Approaching Vajrayana - Part One

By Jakob Leschly

The path of liberation can be seen in terms of two approaches: the gradual path of the Sutra teachings and the resultant path of the Mantra Vajrayana teachings. In the Sutra approach, we purify confusion and gradually uncover wisdom; in the Vajrayana, the practitioner takes that innate wisdom as the path. This first of four bi-monthly articles discusses the foundation of Buddhism, and how the view and practice of the Sutra teachings naturally serve as the foundation of the Vajrayana. Neither an academic analysis nor an actual Vajrayana teaching, this series aspires to clarify the Mantra teaching as we encounter it as laypersons in a modern context.

THE FOUNDATION OF BUDDHISM

The premise for Buddhism is the potential all life has for awakening, and the empirical fact that we can experience more or less confusion, more or less happiness. We observe how our positive and negative states of mind don’t just happen randomly, but happen due to causes and conditions. With less confusion we feel more at home in our reality, more awake, more at ease with our world.

The Buddha taught that we are in a position to do something about these causes and conditions, yet, the premise is the abiding unchanging reality of enlightenment, our true abiding nature, referred to as Buddha nature. The Sutra path approaches the path through working with the immediate reality of our ordinary confused mind; the Mantra path approaches it with the recognition of the innate abiding reality of the timeless wisdom of Buddha nature.

Although the Buddhist understanding of consciousness extends beyond the scope of contemporary psychology or neuroscience, it still operates within familiar parameters of human experience. The discussion of the practice of the path also does not extend beyond a rational and recognisable dimension of human potential.

The Buddha’s first teaching, on the Four Noble Truths, recognises the observable fact that while every one of our actions is based on a desire for happiness and pleasure, the truth is that we fail in our objective; the first Noble Truth is that we suffer.

The second Noble Truth is to identify the cause of suffering. According to the Buddha’s teaching, suffering is not inflicted upon us by some higher power, nor is it inevitable in a meaningless universe of random chaos. The second Noble Truth is that our suffering is caused; our suffering is due to a confused consciousness that mistakenly conceives of a self that, when investigated, doesn’t actually exist.

The Buddha discovered that confusion and suffering are not basic to us. We are not trapped in our delusion. The Buddha discovered the cessation of suffering, which is the third Noble Truth. He discovered freedom from the conceptual constructs that rule our consciousness.

The fourth Noble Truth is the Buddha’s prescription for how to practically address this condition of confusion. Nobody can save us, but we can apply practical measures to address the cause of suffering. The Buddha taught a remedial path of ethical action, of training the mind through meditation, through which wisdom emerges. Hence the Buddha empowered the individual, and taught how any person can attain the same freedom and awakening.

These Four Noble Truths are basic to all Buddhist teachings and paths. In these four truths, we can see that the Buddha did not introduce any mystical or metaphysical assumptions. His teaching never extended beyond the familiar pragmatism of remedying a problem.

It is not just contemporary people who appreciate such pragmatism. Assaji, one of the Buddha’s disciples, defined the Buddha’s teaching as follows:

All phenomena originate from causes; these causes were explained by the Tathagata [the Buddha]. The cessation of these causes was also explained by the Great Renunciant.*

NO-SELF AND BODHICITTA

The delusion of self is never an essential reality: self is a non-essential construct that arises from ignorance, on the basis of non-essential causes. This condition, known as samsara, is extensively described in the teachings on the Twelve Links of Dependent Arising (Pratityasamutpada). As long as we suffer from this delusion, we continue to wander in the cycle of rebirths.

The Buddha taught that if we investigate, we will find no absolute self, neither in the subjective aggregations that we refer to as our “self,” nor in the objective aggregations of outer phenomena that we refer to as “other.” This does not mean there is no functioning person or phenomena, but it means that if we investigate, we will not find any absolute essence. The Buddha encouraged us to look, because it is this blind assumption that is our downfall.

Through mindfulness, or shamatha, meditation, the practitioner discovers the wider perspective of selflessness — vipashyana — and continues to gradually enhance this experience in ordinary life. Selflessness, or emptiness, is not an otherworldly experience, but a very real sense of presence, of relinquishing fixation on mental content, and providing wider perspective. With such vipashyana, the practitioner ceases to define his or her outlook in terms of self. This ultimately leads to freedom from the conceptual constructions of the ordinary mind (nishprapanca) and the realisation of complete awakening.

The sage’s vision of selflessness leads to renunciation of a private nirvana, and a corresponding vow to assist all sentient beings and liberate them from suffering, which is known as the bodhisattva vow. Such a vow ensures that wisdom doesn’t fall into self-absorption, and also ensures that compassion doesn’t become a personal project. A sage possessing wisdom devoid of warmth would be pitiful, as would a sage possessing love and compassion, yet with the dualistic strings of expectation.

