Ngak’chang Rinpoche and Khandro Déchen are seen giving dBang (wang), Tantric empowerment. But there are also uncommon features in this photograph. Ralzhig Pema Legden is also seated in the presence of his own Lamas enthroned as Vajramasters, and it is still relatively rare to find western people demonstrating the View and etiquette of Vajrayana in relation to each other like this.
In the 1980’s, Ralzhig Pema Legden became probably the first western disciple of western Lamas to be encouraged by his teachers to offer Tantric empowerment himself. And the setting of this scene is the magnificent, immaculately decorated gompa created at their home by Ngakpa Trögyal Dorje and Naljorma Dzü’drül Pamo, students of Ngak’chang Rinpoche & Khandro Déchen in Forchtenstein, Austria. So a third generation of Tantric relationship is implied in this picture.
Every year Ralzhig Pema Legden invites his Lamas to Austria to give special teachings and empowerments to his apprentices, and to lead them in various craft projects. The thangka behind Ralzhig Pema Legden is of Padmasambhava manifesting as Medicine Buddha, Ögyen Menlha, in yab-yum form, i.e. in union with Yeshé Tsogyel. All Nyingmas regard their Lamas as Padmasambhava and Yeshé Tsogyel in person, if they are fortunate enough to have married Lamas. So Ralzhig Pema Legden is keeping the thangka above his head as a symbolic connection with the transmission of his Lamas. But at the same time as being a reflection of the Lamas, a thangka painting also has to serve as a reflection of the student; in the sense that the student is a holder of that empowerment and has the potential in some life to achieve complete realisation in dependence on that practice.
The square of specially fine brocade beneath the image, in a well-made thangka, is called ‘the lake’. The first thangka painting was said to be an image of the Buddha, whom the artist had to observe from the Buddha’s reflection in a lake, as to gaze directly at the Buddha would have caused him to faint. But to look into the lake and see the Buddha’s reflection is also to enter into the experience of being mirrored by the Buddha oneself; a reminder of one’s own potential realisation. So the ‘lake’ on a thangka is a symbolic mirror between oneself and the yidam; a means of making connection.
In the thangka, Padmasambhava is holding the khatvangha trident in the crook of his left arm; and this represents union with his secret consort, Yeshé Tsogyel. But because it is a yab-yum form, Padmasambhava is at the same time in union with Yeshé Tsogyel in person, not just symbolically but actually. In the same way, Ralzhig Pema Legden is keeping a symbol of his Lamas above him, when his Lamas are already seated above him in person. It could be said that the trident and the thangka must therefore be redundant. But there is a principle at work here; that the kayas do not ‘eliminate’ each other. It is the relationship between the kayas which is represented in this photograph, as much as the relationship between generations of practitioners. Because, the stream of realisation of the lineage holders; their iconographic forms; and their physical presence: these are complementary, not contradictory. Likewise, within the kayas individually, one cannot ‘have too much of a good thing’.
In the dimension of realised mind (dharmakaya), the proliferation of Buddhas creates different portals of identical opportunity for the benefit of the huge variety of beings in the universe. In the visionary dimension (sambhogakaya), all the details of all the items of the infinitely vast symbolism of Tantra are mutually redundant; because they all speak the same message to the practitioner, about the non-duality of form and emptiness. But the traditional Tantric temple is replete with this symbolic decoration; so that everywhere the practitioner may turn, the environment speaks with the language of realisation, reflecting one’s basic nature and renewing the inspiration to practise. And in the sphere of manifestation, (nirmanakaya), teachers and students aspire to share the same stream of transmission: in which case, their appearance together is neither contradictory, on the one hand, nor redundant, on the other, but a living example of non-dual lineage.