etc., after the approximation has been completed. These feats are then used for the welfare of others in the third stage, which involves activities of (1) pacification such as overcoming plague or relieving others of demons, (2) increase of lifespan, intelligence, wealth, and so forth, (3) control of resources, persons harmful to others' welfare, etc., and (4) ferocity, such as expelling or confusing harmful beings. Deity Yoga in Action and Performance Tantra

In general, in many of the tantras of the new translation schools, there are no explicit or elaborate references to meditation on emptiness during the main practice, but rather to meditative states of great bliss. Although that is the case, still we do find emphasis on the importance of understanding emptiness prior to engaging in the practices of Highest Yoga Tantra, and the realization of emptiness is taken to be a prerequisite or indispensable factor for the successful realization of the stages of Highest Yoga Tantra. Otherwise there can be no meditation on great bliss without the understanding of emptiness. As far as meditation on emptiness is concerned, there are two approaches: one is meditation that employs discernment and analysis, and one is meditation on the basis of settling, without analysing. Analytical meditation may support the great bliss of the Highest Yoga Tantra system, but in general, in the Highest Yoga Tantra of the new translation schools, meditation on emptiness consists entirely of settling meditation. It is not explained as analytical meditation, because to engage in analytical meditation inhibits the arising of great bliss and prevents the attainment of subtler states of mind. Since it has this effect, analytical meditation is not practised in this context. Dzogchen: The Heart Essence of the Great Perfection understanding of the doctrine of emptiness is fundamental to tantric practice. Every sadhana begins with, is structured around, and ends with meditation upon emptiness. To practice Vajrayana without the wisdom of emptiness can be very dangerous. For example, a main tantric technique is the cultivation of a subtle divine pride, a confidence that one is an enlightened tantric deity, the Lord of the Mandala. One's mind is the Wisdom Body of a Buddha, one's speech is the Beatific Body, one's form is the Perfect Emanation Body, and the world and its inhabitants are seen as a mandala inhabited by the various forms of tantric deities. Thus we have to utterly change our sense of "I." To do so involves the subject of emptiness. To practice the yoga of divine pride without an understanding of emptiness will not only be useless, but could lead to identity problems and other undesirable psychological effects. Therefore it is said that although the Vajrayana is a quick path when correctly practiced on the proper spiritual basis, it is dangerous for the spiritually immature. This type of danger area is one of the reasons why the Vajrayana must be practiced under the supervision of a qualified vajra acharya.

The Path to Enlightenment

Practitioners of the three lower tantras attain many common feats through which they see Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, hear their teachings, and under their care complete the practices for enlightenment quickly, but aside from proceeding faster on the paths of accumulation and preparation, the rest of the path is still protracted. According to the oral tradition, attainment of Buddhahood in the one short lifetime of this degenerate era [which nowadays is roughly sixty years] is a distinguishing feature of Highest Yoga Tantra, but the attainment of the enlightenment of Buddhahood in one lifetime is also a feature of the three lower tantras. The latter is not the one short lifetime of the degenerate era but refers to the ability gained by yogis through the practice of deity yoga, repetition of mantra, and so forth to extend their lifetime over many aeons. During such a lifetime one can attain highest enlightenment, relying on the paths of the three lower tantras and eventually engaging in Highest Yoga.

...Action, Performance, and Yoga Tantras say that Buddhahood can be achieved in one lifetime. For instance, the continuation of the "Vairochanabhisambodhi Tantra," a Performance Tantra, says, 'Those Bodhisattvas engaging in practice from the approach of Secret Mantra will become completely and perfectly enlightened in just this lifetime.' Such statements that enlightenment can be achieved in one lifetime by means of the three lower tantras should be taken as an exaggerated expression of the greatness of that particular tantra.

Tantra in Tibet

Question: Can you explain how Tantric meditation achieves the enlightened state so much more quickly than vipasyana, i.e. insight meditation? His Holiness: In Tantric meditation, particularly in the practice of Anuttarayoga Tantra, while one is realizing emptiness, the ultimate truth, one controls thought through the use of certain techniques. In the Sutrayana, the non-Tantric form of the Mahayana, there is no mention of these unique techniques involving the yogic practices of controlled breathing and meditation using the inner channels and cakras, etc. The Sutrayana just describes how to analyze the object, i.e. how to come to gain insight into the nature of the object through reasoning, etc. The Anuttarayoga Tantra, however, teaches, in addition to this, certain techniques which use the channels, subtle winds, etc. to help one to control one's thoughts more effectively. These methods help one to more quickly gain control over the scattered mind and to achieve more effectively a level of consciousness which is at once subtle and powerful. This is the basis of the system.


