As the title indicates, this discussion is based on the view of Rongzom Pandita, the great scholar of the Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism. Although the points for discussion are not many, they are all very key points.
Our discussion here is not a practice but common knowledge that practitioners must know. It is my view that not every practitioner needs to learn the Five Great Treatises or all the tantras because some parts of this massive body of works are not that useful for actual practice; they only serve as additional knowledge. But as a practitioner, one should at least have the knowledge pertinent to one’s own practice.
Actually, with respect to the ground, path and fruition, or the view, practice and conduct, sutrayana and tantrayana differ in all three aspects except the ultimate fruition of buddhahood. Although some great masters in both India and Tibet hold the view that buddhahood achieved through the sutra path is just part of the state of the bodhisattvas at the tenth bhumi, not the true state of buddhahood, it is merely an expedient explanation. In fact, the fruition of sutra and tantra in Buddhism is exactly the same; only the way of attaining it is different.
Regarding ultimate truth or emptiness, the view of the two systems is not much different. That is to say, the view expounded in the two exoteric treatises, Nagarjuna’s Fundamental Verses on the Middle Way and Chandrakirti’s Introduction to the Middle Way, on the subject of all phenomena being emptiness, detached from all fabricated constructs and so on, is the same as the tantric view on emptiness.
Here, fabricated constructs denote sentient beings’ attachment, that is, all discriminating notions of good and bad, long and short, high and low, etc.
From the standpoint of relative truth, the idea upheld by both systems of all phenomena being illusory is basically the same as well. On the other hand, it is pointed out in Rongzom Pandita’s The Parable of a Black Snake that absolute realization of all phenomena being illusory like dreams is attainable only through Dzogchen.
The tantric view of relative truth is closer to the view of the Yogācāra (Consciousness-Only) school. Yogācāra holds that all external conditions are created by the mind; besides the mind, there is no matter. This is also the view of the tantric system. Of course, this view is not the same as that of idealism which also suggests there is no matter other than mind or consciousness. Both Yogācāra and tantric Buddhism acknowledge the existence of matter, but it is created from sentient beings’ consciousness, not by God. There is tremendous energy stored in this consciousness, which in Buddhist jargon is habitual tendency. When this energy is released, all phenomena such as the external world and sentient beings manifest. Therefore, the origin of all external phenomena is our minds.
As I mentioned earlier, there is no difference between buddhahood attained through sutrayana and tantrayana.
All the above is discussed from the standpoint of the view.
From the standpoint of practice, both systems emphasize the practices of renunciation and bodhicitta as well as all other preliminary practices.
Relative Truth and Ultimate Truth are Inseparable
Ordinarily, sutra distinguishes clearly between relative truth and ultimate truth. Its discourse maintains the illusory world of mountains, rivers, earth, and so on that we see is relative truth, while the void nature of all these phenomena is ultimate truth. The inherent nature of matter is emptiness; besides this, the physical world is all just an illusion. Ultimate truth is real while relative truth is false. Because of this glaring difference between the two, only ultimate truth is present at the time of attaining buddhahood. Ultimate truth is the state of buddhahood.
Tantra holds that relative truth and ultimate truth are inseparable—relative truth is ultimate truth and vice versa. Relative truth in tantra denotes the external and internal phenomena that we perceive; ultimate truth is luminosity of tathāgatagarbha.
There are two kinds of phenomena—one is the physical world we see such as the earth, mountains, rivers, sun, moon and stars; the other is the mandala of the buddha, like Amitabha’s pure land of Sukhāvatī, Akshobhya’s pure land of Abhirati, and so on. Of the two kinds of phenomena, that which is perceived by sentient beings is an illusion—it is completely different from ultimate truth; that which is pure is the same as emptiness. Emptiness is never separate from pure phenomena, and pure phenomena never separate from emptiness. Buddhahood is not attained in mere nothingness but amid pure phenomena. This is known as the inseparability of relative truth and ultimate truth.
All Phenomena are the Mandala of the Buddha
Sutra deems all these illusions we see now are essentially impure phenomena. The tantric view, however, is that phenomena in and of themselves are in fact pure; they represent the mandala of the buddha.
Even though the sutra system acquiesces to this view, it does not emphasize this too much. Sutra maintains that when bodhisattvas attain the eighth bhumi, everything appears pure in their eyes. However, things have not always been pure; they were not pure originally, but were transformed into pure phenomena through practice.
Tantra says pure phenomena seen by bodhisattvas of the eighth bhumi are not the result of transforming the impure into the pure; they are intrinsically pure. It is only because we have afflictive and cognitive hindrances as well as ignorance that we cannot perceive the pure mandala of the buddha, but the mandala has always been there and is eternally pure. Upon reaching the eighth bhumi, as our ignorance is almost cleared, we can begin to touch the true reality of the world. Before this stage, all that we see and feel are false perceptions.
Vajrayana practice is not like a magician who by using certain techniques can turn something into nothing or nothing into something, nor is it a transformation of the external object itself.
