Alexander Berzin's Introduction to Tantra

The following article is from the Summer, 2011 issue of the Snow Lion Newsletter and is for historical reference only. You can see this in context of the original newsletter here.

ALEXANDER BERZIN has a long association with the Kalachakra Tantra. Having studied it under one of the most learned teachers, Serkong Rinpoche, Alex is often called upon to introduce this tantra to attendees of the Kalachakra initiations given by the Dalai Lama. Some of you who are reading this now might have had the pleasure of listening to Alex at the Kalachakra given this July in Washington, D.C.

INTRODUCTION TO TANTRA

The Need for a Realistic Approach

Becoming a Buddha, someone who is totally awake, means to overcome all shortcomings and realize all potentials for the sake of helping others. With so much suffering in the world, we urgently need to find the most effective methods to accomplish this goal. The Kalachakra initiation offers an opportunity to meet with such methods. The Tibetan word for initiation, wang, means power, and an initiation is, more accurately, an empowerment. It confers the power and ability to engage in certain meditative practices for achieving enlightenment, and thus becoming a Buddha, in order to benefit others as fully as possible.

Kalachakra is a meditational system from the highest level of Buddhist tantra, anuttarayoga. Some people have odd notions about tantra and imagine, with great anticipation, that an initiation is an entranceway into a magic world of exotic sex and superpowers. When they learn that this is not the case, but rather that tantric practice is complex, advanced and requires serious commitment and the keeping of many vows, they become frightened and are put off. Neither of these reactions, of excitement or fear, is appropriate. We need to approach tantra and the Kalachakra initiation in a sensible manner. As my main teacher, Tsenzhab Serkong Rinpochey, once said, If you practice fantasized methods, you get fantasized results. If you practice realistic methods, you get realistic results.

What is Tantra?

The word tantra means an everlasting stream of continuity. Everlasting streams operate on three levels: as a basis, a pathway and a result.

On the basis level, the everlasting stream is our mind—specifically its subtlest level known as primordial clear light—which provides continuity throughout all our lifetimes. Like a pure laser beam of mere clarity and awareness, unadulterated by the gross oscillations of conceptual thought or disturbing emotions, it underlies each moment of experience, whether we are awake or asleep. If mind is like a radio that plays forever, its subtlest level is similar to the machine simply being on. A radio remains on throughout the process of leaving a station, being between bands and tuning into another frequency. Similarly, our subtlest mind never turns off and so is the basis for our experiences of death, bardo (the state between rebirths) and the conception of a new life. Neither station, volume, nor even temporary static affects the fact that the radio is on. Likewise, neither rebirth status, intensity of experience, nor even the fleeting stains of passing thoughts or moods affect our clear light mind. This subtlest mind proceeds even into Buddhahood and provides the basis for attaining enlightenment.

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Furthermore, each stream of continuity, whether prior to enlightenment or afterwards, is individual. All radios are not the same radio, although each receiver works the same. Thus, there is no such thing as a universal clear light mind or basis tantra in which each of our minds participates.

The second level of tantra, the everlasting pathway stream, refers to a specific method for becoming a Buddha, namely meditative practices involving Buddha-figures. This method is sometimes called deity yoga. The third level, the everlasting resultant stream, is the endless continuity of Buddha-bodies we achieve with enlightenment. To fully help others requires bodies or collections of knowledge, wisdom, experience and forms to suit every being and occasion. In short, tantra involves an everlasting stream of practice with Buddha-figures to purify our everlasting mind-steam of its fleeting stains, in order to achieve, on its basis, the everlasting stream of the bodies of a Buddha.

The texts that discuss these topics are also called tantras.

Deity Yoga

Sometimes people are puzzled by the tantric practice of relying on deities, which some languages translate as gods. These deities, however, are not omnipotent creators or beings in limited states of rebirth filled with heavenly delights. Rather, they are extraordinary forms, both male and female, in which Buddhas manifest in order to help people with varying inclinations to overcome their shortcomings and realize their potentials. Each of these Buddha- figures represents both the fully enlightened state and one of its specific features, such as compassion or wisdom. Avalokiteshvara, for instance, is a manifestation of compassion, and Manjushri is an embodiment of wisdom. Kalachakra represents the ability to handle all situations at any time. Meditative practice structured around one of these figures and the feature it represents provides a clear focus and framework enabling more rapid progress toward enlightenment than meditation without them.

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Without some method, it is very difficult to train I ourselves to keep in mind simultaneously twenty-four insights and qualities such as impermanence, compassion, I patience and so forth.

To alleviate the sufferings of others as quickly as possible requires the most efficient method for gaining the enlightening faculties of a Buddha's body, speech and mind. The basis for achieving them is a strong determination to be free of limitations, non-fickle love and compassion, ethical self- discipline, strict concentration, firm understanding of reality and skill in various means to help others. Once we achieve a working level of these, we need to combine and perfect them so that they bear their results. Tantra provides such a technique, namely deity yoga. Like performing the dress rehearsal for a drama, we imagine we already possess the entire array of these enlightening faculties as a Buddha-figure, all together at the same time. Doing so acts as an effective cause for integrating these qualities and achieving such a form more quickly.

This is an advanced technique. We cannot possibly imagine having all the assets of a Buddha simultaneously unless we have first practiced each individually. We need to learn and rehearse each scene before we can run through an entire play. Therefore, it is both inappropriate and unwise to attempt tantric practice without considerable meditative experience beforehand.

