Being a Sakyapa
The Life of the Buddha
The Three Vehicles
The General Preliminaries
The difficulty of obtaining a human body
The basic practices of Mahayana
The Thought of Enlightenment
The specific Preliminaries of Tantric Practice
The Tantric Vows
The Two Stages
The Profound Vision
INTRODUCTION TO TIBETAN BUDDHISM
written in French by Jamyang Khandro according to the teachings of His Eminence Phende Rinpoche, Jamyang Kunzang Cho kyi Jamtso. This was translated into English by Dr Cornelia Weissgunther.
Our intention here is to offer access to Tibetan Buddhism to the general public, who up to now has had little opportunity to know about this religion. Buddhism, being practiced by millions of people in this world, has for many centuries nourished and inspired almost all the great civilisations of India and the Far East. Today, especially Japanese Zen Buddhism and Tibetan Buddhism are experiencing a considerable development throughout Europe and North America.
We are therefore offering this text which deals with most aspects of Buddhism, i.e. its philosophy, ethical discipline, meditation practices and so on.
It could also serve as a preparation for all those who, wishing to get more involved, should, according to the tradition, decide to request a lama (master) for instruction in practice. Whatever their school may be, the ultimate aim of all Buddhists is the realisation of Buddhahood (awakening, liberation), and this can only be achieved through the realisation of the true empty nature of all phenomena or “dharmas”.
By knowing this, one will understand why all schools of Buddhism put a special emphasis on the practice of various meditation methods which are the training for mastering one’s mind and its products, the thoughts, just as a piano player would use the piano keys to gain mastery over his fingers. The term “Buddhism” is derived from “Buddha”, a Sanskrit word meaning “the awakened one” (Sanskrit is one of the ancient languages of India). In Tibetan, this term “Buddha” is translated as Sangs-rGyas: “Sangs” means: he who is free from all imperfections and faults”, and “rGyas”: “He in whom prosper happiness and all qualities of virtue and power.” Buddha thus means: “He who is free from any conditioning” and refers to a state which every being can obtain (“Buddhahood”) rather than to a particular person.
In Tibetan Buddhism, and in all of the Mahayana or Great Vehicle in general, one talks of Buddhas and not only of the one historical Buddha Shakyamuni (or Shakya Thub-pa in Tibetan).
The Buddhas are free from any conditioning, countless in numbers and able to take all forms and appearances to accomplish the benefit of limitless sorts of sentient beings throughout the infinity of space and time.
Among them, the Buddha Shakyamuni or Shaky Thub-pa is the Buddha who, for the benefit of the human beings of our time, has initiated the teachings one calls “Buddhism”. He is neither the first nor the last to come, but the fourth within the succession of 1000 Buddhas of our “Kalpa” or aeon, which is a period of time of inconceivable duration.
It is important to comprehend here that if one talks of the 1000 Buddhas of our Kalpa, this refers to the Buddhas who, like Buddha Shakya Thub-pa “turn the wheel of the doctrine (Dharma)”, as the technical term is; or, to put it otherwise, who initiate a new period of transmission of teachings in the human world, after those of the preceding period have disappeared.
At present, we still live in the period of transmission of Buddha Shakya Thub-pa, even though he himself showed the appearance of passing away a long time ago. But, within this same period of teaching by the 1000 Buddhas mentioned above, a much greater number of sentient beings will have become Buddhas, even though they are not being included in these 1000. This point is very important in order to understand Mahayana Buddhism and Tibetan Buddhism (or Vajrayana) interpretation of the life of the Buddha. Therefore, in this tradition, the Buddha is already a Buddha or awakened being when his birth as a royal prince of the Shakya clan occurs. As he is already Buddha, he does not actually attain enlightenment at Bodhgaya, but he only shows the appearance of attaining it in order to set an example to teach beings. Similarly, all other acts of his life are only performed to teach beings.
The life of the Buddha
We shall now briefly examine the life story of Buddha Shakyamuni.
A long time ago, he first of all developed the “thought of enlightenment” (Bodhicitta or desire to attain Buddhahood for the benefit of beings), and then, during long Kalpas, accumulated the two qualities of merit and transcendental wisdom. Finally he became a perfect Buddha in the paradise of ‘Og-min and, for the sake of beings, performed the following twelve acts:
1. Taking various and manifold incarnations in order to help sentient beings.
2. Leaving the celestial kingdom of dGa’-lDan and coming to our earth.
3. Entering the womb of his mother.
4. Being born.
5. Showing his supreme mastery in all domains of science.
6. Enjoying himself in the company of his wives.
7. Turning his back to worldly life when he ordained himself a monk.
8. Practicing asceticism.
9. Defeating demons and obstacles.
10. Manifesting enlightenment.
12. Entering nirvana or passing beyond suffering.
When the Buddha was staying in the paradise of dGa’-lDan to teach the gods, the Buddhas came to request and remind him that the time had come for him to incarnate on our earth.
He took five choices regarding time, country, caste, lineage and mother, and then put his crown on the head of rGyal-ba Byams-pa (Maitreya), thus consecrating him to be the next Buddha to come after himself.
The Buddha first of all chose to incarnate at our time, when humans do not live more than about one hundred years. As his place of incarnation he also chose our realm of humans and the continent of India, which was already blessed by the coming of the preceding Buddhas and where a great number of disciples would be ready to receive his teachings. He also chose to incarnate in the royal caste, which was the best caste at the time. His fourth choice concerned the lineage, which was continuing without a break for seven generations. Finally, he chose the beautiful sGyu-’Phrul-ma (skt. Maya) to be his mother, because she possessed all necessary qualities and had taken the vow to become the mother of the future Buddha a long time ago.
Having taken these five choices, he entered the womb of his mother through her right side in the form of a white elephant endowed with six defenses. At this moment, she felt an unprecedented joy.
