In Tibetan Buddhism, tantra is a very complete system of thought and practice specifically directed at people of different capacities. However, some practitioners in sutra, lacking an understanding of tantra, think they cannot practice tantra; some practitioners in tantra also cannot accept sutra. Therefore it is necessary to discuss the connection between sutra and tantra and sort out their differences and similarities. This will help everyone understand the contradictions, if any, in sutra and tantra, and prevent serious misconceptions from developing during the course of practicing the preliminaries.

The main topic of discussion is divided into two parts: first, aspects in sutra and tantra that are similar, harmonious, and not contradictory; second, features that are unique to tantra.


The Common Foundation—Renunciation and Bodhicitta

In our previous teachings on the preliminaries, we emphasized the three stages an ordinary person must undergo on the path from initial practice to final attainment of buddhahood. The first stage is to give up the pursuit of worldly pleasures and cultivate renunciation; the second stage is to give up selfishness and develop bodhicitta; the third stage is to give up self-attachment and establish the wisdom that realizes no-self. In the first and second stages, there is no difference between sutra and tantra.

Actually, in both sutra and tantra, the outer and inner preliminaries must be practiced; as long as it is Mahayana, renunciation and bodhicitta must be developed. Though there are some differences in terminology, the content of the practice is essentially the same. Whether it is in sutra, tantra, Ch’an, or Pure Land, all require renunciation and bodhicitta; without this foundation, what point is there in reciting the buddha’s name? Or in practicing Ch’an? We should recite the buddha’s name and meditate on this basis; only then are we truly practicing Pure Land and Ch’an Buddhism.

Nevertheless, the preliminaries are not taught in Ch’an Buddhism, why is that? As most people know, the Ch’an masters from the first patriarch Bodhidharma to the sixth patriarch Hui Neng all attained enlightenment because of their superior faculties. We can tell from Hui Neng’s biography that his mental capacity was indeed already quite mature even though he did not read or write. During his refuge with the fifth patriarch, he did not study a lot of sutras, nor spend much time practicing; he was mainly in the rear courtyard doing manual work. Eight months later, when the conditions were right, the fifth patriarch expounded the Diamond Sutra to him. When Hui Neng came upon this critical verse—“One should develop a mind which is free from any attachment,” he became thoroughly enlightened. He did not undertake the preliminaries, but that is not to say they are not necessary; the purpose of practicing the preliminaries is to cultivate renunciation and bodhicitta, but he possessed these essentials already.

As an example, in the autumn, the flowers and leaves fall off with the slightest breeze; in the spring and summer, they do not fall off as easily even with strong winds. Similarly, when a person’s mental capacity is mature, it takes but a sentence to point out to him the original face of mind. The Diamond Sutra that the sixth patriarch heard and the Diamond Sutra we recite are exactly the same. Why did he become enlightened after hearing just a verse, but not us? This is because of the difference in our mental capacities. For this reason, we must practice the preliminaries.

From the standpoint of Ch’an practitioners, the Southern school that the sixth patriarch Hui Neng propagated is the most sacred; however, for most people today, the Northern school that the Ch’an master Shenxiu championed is probably more appropriate. Like the preliminaries, the practice is taken in steps until a certain state of realization in Ch’an is attained. Hui Neng did not focus on the groundwork, only on the ultimate state of realization. So, in reality, renunciation and bodhicitta are also necessary even though Ch’an does not talk about it.

In Pure Land, the most important sutra is The Buddha Speaks of Amitabha Sutra. This is a scripture that is translated into both Chinese and Tibetan from the same Sanskrit edition. The sutra states: “To take rebirth in Western Pure Land, one must stay clear of two kinds of transgression and possess four conditions.”

The two kinds of transgression are the five actions of immediate consequence and repudiation of the Dharma. Amitabha Buddha also said all sentient beings in the Saha world with absolute faith in him can be born in Western Pure Land, unless they have committed the five actions of immediate consequence and repudiated the Dharma. All other transgressions like taking life, stealing, etc., even actions that are more serious, can be purified through devotion and recitation of the buddha’s name. Only these two transgressions cannot be eradicated, so we must distant ourselves from them.

