Vajrayana Explained

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Vajrayana Explained
Khenpo Karthar

The root meaning: the path of generation
and completion’s union.
This has what has to be known and what
has to be meditated.

In the fifth song of The Quintessence of the Union of Mahamudra and Dzogchen: The Practical Instructions of the Noble Great Compassionate One, Chenrezik, Karma Chakme Rinpoche describes a path that consists of the unification or integration of the generation stage (the visualization of a deity or deities) and the completion stage (which in this case refers to recognition of the mind’s nature). This path is presented as two things that can be practiced simultaneously and do not necessarily have to be practiced separately. The song has two parts: what is to be understood and what is to be meditated on. The meaning is profound and extensive. What is to be understood is the actual view behind all deity meditation, and what is to be practiced is the main meditation of this path.

The View of Vajrayana

The essence of the mind of all beings
Is primordially the essence of buddhahood.
Its empty essence is the birthless dharmakaya.
Its clear distinct appearances are the sambhogakaya.
Its unceasing compassion is the variegated nirmanakaya.
The inseparable union of those three is the svabhavikakaya.
Its eternal changelessness is the mahasukhakaya.

The view is to be understood as follows: The nature of the mind of all sentient beings, irrespective of any obscurations that may obscure or conceal it, has from the very beginning been buddha. There is an inherent wakefulness and perfection to the mind of each and every being. In fact, this is what the mind of each and every being is. In and of itself, it is free of all defects and complete with all qualities, and therefore the nature of the mind can be called buddha. Even though we have become confused and wander through samsara, that basic nature has not degenerated, and even when we attain full awakening, that nature itself will not improve. The nature of the mind remains unaffected; in other words, it is the same in both the context of ground and in the context of fruition. Its essential emptiness is the dharmakaya, the essential nature of the mind that is free from arising, abiding, and cessation. Nevertheless your mind is not just empty; it is vivid, lucid, and cognitive. That characteristic or appearance of the mind as a lucidity that is unmixed in its experience of appearances is the sambhogakaya, or body of complete enjoyment. The actual display of that lucidity, the goodness or responsiveness and compassion of the mind, which is unlimited and unceasing in its variety, is the nirmanakaya.

When we speak of them in these terms, these three seem different from one another. The mind’s emptiness, its clarity, and the arising of appearances within the mind are not in and of themselves substantial, but rather they are the appearance of that which is without inherent existence, like a rainbow. Although these three sound different, they are not three different things, but are in fact a unity. That unity, which is the mind itself, is the svabhavikakaya, or essence body. This unity also never changes: it does not improve at the time of fruition, nor does it degenerate under other circumstances, so therefore it is called the mahasukhakaya, or body of great bliss.

This primordial innate presence in yourself
Was not created by the compassion of the buddhas, by the blessing of the gurus,
Or by the profound special essentials of the dharma.
Wisdom has primordially been present in this way.
All sutras and tantras are in accord on this.

From the very beginning, this primordial wisdom has been inherent in each and every person. It is innate; it is something that we are never without; we never lose it nor deviate from it. Because it is and has always been the unity of emptiness and lucidity, the path that corresponds in characteristic to the ground is therefore the unity of these two stages, generation and completion. This unity itself, which has always been the nature of our minds and which we have never been without, is not produced by the path. The path corresponds in characteristic to the qualities of the ground, but the path does not produce the ground, it only reveals it.

You cannot say the mind is something; you cannot say the mind is nothing; you cannot say it is substantial; you cannot say it is nonexistent and utterly insubstantial. Its nature cannot be described by anyone. 

This perfect nature of mind has not arisen because of the compassion of the buddhas, the blessing of the guru, nor through the profound meaning of dharma, such as through its understanding or practice. It is not produced by any of these things; it is not produced at all. It has always been there, from the very beginning, although we can never find a beginning; therefore not only was it not produced, but it is also not the case that at some point this nature was pure and then somehow we degenerated from it. The mind has always been what it is in and of itself, but it has not been recognized. This has been presented the same way in all the sutras and tantras. Here, all sutras primarily refers to Mahayana sutras.

Then why are we wandering in samsara?
We do this because of the delusion of not knowing ourselves.
For example, it’s like seeing a man who has gold hearthstones
But does not know they are gold and suffers from starvation.
Being given the direct recognition of this is the great kindness of the guru.

