Compassion & The Nine Yanas

Ngak’chang Rinpoche

at San Francisco Shambhala Centre, February 1997

Part VIII – approaching the yanas

The Nine Yanas as a Model of Developmental Psychology:

The First Three Yanas:

Let us look at the nine yanas as a model of developmental psychology. There are many reflections in Tantra of human process; this is the genius of Tantra in terms of how it explores and plays with our condition. There are many things you find within Tantra that are reflections of human life; but they have been appropriated through wisdom and compassion, in terms of manifesting a means by which we can transform our condition. The nine yanas is like this: you can look at Sravakayana as the place at which an infant starts noticing that things exist outside itself. First of all the infant is a self-contained unit, in its own apprehension. Then suddenly it starts to notice things outside: ‘Hey! The universe isn’t all me. That’s a surprise! I thought I was everything; apparently I’m not.’

Q: So there’s a point of irritation there too?

R: Yes. Life is not as simple as I thought it was. When I wink my eye, you don’t disappear for some reason – you are out there and separate from me, with your own volition. There is this arm, too. I pull it toward me and bite my finger; and it hurts; but it doesn’t hurt if I bite something else – and that is confusing. Sravakayana is this level of understanding that there is something else going on out there. Pratyekabuddhayana is when there is some volition – the realisation that there is choice. This happens sometimes later when the child starts wanting to do certain things, like: I want to roll over. Or, I want to get to the other side of the room. Or, I want to grab that thing. Pratyekabuddhayana contains the idea of volition, of moving in a certain direction, based on this confusion of not being the only thing that exists and having an idea of connection with something out there. I move toward it – I have an idea that I want to grab that for myself. Bodhisattvabuddhayana involves having to integrate that with the fact that other people have feelings about life, and that everything I want to do does not please everyone. This is obviously childhood, where we are having to integrate and to say: Oh, I may enjoy pulling the glasses off this person’s face; but he or she doesn’t seem to be enjoying it as much as I do. Maybe I do not do that; maybe I do not do everything I want to do. This starts during the toddler stage, and it goes on through adolescence. This is quite a long phase of integration that goes up to the point of realising that there are not just the laws of one’s parents, but there are also the laws of society. I do what I do, these are the consequences, and they are all my problem. I could extend childhood forever, and blame everybody else: It’s your fault. It’s society’s fault. This is a way of remaining locked in, and not really practising. To actually practise at this level, we have to recognise the functioning of everything and how we relate to that – as a serious principle. How do you relate in society with what happens? What is your relationship with the pain and suffering that occurs? If you are to be an adult, you have to have an adult relationship with that and understand exactly what you can do. How to view it? How to deal with your own feelings about your surroundings? This is important as an aspect of Bodhisattvabuddhayana.

Q: Would this mark the child’s moving into a radius of relationship beyond the insular family – some sense of larger other?

R: That is right.

Q: Is it possible that a Sravakayana practitioner could be someone who is fairly integrated, but is only listening to the teachings? They might have consideration for others, have a family, have compassion? This seems a bit different from what you said previously.

R: This does not deny what I said earlier; it is a parallel way of seeing how these nine yanas reflect the life of a human being from early infancy throughout. One of the reasons I am a Buddhist is that it does this: Everything applies to everything. It is quite spectacular – the way it functions. A stone is heavy because it is heavy, and that has a certain beauty to it. If you look at it in this way, placing Sravakayana at this infant level, it offers perspective on what Atiyoga means: What could that be? With a hologram, if you smash it, every little bit has got every little bit on it. It is like that. Whenever you look at teachings like the Six Realms, you can find the six realms within the six realms within the six realms. It becomes microscopic and macroscopic in terms of how it functions. From this perspective on Buddhism, particularly on Tantra, it has a whole series of colourful psychologies that paint pictures of human reactions in various different ways. This would be to compare Sravakayana to Atiyoga yana in terms of what the experiential difference is.

Q: Does duality arise in human consciousness at the point of conception; or at the point they realise a separateness in infancy?

R: Duality is there all the time.

Q: But the realisation of that duality, is that an infantile or an embryonic experience?

R: It is infantile. There is an oscillation in infancy between the god realm and the hell realm. It is one or the other; when everything is great, it is great – and not only that, but it has always been great and it always will be great. Then suddenly it is not great, and it has never been great, and it never will be great again! That is interesting to see. Pleasure and pain are separate. There is no sense that this is going to be over and I will feel better again; so it is really god realm and hell realm. There are valuable aspects of that. That is a form of psychosis in one way; but in another, it is being where you are – that is all there is. A lot of the time people cannot allow themselves to be simply cheerful, because there is past and future; which is why they may like getting drunk in order to obliterate past and future – that is the principle of that. It puts people into an artificial ‘now’; they can feel happier, because they have cut off to those things. One can see why people do that. It is possible to be in that place – children find it easier; adults find it less easy. We can look at the infant state as oceanic experience: There is no disconnection between me and anything else. There is no separation between me and mother; we are the same being. Everything out there is me; I am everything.