He spent ten months in the womb of his mother. Then, when she was just walking around the park of Lumbini and was stretching to get hold of a branch of the Paksha tree, he was born from her right side.
Thus he was born, his body shining in the radiant brilliance of pure gold resembling ten million suns. The sky was all filled with divine offerings. An incalculable number of gods and goddesses came to welcome him, took hold of him, bathed his body and clothed him in divine garments.
But he ordered to be released, and, putting his feet down to the earth, he made seven steps in each of the four directions and declared his supremacy within the entire universe. Bright light pervaded the world and everybody was filled with joy. That day, still other miracles happened in great number, which induced his father, King Zas-gTsang (skr. Shuddodhana), to give him the name of Don-sGrub (skr. Siddharta), which means: “He, who realizes all aims”.
Later, the prince went to see a scholar who was very knowledgeable in the different kinds of scripts. This scholar taught him 500 different scripts, but the child claimed that he already knew them all and to the astonishment of his teacher, revealed many additional scripts which were yet unknown.
Likewise, he also manifested his incomparable supreme mastery in all other domains of science and exercises of dexterity or strength.
Then, to teach beings leaning towards the ways of the world, and in order to point out the possibility of being liberated within this very world, he married and enjoyed the company of numerous wives.
One day, when he left his palace, he met with and recognised the suffering of old age, sickness and death, as well as the serene calm of renunciation as seen embodied by the person of a noble monk. At that point he decided, for the benefit of beings and to teach them., to also apply himself to the search for the way of liberation from suffering.
At the age of 29, he went away from his palace and, at the foot of the rNam-Dag Stupa (sacred buddhist monument), he cut his own hair and ordained himself a monk as an outer sign of his renunciation of the world.
He then joined a group of hermits, who practiced extremely austere and strict asceticism; in order to teach the necessity of the virtue of effort and perseverance in the Dharma (sacred teachings), he practiced even more severe asceticism himself. For six long years, he applied himself to this type of meditation and almost complete fasting.
Then, in order to teach beings that physical mortification and weakening do not lead to enlightenment, and on request of the celestial Buddhas, he abandoned these practices and accepted the food and milk two young village girls offered to him.
He then thought about where to manifest the act of perfect enlightenment. Following the request of the gods and his own considerations, he traveled to Boddhgaya, which is the place where all the Buddhas of the three times show the act of enlightenment. At each of his foot steps, a lotus flower sprang up. When he arrived at the Vajra seat (Boddhgaya), he sat down in meditation and, remaining there, attained incomparable enlightenment.
The demons and evil spirits, unable to tolerate this, raised their terrifying army, and a rain of deadly weapons came pouring down on the Buddha. But through the power of his meditation on love, he immediately transformed them into a rain of flowers and divine offerings.
He then showed the appearance of enlightenment and omniscient Buddhahood; all the celestial Buddhas came up to him to inquire about his well-being, and the Bodhisattvas who have made the vow of benefiting others offered him an umbrella made of rays of light, which was large enough to cover the entire universe.
Remaining in his cross-legged posture, the Buddha rose up high into the sky and declared:
“The illusion of existence has been ended; suffering has come to a stop and infinite happiness has been obtained.”
For seven weeks the Buddha still remained leaning against the tree of enlightenment, reflecting on the universe.
At last on the request of the god Tshang-pa (skr. Brahma), he decided that it was necessary to start his teaching activity. At Sarnath, near the Indian Benares of our modern times, he transmitted the first group of his teachings dealing with the Four Noble Truths, which constitute the essence of the teachings of the small vehicle or Hinayana.
At various places he later gave many precepts regarding the discipline of monks.
For the benefit of beings, he also accomplished a great number of miracles. For example, at the age of 57, he defeated six Hindu masters, who held wrong views, in the land of mPyan-Yod (skr. Shravasti) by means of his superior knowledge and powers. This fortnight of miracles is being commemorated every year, starting on the first day of the Tibetan calendar.
On the Vulture Peak mountain near Rajgriha he gave most of the second group of his teachings, comprising the Sutras (words of the Buddha) of the ultimate perfection of wisdom (skt. Prajnaparamita). These teachings deal with the profound empty nature of dharmas (phenomena). This means they are devoid of all characteristics of either existence or non-existence. Buddhism is also called “the middle way”, because it avoids the two views which fall into either the extreme of existence or the extreme of non-existence. This second group of teachings constitutes the philosophical basis of the Great Vehicle or Mahayana.
Finally, mostly at Yangs-pa-can (skr. Vaishali), the Buddha transmitted the last group of teachings of Sutras and Tantras which are the foundation of the Tantric Vehicle or Vajrayana, Mantrayana. This is the vehicle which is predominantly practiced by Tibetans and Mongolians, and which has also developed in China and Japan. This Tantric Vehicle contains a great number of specific meditations and yoga practices, but it has also incorporated the other two vehicles.
The Buddha has thus shown an immense number of teachings to meet all kinds of inclinations among would-be disciples.
Towards the end of his life, he turned to the north and prophesied the extraordinary development that the Buddha’s doctrine would enjoy in the land of snow (Tibet).
In order to teach beings impermanence and death, which inevitably follow each birth, at the age of 81, the Buddha showed the appearance of passing away in the village of Kushinagar. He entered “nirvana”, the state beyond suffering.
For the benefit of future beings, to help them develop merit, the relics of his body were distributed to eight different Stupas to be a support for faith. Later they multiplied spontaneously, due to the faith of disciples, and these days they can still be found throughout the Buddhist world.
The Three Vehicles
In this short biography of the Buddha, we have seen that his teaching can be grouped into three vehicles:
- The Smaller Vehicle (Hinayana)
- The Greater Vehicle (Mahayana)
- The Tantric Vehicle (Vajrayana).