The same is with affliction. The sutra system and especially the Yogācāra scriptures all recognize the eight consciousnesses. On attaining the eighth bhumi, all but the alaya consciousness are already transformed. Basically, through Dharma practice, past impure afflictions are transformed into pure phenomena—the transcendent wisdom of the buddha.
Tantra says there is no doubt our consciousness can change into pure wisdom through practice. In fact, when we have affliction and ignorance, affliction in itself is already pure, already the sublime wisdom, the tathāgatagarbha. Yet we cannot feel or perceive this at the time because of the presence of affliction and ignorance, and because our practice still falls short.
An analogy can better explain this point. A person with gallbladder disease may see all white things such as paper or a white wall as yellow. If everyone has the same sickness, the wall will appear yellow to all, not white. Of course, the wall is not yellow; the problem is with everyone’s eyes. When their conditions slowly improve after treatment, they will gradually see that the wall is actually white and that there is no yellow color anywhere on the wall.
Likewise, the sutra system fails to realize all changes come from within the practitioner himself, not from outside. As with the analogy, one thinks the wall changed in color—from yellow originally to white later on. The tantric view is that change happens not on the outside, as external things are intrinsically pure already. As the analogy indicates, what changed is our eyes.
We can see very clearly from this analogy that the view of the sutra system is not quite at the ultimate level. The proof sutra offers is just that we can make afflictions disappear with practice. This argument in support of the view that things are not inherently pure but only become pure later on is not very convincing. By comparison, the tantric view that all phenomena are intrinsically pure can be very convincing indeed.
In fact, some sutras, although very few in number, also mention that Sakyamuni Buddha said our world itself is already pure, just that we don’t see it. But the more important problem is that there is no mention at all of how to practice in order to perceive all manifestations as pure in any text of the sutra system; the only teaching offered is the practice of bodhicitta and emptiness. Pure phenomena naturally manifest when we undergo a very long and arduous training and reach the eighth bhumi.
The same situation can be found in many areas within Buddhism. For example, the paramitas of patience and generosity, bodhicitta, and some uncommon states of buddhahood in the Mahayana practice are also mentioned in the Theravada texts, but they are told as stories, like how Sakyamuni Buddha cultivated bodhicitta and practiced the six paramitas before attaining buddhahood, rather than as sets of specific practice. Similarly, in the sutra system, the texts also describe the nature of the world being inherently pure, but offer no specific practice either. Although pure phenomena manifest when bodhisattvas reach the eighth bhumi, it is not achieved by undertaking certain practices that aim to transform the impure into the pure. Rather, it is when ignorance is reduced by practicing bodhicitta and emptiness that pure phenomena can manifest naturally afterwards.
The fact is bodhisattvas of the eighth bhumi could not have taken up the practice of pure perception in the first place, because there is none offered in the writings of the sutra system. They come upon this result inadvertently.
Vajrayana, on the other hand, is different. We know from the tantric texts that all is primordially pure. The better skilled tantric practitioners may still have sense perceptions of defiled phenomena at the beginning, but they harbor no notion of anything impure in their minds because they know all is intrinsically pure.
The generation stage of Vajrayana is a specific practice for the training of pure perception. Via the generation stage, even ordinary beings don’t have to wait too long to achieve accomplishment. Upon reaching the highest state, one sees everything around as nothing but manifestations of the buddha; nothing is defiled. This is where even ordinary beings who have not attained the first bhumi of the bodhisattva path can successfully reach. So, in terms of purification of phenomena, tantra has swift methods of its own.
People of superior capacity who have faith and maintain discipline with their practice may reach a more advanced state in their practice as early as in six months if they focus their efforts solely on practicing the generation stage. Moreover, there are many practices to choose from within the generation stage, all of which can lead to the same final result. Of course, this is based on the premise that the preliminaries are completed satisfactorily; if not, there can never be any result, let alone in six months.
How does one know one’s own capacity? From the standpoint of Vajrayana, the strength of one’s faith in the Dharma is the yardstick. For instance, a person with superior faith in Dzogchen has superior capacity for Dzogchen practice; a person with medium faith in Dzogchen has medium capacity; a person with no faith in Dzogchen has no capacity.
Although Sakyamuni Buddha himself did not distinguish between superior or inferior disciples, we must recognize people have different capacities. That is why the Buddha offered different practices and different views to people of different capacities.
Relatively speaking, the generation stage is already a great practice, but it is still an indirect path. We know that one cannot enter directly into the enlightened realm of the buddha by way of the generation stage alone; instead, one must first practice visualization with thangkas which, however, are painted by people and hence not quite the ultimate way. Whereas Dzogchen, by skipping these diversions and keeping only the essential point, enables the practitioners to attain the enlightened pure state directly and much faster through the practice of tögal. This is a very important point to note. However, tantric practitioners who do not have the capacity to practice Dzogchen must take the indirect path before reaching the final goal.
There are two kinds of attachment that are most stubborn in each person’s mind: one is the view that the outer world, this Saha world, is impure and filled with suffering—due to afflictions, birth, aging, sickness, death, etc.; the other is the view that everything in the world truly exists.
