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Chapter 2: Laying the Foundation
Guenther and I decided that the best way for us to approach the subject of tantra together is for him to deal with the
or knowledge aspect of it and for me to deal with the
the skillful means or actual application aspect of it.
From the practical side then, the basic idea of tantra is, like any other teaching of Buddhism, the attainment of enlightenment. But in tantra the approach to enlightenment is somewhat different. Rather than aiming at the attainment of the enlightened state, the tantric approach is to see the continuity of enlightened mind in all situations, as well as the constant discontinuity of it.
Experience on the tantric level corresponds to the utmost and most complete state of being that can be attained. On the other hand, tantra is not a question of attainment, but rather the actual work of relating to situations properly.
All kinds of emphasis has been laid on the various colorful attributes of tantra.
One speaks of its ten special aspects. There is the
that is, the method or practice; there are the practices of meditation; there is the realization of one's innate nature through identifying with various deities;
and so on. The basic nature of tantra can be defined in terms of ten such ways in which it differs from sutra teachings.
The tantric teaching is divided into the three categories of
All tantric teachings have these three aspects. The teaching of tantra in terms of the three kayas can also be related to the three main vehicles of Buddhism. The nirmanakaya aspect of tantra is associated with the Hinayana, the way of monastic discipline. The sambhogakaya aspect of tantra could be said to be its
Mahayana aspect; it
is concerned with various yogic practices dealing with
and so on. The dharmakaya or Vajrayana aspect of tantra is concerned with pure being or suchness. In Tibetan this is referred to as
"that which is, that which just simply is." This is the ultimate aspect of the tantric teaching. Nevertheless, the basic quality of continuity continues even beyond this.
Tibetan names for sutra and tantra give some insight into the difference between the two kinds of teaching. The Tibetan for sutra is
which means "confluence" or "junction." It is a point where things can meet, coincide, conclude together. Most simply, it
is the place where the teachings can come together with the problems of everyday life. Take the conclusions of the Four Noble Truths: suffering, the origin of suffering, the cessation of suffering and the path. These are conclusions that coincide with all kinds of human conflicts of mind. Tantra, as we know, means
"continuity," which is something more than just junction. From the tantric viewpoint, the junction of the sutras is not important. Junction is just the sparkling experience of insight, a sudden glimpse of something that comes together because two aspects of all experience suddenly are in a chaotic relationship from the point of view of the ordinary ego-oriented set-up. Hate and love, to take the example of emotions, come together. The solidity of hate,
which depends on ego's set-up, encounters the ego quality of love. Suddenly,
both hate and love are there together and suddenly love does not exist and hate does not exist. The ego ground of the situation is exploded. So aspects of the situation come together and there is a flow. At the moment of coming together,
there is an explosion, which is actually the discovery of truth.
Tantra does not lay strong emphasis on this moment of the discovery of truth, because it
is not so interested in truth as opposed to confusion. Rather the principle of tantra is the continuity which runs through both truth and confusion. In
Tibetan tantra is called
which is like the thread which runs through beads. It continues from the beginning through the middle and the end. One speaks of the basic ground of tantra as continuity, the continuity as the path of tantra, and the continuity as the fruition of tantra. So tantra starts at the beginning, continues on the path and ends at the goal or fruition. But it
does not exactly end at that point. In terms of the practice it ends; in terms of attainment it does not end. There is still the play of what is called
Buddha-activity. The general picture is that you attain the experiences first of nirmanakaya, then sambhogakaya, then dharmakaya. Then having mastered the ultimate experiences, Buddha-activity begins and you work back down from dharmakaya to sambhogakaya to nirmanakaya. Having achieved the peak experiences, you come back down in order to relate with sentient beings, people who are confused, relate with them through speech or through body or whatever may be appropriate. You speak the same language as they do. So tantra goes beyond the fruition level.
In the tantric tradition, ego or confusion or ignorance is personified as
All the tantric traditions of Buddhism are concerned with the taming of Rudra, the
Rudra of ego. The Rudra principle is divided, especially in the Atiyoga tradition, into the ego of the body, the ego of the speech and the ego of the mind. This means the fixation or appropriation of the elements of body, speech and mind by the ego in relation to its security or expansion. In speaking of the fixation of the body, we are not referring to purely physical attachment—lust, let's say—as a purely physical matter. We are talking about the mind-body situation, the body aspect of our mind, the solidity aspect of it
which needs constant feeding, reinforcement. It needs continual reassurance that it is solid. That is the Rudra of the body.