The Smaller Vehicle is called small because the main motivation of its followers is not the benefit of others, but the personal extinction in the peace of nirvana. Consequently, the state obtained is not that of a perfectly accomplished Buddha able to realize the benefit of all forms of beings.
The Greater Vehicle is much superior to the first vehicle in that its followers, from the very beginning of their practice, take the Bodhisattva vow. This is the resolution not to desire the peace of the extinction of nirvana just for oneself, but to remain close to sentient beings so as to help and guide them towards perfect enlightenment. But this path of accomplishing the perfections is slow.
In contrast, the Tantric Vehicle, due to the special skillfulness of its methods of realisation, makes it possible to obtain enlightenment in just one lifetime. This is why it is the very heart of the Buddha’s doctrine.
The greater vehicle and the Tantric vehicle have also a much larger scope in that the attainment of the ultimate result is equally in reach for monks and householders, whereas in the smaller vehicle the ultimate result seems almost reserved for monks.
Of these three vehicles, the Small Vehicle (Hinayana) is predominantly found in Ceylon, Burma, Cambodia, Laos, etc. , the Great Vehicle (Mahayana) in China and Japan, the Tantric Vehicle (Vajrayana, Mantrayana) in Tibet. This last vehicle incorporates all the teachings of the three vehicles and thus goes beyond apparent contradictions between certain teachings. These contradictions are dissolved, if one considers the diversity of disciples, circumstances and context which these teachings are designed for.
We thus understand the immense richness and abundance of teachings and spiritual techniques such as meditation with and without form, or, to mention one of the characteristics of Tibetan Tantric Buddhism, yoga and breathing techniques for mastering the mind and bodily energies, etc..
Another important characteristic of Tibetan Tantric Buddhism is “the skillfulness and ease in the method”. This does not mean that it is easy to become a Buddha, but that, if one understands the method or way to proceed, all circumstances of everyday life, including even those which usually seem to be obstacles to religious life such as passions, faults, anger, hate and all others, are being used as the very method for realisation, by understanding that their essence is emptiness, and that they are but artificial creations of the mind.
The specific methods of Tantric Buddhism can only be practiced if there is a solid foundation of firm resolution, which is obtained by meditational training. They can be divided into two main groups:
- General Preliminaries
- Specific Preliminaries of Tantric practice.
The General Preliminaries
The general preliminaries essentially comprise reflecting and meditating on the following four points:
1. The difficulty of obtaining a human body
3. Karma or Cause and Effect
4. Suffering and the unsatisfactory character of any form of existence.
1. The difficulty of obtaining a human body
A human life like this one, endowed with all conditions necessary for practicing, is difficult to obtain because of its cause, which is a virtuous action.
It is difficult to obtain because of its number, which is infinitely small if compared to the limitless number of non-human beings (think, just to take an example, of the limitless number of insects).
It is difficult to obtain because of its essence, which is the combination of 18 conditions, i.e. the ten attainments and the eight leisures:
The eight leisures refer to the freedom from eight states which prevent Buddhist practice:
- the state of a hell-being
- the state of a hungry ghost (yidak)
- the state of an animal
- the state of a long-living god
- living in a barbarous country where habits are contrary to Dharma
- holding wrong views and doubts
- being born in a country where Buddhism is unknown
- having non-receptive senses.
The ten attainments comprise the five personal attainments:
- birth as a human
- birth in a country where Dharma is known
- possessing all sense faculties
- confidence in the Dharma
- right actions
and the five general attainments:
- the coming of a Buddha
- that the Buddha has taught
- that his teaching has remained
- that there are followers of his teaching
- that there are benefactors protecting religious practice.
Having reflected a long time on how rare such an incarnation is, we then reflect on its incalculable benefits if we know how to use it properly.
It would be a great pity and very stupid indeed to waste such a life, which is so difficult to obtain, by just pursuing worldly aims, of which nothing will remain once we have died: fame, money, professional success, power, etc.. This human life is the best of all prerequisites for obtaining Buddhahood, the absolute freedom from all conditioning, the definitive cessation of all form of suffering, if we know how to make use of it by means of the buddhist practices of mastering one’s mind.
We should be aware of and reflect for a long time on the fact that if we waste this present life to worldly ends, it will be very difficult for us to once again gather the causes and conditions which are necessary for another human rebirth.
We should then proceed to reflect on impermanence: every month, every day, every second gets us inexorably closer to the moment of our death, inevitable end of each life and birth.
We think about all those around us who have already disappeared and about the never-ceasing changes which take place continuously, even though we are often not conscious of them. We have to remind ourselves that death will one day come by surprise, a day like today, when we do not expect it and when it will be too late to do anything and when no method whatsoever can turn it away.
As we cannot have any certainty whatsoever about the time of our death, we have to engage in practice immediately, because practice alone is able to effect this profound change of our being which leads up to the highest realisation. The being we are, (not the amount of richness nor success of any kind), will determine the happiness or misery of our next existence.
3. Karma or cause and effect
Thirdly, we need to think about Karma or cause and effect . Every thought, word or action will bring about positive or negative results, they are the causes which will ripen in the future in happiness or misery for their author. We therefore need to train in positive, virtuous attitudes and actions and in care for others, because we are all similar in desiring happiness and being afraid of suffering.
One will begin by abandoning the ten non-virtues which are brought about by the three root poisons of passionate desire, aversion and ignorance. These three poisons dominate all beings. The ten non-virtues are:
-The three non-virtues of body : taking the life of a living being – taking what has not been given – sexual misconduct
-The four non-virtues of speech: – lying – slandering – voluntarily hurting others by one’s words – chatter (talking aimlessly, motivated by the three poisons)
-the three non-virtues of mind: – covetousness – malevolence – wrong views
We will thus begin by abandoning these ten non-virtues who result in all kinds of suffering, and we will then engage in the ten virtues, which are their opposite. It is important to cultivate mindfulness and attention at every moment.
