The Esoteric and Mystical Perspective on Buddha-Nature

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The Esoteric and Mystical Perspective on Buddha-Nature

Kyabgon, Traleg. "Buddha-Nature." In Mind at Ease: Self-Liberation Through Mahamudra Meditation, 136–40. Boston: Shambhala Publications, 2004.

      Broadly speaking, the teachings on the interpretation of buddha-nature are divided into the exoteric, esoteric, and mystical. The exoteric perspective is the same as sutric Mahayana, the esoteric perspective is the same as tantric Mahayana, and the mystical perspective is that held by the Mahamudra tradition. Other mystical traditions include the Dzogchen teachings and some schools of Zen. Different terminologies can result from these differences in perspectives.

      Up to this point, we have been discussing buddha-nature from the exoteric perspective. We now turn to the esoteric and mystical interpretations of buddha-nature as a way of leading into the Mahamudra understanding of the ground of being and the nature of the mind .

The Esoteric Perspective

The esoteric Mahayana perspective on buddha-nature offers yet another fascinating and rich interpretation of what is already one of the most valued and widely interpreted concepts in Mahayana Buddhism. Here, buddha-nature refers to our essential nature as the clear light of bliss, wherein clear light is seen as the same thing as buddha-nature. The perspective differs also in that buddha-nature is not seen as a mere potential for attaining enlightenment but is viewed as the mind itself, because the mind is described as the clear light of bliss. This clear light is also regarded as the luminous and blissfUl nature of awakening.

      Through the use of radical tantric methods, we can realize the clear light of the mind very directly. Instead of gradually trying to reduce the conflicting emotions through meditation and the six transcendental actions, as we would in the exoteric approaches, Tantrism uses the visualization of deities and psychophysical yogas or exercises to bring about insight into the luminous bliss of the mind. There is no mention of gradually eliminating the conflicting emotions.

      It is important to understand that the tantric iconographies of gods and goddesses are actually representations of our own conceptual mind. Instead of trying to reduce discursive thoughts and overcome negative emotions, we employ them in the practices directly. When we visualize deities and other iconographic images, we have to use our thoughts; it is impossible to do visualization practices without them.· Instead of attempting to calm our minds by reducing thoughts, we use our conceptual activity to construct these divinities.

      Tantric practice has two phases, generally known as the creative-imagination stage and the dissolution stage. In the creative-imagination phase, one deals with the gross level of conceptual activity, and in the dissolution phase, one deals with the subtle level of conceptual activity. When the functions of the gross level of consciousness begin to slow down and finally stop, the clear light of bliss becomes manifest.

      The aim of tantric practice is to reach down to this level, which is actually a prethought level. One then arises from that state of absorption. Going back and forth between these two states of the mind will facilitate the realization of the luminous bliss of consciousness. In the creative phase of the practice, we are dealing with our normal consciousness. With the dissolution phase, we go deeper and deeper into levels of absorption until we are able to remain in the pure essence of consciousness. The tantric method is not simply about remaining in that state, however, nor is it considered that we have gone beyond the normal functioning of consciousness by having this experience. Actually, what has taken place is the transformation of the normal functioning of consciousness, which is one of the central goals of esoteric practice. The other goal is to have a deep and abiding experience of luminous bliss, and by so doing realize our innate buddha-nature as the enlightened state.

The Mystical Perspective

The of buddha-nature in the Mahamudra tradition is identical to the understanding of ground Mahamudra explained in chapter 1. We do not resort to the methods of renunciation and purification advocated in the exoteric Mahayana approach, nor do we employ any of the methods of transformation found in esoteric Mahayana, or Tantra. The mystical approach of Mahamudra is the method of self-liberation. This very special method of practice is at the heart of the Buddhist mystical tradition, originating with the mahasiddhas of ancient India. Mahamudra method, along with the mahasandhi practice of Dzogchen, is the most exalted of the esoteric teachings in the Kagyu and Nyingma traditions of Tibetan Buddhism. As such, they are not themselves part of the esoteric teachings but the very apex of the Buddhist path itself.