The sutra system through its teaching of the Middle Way eradicates the notion of the actual existence of a self of person and of phenomena, and attachment to the self of person and self of phenomena, but it has no solution for eliminating attachment to the impure perception of the world. Sutra is of the view that even highly realized bodhisattvas of the first bhumi would still perceive all phenomena as impure but illusory at the same time in the post meditation state.
Tantra, on the other hand, can eliminate both attachments. As sutra has already explained the view of emptiness very clearly, tantra emphasizes more on the part that sutra has difficulty with, that is, all phenomena are the pure realm of the buddha, and hence on the practices of the generation stage. This is a very important difference between the two.
Naturally, if one’s faith in or understanding of Vajrayana is inadequate, it is perfectly fine not to practice Vajrayana, so long as one is not biased against any particular school or tradition of Buddhism. The Buddha did not say everyone should learn Vajrayana; whether it is the Great Vehicle, the Lesser Vehicle, sutra or tantra, all are the paths pointed out by the Buddha for sentient beings. Different beings cannot all take the same path. However, if one has strong faith in Vajrayana, it is best to choose this path to enlightenment since its methods lead to accomplishment most swiftly.
Practice of Emptiness
The very basic practice of the sutra system is the practice of the four foundations of mindfulness, which is usually what followers of the exoteric system begin with. The four foundations of mindfulness basically refer to the practices of impermanence, contaminated phenomena, no-self, etc. in The Four Seals of Dharma.
In the sutra system, there is only one way to practice emptiness. First, follow the methods provided in Fundamental Verses on the Middle Way and Introduction to the Middle Way to contemplate and thus comprehend the nature of all phenomena is emptiness. Secondly, having felt profoundly the void nature of things, continue to practice and prolong this feeling over time. Realization can be attained this way, but at very slow pace.
Comparatively, tantric Buddhism provides many kinds of practice. It can be said that the essence of all the inner tantras from India has been completely transmitted to Tibet and incorporated into the major schools of Tibetan Buddhism. The schools were formed not because of strife or dissension; rather, each school has its own strengths and specialty that complement one another.
The two methods for realization of emptiness that Vajrayana recommends most highly are the completion stage with marks and the completion stage without marks.
The completion stage with marks refers to practices on the channels, winds and essences of the subtle body. This is a very effective practice, but the expected result will be produced only if the preliminaries are practiced satisfactorily.
I can explain briefly its principle. For example, when we meditate, we all wish to stay calm with no discursive thoughts in mind, but find it difficult to do. It is because the winds or inner air of the subtle body is closely related to the mind. If we set about working with the mind, we can control the channels, winds and essences of the body; conversely, if we start with the channels, winds and essences, we can keep the mind under control. Here, the inner air or wind is not our breath but subtle energy circling in the channels and chakras.
According to tantra, the chakras are located at the chest, throat and other areas in the body. These chakras and winds usually cannot be detected either by eyes or instruments, but they do exist. When we have these winds under control, all discursive thoughts lose their power instantly. Because we are unable to control the movement of the winds at present, our thoughts run wild.
Through this practice of the channels, winds, and essences to purify all discursive thoughts, the nature of mind will manifest; but, in addition, there must be pith instructions from the vajra master as well. Absent the master’s pith instructions, true awareness even if it dawns will not mean anything. The fact is the nature of mind always reveals itself every time we die, but we never recognize it; we can also encounter the nature of mind momentarily when we go into deep sleep every night, but we fail to realize it. It is for this reason that the vajra master’s pith instructions are needed at the critical juncture. Once we apply the instructions, realization comes swiftly. This is the fast track to realization of emptiness in tantra.
The path of sutra does not offer such method. Because the capacity of the practitioners of sutra is not as mature, the Buddha only introduced less complex practices to them. In the eyes of these practitioners, the tantric practices always look mysterious.
The Five Great Treatises which we study at length do not expound or teach this method. Among the five, only The Ornament of Clear Realization touches upon the actual Mahayana practice. But even so, such profound method is not found anywhere in the text, because The Ornament of Clear Realization is based on the scriptures of the sutra system. As no such method is provided in these scriptures, it is no wonder the path of sutra takes longer to gain accomplishment.
Basically, the practices of generation stage and completion stage cover all the Vajrayana practices. The generation stage serves to abolish our impure perception, while the completion stage eradicates our attachment to the self-existence of phenomena. Both methods yield results fast.
Even in Tibet today, we often hear about the remarkable signs shown by a certain master when he died, such as shrinking of the body and other phenomena, as mentioned in Vajrayana and Dzogchen. Just like when Sakyamuni Buddha turned the wheel of Dharma in India, one would hear news of someone attaining the state of arhathood or that of bodhisattva at the first bhumi almost on a daily basis. These phenomena all testify to why tantric practice is unique and unexcelled.
However, those having no faith in the tantric path will not gain any result by practicing Vajrayana; it could even be problematic. In this case, they can only take up the practices in sutra. To use an analogy, flying is the fastest way to get to places, but if you can’t afford the air ticket, you can only take the train.
