The tantric path is also known as Vajrayana. Why is it called Vajrayana?
In the Buddhist scriptures, especially in tantra, the vajra symbolizes oneness; all things are one and the same, inseparable. What are one and the same?
In tantra, ground and fruition are one and the same; ultimate truth and relative truth are one and the same; clear light and emptiness are one and the same.
This is not the case in sutra, where ground and fruition are clearly separate.
In sutra, ground is the illusory world we see in front of us, which includes sentient beings, the external world of mountains, rivers, earth, etc., and emptiness; fruition is the attainment of the three resultant bodies of buddhahood—the dharmakaya, sambhogakaya, and nirmanakaya. We ordinary people are not yet buddha, but through practice we can attain buddhahood after three asamkhyeya kalpas. Sentient being is the cause; buddhahood is the result.
According to tantra, sentient being is buddha, buddha is sentient being; samsara is nirvana, nirvana is samsara. The basic nature of samsara and nirvana is the same, but because we are not yet enlightened and still have afflictions, we see buddha and sentient being, wisdom and afflictions, separately as pure and impure. The tantric path is called Vajrayana because of this view; it is unique in this sense.
There are two traditions in sutra: one is the common, or typical, sutra tradition that focuses mainly on the teachings of the Buddha in the first and second turnings of the wheel of Dharma; the other is the uncommon sutra tradition. Many of the scriptures in the Buddha’s third turning of the wheel of Dharma dwell on the six perfections and the four methods of guidance that underlie the vast activities of the bodhisattvas, but there are also ten quintessential sutras that place a great deal of emphasis on luminosity of tathāgatagarbha, the luminous mind of the buddhas that is inherently present in each being; we call these ten sutras in the third turning the uncommon sutras. The view in uncommon sutra is entirely different from the view in common sutra, but very similar to that in tantra, even if it is not as clearly stated. For this reason, these ten sutras are said to be “half sutra half tantra.”
Perhaps some will say although tantra maintains clear light and emptiness are the same, isn’t it also taught in the sutra system that “form is emptiness, emptiness is form,” the two truths are one and the same? How is the view of oneness ascribed to tantra only?
On this question, we have to start by explaining the distinctions between ultimate truth and relative truth in sutra. The first kind of distinction is: emptiness is ultimate truth, everything else is relative truth; the second kind of distinction is: the luminous mind is ultimate truth, all other impure appearances are relative truth. That is to say, even though in sutra the view on the tathāgatagarbha in the third turning of the wheel of Dharma is essentially the same as in tantra, the only problem in sutra is still the separation of the two truths: the luminous mind, the fundamental nature of mind, is pure; afflictions are impure. In tantra, these two are integrated; ultimate truth and relative truth are one and the same.
In the first turning of the wheel of Dharma, the Buddha focused on the subjects in the outer preliminaries, suffering in samsara, infallible karma, etc., which are the four truths of Theravada Buddhism, not so much on emptiness; in the second turning of the wheel of Dharma, the Buddha also mentioned impermanence and suffering to some extent, but the heart of the teachings was emptiness; in the third turning of the wheel of Dharma, emptiness was no longer the most important, rather the luminous mind became the main topic the Buddha expounded.
On this, the sutras have the following analogy:
During the time of Sakyamuni Buddha, people often went to islands far away to gather gems. The precious stones they brought back were, like electric lamps, used to light up a place. Nowadays, we don’t hear about these precious stones, but in the days of the Buddha, they truly existed.
In the Vinaya, it is said: “The attendants to the king liked to use cloth of all colors to wrap the precious stones, and leave them in and outside the palace, even in the pool. They served as ornaments on the one hand, and also as a means of illuminating the place.” As stipulated in the Vinaya, a bhikshu was not allowed to enter the palace before the precious stones were collected, that is, before dawn. Clearly, these precious stones existed at that time.
Originally, at the time the precious stones were extracted, they were covered with dirt and sand, and did not glow. The people who extracted them first placed them in a chemical solution to loosen the contaminants, then used a very rough piece of cloth to clear the dirt and sand; next they placed the stones in a finer solution and used a more delicate piece of cloth to clean them; finally they used silk to polish them until they were crystal clear—at that point the precious stones would light up.
This analogy tells us: during the first turning of the wheel of Dharma, sentient beings who came were of relatively low capacity; accordingly, the teachings focused on impermanence and suffering in the Four Noble Truths to help beings eliminate self-attachment and afflictions, namely desire, anger, and delusion, at the gross levels of mind. This is likened to the first stage of processing the precious stones.
During the second turning of the wheel of Dharma, Sakyamuni Buddha told sentient beings that all things from the five aggregates, or skandhas, to the buddha’s wisdom are empty; all phenomena in samsara and nirvana are empty and beyond conceptual fabrication.
Please note that the concept of emptiness taught in the scriptures and the concept of emptiness in modern physics—whether in quantum physics or engineering technology—are different.
The perfection of wisdom practices in the second turning of the wheel of Dharma aimed at eliminating not only self-attachment and afflictions at the gross levels of mind, but also afflictions and all attachments—including the attachment to samsara and nirvana—at the subtlest level of mind. This is likened to the second stage of processing the precious stones.
During the third turning of the wheel of Dharma, the Buddha said emptiness is not simply the negation of true existence; emptiness and the luminous mind are one and the same. The luminous mind is also a phenomenon, but this phenomenon is not something we can experience now with our eye, ear, nose, tongue, and body; it is the nature of mind. Although tathāgatagarbha is also empty, the Buddha did not focus on emptiness this time, since it was a concept familiar to everyone already.