      As was described in chapter I, the Mahamudra approach of self-liberation arose within the tantric tradition of India, yet it came to be regarded within the Kagyu and Nyingma schools as a complete path in itself It is not surprising, then, that Mahamudra retains much of the tantric terminology and philosophical understanding of spiritual practice. One of these central tenets is that luminous bliss is the goal of spiritual awakening. The difference between them at this point is that the Mahamudra tradition advocates a direct meditative experience into the nature of the mind as the means of attaining this experience. of luminous bliss.

      In the Mahamudra context, buddha-nature is regarded as the nature of the mind, or sometimes as the nature of the Mind-in-itself The nature of the mind is not seen as a potential. for enlightenment but as the actual state of enlightenment. Hence our spiritual nature is understood in terms of a complete enlightenment that we already embody. In the exoteric path in particular, there is not this idea of enlightenment being a connection with our already present spiritual nature.

      Both exoteric and esoteric approaches regard human beings as fundamentally flawed in some way and therefore impress upon us the need to change.'The mystical perspective, on the other hand, does not view deluded and undeluded states of mind as radically different. It does not even recognize the real existence of impurities that require removal, for any distinction between purity and impurity implies a dualism that is antithetical to the Mahamudra understanding of ultimate reality. This ultimate reality is the ground Mahamudra. As Jamgön Kongtrül Lodrö Thaye declares:

Not produced by causes, not changed by conditions,
It is not spoiled by confusion
Nor exalted by realization.
It does not know either confusion or liberation.[1]

From this perspective, the only difference between an enlightened being and an ordinary sentient being lies in whether we know or do not know our own nature. If we understand our state of being from this perspective, buddha-nature is not the cause of enlightenment- it is enlightenment itself. The spiritual path is simply a matter of realizing the nature of the mind, which is utterly complete arid perfect in itself and needs nothing added to it or taken away from it in order to be realized. As Rangjung Dorje, the third Karmapa, sang in The Aspiration of the Mahamudra of True Meaning:

Without realizing this, we circle in the ocean of samsara.
When realizing it, buddhahood is not somewhere else.
It is completely devoid of "it is this" or "it is not this."
May we see the vital point of the all-ground, the nature of things.[2]

It should be noted that the Mahamudra approach still utilizes the practices of tranquillity and insight meditation. In this instance, though, two types of meditation are undertaken so that we remain in our nature to gradually reduce conflicting emotions and increase virtues and wisdom over a period of time, as in the exoteric approaches. We are not trying to attain any particular meditative state per se; we are simply trying to remain in our own.natural state, which is not separate from the nature of the mind, or buddha-nature. It is through this mystical illumination that we come to the realization of our own true nature.

The Significance of These Variations

The three main perspectives of buddha-nature- exoteric, esoteric, and mystical -may yield realization in different ways, but it is still the same state that is realized. Whether we call it buddha-nature, the clear light of bliss, the nature of the mind, or the ground Mahamudra, it is still the same spiritual nature. In other words, each of these approaches leads to the same realization but through a different method. Perhaps the experiences accompanying each realization will also be different, but what one comes to realize in the end is the same.

      Some people find the exoteric perspective on buddha-nature to be best suited to their way of thinking; others find the esoteric perspective more appealing. Still others find the mystical perspective more in keeping with their predilections. Collectively these different perspectives and methods are known as skillful means because they are skillful applications of various teachings that promote a particular perspective on a topic. This is actually the function of the teachings. Please keep in mind that it is this last perspective of buddha-nature that has been appropriated in the Mahamudra teachings and that buddha-nature and the nature of the mind are the same thing in this mystical literature.

  1. Kongtrül, Cloudless Sky, 23.
  2. Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche, Song of Karmapa: The Aspiration of the Mahamudra of True Meaning by Lord Rangjung Dorje, translated by Erik Perna Kunsang (Boudhanath: Rangjung Yeshe Publications, 1992), 70.