THE NEED TO EXPLAIN THE COMPLETION STAGE
On the surface, many terms related to tantra, and inner tantric practice in particular, seem quite mysterious and profound. Many people are also interested in finding out more about tantra, but don’t know where to begin.
In view of the faculty and qualifications of most people, we don’t think there is a need to understand the actual practice of the completion stage with marks for the time being. The reason being that this practice entails great effort, and is very complex and difficult for lay people who are busy and easily distracted. However, we can take up the completion stage practice without marks, which is part of Dzogchen and Mahamudra, after completing the preliminaries. Nevertheless, as students of Tantric Buddhism, we ought to know what tantra is about, what result is to be expected from tantric practice, what methodology is used to obtain this result, the reason such methodology is effective and the principle behind it, why this practice can swiftly lead to realization of emptiness, and so on. To answer these questions, a simple introduction to the completion stage is given here.
HOW THE GENERATION AND COMPLETION STAGES DIFFER
There are many differences between the two. The generation stage is externally oriented; it is, for example, to visualize the surrounding world as the buddha’s mandala, and the five elements of earth, water, fire, wind, and space as the consorts of the Five Tathagatas, to make offerings, recite mantras, and so on. Whereas the completion stage regards everything in the outside world as projections of the channels, winds, and essences of the human body; having control over the body, one can also change the outside world at will without any visualization or mantra recitation. So, our body is the object for the practice of the completion stage.
The three yogas of Nyingmapa represent three different levels of view, which move ever closer to the nature of mind from one level to the next. Mahayoga is mainly about the generation stage, its object more outwardly directed; hence there are many discussions on visualization, mantra recitation, offering, etc. in its contents. Anuyoga is primarily about the completion stage, its object the vajra body which is inwardly focused; hence fewer practices about visualization and mantra recitation are included, its main purpose being to control the channels, winds, and essences of the body. It is the view of Anuyoga that practices of visualization, mudra, mantra recitation, offering, etc. as dictated in Mahayoga are all unnecessary detours. Atiyoga talks about the completion stage without marks, which holds that all things, be they external or internal, are manifestations of the mind. As long as the nature of mind is realized, none of the external or internal practices is needed, as they are all deviations. Therefore, the object of Atiyoga is neither the external practices of visualization, mantra recitation, making offering, etc. nor the practice of channels, winds, and essences of the vajra body, but the luminous nature of mind.
However, people have very different cognitive capabilities, so Dzogchen and the completion stage with marks may not be appropriate for everyone. A person who is suited to practicing the generation stage should start with Mahayoga and gradually move on to the next phase. From this standpoint, no practice is a deviation; any practice that truly matches the practitioner’s capacity can be an expedient path to realization.
Our discussion focuses on four aspects of the completion stage: the constitution of vajra body, the practice, the principle of the practice, and the result.
The Constitution of Vajra Body
To understand the completion stage, we must first know the constitution of vajra body. What is vajra body? It is just our body.
Why is it called vajra body?
As mentioned before, the tantric system in Buddhism is also known as Vajrayana, the Vajra Vehicle. Here, the word “vajra” denotes oneness.
What does oneness refer to? Normally, the sutric system maintains that sentient beings are not buddhas but ordinary beings encumbered with defilement, who can transform their minds into the wisdom of the buddha only through Dharma practice over numerous lives. But the view set forth in the third turning of the wheel of Dharma, in particular that of tantra, is that ground and fruition are in fact one, that ground is fruition and fruition is ground. In other words, sentient beings are buddhas and buddhas are sentient beings; the two are one and the same.
How can sentient beings be buddhas?
A sentient being, by definition, is the union of body and mind of an ordinary being. People who study the sutric system all know that the essence of mind is luminosity, so a sentient being’s mind is already the wisdom of the buddha. But no clear explanation is given in sutra as to why a sentient being’s body is the body of the buddha. On this question, sutra tends to be vague and offers no specific practice; whereas tantra gives a very specific and detailed explanation of both the principle and the practice for transformation or purification. In the tantric view, not only the mind of a sentient being is the wisdom of the buddha, but the body of a sentient being is also the body of the buddha. This is why it is called vajra body.
The Functions of Winds, Channels, and Essences
In the constitution of vajra body, there is no need to discuss the human skin, muscles, bones, and brain as they are not related directly to practice. Winds, channels, and essences are, however, directly related to our practice. They serve two functions: first, before attaining realization or any training in practice, winds, channels, and essences give rise to cyclic existence; second, after attaining accomplishment, they give rise to all pure phenomena such as transcendent wisdom, pure realms, and so on. Therefore, the practice of the completion stage is undertaken from the perspectives of winds, channels, and essences.