As it is useful not to waste any opportunity, we will transform the so-called “neutral” actions into virtue. Those are actions which generally do not have any positive or negative karmic effect such as sitting down, getting up, walking, sleeping etc… They become virtue if we accomplish them by constantly retaining mindfulness and remembering the benefit of others. For instance, if we remain at home, we may think: “May all sentient beings attain the city of liberation”, and we thus form wishing prayers in accordance with any activity we are involved in.
4. Suffering and the unsatisfactory character of any form of existence
The fourth meditation will be the consideration of the suffering and dissatisfaction which is inherent to any conditioned existence within the six realms of existence (Samsara).
Among these sufferings, there are the four sufferings which no human being can avoid: birth, sickness, old age, death, as well as sufferings such as being separated from what one likes and having to meet what one dislikes, etc…
The basic practices of Mahayana
These four preliminary considerations will get us a firm mind in aspiring towards the Dharma and its practice. Our main interest will then be to escape all these sufferings and defects of the wheel of existence (Samsara), which nature one will have reflected on for a long time.
But it would be a serious mistake if we only desired this liberation for ourselves. Traditionally it is said, if one summarises, that the Buddha has become Buddha because he was preoccupied with the benefit of others, whereas ordinary beings remain immersed in Samsara, because they are only concerned with their own selfish interest.
How could one possibly desire the happiness of peace for oneself alone without any concern about all the other beings? All of them have been our parents during the course of our limitless past existences; doing this, they have taken all possible forms of life. However, due to successive deaths, which wipe out our memory of their kindness, we now cannot recognise each other.
We will thus form the aspiration to gain liberation for the benefit of all beings, in order to be able to lead them to liberation in turn.
This motivation should be the basis of all practice in the Mahayana or Great Vehicle, and in Vajrayana.
In order to develop this motivation, one should first apply oneself to the meditation on love, which is the desire for the happiness of others, then to the meditation on compassion, which is the desire to relieve others from suffering, and, finally, to the meditation on the thought of enlightenment, which is the desire of enlightenment for the sake of all beings.
1. The meditation on love
If one summarises the meditation on love, we will first try to develop love towards those who are dear to us, our mother and father, then towards those who are close to us. We will do this by remembering the great kindness they have shown to us by giving us life, raising us, etc …
Then, we will also strive to develop love towards those we felt neither affection nor aversion to, and, finally, we will meditate on love towards those we consider as enemies. During our limitless existences. they have equally been our loving parents. It would be shameful indeed, if having forgotten their past kindness due to successive deaths which have separated us, we now treated them like enemies. although they are still kind to us !
In fact, they represent an opportunity for us, because they can make us recognise the ridiculous nature of our anger and our conceit, they can help us destroy this anger and thus progress in the Dharma.
We will meditate like this until we develop heart-felt love even for our enemies.
Finally, we will extend this love to all beings in the six realms of existence without discrimination, who have all been our parents, desiring that they may obtain happiness and the causes of happiness.
2. The meditation on compassion
This meditation on love is naturally followed by the meditation on compassion. Following the same order, we visualise the beings. They are subject to the various sufferings and unsatisfactory conditions of Samsara. We will form the firm resolution and desire to free them from this.
We will reflect that the cause of these sufferings is the profound ignorance of the true nature of emptiness of everything – all these things we take to be real and which we get unreasonably attached to. We will desire that they should be freed from this ignorance and attachment to ego, the source of all suffering. Until this attachment to ego is cut, sentient beings cannot help being reborn in Samsara under the power of karma.
We will meditate on this compassion until we develop a mind unable to bear this suffering of beings any longer, as if it was our own suffering.
3. The meditation on the thought of enlightenment
Through this cause of great compassion we will naturally be led to its result, the development of the enlightenment mind. This is being practised in three stages:
a) the thought of enlightenment of wishing for the fruit for the sake of others:
Having developed this great love and compassion which are the causes of the thought of enlightenment, we will consider that, even though we earnestly wish to establish beings in happiness and free them from suffering, we do not have the power to do so. Only the omniscient Buddhas possess this power by means of their example, their teaching and their blessing. Therefore it is this state that we must endeavour to obtain at all costs in order to help beings.
b) the thought of enlightenment in action
The thought of enlightenment in action, the actual training on the path for the sake of the fruit, consists in accomplishing the benefit of others through our actions.
We will progressively train following three stages:
i) the oneness of myself and others
We meditate on the oneness of myself and others by seeing that all equally want happiness and do not want suffering.
We then transform our mental habits by training to consider others as non-different from ourselves, as if they were a part of us, just as we consider our own body as being our own, although, in reality, it is derived from the drops of liquid and blood of others (our parents). By training like this, we will, little by little, be able to accomplish the benefit of others on a large scale.
ii) the exchanging of self and others
This means that we take the suffering of others upon ourselves and give them our own happiness. We will thus progressively be led to overcome the compulsive desire of self-favoring. Taking the suffering of others upon ourselves will not create any additional suffering for us; on the contrary, it will be of great help to our training; to others, it will be of genuine benefit. We will therefore meditate on this “taking the suffering of others” and “giving our own happiness” for all beings proceeding step by step as we did before.
iii) training in the Bodhisattva activities
We now need to train to usually act in accordance with our desire to benefit others, i.e. we should learn to be able to give to others whatever is dearest to us, as we can see it in the stories of Buddha’s past lives, for instance.
We should also train in the six perfections which will make us spiritually ripen, and in the four actions which attract others and make them ripen.
These six perfections or Paramitas are:
1. The perfection of giving (giving to others what pleases them and is in accordance with Dharma).
2. The perfection of moral discipline (abandoning whatever is harmful to others and upholding one’s own vows and practice)
3. The perfection of patience (remaining without anger and serene, if others harm us or if we meet unfavourable circumstances).