In the Tibetan Buddhist canon, Kangyur comprises the words said by the Buddha himself, of which seventy percent relate to sutrayana texts and only thirty percent to tantric texts. Practitioners of Tibetan Buddhism usually study the sutrayana texts first, then move on to learn the tantras.
The Chinese Buddhist canon has only sutrayana texts, nothing on Vajrayana. From the Chinese Manuscripts in the Tripitaka Sinica, we can see that there are many sutras and treatises translated from India, but rarely are they subsumed into a comprehensive system of practice. Although Nagarjuna, Asanga and other great scholars also organized some practices this way, there are not many around.
Whereas in Tibetan Buddhism many realized masters in the past dedicated their lives to the research and actual practice of the teachings of both sutra and tantra, extracting the essence of the teachings and compiling them into a complete system that covers everything from the preliminary practices to the main practices. The four major schools of Tibetan Buddhism all have their own unique practices.
The different traditions of Buddhism, whether it is Tibetan or Chinese, sutra or tantra, are all good. Separately, each is the right path for the person of suitable capacity. But from an overall perspective, there is still a distinction in the level of profundity.
Tantra not only offers many actual practices that are quick and effective, but also has broad and condensed versions, some of which are really very simple. Being simple does not mean the contents are incomplete; it means the practice is easy to do. To attain the desired result with a simple method is the skillful way of tantrayana.
I have said before that tantra is particularly suitable for people in this era because people today prefer the fast food culture. What I mean is we don’t have time to read the massive volumes of scriptures but are more receptive to simple practices. I gave a teaching on several meditation practices, one of which is a very simple method that can achieve the same result as well. If the result is the same, it is of course the simpler the method the better. Many people may not benefit from practices that are complicated.
Affliction is Bodhi
Despite the fact that some of the more profound sutrayana scriptures mention that affliction is bodhi, karma is bodhi, mind is bodhi, etc., the sutra system has never given a very clear explanation of why affliction is bodhi. Only tantra can explain this well. However, even within tantra, there are many levels of understanding. In the outer tantras, the explanation is rather vague. And not just the outer tantras, some given in the inner tantras are not quite the ultimate view either; depending on how it is explained, there is still a difference in terms of the clarity of the answer within the inner tantras. Only Dzogchen gives the most direct answer.
This does not mean the Buddha did not know these profound principles when expounding the teachings of sutra. It is only because sentient beings’ capacity was not developed enough that the Buddha used the least complicated method to describe concepts such as no-self and other basic doctrines in the sutrayana texts.
The two viewpoints, affliction is bodhi and external objects are the mandala of the divine, actually mean the same. It is because we make a distinction between our internal mental phenomena and the external physical world that the Buddha taught them separately. When all our attachment have been abolished, the internal and external phenomena will merge into one; the two viewpoints will become one as well.
Affliction is bodhi means affliction is the wisdom of the buddha. Does it mean when we have affliction, we have the wisdom of the buddha? Then why don’t we feel the arising of this supreme wisdom when anger comes? This is the part that people find most difficult to understand.
It is why tantra is kept away from the general public. There is really nothing in tantra that cannot be told but for the fact that the tantric view can easily cause two kinds of misunderstanding: first, some people will reject the tantric view purely based on their impressions and thus commit the transgression of defaming the Dharma; second, another group will go to the other extreme—thinking there is no need to eradicate affliction since affliction is bodhi, they will behave badly at will, abandon their vows, give up mantra recitation, practice, and so forth.
If there is no genuine guidance, just simply claiming affliction is bodhi or all phenomena are the buddhafield, many people will get the wrong idea and possibly commit wrong actions as well. After all, not that many people are receptive to such profound insight. Therefore, it is better to keep the tantric view private, only revealing the notion such as affliction is bodhi to people whose capacity is readily developed. The Buddha also took this into consideration and required that tantra not be taught openly. Nevertheless, it is only a relative, not absolute, secret. If everything were to be kept as absolute secret, tantra would lose its reason to exist; what good is it if no one is allowed to know it?
Nowadays, tantric texts and statues are sold on a large scale in the open market; it is no longer possible to keep tantra secret. But I take comfort in knowing that no one really knows the meaning of the texts, even if the writings are public now, just some superficial understanding at best.
And it is not just with tantra; from a certain standpoint, sutra is the same. For example, many people do not understand the concept of emptiness which is central to sutrayana. The inability to understand it causes rejection of the doctrine and negative karma to be committed as a result of the rejection. So, for the sake of sentient beings, the view of emptiness should not be propagated too casually either. To properly teach emptiness, one should not just simply say that “the nature of all phenomena is emptiness” but explain clearly instead why it is emptiness, how to practice emptiness, and so on.
What are the things that need not be kept secret? Ideas such as past life, future life, cyclic existence, and karma are pretty straight forward. They are subjects generally suitable for a public audience.
When a profound theory is first introduced, it usually becomes the target of mass rejection. People cannot accept it right away because they lack the wisdom for ideas that are ahead of their time; they need time to adapt to unfamiliar situations.
