Vajrayana originated in India and was taught by the Buddha at different times and places. Nowadays it is mostly associated with Tibetan Buddhism. 'Vajra' refers to the indestructible weapon of Indra, king of the gods, which can destroy anything but cannot itself be destroyed. It symbolises the indestructible quality of the true nature of mind that, once awakened, overcomes all obstacles and defilements. Vajrayana is a specialised part of the Mahayana and uses a variety of different methods to bring about rapid progress towards enlightenment. These special methods are found in the tantras, which Vajrayana relies upon, as distinct from the sutras, which are the basis of the Hinayana and Mahayana paths.
The bridge between the sutras and tantras is the teaching on Buddha Nature, which is the heart of the Vajrayana path. It represents the Third Turning of the Wheel of Dharma, the third main stage of the Buddha's teaching. Previously we saw that there is no self and that phenomena are empty of separate existence in that everything arises in dependence upon many other things. The teachings of Buddha Nature go further and point out that the true nature of emptiness is radiant clarity. Just as sunshine streams out from the sun, so the qualities of limitless wisdom and compassion radiate out from the empty nature of all phenomena.
According to this teaching every living being is endowed with Buddha Nature, the potential for enlightenment. Each one of us is inherently pure and naturally perfect and has the capacity for developing limitless wisdom and compassion. This purity and perfection cannot be damaged or destroyed in any way. It is a great freedom and joy that is already complete within us, without the need to add or remove anything.
The problem lies in the fact that most people are unable to recognize this true state of being. It is hidden from us behind the repetitive patterns of our mind which we identify with. For instance, we tend to deal with life by becoming very caught up in the concepts of 'I' and 'me'. This limits us because once we start fixating on this idea of 'me' we start to divide everything: 'me' and 'you'; 'what I like' and 'what I don't like' and so forth. We completely lose track of the essential wholeness of ourselves and our deep connection to all of life around us - and this obscures our Buddha Nature.
In spiritual texts, Buddha Nature is sometimes referred to as a precious treasure hidden beneath a pauper's dwelling. We act like a pauper unaware of the treasure hidden just beneath the level of our everyday awareness. The Vajrayana path gives us confidence in the fact that this treasure is really present within our everyday experience and it offers skillful practices to clear away the mental confusion and negative tendencies of mind that obscure it.
Taking Enlightenment as the Path
The Hinayana and Mahayana are called 'causal vehicles' because they set in motion the processes which will cause enlightenment to happen sometime in the future. In contrast, the Vajrayana is distinctive in that enlightenment itself is the path. Hence, Vajrayana is referred to as the 'result vehicle'.
The difference in following the Vajrayana path is that rather than 'going towards it' over a period of many lifetimes, as on the other two paths, we learn to 'step into' our Buddha Nature in this life through being gradually introduced to it by our teacher. Thus, we come to experience it directly in ourselves. In order to stabilise this experience, we practice special meditation methods and eventually this experience matures into full realisation of what was there right from the beginning.
This process is expressed in the notion of 'ground, path and fruition', which forms the framework of the highest level of the Vajrayana path. The 'ground' is our Buddha Nature. The 'path' is the gradual familiarisation with this truth that follows through meditation and our conduct in life. And 'fruition' is the complete awakening of our Buddha Nature into 'Buddhahood'. Using the metaphor of the precious treasure hidden beneath a pauper's dwelling, it is as if we have realised that the treasure is buried beneath our floor, we have undergone the hard work of breaking open the ground and digging out the earth, and we have found the treasure, cleaned and polished it and recognised it as the very truth of our being.
Guru and Lineage
At the very heart of the Vajrayana path is the relationship with a spiritual teacher or 'guru'. The teacher opens the door to the teachings and practices of the Dharma, maintained pure by an unbroken line going right back to the Buddha himself. This is the meaning of lineage, this unbroken line of spiritual teachings transmitted from teacher to student, starting with the Buddha himself teaching his disciples and then they in turn teaching their students and so on, across the centuries to us, receiving the very same spiritual teaching today. The different lineages are not separate sects; they are simply unique lines of transmission, each going back to the Buddha himself, meeting the differing needs of different people. Additionally, an authentic spiritual teacher who carries such a lineage, should possess a stable realisation of the enlightened mind so as to be able to introduce it to his or her students when the time is right.
An analogy that explains the relationship of lineage, spiritual teacher and our own Buddha Nature is to compare ourselves to an unlit candle and the Buddha, with his fully awakened mind, to the candle flame. Through his teachings, he lit the candle of his disciples so that they too were burning brightly with enlightenment. They in turn passed the flame on, lighting the candles of their students, who in turn passed it on to their students and on through the ages, all the while the candle flame burning just as brightly as when first lit, until it reaches us and lights our candle, so that we shine brightly on our own as well.
So it is that, through this working relationship with an authentic spiritual teacher, we are introduced to the true nature of our mind. It is through him that we recognise our Buddha Nature and we realise that the treasure is hidden beneath the ordinariness of our everyday lives and we acknowledge the great value of making the effort to uncover it.