4. The perfection of effort (having a joyful and eager mind with regard to virtue and our own practice).
5. The perfection of meditation (having a mind which is easily and perfectly concentrated on virtue and one’s practice).
6. The perfection of wisdom (being able to discriminate accurately in each action and choice).
The four actions which attract others to the Dharma are:
1. The practice of pure giving to please others.
2. Teaching them in accordance with their inclinations and capacities.
3. To skilfully make them practise.
4. To set an example ourselves by harmonising our words and actions.
The ultimate thought of enlightenment
The ultimate thought of enlightenment, which is free from the distinction between subject and object, refers to meditating in the union of calm abiding and insight.
Calm abiding meditation pacifies all thoughts of grasping at characteristics and leads to resting one’s mind in its natural state. This profound and serene concentration is obtained either by specific practices or by practising Saddhanas This latter method is richer because it encompasses the whole of the path.
In insight meditation one can achieve seeing the profound nature of mind-emptiness of all dharmas (phenomena), having cut through all obstructions of attachment to form without, however, losing the ability to discriminate between them.
Calm abiding meditation is the necessary foundation for the development of insight and is obtained by giving up worldly attachment.
Insight is the wisdom that understands that the ultimate nature of all dharmas (phenomena, the universe and the beings within it) is the inseparability of clarity (manifestation) and emptiness.
By practising in the union of these two meditations of calm abiding and insight, we endeavour to realise the most profound benefit of others.
This has been a short summary of the path of practice in the Mahayana or Great Vehicle.
As holds true for the whole of Buddhism, it is important that the student should not stop at understanding these teachings intellectually, but constantly apply these principles until this application becomes wholly spontaneous and his being is effectively being transformed.
This basic Mahayana practice also forms the necessary foundation for entering and for success on the Tantric Path.
As this text is designed for general information, we have only given a brief outline of these meditations here. But disciples who genuinely apply themselves to the path, may receive each of these teachings from a lama (master), and each of them may constitute a main practice to be continued until it is perfectly accomplished, which can take several months or even years.
The specific preliminaries of Tantric practice
If one feels that this basis of Buddhism just described is suitable for oneself and wishes to obtain the full benefit of these meditations, even for the most preliminary ones it is necessary to first of all take refuge before a qualified master or lama.
The formal promise of refuge before the lama is the ceremony which marks the entry into the Buddhist path which the disciple has chosen to be his own path.
Refuge may not be requested unless, after mature reflection, the decision for this path seems to be certain. It is better to take one’s time rather than getting involved hastily and inconsiderately without sufficient appreciation and later breaking the vows taken, which would have harmful karmic consequences.
The taking of refuge is a ceremony of just a single day, but it is the basis of the entire Buddhist practice and therefore its words, which may slightly vary, are being repeated each day and at the beginning of each practice. A generally employed way of reciting refuge is as follows:
PALDEN LAMA TAMPA NAM LA CHAP SU CHIO we take refuge in the excellent, glorious lamas
DZOPAY SANDJAY CHOM DEN DAY NAM LA CHAP SU CHIO we take refuge in the perfect, victorious Buddhas
TAMPAY CHO NAM LA CHAP SU CHIO we take refuge in the excellent Dharma (teachings of the Buddha)
PAGPAY GENDUN NAM LA CHAP SU CHIO we take refuge in the supreme community (skt. Sangha)
This recitation is being repeated many times and there is an accompanying visualisation of the refuge assembly in the sky in front of oneself. The form of this refuge assembly may vary in different practices, and one takes refuge in a spirit of totally abandoning everything else and great faith (see chapter on refuge).
This practice of refuge requires the reciting of at least 100 000 times these four lines, and it is one of the specific preliminary practices of Tantric Buddhism.
For the subsequent practice to be successful, it is necessary to have accomplished this preliminary practice of refuge at least once. In Tibet, many meditators repeated the entire set of the preliminary practices at the beginning of each retreat.
This practice of refuge is contained in a so-called Saddhana or Method for realising. The number of Saddhanas available is almost limitless but they all contain in a more concise or detailed fashion a complete path of realisation. The preliminaries are followed by a main part, in which the deity, being the support of meditation, is created out of emptiness. The meditator identifies with the deity. Finally the deity is reabsorbed into emptiness. This method leads to the inner realisation of the inseparable union of clarity (perceptions and manifestations) and emptiness (freedom from any characteristic and definition) of mind. This is also called the inseparability of Samsara and Nirvana, the Great Seal or Mahamudra, and it is the profound vision of Tantric Buddhism, which the meditator aspires to realise within himself.
In the preliminary part, the Saddhana may contain, in addition to the refuges we have already discussed, the general preliminaries described earlier, the purification through meditation, the recitation of the Mantra of rDo rJe Sems-dPa’ (Vajrasattva), the offering of the Mandal of the universe and praying the lama, who is inseparable from the deity and the root lama, who grants us the empowerment which ripens our mental continuum and thus enables us to obtain realisation.
Each of these preliminary practices will be repeated at least 100 000 times.
The Saddhana should be practised until one has accomplished at least the number of Mantra recitations prescribed, or, at best, until one has met/realised the deity.
The Tantric Vows
Whether or not we can obtain blessings in our practice mainly depends on how we see our own lama. Therefore we should always endeavour to regard him as being the Buddha himself and never consider any single action of his as being inappropriate. This complete obedience towards the lama also is a very important vow or sacred link to which we commit ourselves during the initiation.
For the “great empowerments” (initiation into a Mandala) there are 20 such vows which constitute a sacred link, and it is vital to keep them. In particular, one must avoid the 14 root downfalls and the 8 secondary downfalls. It is said that if one commits them, it will be impossible to attain realisation, whereas, if one only takes care to keep these vows, even without any other practice, one will attain realisation after 16 lifetimes at most.