Individuation and Engaging with the Vajra Master:

Then you have the process of individuation: How do I individuate? We can look at religious philosophies and see how most are an extension of those two ideals. There is the ideal of the oceanic state – wishing to return to that, that everything is god – the monist ideal to return to that where I become part of everything again; but that is a dualistic view. Then there is the other view where I go to heaven and continue forever as a discreet, isolated entity. That is an extension and perfection of individuation. Both are untrue; because there is individuation and there is the oceanic state. Both exist; and both are reflections of the nondual state. They are like nyi-med; like né-pa and gYo-wa being the ornaments of rigpa, emptiness and what arises.

Q: ‘Individuation’ obviously means separateness. But I am not sure I really grasp the use of that term. I know it’s a Jungian term.

R: Individuation as I know it is the whole process of becoming responsible – knowing what your mind is as opposed to everybody else’s. This is why in a dysfunctional family emotions travel around. No one is owning them, and everyone is projecting them. You do not know what you are feeling from what some other family member is feeling. This would be poor individuation.

Q: Is it that a high level of psychological health would be perfect individuation?

R: That is the theory; but you find that for someone to be well integrated at that level, they have to spread out again and start being aware of their community. Otherwise you become an egomaniac; everything is about ‘me’ again. There is always that balance between individuation and societal responsibility. You can see these qualities of wisdom and compassion, of né-pa and gYo-wa, manifesting in psychology, in social psychology, in history, in everything.

Q: That’s why you really have to have a strong, healthy ego to engage with the Vajra Master.

R: Yes.

Q: That’s so paradoxical.

R: It is only paradoxical if you are thinking of the term ego as Buddhists use it. I never use that word ego unless I am meaning it in its psychological sense.

Q: Not pride… separateness.

R: Yes.

Q: That’s so paradoxical.

R: Say more.

Q: It’s like first you have to be healthy in your separateness. And then you’re in this dance of.. not being separated.

R: If you want to lose the separateness, you have to be separate. If you are not separate, how do you lose the separateness? You are not at that state. It has got to be a problem.

Q: You have to have the irritation ?

R: Yes, that is important.


That is why, if you look at some ways in which the Vajra Master works, he or she could enact many things that would be psychologically unhealthy – like double-binds. I have seen many Lamas put people in double-binds.

Q: What is that?

R: A double-bind is where you cannot do the right thing. Here is an example that a doctor once told me: There was a little boy visiting his mother in hospital. He obviously did not know what to make of her. The poor little boy was standing there; and she said: ‘What?! No kiss for your mother?’ So he approached her to give her a kiss, and she said: ‘Oh! Get away from me!’ That is a double-bind: ‘What do I do!?’ If you do that to a child enough, they end up in a strait-jacket; because they cannot get it right. Now if you do this to a student, it is the most perfect thing! In vajra relationship, it is basically creating a situation of tension. However, you have to be psychologically healthy to work with something that would be otherwise unhealthy. If you do not have a healthy ego (in usual psychological terms) then that is going to have the effect that it would have on the child; and you are going to get crazy with it. It can also be creative; so when one is looking at the possibility of the vajra relationship, one has to say: ‘Am I up for double-binds? How am I going to cope with a double-bind?’ Double-binds come up in other ways, too; not just through the Vajra Master. In society, if you have honour, you will find yourself in double-binds. If you have a commitment to this and a commitment to that, there will come a time when you are torn in half. How do you cope with that? It is not that if you avoid the Vajra Master, that you avoid double-binds; because life does that.

Q: At those moments when the double-binds happen, are they moments when you’re jumping out of your rationale then?

R: Yes, it gives you a space… A koan will do a similar thing; but the double-bind from the Vajra Master has possibly a bit extra clout, because it is circumstantial too. Maybe it also does with a koan if you have to sit, thinking about it, and report on it at the end of the day. I have never been through that training, so I cannot comment; but one can see why they exist.

Q: What do you do with the anxiety that comes up in a double-bind? What is its purpose? What use is the double-bind to the Vajra Master?

R: You have no ground in that space. And you can either struggle or accept the groundlessness of it.

Q: The emptiness?

R: Yes. We usually are trying to establish ground: ‘With this ground I can move; I can rely on this.’ With a double-bind one has nothing upon which one can rely in that moment. In the situation with the Vajra Master, one then has to trust that groundlessness: ‘This is outrageous, but it is OK. I am going to trust this chaos.’ Trust is all that is there. There is tension; it is energetic; it is just held there. This is a later stage.