The four necessary conditions are to visualize Amitabha Buddha and Western Pure Land, accumulate vast merit, develop bodhicitta, and dedicate the aspiration of taking rebirth in Western Pure Land. All sentient beings who possess these conditions and recite the buddha’s name with total concentration can be born in Western Pure Land.

Here it is pointed out the practice of reciting the buddha’s name without distraction is undertaken with bodhicitta as a foundation. Of course, renunciation must also be present. In The Buddha Speaks of Amitabha Sutra, it is said: Without renunciation, one will chase after worldly happiness. Desire prevents us from being born in Western Pure Land because it is basically an obstacle. If desire is not eradicated, the thought of taking rebirth in Western Pure Land will not arise; even if it arises, it will not be very strong, so rebirth in Western Pure Land cannot be attained.

Clearly, both Ch’an and Pure Land place emphasis on renunciation and bodhicitta; there is no difference so long as it is Mahayana Buddhism. This is the first point of similarity.

Realization of Emptiness in Sutra and Tantra

The second point of similarity is the realization of emptiness.

After taking rebirth in Western Pure Land, one must also realize emptiness; without this realization, one cannot experience the true nature of mind, let alone the state of realization in tantra. There are two kinds of situation that occur with rebirth in Western Pure Land. The first kind is typical. In this life, we are ordinary people who practice calling out to Amitabha Buddha; on taking rebirth in Western Pure Land, we encounter Amitabha Buddha who places his hand on our head to bless us; by the power of his aspiration and our own merit, we become enlightened immediately; this realization is at the first bhumi level. All the bodhisattvas in Western Pure Land are on the first ground and up. Thus, emptiness can also be realized indirectly by reciting the buddha’s name; without this realization, buddhahood is not possible. Bodhisattvas in Western Pure Land must continue to practice so that they can attain buddhahood ultimately. The second kind is atypical. Chinese Buddhism espouses the Nine Stages of Lotus Flowers, as does Tibetan Buddhism. If a person does not have strong faith in the Pure Land practice, and has doubt about taking rebirth in Western Pure Land, the person can still be born there if the practice of reciting the buddha’s name is really well executed; however, he or she will not encounter Amitabha Buddha for a substantial period of time, and may only be an ordinary person the entire duration. Consequently, a person who takes up the Pure Land practice must have strong faith; if not, he will have to wait a very long time to see the Buddha. But even if the person has to wait, he does not come back but remain in Pure Land where eventually he will still see Amitabha Buddha. Upon seeing the Buddha, he becomes instantly enlightened; he then continues to practice until buddhahood is actualized. Hence, realization of emptiness is also essential in the Pure Land practice, except the emphasis is not on realization in this life but in Western Pure Land. Without realization of emptiness, buddhahood cannot be attained.

Ch’an Buddhism places constant emphasis on knowing the mind and seeing its true nature. What is “nature”? “Nature” is the basic nature of all phenomena. What is the basic nature of all phenomena? All phenomena have just one basic nature—emptiness and clear light. Take as an example a vase, is this multi-colored vase its basic nature? No, it is but an optical illusion produced by our eye consciousness; its basic nature is never separate from emptiness and clear light. To see its true nature is to see this basic nature of mind. Clearly, realization of emptiness is also essential in Ch’an. Enlightenment in tantra is not different from enlightenment in other schools of Buddhism; ignorance denotes not seeing emptiness; enlightenment denotes a clear experience and apprehension of emptiness. Only when emptiness is realized can buddhahood be possible.

From this perspective, sutra and tantra are the same—both require renunciation, bodhicitta, and realization of emptiness. Actually, all Mahayana schools emphasize these three points.

The similarities in sutra and tantra are briefly explained above; at a more specific level, we can also cite many examples, for instance, the threefold training—precepts, concentration, and wisdom—which sutra and tantra both talk about.