Therefore it is essential that these teachings should be known by all those who enter the Tantric path by attending initiations.
It is said that the Tantric practitioner is the one who is in possession of three vows: the vows of personal liberation – the vows of Boddhisattva – the Tantric vows.
These three vows correspond to the three levels of Buddhist vehicles, Hinayana, Mahayana and Vajrayana. All three of them are being taken during an initiation. The initiation and the one who gives it to us, the lama seen as the deity, are therefore the source and necessary cause for the future development of all blessings and powers of realisation.
Thus it is impossible to separate the Tantric Path from the initiation and the lama.
In order to yield the results desired, the transmission of teachings must be an authentic transmission of authentic teachings. The lama must be in possession of the characteristics required, and the disciples must be recipients worthy of the teaching.
The Tantric path is very quick and leads us to the highest realisations if we can keep our vows and practise in the correct fashion. But it is also a dangerous path, because it leads us straight into the sufferings of hell if one acts contrary to the commitments taken.
Considering these great risks and possible errors, it seems very important to warn westerners who wish to get involved of the difficulties and dangerous traps which await them nowadays
First of all, it is absolutely necessary to search for a qualified lama or master. This search is much more difficult these days than it used to be in Tibet.
The word lama is the Tibetan translation of “guru” (spiritual master). In Tibet, it was exclusively reserved to Tulkus. These are recognised reincarnations of realised practitioners, in whom one has discovered the ability to reincarnate voluntarily wherever their presence is most beneficial to beings. Exceptionally, the title of lama could also be given to great sages or yogis, even though they had not been formally recognised as reincarnations (tulkus). Lama could refer to monk lamas, who upheld the vow of celibacy, or married lamas. However, this word could certainly not be used to designate indiscriminately all monks, who were very numerous in Tibet. The Tibetan word lama means “master”, “guide”, and is not synonymous with monk, “dGe-sLong” in Tibetan.
Generally, lamas were recognised at a very young age and were educated very carefully in both religious theory and practice. From childhood, they were given very high religious and administrative responsibilities. This education and the general atmosphere of religious devotion and respect for the Buddhist religious principles which surrounded them, made them very conscious of their responsibilities. Also, the slightest unskilfulness or simple error in the rituals or teachings they gave, was immediately recognised and discussed.
Thus it was possible to quite safely rely on the reputation and rank of each lama. But these days, and particularly in the west, everybody can call himself by the name he desires, and there is nobody to point out behaviour which is contrary to Dharma. Therefore it is more necessary than ever to be very careful and use common sense.
How is it possible then for western beginners in Buddhism to discriminate whether a lama is authentic or not ? It is said that one may never judge by actions alone, but that the motivation behind them is decisive. But, how could an ordinary being know the motivation of somebody else ? This is impossible to know, but it is easy to examine the results of the actions of a lama or so-called lama. If his actions habitually lead to quarrels, suffering and mischief around him this is a clear sign that the lama acts with a selfish motivation and thus contrary to the Dharma.
One should also enquire if the lama is traditionally qualified for teaching and especially for transmitting the Vajrayana empowerments for the development of realisation and powers. For this, he needs to possess a lineage of teachings which has not been broken and must have accomplished the retreats and number of mantras required for each himself.
If, after detailed consideration, one has found such a qualified lama, and from the moment one has received the first initiation, one should endeavour with body, speech and mind to constantly view him as the Buddha himself. One will not fall into the false impartiality to consider all other lamas with an equal respect and devotion. We shall be linked to our root lama with unshakeable loyalty.
This, then, is the attitude of a true Tantric disciple. and it is vital for westerners who wish to enter this vehicle to well understand this and train progressively in this way. For it is this good attitude, this good relationship of disciple and master which will lead to final success.
It is also this point which is not clearly understood by the majority, and this is why we found it important to insist so much here.
The Initiation (empowerment)
The lama grants us the empowerment, which, purifying our body, speech and mind, lays the seed for their future transformation into the three bodies of the Buddhas. However intensely we may practise, if we have not received initiation, we cannot achieve high realisation.
Therefore the empowerment is called the root of the Vajrayana. Each stage of the initiation empowers us to meditate on the path corresponding to it and to achieve its fruit.
But the most important is to carefully observe all the vows and commitments we have taken during the initiation. It is said that the fact of keeping these commitments alone, even if we do not meditate on the path, will lead us to realise the fruit after sixteen lifetimes.
During the empowerment, the disciple receives the vows of the three Buddhist vehicles: those of the Small Vehicle, those of the Great Vehicle (the Bodhisattva vow to devote oneself to the benefit of others) and the specific Tantric vows, which are, in the first place, that we must keep the fourteen root vows.
For this reason, it is said that the Tantric Vehicle contains all Buddhist vehicles.
The Two Stages
After the initiation the disciple is empowered to meditate on the corresponding paths, which can be summarised in two stages: – the stage of development – the stage of fulfilment. These two stages and their preliminaries can be found in each Saddhana. Saddhana is a Sanskrit word meaning Method for realising. A Saddhana contains, in an extensive or concise way, the whole of the path to Buddhahood.
During the development stage, the clear identification of the meditator with the deity is established out of emptiness. This way one obtains the purification of the attachment to the reality of forms and sees that all manifestation is non-different from the essence of the deity.
The fulfilment stage is the absorption of the deity and its divine palace back into emptiness. Through this, one obtains the perfection of mind-wisdom and the purification of the attachment to the particular form of the deity.
It is the distinctive feature of the Tantric Vehicle to combine these two stages into a single practice, and this clearly marks its superiority with regard to the other methods.
These two stages cover an immense number of practices, of visualisations of deities representing different aspects of Buddhas, of techniques to master happiness and ecstasy, etc… All these techniques are secret, i.e. it is necessary to receive the empowerment for them from a qualified master. All practice outside this traditional transmission cannot be but pointless and dangerous.