This vision of awakening is called “bodhichitta” — a mind or heart of awakening — and is the core of the bodhisattva’s spirituality; it informs a greater vipashyana, and a greater courage and commitment to the world. Bodhichitta is the heart of the Mahayana path.

We might not be sages ourselves, yet we can appreciate the magnanimous qualities of the bodhisattva. This appreciation reflects a corresponding nature within ourselves — that we have the pure DNA that resonates with wisdom and compassion. This purity is innate to all life as the abiding ground of reality, and to realise this purity is the difference between ordinary sentient beings and a Buddha. All life has basic purity, while Buddhas have the additional purity of awakening.

SUTRA AND MANTRA PERSPECTIVES

In the Sutra path, this two-fold purity is realised gradually. Delusion is eliminated gradually through the practice of the path, in which realisation of wisdom and compassion dawns gradually. The Mantra view sees the same reality from a “glass-full” perspective: as much as we might be neurotic and suffering beings, innately we are Buddhas. Otherwise why practice the path? Unless the condition is curable, why treat it? The good news the Buddha had for us is that our delusional condition is very curable indeed.

While both the paths of the Sutra and Mantra are based on our humble recognition that we are indeed confused and suffering individuals, the Mantra Vajrayana approach banks on the undeniable fact that, being curable patients, we are in reality in possession of the same healthy disposition as the physician, the Buddha. So while this physician prescribes a gradual treatment, the implication is that he or she is empowering our innate untarnished potential to be just as it is.

As the practitioner travels the Mantra path, confusion is purified, giving way to the vipashyana that sees the abiding innate ground of wisdom. Here mind is no longer seen as entirely a confused subjectivity, but rather is seen as a deity, with the world around seen as a pure realm. This is the dawning of sacred reality, also called pure perception, which is the scope of the Vajrayana yogi.

We may temporarily perceive and construct ourselves and others in terms of our delusion and our confused projections, yet the truth is that these constructions are merely temporary fleeting conditions. As it says in the Hevajra Tantra:

Sentient beings are Buddhas;
Temporarily obscured as they might be by fleeting stains,
When these stains are eliminated, they are actual Buddhas.

We are not dreaming up some new reality. We are embracing reality as it is, and this is why even in our obscured state we are presently able to recognise and value wisdom and compassion. While both the gradual and resultant vehicles consist of gradually eliminating obscurations and their causes, and gradually realising our potential, the resultant Vajrayana path acknowledges our true nature as the ground of our journey. We might perceive ourselves as ordinary beings, but we travel the path with an empowered perspective of our true worth.

*Ye dharma hetuprabhava hetum tesham tathagato hyavadat tesham ca yo nirodha evamvadi mahashramanah. The value of this statement is reflected by the fact that in Buddhist ceremonies, this is chanted as an auspicious invocation of the power of truth.

You will meet many types of people in your life. You will meet delicate flowers, raging oceans, quiet forests, towering mountains, and colourful skies. You will meet thunderstorms, you will meet lightning. They will knock you down, they will leave you breathless. You will meet sunrises, you will meet gardens. They will give you light, they will take you on adventures. Explore them. Get lost with them. They all have something to teach you. 

Empathy is the highest level of human interaction and understanding. Lay down the ego, bask only in love. Shut the eyes, see only the soul. Open the mind, let only peace dwell here. Let kindness be the guide, let empathy be the way.
—  k. e.
If you really want to be free, you’ve got to be prepared to lose your world—your whole world. If you’re trying to prove your world view is right, you might as well pack your bags, and go home.

If you want to wake up and find, “Hallelujah! I was right about it all,” just go on vacation or back to work, and don’t drive yourself crazy on spiritual matters. But if it’s slightly appealing to think about waking up and realizing,

“Oh, I was totally wrong. I was totally wrong about myself and about everybody else. I was totally wrong about the world,” you might be in the right place.
—  Adyashanti

Ten Basic Rules For Better Living
by Manly P. Hall

1. Stop worrying

The popular idea that a worrier is a thoughtful and conscientious citizen is false. The Egyptians realized this when they included worry among the cardinal sins. Do not confuse thoughtfulness and worry. The thoughtful person plans solutions, but the worrier merely dissolves in his own doubt. If you think straight, you will have less cause for worrying. The worrier not only suffers the same disaster many times, but undermines his health and annoys all others with whom he comes into contact. There are many things in this world that require thoughtful consideration, but there is really nothing to fear but fear.

2. Stop trying to dominate and posses your friends and relatives

Each of us likes to feel that he is running his own life. The moment we recognize the rights of others to seek life, liberty, and happiness according to their own dreams, hopes, and aspirations, we begin to conserve our own resources. It is very debilitating to give advice which is ignored or rejected, and equally disappointing to attempt to posses and dominate persons who immediately resent and combat our dictatorial tendencies. We are hurt when they do not see things our way. If we save advice for ourselves and those who seek it from us, and who are therefore grateful, all concerned will be the better.