Precepts, Concentration, and Wisdom in Sutra and Tantra

The precepts in sutra are the same precepts in tantra, but the tantric samaya vows are taken during empowerment. Actually, the tantric precepts include the twenty root precepts for a bodhisattva, and the precepts for a bhikshu and bhikshuni. In the Kalacakra Tantra, it is said the monastics are the most qualified to practice tantra; among the monastics, bhikshus are most suited to be vajra masters. One cannot therefore maintain the precepts in tantra run counter to the bhikshu and bhikshuni precepts in the Lesser Vehicle. The Kalacakra Tantra, featured prominently in Highest Yoga Tantra, gives this example: If there are two vajra masters in the same place, a lay person and a monastic, which one of them is qualified to conduct consecration and initiation? The answer is the monastic. The lay person is not qualified under this circumstance. The monastic is also deemed best qualified to practice tantra, but that is not to say a lay person cannot practice tantra. From this standpoint, it is clear the precepts in sutra and tantra are not contradictory; otherwise the teachings in the Kalacakra Tantra would not allow the bhikshu to practice tantra, nor would the bhikshu be considered the best qualified to engage in the practice. The 253 precepts that bhikshus have to follow are also highly valued in tantra. The above is an explanation on the precepts.

Concentration is meditative absorption, known also as the four or eight dhyanas. Whether this constitutes the path to liberation depends on how it is practiced; without enlightened realization, it is simply the practice of dhyana. The result is rebirth in the form and formless realms, which are still within the cycle of samsara. However, if one practices dhyana with realization of emptiness as a foundation, it is the path to liberation; moreover, meditative concentration is a necessary step on the path. Whether it is Theravada, Mahayana, or Vajrayana, all place emphasis on practicing the four or eight dhyanas. Hence, there is no difference at all on this point in sutra and tantra.

Wisdom denotes realization of no-self and emptiness. It is essential to all three vehicles.

In sum, precepts, concentration, and wisdom are upheld by all three vehicles of Buddhism. Hence, one can say there is not the slightest difference between sutra and tantra on this point.

Many people are mistaken in thinking the precepts in sutra and tantra are different—because in sutra bodhisattvas are prohibited from consuming alcohol and meat, whereas in tantra they are not.

This is actually not the case. Tibetan Buddhism has never permitted followers to drink alcohol and consume meat at will. The teachings, from the Kalacakra Tantra to Dzogchen in the Nyingma tradition, repeatedly caution against treating meat like other food products, and strongly oppose the practice. Not to be denied, a lot of people in Tibet take non-vegetarian food; it is also in Tibet that the practice of tantra is most developed. Why isn’t more effort made to keep this practice in check? We should explain that the practitioners eat meat not because the precepts allow it but because of the environment. In the past, vegetables were not grown on the Tibetan Plateau due to climatic conditions; if vegetables and fruit had to be transported from outside, they would take at least two weeks by which time the food would have spoiled. This was particularly the case in the nomadic region where food was scarce to begin with. Under these circumstances, people generally adopted a non-vegetarian diet, but even then they would not take any meat or non-vegetarian food that, to their knowledge, was killed especially for them. Since both the Mahayana and Vajrayana precepts prohibit taking non-vegetarian food, they had no choice but to observe the Theravada precepts, which allow taking meat by the “triple clean” rule.

Nonetheless, in the past, many ascetics living high up in the mountains persisted in maintaining a vegetarian diet. The Dzogchen master Nyala Pema Dündul, from Nyarong (a county in Sichuan Province today), was a perfect example. He actualized the rainbow body some one hundred fifty-to-sixty years ago; at the time of his death, rainbow clouds filled the sky; no traces of his body were found, not even his hair and nails. This accomplished master vowed to become vegetarian during his retreat in the mountains; it was a pledge he would follow the rest of his life. There are many other such examples.

The requirement in tantra is the same as that expounded in the Mahayana Lankavatara Sutra; both oppose taking non-vegetarian food. If there is meat at a tantric feast (tsok), one can only enjoy a piece no bigger than the leg of a fly. From the standpoint of vegetarianism, this hardly constitutes eating meat, nor does it violate the vows in tantra. The same reasoning applies to drinking alcohol. There are many other details in the precepts that are common to sutra and tantra. We shall not elaborate on these here.

The above explains the similarities in sutra and tantra.


The Main Difference—Methods of Realizing Emptiness

Sutra and tantra differ mainly in their methods of realizing emptiness. Although the objective of realizing emptiness is the same, the methods differ greatly.