The Profound Vision
Before meditating on these two stages, one will meditate on the profound vision so as to purify one’s mind.
Starting by relying on various example experiences such as dreams etc., one will realise that exterior phenomena do not have any intrinsic reality of their own, but that they are induced by and dependent on the mind that perceives then.
One will then examine if mind alone is real, and, using other examples such as mirages, one will see that mind constantly changes. Mind varies according to “the various colours of thoughts” and is therefore very much like an illusion.
Reflecting still further on other examples, one will then arrive at the conclusion that even this illusion does not possess any intrinsic nature of its own. It is impossible to say that mind does not exist because it has this aspect of clarity, i.e. various perceptions arise from it without end. And it is impossible to say that it exists because one cannot find any distinctive characteristic which would be its own and stable. Therefore mind is devoid of any intrinsic nature, inseparable union of clarity and emptiness.
This is the profound Tantric Vision which is called the inseparability of Samsara and Nirvana. Samsara is the circle of existence, the world of manifestation; and Nirvana, the state beyond suffering, emptiness.
It is said:
“Abandoning Samsara, one will not find Nirvana elsewhere”. This statement thus refers to the inseparable union of the two.
One will try to realise this profound vision not only during the meditation sessions which are especially designed for it, but equally during even the most insignificant events of our everyday life.
As always in Buddhism, one will not only endeavour towards intellectual understanding, which besides is very difficult for these profound paradoxical truths, but one will strive to genuinely realise them, to intimately experience them, which is the liberating experience which will completely transform our being.
This is the vision which realised beings always perceive.
Up to this point, we have tried to give a short introduction to the whole of the stages of the Tantric Path, without, however, entering into the details of practice which only the lama may transmit. But we believe that, if they reflect on these explanations, people who still hesitate will be well provided for deciding whether they want to get involved more deeply with the practice of Tibetan Tantric Buddhism.
As the taking of refuge is the foundation of Dharma, it is first of all necessary to receive its vows from a lama or qualified monk. But so that the taking of refuge becomes meaningful, mind firstly needs to sincerely confess its faults. If one dies without having confessed one’s faults, bad future rebirths are then inevitable and one will be destined to helplessly wandering about in Samsara without any end of existences in sight. If our mind conceives of this terror, it will aspire towards purification.
- The Confession of Faults
It is necessary for us to combine the four following forces within our mind, if our practice of confession is to be effective:
- The first force is the force of support. For this, we visualise in the sky in front of us the assembly of lamas and the three jewels, similar to a gathering of clouds. We must rely entirely on this support.
- The second force is the force of regret: in front of this noble assembly, we consider with deep grief the faults we have committed and develop a strong sense of regret.
- The third force is the force of antidote: we then decide that we will not again commit such faults, even at the cost of our life or physical integrity.
- The fourth force is the force of restoring. Finally we rejoice that such a profound method has been able to purify our faults.
One will meditate like this:
Lamas, Yidams, Buddhas and Bodhisattvas of the three times and ten directions, please think of me. I confess all faults and non-virtuous actions which I have committed by body, speech and mind since beginningless time under the influence of greed, anger and ignorance. I also confess all non-virtues to which I have induced others or which I have rejoiced in. In the future, I will not act like this again.
If one practises confession from the bottom of one’s heart in this way, all faults are purified:
“That which is confessed, is purified”.
These are the authentic words of the Buddha.
Then, in order to skilfully increase our virtues without effort and without having to search for an object (of virtue), it is necessary to develop a mind filled with joy and content about the virtues of all beings.
If we joyfully consider the virtues that others accomplish in the ten directions of space and three times, we have found the inexhaustible source of virtue, the virtue accomplished in one’s mind. We should think: “if only I could practise such virtues”.
One should rejoice about all the virtues accomplished by the Perfect Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, Pratyekabuddhas, Shravakas and all other beings. And the virtue we thus gather is inexhaustible and limitless.
In the Sutra “sDud Pa” it is said:
“If it were possible to weigh the central mountain and the three universes, this heavy weight still couldn’t compare to the weight carried by the virtue which consists in rejoicing about the virtues of others.” It is possible to explain the refuges in great detail, but one can summarise by commenting on the reasons, the objects, the method of practice, the benefits obtained and the rules to be observed.
- The three causes for taking refuge
They are: -fear -faith -compassion
-Taking refuge because of fear means that we take refuge because we are afraid of the suffering of Samsara for ourselves or others.
It is said in the Bodhicaryavatara:
“Previously I have not obeyed your words, now I am overcome with great fear; I take refuge in you. Please rapidly free me from fear”.
For all those who are immersed into the suffering of existence, it is very important to take refuge in those who perfectly protect from this suffering.
-Taking refuge because of faith refers to the three types of faith:
Faith which is derived from the love we have for the qualities and virtues of the refuge objects who are able to protect us from this fear and this suffering.
Faith which comes from the desire to obtain a rank which is equal to them.
Faith which stems from the certainty that we will obtain the same rank if we practise in accordance with their commands.
-Taking refuge because of compassion means taking refuge in order to perfectly protect all beings from suffering. When we reflect on our own suffering, eventually limitless compassion for the sufferings of others is born in our mind, and this is the third cause of refuge.
Taking refuge without paying attention and in a very superficial manner is useless: One should be very well aware of the motives just explained. It is said in the Bodhicaryavatara:
“All recitation and practice, even if continued for a long time, are without any meaning if the mind is distracted”.
- The Objects of Refuge
One takes first of all refuge in the root lama, who is the one who really shows us the supreme path, and equally in all the lamas of the lineage who our own root lama has issued from.
Further, one takes refuge in Buddhas who have accomplished their own benefit by becoming awakened beings, who are free from any imperfection and possess all qualities, and who, having nothing in mind but the benefit of others, incarnate from one existence to the other.