The same goes for other things around us. When we see a still object, we cannot just say to others, without any explanation, “It is not still. It is moving. Being still is moving.” If we put it this way, no one can accept it. How can something static be moving at the same time? Contradictions can never coexist. But if we explain further, “I don’t mean the object appears to be moving. What I mean is that it looks still, but if we examine it under a microscope, it is actually not still but moving constantly.” No one will object to this explanation; instead, they will follow our way of thinking and come to understand the meaning of “being still is moving; moving is being still.”
Tantric Buddhism was propagated in Tibet the same way. When Padmasambhava went to Tibet, he transmitted Dzogchen to only a handful of people. After Vimalamitra and other masters went to Tibet later on, Dzogchen teachings were given to more people. As Tibetans gradually gained greater understanding of tantric teachings and adapted to its framework, only then was Dzogchen basically open to the public. However, the lineage of the inner tantras was never established in Han Chinese region. As a result, it has been rather difficult to obtain support of esoteric teachings from Buddhist masters in China. Although Ch’an practice is similar in part to tantric practice, owing to the lack of comprehensive knowledge of tantra on the part of individual Dharma teachers of the sutra system, misunderstanding is unavoidable.
Both sutra and tantra expound the ideas of emptiness, clear light, and tathāgatagarbha. But what exactly is clear light or tathāgatagarbha? Sutra offers no clear answers. Tantra, on the other hand, gives not only clear-cut explanations but also corresponding practices.
All Phenomena are naturally the Buddha
This point of dissimilarity between sutra and tantra integrates the second point and the fourth point discussed above. Here, all phenomena include the external environment as well as sentient beings’ consciousness; the buddha denotes luminosity of tathāgatagarbha.
The fourth point, affliction is bodhi, basically covers all the viewpoints of tantra.
Every word in tantra can be explained on many different levels. All tantric practitioners have the requisite capacity for the tantric path, but the ripening of that capacity can vary and so the inner meaning of the same word is revealed differently to people of varied capacity.
A sentence such as “all phenomena are the mandala of the buddha” has at least four different levels of explanation. From the lowest to the highest level, the explanations are all correct but they express progressively deeper meaning due to sentient beings’ different capacity. The mandala that is most superficial, lowest in representation, and least definitive in meaning is one that is depicted in a thangka showing the palaces of the Five Buddhas filled with all the deities; while the ultimate mandala is clear light and tathāgatagarbha.
The reason is that ancient India was a complex place with many schools of thought and belief; people were quite open, active, and free spirited at that time. Thousands of Brahmins once pretended to give up their own faith and converted to Buddhism, but their real intention was to destroy Buddhism by mixing the Brahmin view with Buddhist theories. This went on secretly for many centuries. However, there were ways to handle this problem. The Buddha knew this would happen long ago, so he withheld the true meaning of many Buddhist terms from them. Many tantric contents were kept secret, including the astronomical calculation in the Kalacakra Tantra, especially some of the tantric terminologies. Even though non-Buddhists also use exactly the same terms, the real meanings are completely different between the two groups. This is why tantra strongly emphasizes the importance of lineage. Oral transmission from the vajra master is absolutely necessary for realization to be attained in tantra, because without it, one cannot even understand fully the theoretical part of the teaching.
On the other hand, the viewpoints of sutrayana such as impermanence, suffering, no-self, etc. are relatively straightforward. For example, the opposite of impermanence is permanence. No Buddhist would acknowledge phenomena are permanent, so there is no way it can be mixed up with other views. If other views were incorporated, it would be pretty obvious.
“All phenomena are the realm of the buddha” means the world we are seeing now is not its original face but one produced by ignorance and defilement, just as materialism holds that mental aspects and consciousness are products of the brain.
As mentioned earlier, when a person has gallbladder disease, a white object looks yellow. If someone is born with this disease, he or she will naturally believe all white things are yellow and not for a second think there is a problem on his or her part. When later on the disease is treated, the person will gradually see things turn from yellow to white but think the change is taking place externally rather than from within.
By the same token, we were born with defilement and ignorance, so the world we see is a kind of distorted illusion. Subsequently, through the help of Dharma practice, we slowly come to realize all phenomena are indeed the realm of the buddha.
It is clearly stated in chapter six of Beacon of Certainty, as well as the view held by Tibetan tantra, that all phenomena are the mandala of the buddha. When actually deducing this point, the Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism takes some unique approaches which are not only conceptually simple but also very persuasive. In addition, Rongzom Pandita always stressed that every sentient being sees a different world; it does not mean the reality of the world is different, only the experience or appearance of it is different.
Subjective idealism is right about this point. George Berkeley maintained existence is that which is perceived; nothing exists other than human cognition. But he was wrong in his subsequent reasoning. Despite this, materialism cannot overturn the theory of subjective idealism. The French philosopher Denis Diderot (1713-1784) once commented in a letter about subjective idealism, “This system, to the shame of mind, to the shame of philosophy, is the hardest of all to refute, though it is the most absurd.”