If your mind has from the very beginning been uncreated purity and perfection, then you might ask why we wander in samsara. It is because from the very beginning we have never recognized our own nature. This is not to say that we degenerated from a former state of recognition, but rather there never was such a state of recognition. We have always looked outward at appearances, and because we look at them and do not recognize them, we mistake them as being fundamentally separate from the mind to which they appear. In other words, although appearances as the display of the mind are the spontaneously present three kayas, we do not recognize them as such, and therefore we misapprehend them to be what they are not. The use of the word bewilderment or mistake or confusion indicates that we are not seeing things as they are. Our way of seeing things in samsara is a deviation from the truth. We are mistaken. We are seeing things as they are not, and this in fact is what samsara is.

The text gives an analogy that concerns an extremely poor person whose entire house is made of gold, but he does not realize this. The person is so impoverished that he is actually starving. Of course, the person could feed himself if he knew there was gold in the house, but not knowing that, he is starving. This is why the pointing out of the nature of your mind to be gold, to be perfect, is such an act of kindness. If someone came to that poor person and said, “You do not have to starve; there is gold right there,” that would completely change that person’s life.

You may recognize the gold, but that will not dispel the hunger;
You must sell it, and prepare food by frying,
Cooking, or roasting it, and then eating it will end the hunger.
In the same way, after the guru gives you the direct recognition,
Through practice, your mistake will be eliminated and you will be liberated.

This illustrates why merely receiving the pointing out of your mind’s nature is not sufficient by itself. If someone came and told the person that they had gold, that alone would not alleviate their hunger; they would have to use the gold, exchanging it for grain or other food, which they would then have to cook and prepare for eating. The text follows the model of tsampa, or roasted barley flour. You first have to roast the barley and then grind it into flour. The poor person could use the gold to buy provisions, cook the food, and then eat, and in that way alleviate all hunger.

Similarly, merely receiving the introduction to your mind’s nature, the pointing out of your mind’s nature, does not remove your bewilderment or misapprehension. You can only become liberated from bewilderment by applying in your practice what was pointed out.

The Generation Stage Practice

The Mahayana sutras and the Mantrayana tantras are in agreement
That your own mind is, in that way, buddhahood.
However the sutras do not provide the direct recognition
That your body is buddhahood, and therefore it is a long path,
Achieving buddhahood after three incalculable aeons.

All the sutras of the Mahayana and the tantras of the Vajrayana are in agreement on the nature of mind being buddha. The difference is that the path of the sutras is very long, because the fact that the nature of the physical body is also buddha is not actually pointed out, whereas the path of the tantras is short because this is pointed out. Further, in the tantras and in the highest and final level of the Mahayana sutras, the third dharmachakra, there is a more direct identification of the innate qualities that are spontaneously present within the mind’s nature. Below that—in the common sutras up to and including the second dharmachakra—the nature of things, and therefore the nature of the mind, is primarily described in terms of what it is not; that is, it is mostly pointed out as being emptiness. But here a distinction is being made more in terms of pointing out spontaneously present qualities within the mind (the text simply says, the direct recognition that your body is buddhahood) as opposed to simply pointing out the mind.

Because of the lack of a precise identification of the inherent qualities within the ground in the common path of the sutras, it takes even those of the highest capacity three periods of innumerable aeons to complete this common path and attain buddhahood. For example, that is how long it took Buddha Shakyamuni. Many other buddhas take as long as thirty-seven periods of innumerable aeons.

The highest tantras have the methods for attaining buddhahood within one lifetime.
They are profound because of the direct recognition of your own body as the deities.
Therefore, the highest tantras teach in complete detail
That your own body is the mandala of the deity,
Such as Samvara, Guhyasamaja, the eight herukas, and so on.

The reason why you can attain buddhahood in one lifetime according to the higher tantras, the anuttara yoga tantras, is that the method of those tantras is based on the identification of the nature of your body as buddha. Each of the higher tantras has its own way of explaining that the nature of your physical body is the mandala of deities. In specific terms, it will be described as the mandala of that specific tantra, such as Chakrasamvara and Guhyasamaja of the new tradition, or the eight great sadhanas or eight herukas of the old tradition. In any case, the fact that the nature of not only the mind, but also the body, is buddha is explained extensively in all anuttara yoga tantras.…

What does the practice consist of that brings about the manifestation of these qualities? It consists of all the practices of purifying obscurations and gathering the accumulations, but especially the visualization of deities, recitation of mantras, and resting your mind in the even placement of samadhi. As you go through these practices, gradually as your familiarization with these innate qualities increases, your degree of obscuration—cognitive obscuration, mental afflictions, and karmic obscuration—decreases. As this happens, you come correspondingly closer and closer to buddhahood or awakening.…

The Completion Stage

Then look directly at the meditating mind.
All that is meditated upon will vanish into emptiness.