What are winds? There are many kinds of winds. The most visible, common kind is our breath. Based on the calculations of the Kalacakra Tantra, which comprise the basic data of all celestial motions in the universe, including solar and lunar eclipses, it is determined that a healthy, middle-aged person breathes 21,600 times in a day (an inhalation and an exhalation are counted as one time.) This equates to 15 times per minute, which basically matches the data in modern medicine.
There are ten kinds of inner winds—five root winds and five branch winds. We cannot sense some of the inner winds, but they do exist. In relative truth, these winds can sustain our body. If something goes wrong with the winds or they are lost, our body will be affected to different degrees.
Tantra has discussed many signs of death, of which some appear physically, some in dreams, and others emotionally.
The reason for the different signs is this: when death is near, the first problem is the gradual weakening of the winds until it comes to a complete stop; we usually don’t feel it, but because winds and mind are closely related, problems will begin to show up in some parts of the body, in dreams, or with our emotions. Although the time remaining until actual death may be long or short, these are all signs of death.
Inner winds at the deep level means movement of consciousness. Although there is no obvious movement in alaya consciousness, the mind which is born of alaya consciousness is subject to fluctuations—the arising, continuum, and ceasing of mind consciousness are also winds.
Winds can also be categorized into karmic winds and wisdom winds. Karmic winds denote the breathing of ordinary people. The airflow from breathing can cause us to develop all sorts of defilement or thoughts—either good, bad, or neutral (neither good nor bad). As all thoughts are closely related to breathing, normal breathing is described as karmic winds. Wisdom winds denote the part of breathing that produces wisdom.
Tantra maintains that among the channels in the human body the most significant is the central channel; next are the left and right channels, along with 72,000 other channels of varied sizes derived from the three main channels that relate to Dharma practice; there are also channels that are not connected to practice. Then there are chakras located at the crown of the head, throat, heart, navel, and sacrum. According to different tantras, there are said to be five, six, or seven chakras.
The central channel can be divided into three types: the central channel of abiding, the dharmata, and genuine truth.
- The central channel of abiding—It is the objectively existing central channel.
Why is it said to be objectively existing? Tantra explains very clearly that it is a kind of light, so that in many practices, such as the powa, the central channel is visualized as a brilliant tube. But the matter that forms the central channel is not like the blood, muscles, and bones that constitute the human body; it cannot be touched by a doctor’s scalpel nor seen by x-rays.
- The central channel of the dharmata—It is another central channel of subtler light located within the main central channel, which is also the real object of practice for the practitioner.
There are four characteristics: it doesn’t occupy any space; it is a kind of light; when a person is alive, having winds, channels, and essences intact, it is existent, not non-existent; after a person dies, winds, channels, and essences having dissolved, it disappears, so it is not existent either.
The light related to the central channel is not the kind of visible or invisible light in physics; it cannot be found in any of the spectrums. Even though medicine and technology are highly developed today, and have made tremendous progress in the fields of human anatomy and physiology, cytology, and so on, they have yet to decipher the mysteries of the human brain, let alone the physiological structure at the more profound level such as the central channel and the like. We should not think when referring to light, it must be the kind of light already discovered in science; or when referring to matter, it must be something the naked eye can see.
- The central channel of genuine truth—It is in fact not a channel in the real sense but the nature of mind. It is called emptiness in Madhyamaka, luminous mind in the third turning of the wheel of Dharma, and central channel in tantra.
Why are these three called central channel? The reason is that the central channel of abiding is located right in the center of the body, the central channel of the dharmata is inside the main central channel, and the central channel of genuine truth is neither existent nor non-existent, neither eternal nor nihilistic, free from any extreme.
Explanations of chakra are available in many tantric texts, so it is not discussed here for now.
- Essences of ultimate truth
Essences or drops are represented by a circle, symbolizing freedom from all boundaries. Unlike a triangle, square, and pentagon, a circle does not have edges and vertices. Hence, it is used to represent the nature of mind, luminous awareness, which is free of fabrications and boundaries. This is the essences of ultimate truth.