Actually, it is precisely because our accepted knowledge already runs counter to the true reality of all things that failure to refute Berkeley’s view is really not the shame of human mind but rather a demonstration of human wisdom, for the nature of the world is just as Berkeley put forward.
The Buddhist view is that if a being from each of the six realms, a bodhisattva of the eighth bhumi, and a buddha, representing eight different states of mind, all go to the same place and look at the same glass of water, each will see a different phenomenon: a being from the hell realm sees the water as boiling liquid copper, liquid iron and the like; a hungry ghost sees blood, pus, etc. in place of water; an animal sees it as an abode; a human just sees the water; and nectar is what’s in the eyes of a celestial being; a bodhisattva of the eighth bhumi sees two types of phenomena—one like the nectar seen by the heavenly being, the other as the consorts of the Five Dhyani Buddhas; lastly, in the state of the buddha, there is neither color nor shape of anything to be seen; what the buddha sees is dharmakaya, clear light, the tathāgatagarbha. These eight phenomena cannot all be accurate and true; there can only be one truth and that is the realm of the buddha—the ultimate, the absolute truth of all. Why is that?
The reason is because the other phenomena are all products of ignorance, and the products vary depending on the extent of ignorance. Although these phenomena get increasingly close to the truth, none of the representatives except the buddha can see true reality.
To better understand this, you should read chapter six of Beacon of Certainty, and Essence of Clear Light, a commentary on the Guhyagarbha Tantra by Ju Mipham Rinpoche
Simply put, what we see now is not the state of the buddha nor the absolute reality of matter, only its relative reality. Even if our vision is very good, without any obstruction, what we can see is only the gross aspects of things. In this sense, it can also be said that our conclusion about the world around us is accurate, but we cannot see anything beyond this, such as the atom, electron, nucleon, etc. All these therefore are just relative reality, while absolute reality only the buddha knows.
From this we can infer at the end all that we see is not mind nor matter, but tathāgatagarbha. The view of the highest state of sutrayana holds that the external world is not real, but it exists despite being impermanent and illusory; whereas the view of tantra is that when our ignorance is eliminated, the external world will change as a result. As this is the innate power of the mind, we don’t need to do anything about the external world; it will just become increasingly pure by itself and eventually manifest as the mandala of the buddha.
We all know that a buddha has three levels of manifestation—dharmakaya, sambhogakaya, and nirmanakaya. Many wrathful and peaceful deities in Vajrayana, such as the Five Dhyani Buddhas, are basically the sambhogakaya. This kind of buddha can provisionally be the central deity in the mandala we are referring to; however, this is only the state of an eighth-bhumi bodhisattva, not that of a buddha.
The most genuine, absolute buddha is the dharmakaya, the tathāgatagarbha. It is stated in the Diamond Sutra and many other sutrayana texts that any buddha image showing colors and shapes along with the head and hands is not the most definitive meaning of the buddha. Sutra also has scriptures that expound the teaching of tathāgatagarbha. Mipham Rinpoche and many other Buddhist masters classified these scriptures as “half sutra half tantra” since they elucidate a view that falls somewhere between the two systems.
From the comparisons presented so far, we can conclude that although sutra can be used to great effect, the solutions that can really help us at the end must still come from tantra. During the time of Sakyamuni Buddha, people were relatively simple, leading a slower-paced lifestyle and with moderate afflictions. Whereas people today are very complicated, very busy and burdened with gross defilement. That is why Sakyamuni Buddha at the time chose to expound teachings of the sutra system first. He knew that people’s defilement would become more serious later on and that the teachings in sutra alone would not be enough to help. He believed tantric teachings should be widely propagated to benefit people in modern times. Now 2500 years later, we find the current situation is exactly so.
Among the schools in Chinese Buddhism, I am more familiar with Pure Land and Ch’an, which are two very good schools. As I know very little about the rest, I will not make any passing comment.
Presently, in the practices of sutra, I think the Pure Land practice is more promising. If one does not have a particularly sharp faculty nor the time to take up a whole series of practice, it is best to choose the Pure Land school, the reason being that its practice is practical, not likely to sidetrack its practitioners, and requires no realization. One only needs to have unflinching faith in Amitabha and to chant Amitabha’s name and mantra. I think the Amitabha practice is the best hope for those who really have no other way to practice. Pure Land practice is also available in tantra; it is basically no different from that in sutra except for the addition of Amitabha empowerment and visualization.
Personally, I think Ch’an Buddhism is very good, but only suitable for those of more superior faculties. In view of the times we are in today, it is difficult to say what can be achieved with Ch’an Buddhism or if the Ch’an masters themselves have attained genuine realization. I always question the result of Ch’an practice when the foundation of outer and inner preliminaries is lacking. Historically, there were many extraordinary Ch’an masters; records of many sublime, realized Ch’an masters in China are also found in the Tibetan edition of the history of Chinese Buddhism that was translated a few hundred years ago. But nowadays whether there are still Ch’an teachers of such caliber is really a good question. Therefore, in my opinion, if one is unable to handle other practices, one should take up the Pure Land practice as it is faster and more practical.