The second part, the completion stage, is as follows: by looking directly at the mind that is meditating, all that was previously visualized dissolves into emptiness. You do not actually think, “It dissolves into emptiness,” but rather you direct your mind toward the visualization and look directly at the mind that has been visualizing. Then, the sense of a person visualizing something just dissolves.

The mind has no form, color, or substance.
It does not exist outside or inside the body, nor in between.
Even if you search for it in every direction, it is unreal.
It has no origin, location, or destination.
It is not nothing; your mind is vividly lucid.
It is not single, for it arises diversely as anything.
It is not multiple, for everything has one essence.

When you look directly at your mind, the mind that has been meditating on Chenrezik, you will observe that it has no physical form or color; in short, it has no substantiality. As far as where the mind is, if you look directly at it, you will see that it is not limited to one location; therefore you cannot say the mind is outside the body, but you also cannot say that it is just inside the body, or that it is somewhere in between. No matter where you look for it—and you can look for it all over the universe—you will not find it in the sense of finding a substantial thing that you can honestly call your mind. If you look to see where it comes from, you will see that it does not come from anywhere. If you look to see where it is, you will see that it does not seem to abide anywhere. If you look to see where it goes, you will see that it does not go anywhere.

Since the mind has no substantial characteristic, no substantial existence, no location, and so on, you might think, “Well, the mind is nothing.” The mind is not nothing, because it is your mind, which is extremely vivid or glaring in its cognitive lucidity. Likewise, you cannot say, “That mind, being a cognitive lucidity, is one thing,” because this cognitive lucidity is infinite in its variety. It can arise as the experience of anything. Yet at the same time, you cannot say that the mind is different things either, because all of this infinite variety of cognitive experience has the same essential nature.

No one knows how to describe its essence.
If one describes it by analogy, there will never be an end to describing it.
You can use many synonyms and terms for it,
Names such as “mind,” “self,” “alaya,” and so on,
But in truth, it is just this present knowingness.

You cannot say the mind is something; you cannot say the mind is nothing; you cannot say it is substantial; you cannot say it is nonexistent and utterly insubstantial. Its nature cannot be described by anyone. This means that no one, including Buddhists, scholars, siddhas, and so forth, can actually say what the mind really is. It is not because they are ignorant of what the mind is; rather, it is because the mind is inconceivable, unthinkable, and indescribable, as we say in the common praise of Prajnaparamita. In and of itself, it is inexpressible; therefore when we try to describe it, we use some kind of analogy or we say what it is not. “It is not this” and “It is not that.” If we limit ourselves to analogies saying what it is not, there is no end to what you can say about it. There is so much to be said, but you are never actually saying what the mind itself is; therefore all of the terms and concepts that we have come up with for the ground or basis of experience are all themselves of the mind. We call it “mind itself”; we call it alaya, “all-basis.” We impute all kinds of things to it; we develop innumerable attitudes and theories about it. All these are really just concepts about, and names for, this very cognition or experience of the present moment.

This itself is the root of all samsara and nirvana,
The attainment of buddhahood and falling into lower existences,
Wandering in the bardo, good and bad rebirths,
Aversion, anger, craving, attachment,
Faith, pure perception, love, compassion,
Experiences, realization, qualities, the paths, the bhumis, and so on—
It is this very mind that is the creator of them all.

This mind is itself the ground of all experience, because it is that which experiences everything. It is therefore the root or source of both samsara and nirvana. If the mind’s nature is recognized, that recognition and the qualities inherent within the nature of the mind are the source of everything we call nirvana: all the qualities of buddhas, of their bodies, realms, and so on. If the mind’s nature is not recognized, that lack of recognition, that ignorance, is the fundamental cause or root of all samsara, all of its suffering and lack of freedom. It is this mind that, when its nature is recognized, attains buddhahood. It is this mind that, when its nature is unrecognized and on the basis of which karma is accumulated, falls into the lower realms. It is this mind that wanders through the bardo, and it is this mind that undergoes various forms of rebirth that are relatively better or worse depending on the particular karma accumulated as a result of the lack of recognition of its own nature. It is this mind that, under the power of the mental afflictions we generate through ignorance of the mind’s nature, gets angry and holds grudges. It is this mind that wants, and it is this mind that falls prey to craving and attachment. In short, it is this mind that retains or engages in the root and branch mental afflictions.

Through some degree of recognition, and through the accumulation of merit, it is this mind that experiences faith and develops a pure view. It is this mind that feels compassion and love for others. It is this mind that generates experience, realization, and all the other qualities of the path, so it is this mind that traverses the path and achieves its various stages and levels. It is just this mind itself that does and experiences all of these things.