Methods of Realizing Emptiness in Sutra

Firstly, let us examine the methods of realizing emptiness in sutra. The basic method in Pure Land for realizing emptiness is the recitation of the buddha’s name; the method in Ch’an is mainly directed at people of superior faculties—thus it appears simple and lacks a systematic approach that takes us from the preliminaries to the actual practice. To an ordinary person, the process by which the sixth patriarch Hui Neng became enlightened is hardly a method; however, to someone of comparable capacity, it is indeed a method that leads to enlightenment. Apart from these, the other method in sutra is logical reasoning.

Let us take a vase as an example. We clearly see the vase, but it is actually not a single entity, but comprised of many particles; these particles can be further divided until there is nothing more to divide—that is emptiness. This is not to say it is transformed into emptiness, but rather it is never separate from emptiness. We cannot perceive this emptiness with our eyes; this method only teaches us a theoretical concept which is based on logical reasoning.

As another example, a piece of fabric when taken apart is a pile of yarn; where then is the fabric? Did it disappear? What am I wearing—fabric or yarn? But a strand of yarn is also made up of fibers that are twisted together. So is it fabric, yarn, or fiber that I am wearing? If we again break down the fiber into very fine particles and set this aside, where then is the original fabric? Is it just dust particles that I am wearing? In the sutra system, emptiness is understood by way of this kind of reasoning. It is one method of approaching emptiness, but only as a concept, not an actual experience.

How can this understanding be transformed into the wisdom that realizes emptiness? A person must engage in practice that takes a very long time; concurrently, he must accumulate merit throughout this period and purify negative karma. When these conditions are perfected, his understanding will change to wisdom. Apart from Ch’an Buddhism, all traditions in the sutra system employ this method of realization.

But isn’t Ch’an Buddhism part of sutra? From my standpoint, Ch’an is both sutra and tantra, but one can also say it is neither sutra nor tantra. It is a method that integrates sutra and tantra—actually it is half sutra, half tantra. Ch’an does not involve either empowerment or visualization, so it is classified as sutra; however, its method of realization is different from sutra in general.

The other schools in sutra rely only on logical reasoning to actualize emptiness. The six treatises by Nagarjuna present a set of arguments to overcome our basic attachment to things; the practice begins after a conceptual understanding is established; it is then a long and slow process that culminates in the actual experience of emptiness. This is the method of realizing emptiness in sutra.

Methods of Realizing Emptiness in Tantra

Tantra is divided into outer tantra and inner tantra. The outer tantra shall not be discussed at this time; the inner tantra is the highest tantra. There are two methods for realizing emptiness in tantra: one is working with the winds, channels, and essences within the body; the other is Dzogchen.

 Non-Buddhist traditions such as Taoism and Qigong also have these practices, but they are similar to tantra in name only, not in meaning. The practice in tantra of working with the winds, channels, and essences within the body can eventually induce realization of emptiness. This method is not mentioned in sutra, because the Buddha gave different teachings in the three turnings to suit people of different capacities.

 Practice by way of the winds, channels, and essences is a swift method for realizing emptiness. For instance, if you think for a long time your head is aching, it will definitely start to ache; however, if you are hit on the head with a stick, your head will hurt immediately. Sutra and tantra differ in the same way. It takes a long time to actualize emptiness through logical reasoning, since the concepts are relatively vague. On the other hand, the practice of working with the winds, channels, and essences of the body forces you to come into contact with emptiness. Although the final outcome is the same, it is much faster with tantra because the method is different. This is the customary tantric practice.

Dzogchen does not place emphasis on either working with the vital elements of the body or logical reasoning; these methods are considered to be circuitous. There are aspects of Dzogchen and Ch’an that are similar, but Dzogchen has many practices that Ch’an does not have. Speaking just of realization of emptiness, the two traditions are extremely alike; Dzogchen can also point out the nature of mind directly without relying on other methods. This pointing out by an accomplished master allows the disciple to directly realize Dzogchen wisdom. The wisdom in Dzogchen, the nature of mind in Ch’an, and the realization of emptiness in the Middle Way are actually one and the same. Tathāgatagarbha is a view held supreme in Chinese Buddhism; it is the natural wisdom expounded in Dzogchen; the word “nature” in knowing the nature of mind refers specifically to the tathāgatagarbha; the state of realization in Dzogchen is also the tathāgatagarbha. Therefore, all are the same when realization is attained. However, Dzogchen can point out the nature of mind without undergoing the complicated process of visualization, only the preliminaries are necessary. As the other practices in tantra usually require a great deal of visualization, Dzogchen is unique in this sense.