In various texts from the Prajnaparamita sutras to Dzogchen, there are more than ten different terms expressing the meaning of tathāgatagarbha. Why are so many terms used to describe tathāgatagarbha? From the standpoint of relative truth, there is no way to show tathāgatagarbha to other people as it is not a real entity. Many people who turned to Buddhism came from different backgrounds and often with different faiths; if all of a sudden a term was used that conveyed a view very different from what they originally held, they would reject it right off. As the most important principle of teaching the Dharma is to teach according to sentient beings’ respective capacity, the Buddha took care to ensure that his audience would gladly embrace Buddhism by adopting different terms to suit different audience’s level of understanding.
Confucianism upholds the basic goodness of human beings, while some Western religions maintain mankind is here to atone for its original sin. But I think neither Eastern nor Western philosophy can elucidate the very essence of matter, or what the true face of the world is. Buddhism holds that goodness and evil are only a product of the basic nature—an external phenomenon, nothing real. The other philosophical systems are not as profound as the wisdom of tathāgatagarbha; in fact, they are way behind.
Tathāgatagarbha is the most essential and ultimate face of mind; it is also the original face presented in Ch’an Buddhism. There can be no second face besides this. Realization of tathāgatagarbha comes in many different levels. It is very difficult to ascertain if one has actually been in touch with tathāgatagarbha upon realization. What is certain is the final, ultimate state of mind is tathāgatagarbha.
Under close examination, there are gross and subtle aspects of everything in the world. For example, matter at the grossest level is its solid state such as earth, stone, wood, etc.; the subtler, more transparent level is liquid; the next subtler level is gas; and further down the analysis, it is energy.
In fact, Buddhism discovered the existence of energy very early on. Although it is not called energy, it is a concept similar to that of energy, a very subtle matter that exists beyond our perception.
Among the desire, form, and formless realms, the bodies of beings in the desire realm are formed by these very subtle matter. These subtle matter are similar to dark matter, energy, and other such things that people in the past, even scientists, never even thought of. Now that matter such as these are gradually being discovered, science is also beginning to move closer to the Buddhist view.
Sentient beings of the six realms also differ in terms of the gross and subtle aspects of their body and mind. At the very gross level are beings in the hell realm; their bodies, their environment, their suffering, and all other aspects are the coarsest. Next are animals and hungry ghosts. We can all see animals and some hungry ghosts occasionally; many of the possessed beings are hungry ghosts. Sometimes we may hear some people say they have seen ghosts. Of course, not all are necessarily true; some ghost sightings may just be their own illusions, but ghosts do actually exist and we have proof of that as well. More subtle than animals and ghosts are human beings. Their living environment, body, life, etc. are relatively more refined than beings in the three lower realms. Last are celestial beings. There are also three types of celestial beings—those of the desire realm, form realm, and formless realm. Their body, life, environment, wisdom, and so on are increasingly more refined, transparent, and subtle.
Besides the general differences among the six realms, there are also gross, medium, and subtle differences in each realm. This is just a law of nature.
Apart from external phenomena, our internal mental state has many aspects as well. At the very gross level are the thoughts that ordinary people go through in everyday life. The subtler aspect is the state of meditative concentration of humans and celestial beings. The subtlest is the tathāgatagarbha. In fact, the state of the buddha is beyond the boundary of being subtle and gross. We can never describe it in words, only know it through personal experience. If you can feel it, it is realization.
Buddhist philosophy also has different levels. The sutrayana text The Four Seals of Dharma—all composite phenomena are impermanent; all contaminated things are unsatisfactory; all phenomena lack self-existence; nirvana is peace—tells the most superficial reality of things. The findings of scientific research, on the other hand, touch just the surface of what appears on the outside. Because the research covers only part of the superficial phenomena of matter and nothing on the mental aspect, it is not comprehensive and not complete.
To explain “affliction is bodhi,” sutra tells us although now we have afflictions like greed, anger, delusion, and so on, these afflictions can be transformed into wisdom by way of practicing the Dharma; the tantric view however is that at the very moment when strong anger arises in our mind, the essence of this anger is transcendent wisdom.
Some people might object to this viewpoint since they think: Anger causes sentient beings to be reborn in the hell realm. If anger is transcendent wisdom, then by extension, transcendent wisdom would also cause us to fall into the hell realm. That can’t be right!
Tantra would reply: Although affliction is transcendent wisdom, to an unrealized person, anger as it appears at the time is not the wisdom of the buddha. Like the analogy of a person born with gallbladder disease, a yellow object cannot be white.
To give another example, a few centuries ago when physics was not quite developed, if you said to a person with no knowledge of Buddhism, “The still object that you see now is actually moving. That which is still is moving; that which is moving is still.” That person, thinking it was pure nonsense, would counter, “If that be the case, wouldn’t black be white, white be black, man be cow, and cow be man? This way, there would be no order, no principle in the world. That’s totally ridiculous!”
But nowadays even high school students know the still objects that we see are in fact moving constantly. Science has given us a very good method to introduce the fundamental viewpoints of Buddhism. With only some knowledge of physics, people can very easily understand these concepts today.