Wisdom winds, the central channel of genuine truth, and the essences of ultimate truth all represent luminous mind, the tathāgatagarbha. Therefore, winds, channels, and essences at the most profound level all point to luminous mind, the origin of all phenomena. The origin of all winds, channels, and essences is the luminous mind. From the luminous mind, winds, channels, essences, buddha fields, and impure samsara arise.
- Essences of relative truth
There are many essences in our chakras, which serve as the foundation that sustains human life, health, thoughts, etc.
Located at the heart position in the central channel of the dharmata there is one drop called the essence of five elements, that is, the essence of earth, water, wind, fire, and space. Within this essence is the essence of mind—the tathāgatagarbha.
Winds, channels, and essences are important components of the human body; the fundamental essence of all winds, channels, and essences is the tathāgatagarbha.
The Practice of the Completion Stage
When the practice of the generation stage reaches a very mature state, it becomes the practice of the completion stage. Hence, the generation stage is equivalent to the preliminary practice of the completion stage. In Vajrayana, the generation stage is the main practice on the path of accumulation; the practice of the completion stage only begins after one is on the path of preparation.
As the main practice methodology is explained extensively in many tantric texts, it will not be discussed here.
Simply speaking, from the medical point of view, be it Tibetan, Western, or Chinese medicine, we breathe by way of the lungs, windpipe, nostrils, and mouth. In tantra, besides normal breathing, the breath that is still moving in the left and right channels before entering the central channel is called karmic wind. Karmic winds can cause infinite discursive thoughts to arise, making it impossible for us to obtain peace of mind. Sentient beings in the desire realm who have not undertaken any meditation practice are constantly afflicted by discursive thoughts and karmic winds.
In the meditation of the Theravada tradition and non-Buddhist schools, winds and mind are also closely related. For the non-Buddhist meditators, upon reaching the fourth dhyana, all discursive thoughts are gone, and so is the breathing. By then, life is no longer sustained by breathing but the power of meditation instead.
The practices such as the Six Yogas of Naropa of the Kagyu school, the five stages of Guhyasamaja Tantra of the Gelug school, Kalacakra Six-Session Guruyoga of the Jonang school, and Anuyoga of the Nyingma school are all classified as the completion stage with marks, that is, the practice of winds, channels, and essences.
With minor differences aside, these practices are the same for the most part. Through these practices, the winds in the left and right channels can flow into the central channel and become wisdom winds. Once karmic winds are reduced or extinguished altogether, discursive thoughts dissolve, and wisdom arises in their place. This is because luminosity naturally manifests when winds and consciousness disappear from the central channel.
In addition, the winds in the left and right channels can also enter the central channel under three circumstances: first, when the accumulation of merit has grown to a certain level, namely, when one has attained the state of the first ground bodhisattva. Due to the accumulation of merit through eons, the winds will enter the central channel, attaining realization of emptiness even if a person has never undertaken the practice of winds, channels, and essences; second, when one goes into deep sleep. This is where a trained practitioner can perceive luminosity in the dream state while the inexperienced cannot; third, when one dies. Even absent the practice of winds, channels, and essences, the karmic winds of the dead can enter deep into the central channel, much more so than during sleep; thus not only luminosity but also the mandala of the buddhas will appear in the bardo.
In fact, the process from the waking state to sleep and to dream again is almost the same as that from death to the unconscious state and to the bardo. If one cannot perceive luminosity while dreaming, one cannot recognize ground luminosity, peaceful and wrathful deities in death either.
Such are the processes and principles underlying life’s activities. There are natural laws that regulate the activities of all internal and external matter, like the various activities of the celestial body—the Big Bang, the formation, merger, and disintegration of planets, the creation of nebulas, and so on.
For practitioners, the rules that govern the mind’s activities present a very important window of opportunity to perceive or recognize luminosity through practice and constant training. This ultimate goal is exactly the same as what the practitioners of sutra hope to achieve by accumulating immeasurable merit and wisdom over three asamkhyeya kalpas. All the practices in sutra and tantra have this one goal. Nevertheless, it still requires tremendous effort to practice the completion stage; only those who have diligence and perseverance can hope to succeed.
The Principle of the Completion Stage
Normally we think of the central channel as a bamboo stick and the winds as our breath. When the central channel into which the winds flow resembles a bamboo stick or some sort of pipe, how can realization of emptiness be possible?