This very mind is the root of all bondage, the root of all disaster.
When the aorta is cut through, all the senses stop.
For one who has understood and practiced this
There is no dharma that is not included within it.

This mind is the source of everything, and therefore this mind is the source of all bondage and all disaster. It is this mind that becomes confused through failing to recognize its own nature, and thereafter becomes bound by mental afflictions. The recognition or absence of recognition of the nature of this mind is the deciding factor in whether this mind experiences nirvana (in the case of recognition) or samsara (in the absence of recognition). Here Karma Chakme gives an analogy. If you kill someone by cutting their aorta, all their senses stop when they die. In the same way, if you kill the whole process of ignorance by recognizing the mind’s nature—because ignorance is, so to speak, the life force of samsara—all suffering and mental affliction of samsara cease. All dharmas without exception are therefore included in the recognition and the cultivation of the recognition of the nature of your mind. That is the point of all dharma.

There is not a hairsbreadth of anything to be meditated on in this.
But it is enough to look at the essence without distraction,
Without hope for good and fear of the bad,
Without thinking what it is or what it isn’t.
Whether still or in movement, whether clear or unclear,
Whatever arises, look fixedly at its essence.

There is no object of meditation because your mind is simply experiencing itself just as it is, in the present moment. It is sufficient here to look at the nature of your mind without distraction. The words look fixedly at are by nature dualistic language, and are misleading in the sense that the mind that is looked at is not something other than the mind that is looking.

While doing this, it is unnecessary to hope that things will go well and that you will recognize your mind’s nature, or to fear that things will go poorly and you that will become distracted or lose the recognition. It is unnecessary to think, “Is this it, or is this not it?” It does not matter whether your mind is still or moving. If it is still, it is not going to stay still forever, so it shouldn’t matter anyway. It does not even matter whether your mind is particularly lucid in that moment or for that day. Regardless of whatever is happening in your mind, simply look with an intense or glaring awareness at the nature of whatever arises. The term vivid means “one-pointedly without distraction.” This means not allowing the distraction of thoughts to divert you from looking at the nature. That itself is the main practice here.

When you are meditating in this way in the main practice,
If you are resting blissfully and unwaveringly, that is “stillness.”
If you are not resting, but running into the ten directions, that is “movement.”
Being aware of whatever appears, whether stillness or movement, that is

While doing this, different things can happen. Sometimes when looking at the nature of your mind, your mind does not move; it stays put, evenly, peacefully at rest. That is stillness. At other times it wanders all over the place. That is movement. There is also the faculty of awareness, the recognition of whether the mind is still or moving.

Though they appear to be different they are one in essence.
Stillness is dharmakaya, movement is nirmanakaya,
Awareness is sambhogakaya, and their inseparability is the svabhavikakaya.
They are the seed or cause for the accomplishment of the three kayas.

When you experience stillness, movement, and awareness in meditation, they seem like three different things. There is stillness, there is movement, and then there is the awareness of both of these; yet all three are of the same nature, they are three states of the same mind. Here Karma Chakme says that the mind in stillness is the dharmakaya; the mind in movement is the nirmanakaya; and the awareness that recognizes stillness and movement is the sambhogakaya. Furthermore, because they are not three different things, but rather three different manifestations of the same mind, they are collectively the svabhavikakaya, or essence body. In that sense, they are the cause of, or the seed for, the attainment of the trikaya, or three kayas. Here seed refers to the fact that this mind is fully revealed in the context of the fruition, and that recognition or familiarization with this essence is the seed of liberation.

Therefore there is no good or bad in terms of stillness and movement.
Therefore do not choose, but maintain whatever arises.
At first repeatedly look for brief periods many times,
Then gradually look for longer and longer.

Because they are of the same nature, there is no need to prefer stillness over occurrence or movement; one is not better than the other. Do not be selective, just look at the nature of whatever arises, without feeling that it needs to be one thing and not another. When you first start to practice this, it is important to do so for brief periods. If you try to prolong it for too long, the effort, which is initially unfamiliar to you, will be tiring, and as a result you will get sloppy and allow yourself to become distracted while you are sitting there. For that reason, initially it is best to look at the mind’s nature for very brief moments. Then gradually, as you become more familiar with it, you can prolong the periods of looking at the nature of mind.

This teaching is adapted from The Quintessence of the Union of Mahamudra and Dzogchen: The Practical Instructions of the Noble Great Compassionate One, Chenrezik, by Karma Chakme Rinpoche, with commentary by Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche, published by KTD Publications, 2007.

Originally published in the Spring 2008 Buddhadharma magazine and on Reproduced with permission.