The Significance of the “Yab-Yum” Practice

Some people are very curious about the yab-yum practice in tantra. Sutra does not have a so-called yab-yum practice; if anything, sutra explains the union of merit and wisdom, not the union of a male and female. The yab-yum practice in tantra is a practice involving the winds, channels, and essences of the body. However, to most people, it is not a practice, but a symbolic representation. For instance, the male deity represents clear light, an aspect of phenomena; the female deity represents emptiness; the union of a male and female signifies the inseparability of phenomena and emptiness. The Heart Sutra says “form is emptiness”—form can denote all male buddhas or bodhisattvas; it also says “emptiness is form”—emptiness can denote all female buddhas or bodhisattvas. “Form is not separate from emptiness, emptiness is not separate from form” represents the union of male and female. People should understand the yab-yum practice from this standpoint.

Is the “Yub-Yum” Practice Required?

Is the yab-yum practice required in tantra? Actually, it is not required in Dzogchen, nor is it ever emphasized. People who lack this understanding think all Vajrayana followers practice the same way, but that is not the case. The practice of working with the winds, channels, and essences of the body constitutes only a small portion of tantra; it is also not undertaken by the average man and woman. Thus, to an ordinary person, it is basically not a method. Dzogchen does not emphasize the yab-yum practice; a Dzogchen practitioner on the path that starts with the preliminaries and culminates in enlightenment is not required to take up this practice; moreover, there are better methods in Dzogchen to realize emptiness. In the future, if you have the opportunity to engage in formal practice and study the Vajrayana texts, it will become even clearer this is the correct view.

Tantra does indeed have some magical practices that have added to its mystery and caused misunderstanding. Some people who are either not willing or unable to follow the precepts have committed wrongdoing under various pretenses, and brought disgrace to Vajrayana Buddhism. Of course, ordinary people are not perfect in conduct, but any misconduct must be imputed to the person, not to Vajrayana Buddhism. For most people, the yab-yum practice is not necessary, nor should it be practiced. Even for someone who is quite accomplished in tantra, it is not that necessary since there are better methods that can be used.

In sum, the common goal in sutra and tantra is to realize emptiness; the difference lies in methodology. Generally speaking, the methods in sutra are not as good as in tantra; the methods in tantra in general are not as good as in Dzogchen. Because of the unique features of Dzogchen, it is considered the highest of all the practices.

Attaining the Vajra Body

The other aspect unique to tantra, which sutra does not have, is the attainment of the vajra body. When the vajra body is actualized, it does not appear differently from an ordinary person; however, in reality, it is no longer subject to birth, aging, illness, and death, or affected by the four elements of earth, water, fire, and wind. Because the body is unobstructed, it can easily fly at will or pass through a wall. Of course, this is not the purpose of attaining the vajra body; the real purpose is to transform the body of an ordinary person into the sambhogakaya that is defined by the thirty-two sacred marks and eighty virtuous signs.

From the standpoint of sutra, this is totally inconceivable; sutra maintains the physical body dwells in samsara, is impure, and should be eradicated or abandoned. To most people, this viewpoint in sutra is not incorrect, but tantra contains a lot of methods developed from wisdom that can transform the impure body into a pure body. As an example, a person who consumes poison may die, but a person who knows the way can combat poison with poison. Before realization, our body is a part of samsara; to be liberated, we must abandon it. However, with wisdom and skillful means, we do not have to give it up; rather we can transform it into the buddha body. The practices in tantra—using winds, channels, and essences and realizing clear light in Dzogchen—are the only way to attain this state. It cannot be accomplished with practices in sutra, be it Pure Land, Ch’an, Mind Only, or Middle Way. Not having read the teachings in tantra, even some of the venerable monastics in the sutra tradition are not able to accept the assertion that the physical body can be transformed in this way. But tantra indeed has methods rooted in the attainment of realization, which is a capacity of the mind. Actually, the development of the impure body is also a function of the mind; it is impure due to negative karma born of an impure mind. When the mind is able to attain realization and experience clear light, the impure body can then be transformed into the vajra body. Naturally, other practices are also necessary during the process.