Spiritual practice often brings to the surface aspects of ourselves that are extremely painful. We have a deep reservoir of emotional wounds and patterns that may be hard to accept in ourselves, and which we have consequently often ignored or denied. This forms a powerful "Shadow," to use Jung's term. As we begin to develop some aspects of tantric practice, these repressed emotions will be resurrected from the underworld of our psyche. This enables the energy bound up in them to then be addressed and potentially transformed. This can sometimes be an uncomfortable process, and it is important to accept and value ourselves even though we feel dreadful, or are frightened of or disgusted with what we see. When we practice Tantra, the dark aspects of our Shadow will almost certainly be evoked, and it requires great courage, honesty, and humility to face and transform them. Definite emergence, therefore, is the willingness to wake up and face ourselves as we embark on the tantric path. In this willingness to face unconscious habits we also need compassion towards ourselves as we pass through periods of struggle and discomfort in our practice. Through a genuine love, self-acceptance, and sense of humor about ourselves we can potentially uncover even the darkest inner monsters. Healthy self-value and self-worth gives us a solid basis from which to explore the tantric path.

While traditional teachings speak of insights and realizations experienced on the spiritual path, it is seldom made clear that these often come through pain and turmoil. Tantra aims at transforming our most basic emotional nature, and to hold this process we must cultivate compassion for ourselves. This compassion is the recognition that we are human, that we have our qualities and failings, and that we need to value ourselves with them. Compassion towards others begins when we are able to love ourselves through our pain, and in doing so empathize with the pain of others. Rob Preece from The Psychology of Buddhist Tantra

As His Holiness the Dalai Lama teaches, "until you realize that the basic, innate mind of clear light is your true nature, you remain a sentient being; but when you understand your ultimate nature, you become a Buddha." Although clear light tallies with mind's natural state, it does not appear in ordinary states of consciousness because they are darkened by ignorance and obscured by emotions. The Kalacakratantra analyzes the nature of those obscurations at the level of life's source motion, i.e., breathing. Each one of our breaths holds immensity within itself and is related to the universe because the very same energy that makes us breathe also sets celestial bodies into motion. In this context, energy is to be understood as some physical magnitude quantified by the calculation of the revolutions of the planets or the number of breaths. However, this physical energy also has its subtle spiritual dimension which is experienced while meditating.

Such subtle energy (or life-breath) manifests itself in two states; one is called "dual" or "polarized," the other "nondual" or "nonpolarized." Dual or polarized states are borne by life-breath's motion in our subtle side-channels, i.e., the right subtle channel which is solar by nature, and the left subtle channel of lunar nature. Those subtle channels are our inner sun and moon. They are related to the dual states of consciousness of discursive thought, to binary logic, and to the mind that clings to a notion of separate and intrinsic reality of the self and phenomena. In its polarized form, energy bears the karmic imprints of ignorance, emotions, and other mental afflictions.

Still, such breaths or winds (which are depicted as the "mount" for samsaric mind) get depolarized naturally six hundred and seventy-five times a day. Indeed, six hundred seventy-five breaths called "wisdom winds" occur daily when lifebreath transits through the twelve constellation-petals of the navel's lotus. When each of the twelve transits takes place, the side winds enter the central channel for fifty-six and one-fourth breaths. Wisdom winds tally with nondual, nonconceptual, or unobscured states of consciousness; they bear clear light.

Training in the practice of Kalacakra yogas' meditation aims entirely at intentionally directing the side-winds into the central channel. Sofia Stril-Rever, from As Long As Space Endures: Essays on the Kalacakra Tantra

Knowing Tara's purpose [to help all living beings], we will develop strong feelings of joy, happiness, and closeness at the prospect of connecting to Mother Tara. It is said that Mother Tara's "hook of compassion" is always ready; we must have our mind and heart in the state of readiness, which is the "ring of devotion." We will aspire to follow Tara's example ourselves by working for all living beings with love, compassion, courage, and commitment.

Because Tara abides beyond boundaries and limitations, we cannot exactly say where Tara is and where she is not. Tara is readily available to every living being everywhere. Her sambhogakaya emanations include Vajravarahi, Vajrayogini, the five Mother Dhyani Buddhas, and the five wisdom dakinis. Her nirmanakaya emanations include the Twenty-one Emanations of Tara praised in this homage, plus many more in all the different colors. Red Tara, for example, is special for activating our realization and overpowering our ego-clinging and neurotic states. With her help we are freed from the confinement of our egos so we are able to reach out to all living beings with bodhichitta. Khenchen Palden Sherab and Khenpo Tsewang Dongyal, from Tara's Enlightened Activity: An Oral Commentary on 'The Twenty-one Praises to Tara'

Specifi cally, in tantra, there is no way we can achieve enlightenment without a perfectly qualified vajra-guru planting the seeds of the four kayas in our mind through granting the blessings of the four complete initiations of Highest Yoga Tantra. Each initiation leaves a potential, or seed, in the mind of the vajra disciple. It is through the kindness of the vajra-guru that these four initiations are given, thus planting the seeds of the four kayas and enabling us to meditate on the paths of secret mantra. If we try to practice Highest Yoga Tantra without a guru, we won’t achieve enlightenment. Lama Zopa Rinpoche, from The Heart of the Path