In all the texts we are advised to spend a long time looking for the right teacher. When we find him or her, we should then spend a number of years observing this person and to see if they are, in fact, the right teacher for us. In the same way, the teacher will be assessing us to determine if we are the right student. Then, once this very special bond has been established, it is vital to respect this relationship, to commit to it and to diligently follow the advice of the teacher. This can be challenging, as is well demonstrated in the lives of the great masters, such as Marpa and Milarepa. Challenged to face our own mind, with its negative tendencies and limiting patterns, we often cling fervently to these old, familiar ways, and it takes hard work to set them aside and open ourselves up to the deeper truth of who we are. The teacher helps us by reflecting back to us our Buddha Nature. First we come to recognize it in him. Then we come to recognize it in ourselves too, and eventually we come to see it in everything and everyone around us.
Vajrayana Refuge: Three Roots
In the Vajrayana tradition the importance of the guru or spiritual teacher is reflected in the refuge commitment that we make when choosing to follow this path. In the Hinayana tradition we take refuge in the Three Jewels of the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha for the duration of our lives, with the goal of seeking liberation for ourselves. In the Mahayana tradition we take refuge in the Three Jewels until we attain enlightenment, which may be many lifetimes from now, with the commitment to lead all other beings to enlightenment too. The Vajrayana refuge is based on the Mahayana refuge and, in addition, includes taking refuge in the Three Roots:
- Guru - we take refuge in our spiritual teacher and his lineage as the root of blessing or spiritual grace as through him we will come to recognise our Buddha Nature.
- Yidam - we take refuge in the meditation deities that connect us with the deepest truth of who we are and which express the different qualities of enlightened mind. They are the root of accomplishment on the path.
- Dakinis and Protectors - we take refuge in these in order to clear obstacles from our spiritual path and help us on our journey to enlightenment. They are the root of compassionate activity.
First we do the four ordinary foundations, also known as the 'four ways of changing the mind,' because they turn our mind away from worldly preoccupation and towards the path of the Dharma. They are a series of reflections:
- Reflecting on how rare and precious our human life is. We often take for granted our freedom of choice and how many opportunities we have as a human being (as compared to an animal). To help us put this in the right perspective, a properly valued human life that is used in the right way is compared to seeing a star in the daytime.
- Reflecting on the impermanence of everything that exists and becoming aware of the fragility and unpredictability of our lives. This helps us focus on the importance of applying ourselves to spiritual practice right now.
- Reflecting on karma, the law of cause and effect, and acknowledging that we shape our lives through how we act. This helps us focus on the importance of acting in wholesome ways and avoiding unskilful actions.
- Reflecting on the all-pervasiveness of suffering in life. This reflection is not to make us morbid or depressed, but rather to help wake us up to the way things really are and motivate us to practice the Dharma for the good of all living beings.
Having reflected deeply on these four truths and absorbed them right to the core of our being, we then embark on the four special foundations or ngondro:
- Prostrations and Taking Refuge. This involves taking refuge in the Three Jewels and Three Roots and generating bodhicitta, the mind of enlightenment. It is accompanied by doing full prostrations, while reciting a refuge prayer and imagining the sources of refuge in front of us, symbolically portrayed on a lineage tree. This practice deepens the experience of refuge and purifies harmful actions connected with the body.
- Vajrasattva (or Dorje Sempa) purification practice. This involves visualizing the deity Vajrasattva above our heads and reciting his hundred syllable mantra, while imagining that all our harmful actions of body, speech and mind are purified in the process.
- Mandala Offering. During this practice we symbolically offer the entire universe to the sources of refuge again and again, while reciting a special offering prayer. The purpose of this practice is to accumulate merit, which means to generate a force of positive energy within our mind.
- Guru Yoga. The preceding purification and accumulation practices lay the ground for the devotional practice of Guru Yoga, during which we open our mind to the blessing of our guru and his spiritual lineage. Blessing is the connection between student and teacher whereby the student opens his mind to the wisdom of the teacher, and through this compassion, the teacher opens the door to his spiritual lineage transmitting the living experience of enlightenment directly into the heart of the student.
Having completed the preliminary practices there are two main ways to go, which are often combined these days. The first way is described as a path of skillful means and it involves doing practices that use mantra and visualisation, generally known as 'deity practices'. The second way relates directly to the nature of mind and is a graduated system of practices, involving calm abiding and insight meditation, leading to Mahamudra realisation of the true nature of mind. In general deity practices are developed to their fullest in the long term retreats (such as four year retreats), while the second way is found in Mahamudra courses offered by high lineage teachers in the Karma Kagyu tradition.