Training the Imagination

Tantric practice harnesses the imagination—a powerful tool we all possess. Thus, to repeatedly imagine achieving a goal is a compelling method for accomplishing it sooner. Suppose, for example, we are unemployed. If, each day, we imagine finding a job, we succeed more quickly than if we dwell, with depression and self-pity, on being out of work. This is because we maintain a positive attitude about our situation. With a negative attitude, we lack self-confidence even to look for a job. Success or failure in life hinges on our self- image and, in tantra, we work on improving ours by means of Buddha-figures. Imagining we are already a Buddha provides an extremely potent self-image to counteract negative habits and feelings of inadequacy.

The tantric technique does not involve simply the power of positive thinking. When using imagination, it is essential to be practical and maintain a clear distinction between fantasy and reality. Otherwise, serious psychological trouble may arise. Thus every teacher and text emphasizes that an indispensable prerequisite for tantric practice is some stable level of understanding of voidness—the absence of fantasized and impossible ways of existing—and dependent arising, the coming about of everything by depending on causes and circumstances. Everyone is capable of gaining employment because no one exists as a totally incompetent loser, and finding a job depends on personal effort and the economic situation.

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Some people dismiss tantric deity yoga as a form of self-hypnosis. Imagining we are already a Buddha, however, is not a form of self-deception. We each have the factors allowing us to achieve that goal—we all have Buddha- nature. In other words, because each of us has a mind, a heart, communicative ability and physical energy, we possess all the raw materials needed to create the enlightening faculties of a Buddha. So long as we realize we are not yet actually at that stage, and do not inflate ourselves with illusions of grandeur, we can work with these Buddha-figures without psychological danger.

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If you practice fantasized methods, you get fantasized results. If you practice realistic methods, you get realistic I results.

In tantra, then, we imagine we already possess the form, surroundings, abilities and enjoyments of a Buddha. The physical body of a Buddha is made of transparent clear light, capable of helping others tirelessly, and is never deficient in any way. Imagining ourselves as a Buddha-figure with boundless energy like this, however, does not render us a workaholic or a martyr incapable of saying no. Tantric practitioners of course take a rest when tired. Nevertheless, maintaining this type of self-image helps stretch our self-imposed limits. Everyone has an almost endless store of energy available to tap in emergencies. No one is too exhausted to rush to his or her child who has fallen and is hurt.

In addition, while practicing tantra, we feel that the environment around us is completely pure and conducive for everyone's progress. Imagining this does not mean ignoring ecological or social issues. However, to help others and ourselves overcome depression and feelings of despair, we stop dwelling on negative aspects. Sufficiently strong motivation and effective methods to transform our attitudes bring spiritual progress regardless of location. Rather than incessantly complaining and being a prophet of doom, we try to bring hope to ourselves and the world.

We also imagine we benefit others by acting as a Buddha does. We feel that by our very way of being, we effortlessly exert a positive enlightening influence on everyone around us. We can understand what this means if we have ever been in the presence of a great spiritual being, such as His Holiness the Dalai Lama or Mother Teresa.

Most people, even if only slightly receptive, feel inspired and are moved to act in a more noble way. We imagine we have a similar effect on others. Our mere presence, or even mention of our names, calms others down, brings them peace of mind and joy, and stimulates them to achieve new heights.

Finally, we imagine we are able to enjoy things in the pure way a Buddha does. Our usual mode of enjoyment is mixed with confusion, often translated as contaminated pleasure. We are always critical, never satisfied. We listen to music and cannot fully enjoy it because we keep thinking that the sound reproduction is not as good as it would be on our neighbor's equipment. A Buddha, however, delights in everything without even a trace of confusion. We imagine doing likewise, for example, when enjoying the offerings of light, incense, food and so on in the various rituals.

Using Visualization to Expand Our Capacities

Many Buddha-figures have multiple physical features in an assortment of colors. Kalachakra, for example, has a rainbow of four faces and twenty-four arms. This might seem strange at first, but there are profound reasons for this. All the forms imagined in tantra have several purposes, and each of their parts and colors has many levels of symbolism. Their complexity reflects the nature of the goal of becoming a Buddha. Buddhas need to keep the full array of their realizations and qualities actively in mind, simultaneously, so as to use them effectively in helping others. Moreover, Buddhas need to be mindful of the myriad personal details of those they are helping so as always to do what is appropriate.

This is not an unreachable goal. We already keep many things in mind simultaneously. If we drive a car, for example, we are aware of our speed, the distance we need to stop or pass another vehicle, the speed and position of the cars around us, the rules of driving, the purpose and goal of our journey, the road signs and so on. At the same time, we coordinate our eyes, hands and feet, are alert to strange noises from the engine, and can even listen to music and hold a conversation. Tantric visualizations help to expand this ability.

Without some method, it is very difficult to train ourselves to keep in mind simultaneously twenty-four insights and qualities such as impermanence, compassion, patience and so forth. A verbal mnemonic device, such as a phrase made up of the initial letters of each item in the list, is helpful for remembering them in sequence. However, representing each insight and quality in a graphic form, such as the twenty- four arms of a Buddha-figure, makes it much easier to remain mindful of all of them at once. Consider the case of a teacher of a class of twenty-four children. For most people, it is quite difficult to keep the personalities and special needs of each child in mind when planning a lesson at home. Reviewing a list of their names may be somewhat helpful, but actually being in front of the class and seeing the pupils immediately and vividly brings to mind all the factors needed to modify the day's lesson.

A mandala, literally a symbolic universe, is a further aid in this process of expanding our mindfulness and seeing everything in a pure way.

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