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A Survey of the Paths of Tibetan Buddhism
»» The Actual Paths of Tantric Practice

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Action Tantra

In the lower classes of tantra, two levels of the path are referred to, technically called yoga with signs and yoga without signs.

From another point of view, Action Tantra presents its paths in terms of methods to actualize the body of the Buddha, the speech of the Buddha and the mind of resultant Buddhahood.

The path for actualizing the body of the Buddha is explained in terms of visualization of the deity.

The path for actualizing the speech is explained in terms of two types of mantra repetition - one actually whispered and the other repeated mentally.

The path for actualizing the mind of the Buddha is explained in terms of what is technically called 'the concentration which bestows liberation at the end of sound'. This type of concentration requires as a prerequisite the concentration abiding in fire and the concentration abiding in sound.

Actualizing the Body of the Buddha

Whether or not Action Tantra incorporates a practice of generating oneself into the deity is a point on which masters have differing opinions. However, we can say that ordinary trainees of Action Tantra have no need to generate themselves into the deity. Their meditation is confined simply to visualizing the deity in their presence. But the principal trainees of Action Tantra are those who can actually generate themselves into deities and who visualize deities on such a basis.

Deity Yoga

Visualization of a deity such as Avalokiteshvara, or deity yoga, as it is explained in an Action Tantra and intended for the principal trainees of that tantra, can be described in six stages: the emptiness deity, mantra deity, letter deity, form deity, mudra deity, and sign deity.

Meditation on the emptiness deity refers to meditation on the emptiness of your own self and the self of the deity - reflecting on their common basis in terms of their empty nature.

Generally speaking, as Aryadeva's 400 verses explains, from the point of view of their ultimate nature, there is no difference whatsoever between phenomena - they are all similar in that they lack inherent existence. From the ultimate point of view, they are of one taste; therefore it speaks of a multiplicity becoming of one taste. And though they all have identical empty natures, on the conventional level, phenomena have many different appearances, therefore it speaks of multiplicity from unity.

With meditation on the mantra deity, you visualize a resonant mantra arising from this state of emptiness, the ultimate nature of your own self and that of the deity. This is not in the form of letters, just the sound of the deity's mantra resounding. Maintaining that contemplation is the second step, meditation on the mantra or sound deity.

During meditation on the letter deity the practitioner imagines the syllables of the self-resounding mantra emerging in the shape of letters standing on a white moon disc, within him or herself.

Next, the practitioner visualizes the letters of the mantra being generated into the actual form of the deity, which is meditation on the form deity.

Meditation on the mudra deity occurs when the practitioner, having arisen in the form of the deity, performs the specific hand gesture, which in the case of the Lotus family is performed at the heart.

Finally, meditation on the sign or symbol deity refers to visualizing the crown of your head, throat and heart being marked respectively by the three syllables OM AH HUM and inviting the wisdom beings to enter into your body.

The Importance of Realizing Emptiness

One basic feature of all Buddhist tantric practices is that you should always meditate on emptiness before generating yourself into a deity, whether the manual you are using includes such Sanskrit words as am svabhavashuddha sarva-dharma or not. The significance of this meditation is to emphasize the importance of generating your own wisdom realizing emptiness into the appearance of the deity. Although at the initial stage this is only done on an imaginary level, it serves as a rehearsal for the occasion when the practitioner's awareness of the wisdom realizing emptiness actually arises in the form of a divine body. For this reason, if the practitioner lacks an understanding of emptiness as explained either by the Yogic Practitioner or Middle Way schools, it is difficult to practise tantric yoga.

The appearance or form of the deity, generated from your own wisdom realizing emptiness, is said here to represent the practice of method. Then the practitioner has occasionally to reaffirm his mindfulness of the empty nature of the deity. This is the meditation on what is called the 'great seal ripening the faculties to actualize the form body,' in the context of Action Tantra.

It is good if practitioners already possess the faculty of one-pointedness, or a calmly abiding mind. Otherwise, if you are cultivating single-pointedness in conjunction with tantric practice, you should do the practice after having generated yourself into the deity, but before doing the mantra repetition.

Many tantric manuals say that if you feel tired of the meditation then perform the mantra repetition. So, when those who do not perform intensive meditations at this point feel tired of repeating mantras, they will only be able to end their session. The actual structure of the ritual texts emphasizes meditation first of all and treats mantra repetition as secondary.

Meditation here refers to training in the profound and vast paths. Training in the profound path refers to meditation on emptiness, not meditation on any emptiness, but rather an emptiness which is the unique nature of the deity you have visualized. Focusing upon the empty nature of such a deity constitutes this practice.

Meditation on the vast path consists of two aspects: firstly, trying to develop a very clear visualization of the deity, for once this appearance of yourself as the deity is firm and clear; you will be able to develop the second aspect, which is divine pride. Once you have a clear vision of yourself as a deity, you will be able to develop a very strong sense of divine pride, of actually being the deity.

In one of the Indian master Buddha jnana's meditation manuals, the question is raised, that although ignorance is the root cause of cyclic existence, in the deity yoga of the generation stage, there is no specific meditation on emptiness. How then can one maintain that deity yoga serves as an opponent force to this ignorance? In reply, Bud-dhajnana says that what is meant by deity yoga in the generation stage of tantra is a practice in which you meditate on the empty nature of the form of the deity, not meditation on the deity alone. You meditate upon the emptiness of the deity while retaining its visualized appearance. So, the practice of deity yoga consists of two aspects: that focused on conventional truth and that focused on ultimate truth.