In the second chapter of the Lankavatara Sutra, named “Collection of All the Dharmas,” there is this conversation between the Buddha and his disciples in which the disciples asked, “So then, isn’t tathāgatagarbha the same as Ātman, the true self, that is taught in the non-Buddhist systems?” The Buddha responded by essentially saying the “true self” in the non-Buddhist systems is not empty, but tathāgatagarbha is empty.
Of course, most of the sutras in the third turning of the wheel say the tathāgatagarbha is not empty, but there is no contradiction here. The essence of tathāgatagarbha, like all other phenomena, is empty, but the luminous, clear light aspect of tathāgatagarbha is not empty. This luminosity or clear light from which impure and pure appearances manifest is permanent and everlasting. The followers at this time had already established a foundation in the second turning of the wheel, so even if the Buddha used words like not empty, permanent, and everlasting to describe the tathāgatagarbha, they would not develop an attachment to clear light. It was perfectly clear to everyone—all phenomena, whether in samsara or nirvana, are completely empty of true existence.
This is why the Buddha gave the teachings in stages.
Practice is the same way. In the outer preliminaries, the main practice is the essential teachings of the first turning of the wheel; in the inner preliminaries, the main practices are those in the second and third turnings of the wheel that pertain to worldly behavior; the practice of emptiness, the core teaching of the second turning of the wheel, comes after the preliminaries; the practice of tantra that accords with the teachings in the third turning of the wheel is last.
Nevertheless, there is no literature in sutra that combines the concept of emptiness in the second turning with clear light in the third turning. Although clear light is mentioned occasionally in the second turning, the reference is not to clear light in the true sense, but to emptiness. The second turning teaches “form is emptiness, emptiness is form”; however, form in this case encompasses all impure phenomena that manifest from the karmic actions of sentient beings, only emptiness is real. The third turning teaches clear light and emptiness are ultimate truth, impure phenomena are relative truth. The distinction between phenomena on the one hand and clear light and emptiness on the other is even more apparent.
It is in Vajrayana Buddhism that the two are truly integrated. Tantra does not place emphasis on either emptiness or on clear light; rather it completely integrates emptiness and clear light: clear light is emptiness, emptiness is clear light.
In the most basic tantra of Mahayoga—the Guhyagarbha Tantra in the Nyingma lineage, clear light and emptiness are also expounded together. To a person who has afflictions and karmic obstructions and has not attained realization, the world he perceives is impure; to a person who has attained realization and abides in the realm of the buddhas and bodhisattavas, these impure phenomena are all pure.
We cannot say that the pure world perceived by a buddha or bodhisattva on the eighth ground is perverted, that the impure world we perceive is actually correct. If we were to insist on being right, then by extension, the world would appear all wrong when we reach the eighth bhumi. Our practice would have done nothing but strengthened our obscurations, misconceptions, and delusions. I doubt if any Buddhist would agree with this!
Of course, the mandala perceived by a bodhisattva on the eighth ground, and a bodhisattva on the ninth or tenth ground is still somewhat different.
What does the mandala perceived by a bodhisattva on the eighth ground and by a buddha look like?
The word mandala is a Sanskrit term that means an encircled universe with a core center.
This mandala appears before all sentient beings during bardo; at the time of death, an experience similar to the condition around the Big Bang in the universe occurs—our eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, mental consciousness, as well alaya consciousness all disappear or temporarily stop operating. The alaya consciousness is the carrier of all impure phenomena; when it disappears, a luminous state emerges. In tantra, this is called the ground luminosity or mother luminosity, the fundamental and original face of all phenomena. In Dzogchen, it is also called the clear light of death, because it cannot appear under normal circumstances, only at the time of death.
At the actual moment of death, it is necessary for the mother and child luminosities to come together. What is the child luminosity? The state of realization attained in one’s lifetime is called the child luminosity.
Highly accomplished practitioners have attained realization of the child luminosity already. At the actual moment of death, when the mother luminosity arises, they instantly merge the child luminosity with the mother luminosity and abide in this state. This is called liberation in the bardo.
In tantra, there are few practitioners of superior faculty who attain buddhahood in their lifetime, but practitioners of intermediate faculty can attain fruition in the bardo much more easily.
If a person has missed this opportunity to actualize buddhahood, the first thing that appears afterwards is the mandala of the buddhas. To a non-practitioner, the mandala at this time is likened to lightning and a meteor that flashes by; however, to an accomplished practitioner, the mandala remains somewhat longer.
In Treatise on Realizing the Nature, the first patriarch Bodhidharma made this statement that also accords entirely with the concept of innate purity: “The difference between sentient beings and buddha is the same as the difference between water and ice.” Under normal temperature, water is a liquid; when the temperature drops to zero or below, it becomes a solid, but actually its essential nature is still a liquid; it has simply changed into a different form.
In the same way, our five aggregates are actually the five Buddha-families.
The real significance of the yab-yum, or father-mother, image in tantra is just this. According to the most definitive of the tantric texts, the father figure symbolizes the clear light aspect of tathāgatagarbha, the mother figure symbolizes emptiness; the union of the father figure and the mother figure is none other than the union of clear light and emptiness.
The other tantras also say when someone uses the finger to point at the moon, we should look at the moon, not the finger. Similarly, we should not obsess with the appearance of the yab-yum deities or how they are depicted, but rather focus on the underlying significance—the inseparability of clear light and emptiness that is the core and essential view in tantra. The yab-yum image is like a language, sign, or illustrated dictionary that uncovers the real meaning of the union of clear light and emptiness.
When Sakyamuni Buddha expounded the sutra teachings, all kinds of methods were also used. The Buddha understood different methods were necessary to transform sentient beings of different capacities.