3. Moderate ambition

There is a tendency to overlook natural and simple blessings while we plunge on toward distant goals. Each individual has certain capacities. If he can recognize his own abilities and work with them, he can attain personal security. If, however, he is constantly seeking that which is not reasonably attainable, he can never know happiness or contentment. The wise man observes the disastrous results of uncontrollable ambitions, and chooses moderation. It is not necessary to be famous in order to be happy, nor must one be the leading citizen in the community in order to gratify ones social instinct. The ambitious usually pay too much for what they get, and are the more miserable after they get it.

4. Do not accumulate more than you need

There is no real distinction in being the richest man in the graveyard. Many earnest citizens act as though there were pockets in shrouds. We are supposed to have outgrown the primitive belief that we should bury a mans goods with him so that his spirit might enjoy them in the afterworld. Here, again, the middle course is the wisest. Let us reserve some of our energy for enjoyment, and not give all of ourselves to the task of accumulation. Many a man who has made a million has not lived to spend it. A rich life can be more practical than a monumental bank account.

5. Learn to relax

Great tension is an abomination. The more tense we become, the more stupidly we are likely to act, and, according to the old Buddhists, stupidity is a cardinal sin. Today, many so-called efficient people are perpetually on the verge of a nervous breakdown. This is not so likely to be due to overwork as to unreasonable driving impulses from within themselves. Some say that they are overtaxing their resources to keep their jobs or to maintain extravagant families. Whether you believe it or not, you are a better producer and a better provider if you do not collapse from psychic exhaustion at some critical moment when you are most in need of good health. If your associates do not realize this, they may be in need of practical counsel.

6. Cultivate a sense of humor

As never before, we must brighten and lighten the corners where we are. The more seriously we take ourselves and our responsibilities, the duller we become. It is a saving grace to realize that, although living is a serious matter, we can take it too seriously. Also bear in mind that genuine humor is not bitter, cynical, or critical. It is the ability to laugh with the world and not at the world. If we must laugh at someone, let it be ourselves. Humor is a spice to living. It adds flavor to work, zest to play, charm to self-improvement, and proves to others that we have a security within ourselves. A sincere, happy laugh, like the joyous rippling of childrens laughter, relieves tension and restores good nature. Incidentally, it makes friends and inspires confidence.

7. Find a reason for your own existence

Unless you believe in something bigger than yourself, have some purpose more vital than accumulation or advancement in business or society, you are only existing, not living. A simple pattern is to realize that the laws of Nature that put you here seem to be primarily concerned with growth. You are a success to the degree that you grow, and you grow to the degree that you become a wiser, more useful, and more secure person. In other words, we live to learn, and by this very process, we learn to live. Broaden your horizon, develop an interest in all that is fine, beautiful, and purposeful. Great internal good comes from the love for music, art, great literature, broad philosophy, and simple faith. Strengthen the inside of your nature, and the outside will be better.

8. Never intentionally harm another person

Never by word or deed return evil for good, or evil for evil. Weed negative and destructive thoughts and emotions out of your personality, or they will ultimately contribute to your misery. As we look around us, we see the tragic results of individuals and nations that harbor grudges or nurse the instincts for revenge. The harmless life saves those who live it from many of the mortal shocks that flesh is heir to. Our critical attitudes and our long memories of evils that others have caused only reduce our present efficiency and endanger health and vitality. Even the selfish man realizes that he cannot afford to keep a grudge, and the unselfish simply will not permit grudges to accumulate because they know better and they believe better.

9. Beware of anger

When ill-temper controls us, we are no longer able to control ourselves. In a moment of anger, we may create a situation which will require years to remedy. Why should we spend our time trying to recover from our own mistakes? If we disapprove, let us state our case simply and quietly, and remember that we should never try to correct another when we have already committed a fault as great as his. A quick temper is a serious handicap in business or in the home. It is useless to say that we cannot control anger. This is as much as to admit that we have lost the power to control ourselves. If we resent the unkindness of others and the collective irritability of this generation, let us make sure that we are not one of the irritating factors.

10. Never blame others for our own mistakes

It is hardly necessary. Each of us seems to have an incredible capacity to do things badly and select unwisely. Actually, we are in trouble because we have not made constructive use of the power and abilities which we received as a birthright. Others can hurt us only while our inner life is too weak to sustain in the presence of trial or test. Instead of resenting misfortunes, and seeking to excuse our own limitations, we must face the facts. Either we are stronger than the problem and can solve it intelligently, or the problem is stronger than we are, and the only solution is to increase our own strength. Others are not to blame for our unhappiness. Each man must seek his own peace of mind, and, as the Arabian Nights so well expressed it, happiness must be earned.