Actually, when visualizing the central channel, sometimes we visualize a rather normal-sized channel, and other times an exceptionally large channel. This can help the winds enter the central channel. But the key is to have the ever changing, non-stop flow of discursive thoughts and mental activities dissolve into the central channel of the dharmata and genuine truth—into luminous awareness that is the nature of mind, allowing the inherent luminosity to manifest itself. This is the samadhi attained by bodhisattvas having arrived at the first bhumi.
It is also said in the chapter “Rely on Wisdom, not on Consciousness” in The Four Reliances that if mental activities do not stop, they will conceal the nature of mind, and prevent us from ever seeing its true reality. Only when the sixth consciousness or all eight consciousnesses stop operating completely can there be a chance to truly see the nature of mind.
Such is the principle, but sutra does not have this kind of practice. Although there are methods in tantra, they are not without some risks. That is, if the winds enter not the central channel of the dharmata but the central channel of abiding (life channel), it will cause the practitioner to go mad. Whereas if the winds enter the central channel of the dharmata, not only will this problem not arise, it will also “activate” the essences of the five elements in this channel, resulting in the manifestation of myriad pure realms.
The main obstacle that prevents us from seeing any pure realms now is the existence of consciousness (not just the sixth consciousness but all eight consciousnesses). The reason that buddha fields can be seen in the intermediate state is because for a brief interval all conscious activities come to a full stop. Once consciousness stops working, there is no more blockage; the buddha fields emanated from luminosity will naturally appear.
Buddha fields or mandalas can also be seen upon obtainment of Dzogchen realization and while abiding in that state; what one sees at this point is exactly the same as that in the bardo. Here, it is not what is perceived with the eyes but the practitioner’s own cognition, as all these are phenomena emanated from the nature of mind, just like the Zen saying “only the person drinking the water knows it is cold or hot.” To Dzogchen practitioners, this state is real, certain, and ordinary, just as eating can fill up an empty stomach; whereas to non-practitioners, it simply sounds too ridiculous and mysterious to apprehend.
It is said in the Lankavatara Sutra: “The tathāgatagarbha, intrinsically pure, permanent, and unchanging, adorned with thirty-two excellent signs, abides in all sentient beings.” Similar statements are also found in many other sutric texts. How is it possible that sentient beings have thirty-two excellent signs in their minds? Can there be a buddha’s body in the minds of sentient beings? That’s not what the sutra suggests. The essence of sentient beings’ minds is the tathāgatagarbha; although the tathāgatagarbha is formless and without color, it is wherefrom the mandalas can emanate.
Practitioners of sutra must first learn to use many theories in logic to refute their prior misconceptions and convince themselves of the idea of emptiness. Afterwards, they need to dedicate themselves to the hearing, contemplation, and meditation of the Dharma as well as accumulating merit and wisdom from the practice of the six paramitas throughout numerous lives. This way they will be able to discern the profundity of the pure mandala.
The tantric practice of the completion stage can stop mental activities forcibly—by visualizing the winds entering the central channel, consciousness is rendered inoperable and the nature of mind allowed to manifest. In addition, the tantric practice of Dzogchen, which does not rely on the practice of winds, channels, and essences nor logical reasoning, can also stop mental activities and bring about realization of emptiness with the guru’s blessing and pith instructions; however, the practitioner must have first accrued sufficient merit and wisdom such as bodhicitta.
Of course, it will not do if the pith instructions are missing. When ordinary people go into deep sleep every night, part of their mental activities also stop, but that’s all; they cannot realize the nature of mind, nor experience even normal sense perception. It is a state of complete unconsciousness.
In Ch’an Buddhism, there are practices for sudden and gradual enlightenment. The method of the sudden school is a bit like that of Dzogchen or Mahamudra—neither logic reasoning nor practices of winds, channels, and essences are applied; it is just to remain free of thought and abide in calmness. By way of the samatha practice and the guru’s pith instructions, enlightenment can ultimately be reached.
Coarse defilements like greed, aversion, delusion, and so on can be eliminated through practice of the white skeleton meditation or bodhicitta, but alaya consciousness which is most subtle is very difficult to stop. When a wall collapses, the images drawn on the wall will also be destroyed. Likewise, once the alaya consciousness ceases to function completely, all the virtues and non-virtues stored in the alaya consciousness, which are tainted phenomena, will vanish as well.
The practices of winds, channels, and essences are quite complex and pose a certain degree of difficulty, so the most suitable practice for us should be the completion stage without marks. The completion stage without marks is Dzogchen, but to practice Dzogchen, the completion of the preliminaries and the blessing of a qualified vajra master are first required.