With regard to deity practices, it is important to explain that the concept of 'deity' in Buddhism is different to its traditional usage in the West. It does not refer to a separate, external, supernaturally powerful being that we pray to in order to receive grace and favour. Instead 'deity' in this context refers to different facets of the enlightened mind that are within us - for example, limitless compassion. Deity practices normally involve meditating on a particular form, which is an expression of a quality of enlightened awareness. To use an analogy, if our Buddha Nature is likened to a translucent diamond composed of light, then the different deities, like Tara and Chenrezig, are like different facets of this diamond, expressing different qualities of the enlightened mind. When we meditate on a deity, it is like establishing a mind link (yidam) with these qualities; and through meditating on the deity, these qualities gradually manifest in us. For example, Chenrezig is regarded as the embodiment of limitless love and compassion, and through meditating on his form and reciting his mantra, limitless love and compassion gradually arise in us.
Normally our teacher will recommend a practice to us as that will be most effective in purifying our particular type of negativity and bringing out our unique, positive qualities. Each deity practice requires an empowerment, which is a formal ceremony that opens the door to that particular meditation practice. It is both an authorisation to do a practice and it initiates us into the main elements of the practice. After having received the empowerment (called 'wang'), we then receive the scriptural transmission to recite the text of the practice (called 'lung') and then detailed instructions on how to do the practice.
At its most profound level an empowerment can confer upon a student, whose mind is ripe and open, a direct experience of the true nature of mind through the doorway of that particular practice. This happens by way of a ritual that bypasses the sceptical rational mind and transmits directly the heart essence of the practice. In order for an empowerment to be effective the teacher needs to have been authorised to confer empowerments by his teacher, who must hold an authentic spiritual lineage, and the student needs to be open and receptive and have faith in the process of empowerment.
Our everyday mind is like a curtain obscuring sunlight coming through a window. The sunshine represents our Buddha Nature and the curtains are our limiting habitual tendencies. At its most profound level, during the ritual of empowerment it is as if our spiritual teacher walks over to the window and pulls back the curtain so that the sunlight streams into the room, illuminating everything. Previously, we had just heard about the sun, but we had never seen it or experienced it for ourselves. Now, even if it is just for a moment, we see it with our own eyes and feel it on our skin. At first, this experience of the sunshine is short-lived. Our old habits of thinking and reacting flood back and the curtain closes again. But at least we have seen the sun and have perceived our Buddha Nature behind the curtains of self-centred thought patterns. Then, on the basis of having experienced the sunshine directly, we do the deity practice for which we have received empowerment, and this gradually stabilises the experience until it finally matures into full blossoming of our Buddha Nature.
Creation and Completion
Vajrayana rituals or sadhanas work at two levels. At the level of everyday reality, they use a variety of different visualisation methods to transform our mundane perception of ourselves and the world. This is called 'the phase of creation'. On a more profound level, the rituals involve directly recognizing and resting in the true nature of the mind without any thinking at all. This is called 'the phase of completion'.
The phase of creation uses our imagination to break down our solid and fragmented perception of ourselves and the world. In these practices, we take on another identity by imagining ourselves in the form of a deity. In so doing we are aligning ourselves with who we really are - our Buddha Nature. We also imagine the external environment to be a pure realm of the deity, which is not another place, but our everyday world viewed through pure eyes. In order to immerse ourselves in this different way of seeing things, the sadhana employs all sorts of skillful means, such as visual mandalas, physical gestures or mudras, ritual music and so forth.
What we are really doing with these practices is breaking down the tendency to see ourselves and the world as being solid and fixed - instead we are training ourselves to see things as being transparent and radiant. Also, through imagining in this way, we break down the false sense of separation we have between ourselves and others and between ourselves and the environment. When we do Chenrezig practice, for example, and imagine ourselves to be Chenrezig, we see all form as the body of Chenrezig, all sound as the sound of his mantra and all thoughts and emotions as the play of his enlightened awareness. We see everything as the manifestation of the wisdom and compassion of the deity. This is referred to as 'pure appearance' in Vajrayana Buddhism. When everything and everyone is perfect, how can we possibly entertain thoughts of friends and enemies, or what I like and what I don't like?
At the end of the sadhana, we dissolve our visualisation of the deity into emptiness and then simply rest in that state for a while. This is the completion stage. Here we let the mind relax in its true nature and simply remain in this space for as long as feels natural. Mind knows mind with great stillness and precision until finally the total truth of who we really are reveals itself to us, just as it is.
This total realisation of truth, the very summit of the spiritual journey within the Kagyu lineage of Tibetan Buddhism, is known as 'Mahamudra'. It means 'Great Seal'. Everything is stamped with the seal of ultimate truth. When we realise Mahamudra, we see the ultimate truth wherever we look. It is beautifully expressed in an extract from a prayer written by a great master of the Kagyu tradition, the Third Karmapa:
"When looking again and again at the mind, there is nothing to look at.
The 'nothing to be seen' is seen vividly just as it is.
This is what cuts through all doubts of 'being' or 'not being'.
May I recognise myself unmistakenly.
When looking at objects, there are no objects - they are seen as mind.
When looking at the mind, there is no mind - it is devoid of essence.
Looking at both, the dualistic belief is automatically dispelled.
May luminous clarity which is the natural state of mind be understood."