Rudra of speech is the fixation of the element which is related with both the body and the mind but at the same time is uncertain which. This is a fickleness or wavering quality, uncertain whether one's foundation is the fixed aspect of the body—the physical level of the textures and colors of life—or perhaps the emotional situation of whether to love or to hate. This uncertain wavering back and forth, this fickleness quality, is speech (or mantra, if you prefer), the voice. The fixation of this is the Rudra of speech.
Rudra of mind is fundamentally believing that, if a higher state of spiritual development is to be attained, it has to be manufactured rather than uncovered.
Rangjung Dorje, a great teacher of the Kagyu tradition, in his commentary on the
says that the ultimate materialism is believing that Buddha-nature can be manufactured by mental effort, spiritual gymnastics. So that is psychological and spiritual materialism—the Rudra of the mind.
These three principles—the fixation and solidification of the security of the body;
the fixation on the emotional level of being uncertain but still hanging onto something; the fixation on the mental level of believing in some ultimate savior principle, some principle outside one's own nature that, so to speak,
can do the trick—these three principles of Rudra constitute one of the prime occupations of tantra, which is concerned with overcoming them.
The three Rudra principles also correspond to the threefold division of tantra. At the beginning, in order to relate to the Rudra of body, the student must begin tantric study on the Hinayana level. This includes practices such as the
which the Hinayana developed for training the mind. These practices concentrate on breathing, walking and other bodily movements. They simplify the basic nature of solidity. This can be understood if we realize that this kind of solidifying by the ego of its space is based on an attitude which trusts complexity. It places its trust on very complicated answers, complicated logic.
Satipatthana is a way of simplifying the logical mind, which is body in this case, because it relates to something very solid and definite. The logical mind attempts to fixate, hold onto, grasp and thus is continually projecting something definite and solid. So the basic Hinayana practice of simplifying every activity of the mind into just breathing or bodily movement reduces the intensity of the Rudra of body. It does not particularly transcend it or free one from it, but at least it reduces the intensity of it.
The next stage, dealing with the Rudra of speech, is on the sambhogakaya level. All kinds of practices have developed for this in the Tibetan tradition. Notably,
there is what is known as the four foundation practices: one hundred thousand prostrations, one hundred thousand repetitions of the refuge formula, one hundred thousand repetitions of the hundred-syllable Vajrasattva mantra, and one hundred thousand offerings of one's body, speech and mind as the whole universe. These preliminary tantric practices on the sambhogakaya level are related with prana, nadis, and bindu. They are based on making use of the speed, the movement, the rhythm of confused mind. At the same time, there is something very unconfused about these practices. One cannot go through them all without relating to the true nature of body, speech and mind. They occupy a sort of intermediary place between confusion and clarity. And the basic continuity principle of tantra underlies the whole thing.
Having gone through the satipatthana of the Hinayana or nirmanakaya level (which includes the
having completed the four foundation practices on the Mahayana or sambhogakaya level, the student is now just ready to have a glimpse of the guru, of real relationship and practice with the guru, real commitment to the guru. This is where the guru yoga practice for attaining union with the guru comes in. When that has been completed, then comes what is called
which could be translated as "initiation" or "confirmation." This is the entry to the dharmakaya level.
There are four levels of abhisheka and all take place within a realm of space in which the student and teacher meet in some basic understanding. This understanding is the result of the previous practices. The student has related to his body, learned to slow down the speed of muscles, veins, emotions, blood.
Circulations of all kinds have been slowed down altogether. Now the student is finally able to relate to the ultimate space through his relationship and union with the teacher. In the Zen tradition this is known as transmission. It seems to be the same meeting of two minds as is found in tantra.
We can see from this brief look that the practice of tantra is not easy. The student has to begin at the beginning. He has to acquire an understanding of the principle of taming the mind. Understanding of the Rudra principle brings egolessness or Rudralessness. He has to get to know his own bodily situation through the preliminary tantric practices. Then he can achieve the final surrendering through abhisheka. Looked at as a whole, the practice of tantra is like building a house. First you put down the foundation, then you build the first story, then the second. Then you can put a gold roof on it if you like.
We have looked at the sutra or Hinayana aspect within tantra, the Mahayana aspect within tantra, then the final subtleties of tantra within itself. Looked at in this way, the whole of the practice of Buddhism can be regarded as tantra, although all Buddhists outside the historical tradition of tantra might not agree with this.