There is also a vajra body practice which is unique to Vajrayana. The practice is to transform an ordinary body into a vajra body or illusory body, which is immaterial and unreal like a dream.
From the standpoint of emptiness, all phenomena are real to ordinary people; in the path of accumulation, emptiness is understood still at a theoretical level; in the path of preparation, one is able to experience emptiness albeit indistinctly; after reaching the first ground of the bodhisatta, one finally encounters true emptiness.
From the standpoint of phenomena, all appearances are impure at the level of ordinary people. When practicing the generation stage in the path of accumulation, pure phenomena are the result of visualizing the deities, a kind of illusion belonging to the beginning stage of the illusory body, still very raw and unnatural, only serving as a medium for the connection between the impure illusions of ordinary people and the ultimate true reality of mind. When undertaking the practice of winds, channels, and essences of the completion stage in the path of preparation, many normally unseen phenomena will appear once the winds enter the central channel. If one can visualize these phenomena as the buddha fields and oneself as the deity, such as Vajrasattva and the like, pure phenomena will instantly manifest. These phenomena are very stable, unlike those in the generation stage, but they are also the function of the winds, deliberately constructed through visualizations, hence not the real deity. The deity’s body that manifests in the bardo and in tögal of the Dzogchen practice is the real vajra body, not a fabrication of any kind, but a naturally manifested phenomenon of the luminous mind. There are no impure or fabricated pure phenomena here other than the pure realms of the Five Tathagatas.
Simply put, in terms of emptiness, the path of accumulation, preparation, and seeing move closer and closer to the true nature of mind, while pure phenomena also manifest step by step from being fabricated to being genuine until finally the buddha fields really appear. When impure and fabricated pure phenomena all disappear with only the buddha fields remaining, it is the complete attainment of buddhahood, the actualization of the sambhogakaya.
There is no such practice of sambhogakaya in sutra. The view of sutra is the accumulation of wisdom can result in dharmakaya and the accrual of merit can produce sambhogakaya. But the exact method to obtain these results is rather abstract. Tantra however is very specific in its methodology, with corresponding practices for the purification of body and mind included.
The Result of the Completion Stage
The result of the completion stage is attaining buddhahood. Absent the practice of the completion stage, one can only gain worldly accomplishment with the practice of the generation stage. Buddhahood is possible only through the union of the generation and completion stage. To achieve supramundane accomplishment, one must rely on the completion stage
Although some of the tantric texts claim that the state of buddhahood in sutra is not the same as in tantra, it is just an opinion; in fact, there is no difference between the two whatsoever. The resultant state attained through practice in sutra is also a buddha in tantra, and vice versa. The essence of the afflictive and cognitive hindrances is consciousness, so when all eight consciousnesses stop to function, naturally the two hindrances are also completely eradicated. Everybody recognizes eliminating both hindrances represents the attainment of buddhahood.
The most crucial part of this overall discussion is the principle of the completion stage. Knowing the principle, we will gain confidence in the practice, eventually realize emptiness, and in the end attain complete enlightenment.
It is best that busy people today take up the practice of Dzogchen. Even though Dzogchen is for people of superior capacity, we can still try to elevate ourselves to that level, and the way to do that is by practicing the preliminaries. Through hearing and contemplating the Dharma, and the practice of the preliminaries, an ordinary person who knows nothing about karma, let alone renunciation and bodhicitta, can also turn into someone of superior capacity. A person who has cultivated renunciation and bodhicitta after completing the preliminaries and developed great faith in tantra is said to have superior capacity. Such a person has a chance of succeeding in the Dzogchen practice. Whether we can be someone of superior capacity is all up to us. However, to practice Dzogchen prematurely would not only fail to bring any benefit but also run the risk of losing one’s faith in the practice. Therefore, make effort to practice the preliminaries first.
Nowadays, there are all sorts of books on tantric practice in the bookstores, most of which are written or translated by people who have neither lineage nor knowledge of the subject. Not knowing the real meaning of the tantric teachings, they are apt to misinterpret the contents and cause readers to develop the wrong view, even slander Vajrayana. This would result in very serious negative karma. Therefore, people who intend to learn Vajrayana must choose the authentic tantric texts to read as well as follow the explanations and instructions from a qualified vajra master. To undertake self-taught tantric practice by simply reading a few books is even worse as it will surely cause problems. One is qualified to practice Vajrayana only after receiving empowerment and oral transmissions.