This is not merely an exposition; there are many such cases among accomplished masters in the history of Tibet. You must also have heard that, at the actual moment of death of some Dzogchen masters, people witnessed the gradual shrinking of the body until it dissolved into rays of light, and rainbow in the sky.

This transformation of the body is also a function of the mind. Ordinary people do not know how to develop this capability, but practitioners know the key to unlocking such capabilities and can actualize the result for all to see. This is likened to all the high tech gadgets nowadays that people five to six hundred years ago would not have thought possible. Actually, if people had the technology then, they would be able to develop the same things without having to wait several hundred years later for the right conditions to appear. In other words, the technology in the production of these modern gadgets has been around since antiquity; it is only that people in the past did not know how to develop it.

Similarly, we can now open up the inner world of our mind and discover the wonder inside. However, lacking the knowhow, we think afflictions and discursive thoughts are things that must be discarded. Without wisdom at the start, this approach has its merit, but once deep insight is attained, we can transform afflictions into the path without eliminating them. This is where tantra is unique.

In the sutra system, we have to undergo a very slow and long process of countless kalpas to attain initial realization. It then takes as much time to progress from the first bhumi to the seventh bhumi. When the eighth bhumi is realized, the consciousness of eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, and mind, out of the eight kinds of consciousness, are already purified. At that point, the external world we perceive is a buddha realm. This is how it is recorded in the sutras.

In the tantric system, one can transform the impure body into the vajra body in one lifetime through the special practice of manipulating the vital elements of the body and Dzogchen. Tibetan Buddhism gives a very detailed explanation of the vital elements of the body and separates them into four levels—outer, inner, secret, and utmost secret; the vital elements that non-Buddhist traditions refer to constitute only the simplest part of the outer level, and are nowhere near the deeper levels. It is by way of these pith teachings that tantra can develop the practice explained above.

Included in Dzogchen is the bardo practice which describes very clearly the entire process of death. I believe many people have either heard of or read The Tibetan Book of the Dead. Some people in the West who have had near death experiences are shocked by the description in the book, since their initial death experiences were clearly documented thousands of years ago in Tibet. While the experience of people in the West is limited to the early stage of dying, The Tibetan Book of the Dead teaches not only the entire process of death but also how to manage it. Actually, we can by way of the bardo practice learn to work with and capitalize on the death process when we are still alive. This practice is unthinkable in the sutra system, nor is it undertaken even in the other Tibetan traditions; it is another reason Dzogchen is distinctive. There are many aspects of Dzogchen that are special, but here we can only cite one to two that are particularly important to highlight the differences between sutra and tantra.

Summation of Differences in Sutra and Tantra

To sum up, sutra and tantra are different in one, insight; and two, methods of realizing emptiness.

Difference in Insight

From the standpoint of emptiness, it is not necessary to employ logic on the tantric path; the clear light nature of mind can be realized here and now. From the standpoint of phenomena, sutra maintains all things perceived by the eye belong to samsara and are tainted; they must be eradicated. This is not knowing the basic nature of phenomena is actually pure and uncontaminated. Only at the eighth bhumi is this truth uncovered. Tantra teaches at the outset even if all phenomena belong to samsara and are tainted, they are in reality the buddha realm.

How do we prove this? The proof is in the actual practice. After the preliminaries are completed, one can engage in the practice directly and, without any assistance, come to his or her own realization that all phenomena are actually the buddha realm. In sutra, it takes a long time to arrive at this state; in tantra, it can be accomplished in this lifetime. This is because sutra lacks knowhow in the methods and comparable insight.