Other than the differences mentioned above, the way Vajrayana guides sentient beings on the path is also very unique. For example, there are many wrathful deities in tantra who are specially assigned to transform beings with fierce anger or hatred, as well as those with clairvoyance or magic power, particularly non-humans, rakshasas, and other spirits and ghosts. Regarding this, the sutra system offers no particular practice other than the practices of renunciation and bodhicitta. There are also many yab-yum (father-mother) buddha statues and practices in tantra that are used specifically to guide beings who have rather strong desire. In particular, people afflicted with both deep hatred and inordinate desire, like many vicious and savage rulers in the past, can be subdued by using the yab-yum images of certain wrathful deities.
Sutrayana however does not have specific methods such as these to deal with people who have serious aversion or excessive desire; having exhausted all other measures to subdue people’s negative emotions, it can only offer an aspiration: may I be able to free them from suffering in the future.
Although the wrathful deities are scary-looking, unlike the kind-looking peaceful deities, all deities, be they wrathful, peaceful, single, or in yab-yum style, are in fact manifestations of the wisdom of the buddha; in essence, they are not different from one another. It is just a matter of what we are accustomed to seeing.
Generally speaking, we are more receptive to the peaceful deities because we suppose deities should be kind looking; the tranquil look on their face also brings us joy. Whereas we find the wrathful deities a little harder to accept, sometimes even take a negative view toward them. But this is just our own discriminating mind at work.
In short, many of the different views between sutra and tantra are presented here. The fact that there are these different viewpoints suggests it is only natural there are different practices, conduct, and results. From the discussion above, we can see that tantra is indeed quite remarkable.
With sutra, it takes at least three incalculable eons, or three great asamkhyeya kalpas, to attain buddhahood. Asamkhyeya is a Sanskrit word; it is a name for an astronomical number, the number 1060. Can you just imagine what that number means? Kalpa is a Sanskrit word for a unit of time; by human calculation, it represents a great length of time. As for three asamkhyeya kalpas, that’s a time even more unimaginable. It goes to show that attaining buddhahood in the sutra system is really a very difficult, if not improbable, venture.
Whereas with tantra, attaining buddhahood can be rather swift, because it is the tantric view that sentient beings are in and of themselves already buddha. Sentient beings do not see themselves as buddha because their inherent buddha nature is covered by ignorance. Once ignorance is eliminated, its original face will be revealed, hence the quick result. On this, tantra really gives us great encouragement, power, and courage to go forward.
Naturally, it is not enough to just recognize the advantage of tantra in theory, or the rare chance of encountering tantric teachings; we must also undertake the practices. But oftentimes our practice is less than satisfactory due to troubling afflictions; to actually realize the profound state in tantra would be even more difficult.
Data from the internet suggest that in the West, Vajrayana is the most popular among all the traditions and schools of Buddhism. The increase in Buddhists every year is comprised of fifty percent from Tibetan Buddhism, twenty five percent from Southern Buddhism, and twenty five percent from Mahayana Buddhism. Understandably, these numbers are not very precise. Newcomers in Vajrayana have actually increased more than fifty percent.
There are all types of sentient beings who follow Sakyamuni Buddha, and each one has his or her own way of thinking. Tantra offers many different methods that one can choose from, and its path is direct. These are the advantages of tantra.
Although tantra is supreme in both its view and practices, also capable of achieving results fast, it would not be effective without practice. However, to each individual, it is not easy to know which practice is the right one to follow. Milarepa’s experience is a good example. Milarepa’s first teacher was a well-known Dzogchen master in the history of the Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism, but Milarepa did not gain realization from his practice of Dzogchen. Subsequently, he turned to Marpa Lotsawa of the Kagyu lineage and attained accomplishment.
We can assume that if Milarepa had not switched to the Kagyu practice but continued with Dzogchen, he would still have had difficulty attaining the ultimate result, regardless of how diligent he might have been or how extraordinary Dzogchen is. That’s all because the Kagyu practice was the right practice for Milarepa, and Marpa was the teacher who had a connection with him over many past lives; it is simply a matter of faculty and connection. Whether or not a teaching or practice is suitable depends on the faculty of the individual; it is not a problem of Dzogchen, nor of tantra, and certainly not of the Buddha.
Here, I have only given a simple introduction, not the specific practices, of Vajrayana. I don’t think it is important for us to understand the tantric texts at this time. First, we need to practice the preliminaries to cultivate renunciation and bodhicitta, then practice the view of emptiness in the Mahayana tradition. Having built this base, we can then set out to learn something about the nature of mind from texts that are considered in between sutra and tantra, such as Uttaratantra Sastra. When all these are handled without difficulty and a taste of the more profound is somewhat experienced, one’s capacity is basically mature at this point and ready for tantric practice. A prerequisite for tantric practice is to receive empowerment. I have also said before one must receive empowerment from a truly qualified vajra master.
We must know that we are living in a world which lacks purpose and is uninteresting. Now that we have finally found very meaningful work to do, we must cherish it. This work is to practice the Dharma.