Developmental Stages Related to the Outer Tantras:

When we look at the Tantric vehicles and damtsig/vow, we can equate that with how the child relates with his parent, or with any authority figure. At first, as far as the child is concerned, the parent is god. The parent has all the answers: ‘Mom, why is the sky blue?’ He’s given the answer and: ‘Great; I know that now. I can ask this person anything.’ This is like Kriyatantra: the parent is a god or a divine being. At a later point the child is surprised when the parent does not have all the answers; and then the school teacher takes over. The child comes home from school saying: ‘Oh, Miss Suchabody said this.’ It is relationship with an authority figure, and how that works. With Tantra, we have teacher and we have yidam. There is an expression that might be useful in relation to this: ‘The lower the Tantra the higher the throne.’ The teacher/yidam, is the source of wisdom, it/he/she has to be different from me. If this being is like me, then what can I get from this being? This being has to be substantially different; because this being has to hold all of my projections. I once attended a retreat that was given by a Gélug Lama I had known. It was extraordinary how the retreat was run; because the man who was organising it had obviously been trained in a Kriyatantra view. He was deeply upset that there was only one toilet in the house, and that the Lama would have to use this toilet along with anybody else. I did not say much about that; because there was an ethos in which that was all accepted. That was confusing for people at one level, because they could not see a problem with the fact that the Lama defecated. However, at a certain point that could be disturbing for somebody; because if I am going to place my confidence in this person, they have got to be as different from me as possible. If I have any concept that they might have a sort of unpleasant bodily process which might have some odour to it that I might react to badly, then I think: ‘Oh! I hate the smell of my teacher’s fæces. What can I do? This is like I have a bad attitude already. I should think everything about him or her has to be fabulous, because if it is not, then what do I do with my devotion? If I cannot be devoted to the smell of these fæces, too, then I have a big problem.’ This is a simplistic level, but for some people, it is important. This is how Kriyatantra functions – everything about the teacher or about the yidam has to be completely supernatural. In this context, when one meets the teacher, he or she – and it is usually ‘he’ – is sitting on a throne and you need binoculars to see them. They are on the throne; you probably have not even seen them climbing onto it – they are just there. You come in, you receive the teaching, you go out. In a Tibetan setting, there are usually attendants who are arranging the Lama’s robes; so the folds are gracious, and it is all crisp. The pleats are exactly two and three-eighths inch apart! He is just sitting there, like that. That is different from oneself – that is important. This person has all capacities; there is nothing wrong with this person. I do not have to have any doubt about that. This is fundamentalism. You can see why fundamentalism is useful: ‘Every word in this book is true.’ What would I do with: ‘Almost every word in this book is true.’ That is somehow a massive problem – because which word is it that is not true? This is black-and-white. This is how we are at some level when we are young – in our politics, in our view. Somehow there are easy answers to everything: ‘These are good people, these are bad people.’ Communists good; capitalists bad; or vice versa. All those people are bad; we are on the good side. If there is anybody who is ‘borderline’, that creates a problem; because we either have to bring them in or push them out. We do not like people sitting in these borderlands of: ‘I generally go along with this idea, but I have one or two questions…’ That is difficult.

Q: Is this the stage after the kalyanamitra/spiritual friend, who is like a kind of buddy? And in the next stage the teacher is put on a pedestal?

R: Well, I would not say ‘like a kind of buddy’.

Q: Well, is there a stage where you can talk to the person? It’s not like…

R: No, kalyanamitra is a person with whom you relate in terms of receiving the teaching, asking Qs. You would have a great deal of respect for this person, but you would not be terrified of them in any particular way. They would have no power, or you would give them no particular power, over you; and they would not be conjuring with your circumstances. They might sometimes be quite direct with you; because they purvey the teachings. When you move out of that situation, into the situation with the Vajra Master, at first that has to be special; because in order for someone to be beyond all these parameters, they have to be god-like. To be just like me would be far too threatening; they have to be as distant as possible. This is Kriyatantra, which also involves rules whose purpose is to keep the situation totally pure. The three outer Tantras can all be classified under this heading of purification; but they form a way of gradually moving beyond those constraints – from Lama and yidam up there, far beyond, to a sense in which they become reflections of my own enlightened nature – I can become this. If we skip one and go to Yogatantra – Yogatantra is the method in which the yidam is out there; but one has a much more direct relationship with yidam. Yidam is still complete source of knowledge; but I have access to that knowledge without massive supplication. I do not view myself as completely insignificant. Charyatantra or Upatantra—the middle one—is like the practice and view of Yogatantra with the outer ritual of Kriyatantra. It is a bridge between the two: between the Lama as really high up there, and the Lama as actually in front of me. There is a direct relationship. This person is still other, and complete and perfect. I am different; but I am now open to receiving this without having to conceptualise myself as insignificant – I actually have potential.