The tantras also refer to three attitudes: regarding all appearances in the form of deities, everything you hear in the form of mantra and any conscious experience you have as the wisdom of the deity.

The first attitude should be understood in the sense not of developing such a perception through conviction, but to achieve a very particular purpose, that is to overcome our sense of ordinariness. On an imaginary level you try to perceive everything that appears to you in the form of the deity. Therefore, the apprehension of that attitude is always founded on emptiness.

Another explanation of this attitude, particularly as presented in the Sakyapa tradition, discusses the meaning of the three-fold tantra. Their teaching known as Path and Fruit describes 'causal tantra' as the fundamental ground and the practitioner is trained to understand the significance and meaning of this fundamental ground in order to attain a perception of everything as pure and divine.

Another explanation found in the works of one of the masters of the Great Perfection School, Dodrup Jigme Tenpai Nyima, called General Topics of the Essence Of Secrets, explains the cultivation of this perception from the point of view that everything that occurs within this cycle of existence and peace is in fact a different manifestation or play of the fundamental ground known as primordial awareness in the terminology of the Great Perfection. This primordial awareness is the source of everything that occurs and appears in the expanse of reality - cyclic existence and peace are just manifestations of primordial awareness, which is in fact the subtlest level of clear light.

This resembles the Middle Way explanation that emptiness is the source or the origin of all conventional phenomena, because all phenomena are manifestations of the same ultimate nature, emptiness. Similarly, the Sakya and Nyingma explanations that all phenomena appearing within the cycle of existence and peace are manifestations or the play of primordial awareness have the same kind of intention.

This primordial awareness, the subtle clear light, is permanent in terms of its continuity and its essential nature, unpolluted by disturbing emotions, is basically pure and clear. From that point of view it is possible to extend your vision of purity to include all phenomena, which are actually manifestations of this fundamental ground.

We should remember that these different explanations are given from the point of view of Highest Yoga Tantra.

So, that is the point at which you have to undertake the meditation. If, after having done so, you feel tired, you can do the mantra repetition actualizing the Speech of the Buddha.

Action Tantra speaks of two types of mantra repetition: one is whispered, which means you recite quietly so you can hear yourself, and the other is mental repetition, which means you do not voice but imagine the sound of the mantra.

Actualizing the Mind of the Resultant Buddha

The concentration abiding in fire is a term given to the meditation in which the practitioner visualizes different mantras, seed syllables and so on, at the heart of the meditational deity and imagines flames arising from them.

The concentration abiding in the sound refers to a meditation in which the practitioner imagines and concentrates on the tone of the mantra not as if he or she were reciting it themselves, but rather listening to the tone of mantra as though it were recited by someone else.

So, the practitioner cultivates single-pointedness or a calmly abiding mind in these ways, which is why we find passages in the Action Tantras which say that through the practice of concentration abiding in fire, the practitioner will gain physical and mental suppleness. Then, through the concentration abiding in the sound, the practitioner will actually attain a calmly abiding mind.

The third type of yoga, called bestowing liberation at the end of the sound, is a technique which provides the practitioner with eventual realization of liberation.

Generally speaking, if we were to classify the tantric teachings among the three scriptural collections of discipline, discourses and knowledge, the tantric teachings would be included amongst the second, the sets of discourses. Therefore, in the tantras, Buddha himself has said that he would teach tantra in the style of the sutras.

The significance of this is that the unique or profound features of tantra come about through techniques for cultivating meditative stabilization. The unique feature, common to all four tantras, that distinguishes tantric practice from practices of the sutras is the tantras' special technique for cultivating meditative stabilization.

One thing I would like to clarify here is that, generally speaking, calm abiding is an absorptive state of mind in which a person is able to maintain his or her attention to a chosen object undistractedly. Therefore, techniques for cultivating such a state are also absorptive rather than contemplative.

Special insight is an analytical type of meditation, so the methods for cultivating special insight are also analytical in nature.

Calm abiding is a heightened state of mind in which not only is your concentration single-pointed, but it is also accompanied by faculties of mental and physical suppleness. Similarly, special insight is a heightened state of mind in which your analytical power is so developed that it is also equipped with mental and physical suppleness.

So, because meditation on calm abiding is absorptive in nature and meditation on special insight is analytical, when we speak about meditation in general, we must be aware that there are many different types. Certain types of meditation are states of mind which focus on an object, such as meditation on emptiness, in which emptiness is the object, whereas in meditation on love, you generate your mind into a state of love. In addition, there are different types of meditation in which the focus is on imagining or visualizing something.

According to explanations in the sutras and the three lower tantras, when you cultivate calm abiding in a meditative session, you are thoroughly absorbed, maintaining single-pointedness and not employing any analysis. The two different types of meditation are usually distinct from one another, but Highest Yoga Tantra contains a unique method of penetrating the vital points of the body. It is by pin-pointing these sensitive points of the body that even special insight can be cultivated through concentrated or absorptive meditation.

In the practice of the sutra path and three lower tantras, attainment of calm abiding and special insight are always sequential. Calm abiding is attained first, leading on to special insight, whereas in Highest Yoga Tantra, some of the most able practitioners can attain the two simultaneously.

The third type of yoga referred to earlier, the concentration bestowing liberation at the end of the sound, is a technical term given to the meditation on emptiness according to the tantric system. It is also known as the yoga without signs, while the two earlier concentrations are referred to as the yoga with signs.

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