Difference in Methods of Realizing Emptiness

To realize emptiness in sutra, there is actually only one method, which is logical reasoning; it is less effective in this sense. Although the Pure Land practice is part of sutra, emptiness is realized not in this life but in Western Pure Land; the Ch’an method of realization is different from sutra in general and is mainly directed at people of superior faculties. Tantra, however, has many methods: a person of lesser capacity can practice visualization or work with the winds, channels, and essences of the body; a person of superior capacity can skip these methods and go directly to Dzogchen, a more skillful practice which can lead to sudden enlightenment. This is a crucial difference which should not be treated lightly, since one must realize emptiness in order to attain liberation.

Sutra and Tantra—Harmonious and Not Contradictory

There is no contradiction between tantra and sutra, but tantra has more features that are special. The practices in tantra and in sutra, for instance Pure Land combined with tantric practices, can be undertaken at the same time. If one practices Ch’an meditation together with tantra, the methods in tantra will greatly facilitate the process of knowing the mind and seeing its true nature. Tantra is complementary in that it offers methods that Ch’an lacks in preparing one for realization. Practitioners who are accomplished in both sutra and tantra maintain the 84,000 methods that the Buddha taught, from Hinayana to Vajrayana, are not contradictory. People of lesser capacity think the teachings in sutra and tantra abound with contradictions and cannot possibly be practiced together. This arises from not having sufficient insight; otherwise a person can practice all 84,000 methods, also all nine yanas of Dzogchen, in just one sitting. Therefore, over the course of study, one should think the entire Dharma is harmonious and not contradictory, and contemplate from that perspective.

Conversely, from the standpoint of a person who lacks this understanding, the teachings of Chinese and Tibetan Buddhism, Pure Land and Ch’an, Hinayana and Mahayana, even the four major schools of Tibetan Buddhism are all contradictory. This conceptual discrimination is known as denigrating the Dharma. There is a sutra that specifically details the actions that denigrate the Dharma and the ill karma that results from such actions. If these transgressions are committed, one cannot practice tantra and Ch’an, nor take rebirth in Western Pure Land, since repudiating the Dharma is one of the two transgressions that exclude one from going there. A person who is dedicated to studying one text, paying tribute to one deity, and undertaking one practice has merit; however, he is denigrating the Dharma if he maintains his own practice is superior to others. It is fine to engage in just one practice if undertaking all the practices is not possible, but wrong to criticize other spiritual traditions. If we can generate an open and impartial view from the start, and concentrate fully on one practice, whatever that method may be, we can all attain realization very quickly.


Some lay followers are known as “runabout followers.” They are busy all day at the Dharma centers seeking empowerments and blessings; uninterested in attaining the right view or understanding, nothing is learned in the end. If they have actually received all those empowerments, it would mean they also took a good amount of tantric vows at the same time. If the vows are not upheld, they would be violating one precept after another. In the end, the only thing attained is a lot of negative karma.

Naturally, one should have respect for the guru, whether he is a lay person or a monastic. But from the standpoint of one’s practice, is it really necessary to pledge oneself to all the gurus? Actually, it is sufficient to just show respect in our mind. It is also not necessary to meet all the teachers that come from Tibet. The most important thing is to remain steadfast in our position, that is, to cultivate renunciation, bodhicitta, and the view of emptiness. Without this, it is fruitless to rush about from one place to another. Even if a guru does not call attention to the precepts that must be observed after an empowerment, or the followers do not care to know about them, the Vajrayana precepts must still be upheld. If they are not upheld, a violation is committed whether one knows the precepts or not.

As lay people, we ought to cultivate a pure heart of equanimity toward all monastics—Chinese masters, Tibetan gurus, and yogis alike. In assessing whether or not to accept their transmission and empowerment, we must first observe, then decide. If we decide to accept their transmission, the corresponding requirements must be fulfilled; without this certainty, we should not commit ourselves. Worldly matters are conducted this way, all the more so with the Dharma.

Presently, there are some lay people who never try to establish the right view for themselves or improve their knowledge of the practices; instead, they just join others in seeking gurus who are well known, for instance, siddhas with the ability to fly or discover terma (hidden treasures). Actually, in what way is the discovery of terma useful to us? And what if the guru can fly? Can we fly as well by following him? It is in our own interest to follow a guru who can give us the tools to attain liberation. However, this is not something that can be acquired arbitrarily from just anyone; prior to and after obtaining such knowledge, there are requirements we need to fulfill. This must be taken seriously.

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