This is the shift that occurs. This is the shift in which the child can say: ‘I thought you were saying yesterday that it was like this.’ You are not having to take each word as if it is coming from on-high; you can interact at some level. Your own experience of practice is having some transformative effect on you; you are entering into this body of experience, and therefore you actually have ground to ask questions. You are moving into the adult world. You have your parents’ version of the adult world that they have given you; but now you have seen it for yourself and you say: ‘This is what I’ve seen. What do you make of that? How do I cope with that bit?’ There is communication, because you have been out there on your own in some way.

Q: So this is different – interacting with the teacher in that more confident way is fundamentally different than at the level of Sutra?

R: Yes, here one is not needing to have something proven on the level of saying: ‘Come, encourage me into this. I haven’t bought this yet completely.’ At the level of Kriyatantra you have certainly bought it; but you want to know how it works. You have paid the money, taken it home and signed the papers. There it is – and you say: ‘So what does this bit do?’ You are committed to this, whatever it is.

Sangha Atmosphere as Characterised by One Yana:

Q: Is it that a particular teacher could be at Kriya level with one student, and on another level with another student? It has to do with the student’s relationship with the teacher? Do they decide this together; or is it something the student just feels?

R: It is a mixture. Someone could be a Kriyatantra teacher, i.e. manifesting as a teacher in that model. It is not that the teacher would be limited by that model – that is important to understand. If the teacher was manifesting as a Kriya teacher, then he or she would manifest like that all the time, unless he or she had a small group of special students with whom they related in a different way, in a private setting. Within that, there would be many ways of working. A teacher who came from an Atiyoga perspective could have a Kriya type relationship with one student; but it would not be archetypically Kriya – he would not hop onto a throne just to speak with this one person. It would be a subtle aspect of their dynamic, and that would be mutually created. From that perspective, the teacher would attempt to assist that student to move into the space of the predominant vehicle from which he or she was teaching. There will be an atmosphere within the sangha; and that atmosphere would be characterised by one particular yana. Within that there would be the needs of all the particular students; and the teacher would take those into account in terms of personal relationship or situations that would be set up. For example – I think this probably happens in the West – someone may try to pull some kind of ‘palsy-walsy’ number with the teacher. You would notice that certain people like that would be distanced; and that the teacher might be quite friendly and palsy with somebody who is quite respectful – in exactly the opposite way. If someone is wishing for an artificial intimacy that is inappropriate, they have to be put into a Kriya situation; because it is not helpful for them. That area becomes skilful – the rôle of Vajra Master is fantastically complex and subtle in terms of each individual. In coming to trust the Vajra Master, one has to perceive that – that this person has consummate skill in handling situations and being with people. If a teacher was approaching from the point of view of Tantra, the Bodhisattva ideal is always embodied in that. All the practices have that quality in terms of energy. One is aware of how the teacher relates with circumstances. The circumstances that are created by the teacher are compassionate in their nature; they move in terms of energy, in terms of relationship. One works within the mandala of the teacher; and this comprises compassionate activity.

Schools as Bodies of Inspiration:

In the Sakya, Kagyüd and Gélug Schools you have a four-fold system of Tantra. There are the same three outer Tantras, but the inner Tantra is one that is called anutarayogatantra. That is divided into father, mother and nondual Tantras in the Sakya and Kagyüd. But in the Gélug it is only father and mother. There are different stratifications of these teachings according to different lineages. People express the teachings in different ways. The four schools are basically stylistic – they are styles of Dharma – styles in which Dharma has been taught that have proven effective. These have come down from a great master and have been taught over the centuries. Schools have started at different times because there has been some great master whom everyone reveres and says: ‘Right. We want to maintain this.’ Within Christianity, Protestantism emerged as a school in ‘protest’ about what went before. Tibetan schools are not like this; although there have been sectarian disputes, these were not the causes of the origin of the schools. That is important to remember – and that realised masters of all the schools have never had any problem with each other. People who have problems with each other are usually… they have problems. All the schools have teachings for realisation; they just stratify them in different ways. You will find that there are differences according to how teachings are expressed. The Kagyüd, for example, have what is called ‘formless mahamudra’. It is unique to the Kagyüd School and is similar to the Four Naljors, which is the ngöndro for Dzogchen sem-dé. If you know anything about the Four Naljors, and you look at formless mahamudra, you can see that they are practically identical. Schools arise according to a particular style of teaching from great Master. It is my perception that Trungpa Rinpoche’s legacy will become a school in itself, according to how he taught. Tibetan Buddhism is not limited to the schools that currently exist. The Kagyüd include many sub-schools; within the Nyingma there are many separate lineages. It is important to understand that a school is a body of inspiration that passes down, and the understanding that this works for people, so we will continue it.