One takes refuge in the Dharma, the method for destroying suffering. It consists of the twin aspects of theory, which is contained in the three baskets of scriptures, and practice, which is the training in the three kinds of teachings: training in the highest ethical discipline (in particular the monastic path), the highest meditation (the thought of enlightenment, the path of Bodhisattvas) and the highest wisdom (the Tantric path of Mantras).
Finally one also takes refuge in the community or Sangha, which consists of all those who have entered the path before us.
- The Method of Taking Refuge
Having placed offerings in front of the supports of body. speech and mind of the lama and three jewels on the shrine, prostrate and sit down on a cushion in the meditation posture. In the sky in front of you, visualise the assembly of lamas, Buddhas, Bodhisattvas and Arahats as if they were really present.
Think that your own parents and all sentient beings of the six realms take refuge together with you. Your body forms the attitude of respect by folding your hands, your speech recites the refuge and your mind should be filled with the power of faith.
Then pray as follows:
“During my past lives I have not practised the teachings of the lama. It is because I have not genuinely gone for refuge with the three jewels that I have been suffering tremendously in the cycle of existence. From now on until I reach realisation, whatever good or bad may happen to me, I will entirely rely on the compassion of the refuge objects. Entrusting myself completely to the refuge objects, my mind will be filled with the certainty that the lama and the Buddhas are the teachers who show the path to liberation, that the Dharma is that path and that the members of the community are my companions in practising that path. May all actions of body, speech and mind of all beings including myself always follow the path of Buddha; the lama and the three jewels know…”
Thus pray full of devotion and your mind perfectly concentrated. You should think and wish that all the limitless number of beings take refuge as you yourself do, and, from the bottom of your heart, you should recite many times like this:
*We take refuge in the excellent, glorious lamas. We take refuge in the perfect. victorious Buddhas. We take refuge in the excellent Dharma. We take refuge in the supreme community.”
Prostrating to the lama and the three jewels, we go to them for refuge. Please grant us your blessing so that our mind may be turned towards the Dharma.
Bless us so that we may succeed on the spiritual path. Bless us so that all obstacles to our practice may be dispelled.
Bless us so that obstacles may be transformed to be aide on the path. Bless us so that, not even for a short moment, a thought contrary to Dharma occupies our mind.
Bless us so that love, compassion and Bodhicitta (Enlightenment thought) may arise and firmly remain in our mind.
Bless us so that we may rapidly attain the state of a perfectly accomplished, omniscient Buddha.”
Praying like this, visualise that the refuge objects look at you in their omniscient wisdom, full of love and compassion. They help you and have the power to protect you. Settle your mind on this for a while.
Then conclude by dedicating the merit:
May my virtuous actions be a contribution to the end that all sentient beings, who have all been my own parents in innumerable past lives, attain the perfect state of Buddhahood.
It is important to always keep in mind the qualities and virtues of a Buddha. Try never to act contrary to the rules which are linked with refuge. It is said that any virtuous action accomplished without our being conscious of it is meaningless. Therefore always be mindful.
- The Benefits of Refuge
As refuge is the foundation of all other vows, the benefits of refuge are incalculable. It is said in a Sutra: “if merit derived from refuge could take a form, all the expanse of space would be too small to encompass it.”
In short, as there are no refuge objects in the whole of the universe which could equal the supreme jewels, one should be very joyful to have found the best refuge objects now.
- The Rules to be Observed
These rules are logically implied by the taking of refuge. This is just like someone who wishes to be successful in his worldly business needs to avoid opposing the laws of the country he is in. Similarly, and even more so because we are concerned with realising the very purpose of this and future lives, i.e. unsurpassable enlightenment, we should never be in contradiction with the words and rules of the three jewels.
The first thing which is necessary after having taken refuge in general is to find a lama we can rely on.
Then there are rules which are necessary for each of the particular refuge objects:
- Having taken refuge in the Buddha, we will no longer prostrate to the worldly gods.
- Having taken refuge in the Dharma, we have to abandon everything which could harm others.
- Having taken refuge in the community, we should not choose friends among those who oppose Buddhism.
Also, even at the cost of our life or all of our riches, we must never give up the three jewels. Whatever sicknesses and sufferings we may have to experience, we will never act against the three jewels but, on the contrary, we will make special efforts to make offerings to the refuge objects, to the community and to religious practitioners and give to the poor and needy. We will pray for the happiness of all, in the present and future, and will follow everything the Buddha has taught.
All of our ventures, whether big or small, should be accomplished by placing wholehearted confidence into the three jewels.
The Buddha, through his wisdom, knows the dispositions of beings and the paths which suit them, and, through his compassion, turns beings away from their faults. Due to the power he has achieved through the perfect realisation of the two qualities of merit and transcendental wisdom, he has the power to perfectly protect those who place all their confidence in him and practise according to his teachings. It is only because, in our past lives, we have not relied on the refuge objects and have not practised their teachings, that we are still not liberated from the cycle of existence. It is not a reason to doubt the compassion of the three jewels.
It is said in the Mgon rTogs rGyan:
“Although the king of gods causes the rain to fall down, if the seed is bad, no sprout will be born. Likewise, although the Buddhas come to our world, no good will result (if we have no faith in the refuge objects).”
It is also said in the Bodhicaryavatara:
“If, from now on, we do not strain ourselves as necessary, all will worsen. Although innumerable Buddhas come to accomplish the benefit of beings, they do not wipe out the faults they have committed.”
In summary, it is not certain that by our pure personal desire, without relying on the refuge objects, we can wait for our hopes to come true. Even if they became true, their future is not certain. It is always important to rely on the power of the refuge objects.
(Note: according to buddhist interpretation, a fault is any action by body, speech or mind which does harm to a sentient being. A virtue is any action by body, speech or mind which is beneficial to a sentient being)