Compassion & The Nine Yanas

Ngak’chang Rinpoche

at San Francisco Shambhala Centre, February 1997

Part V – yana principle

On the Idea of Yana:

I will talk about the Tantric vehicles and the principle of yana, and we will look at the different ways in which the yanas are structured. Those are important to understand when we look at the different practices that exist in the world – how they are, and how different teachers or schools approach them. They can be different because there are different methods. Method is form, and form is impermanent: changing, empty, moving – compassion. Method is compassion by its nature. That can be really subtle: that one can simply smile at a street sign, because it is telling you the way to go – it is method; it is compassionate in its nature. One need not get eternalistic about that; but one can occasionally say: ‘Just look at it all! This way to the pizza.’

Before we start to look at the Tantric vehicles, I would like to talk about the idea of yana, or in Tibetan thegpa (theg pa), and what that means. One of the confusing things about Buddhism, I suppose, is that ‘Buddhism’ is a Western word which is created to describe a body of spiritual practices and teachings that exist in different countries. Really there is no such thing; Buddhism is an umbrella term. As far as I know, the thing that is unique about Buddhism is that it has yanas or vehicles. These are not simply deeper levels of teaching. Every religion has deeper levels of teaching. One can begin with a fundamental level of teaching, and one can proceed to deeper levels – that is the idea. Yana is something different to this. You will hear people speak of the yanas in many different ways. One way to talk of the vehicles is as Hinayana, Mahayana and Vajrayana. You will also hear of the nine yanas, which I am going to discuss. However, I will mainly deal with the three yanas as they are discussed from the perspective of Dzogchen – that is Sutra, Tantra and Dzogchen. As we have discussed them up to this point, the first three yanas fall into the category of Sutrayana.

What is implied by the word yana is that there is a base, a path and a fruit. For something to be called a yana, it has to actually lead to something. The thing about the yana is that one can begin there; one can begin there because it has a base. If one says that one cannot begin with a certain yana, it means that it lacks a base and that that base is provided by the other vehicles; then the sense of what yana means collapses. Naturally, one has to find oneself at the base. So what does base mean? Base means our experience – what that is; our capacity – what that is; our knowledge – what that is. Although one can speak of these three bases as Sutra, Tantra and Dzogchen, everyone is their own base as well; because the base is just what you are – you always move from where you are. This is why it is important not to have some idea that I am somewhere where I am not; because if I try to practise from the premise that I am somewhere where I am not, I cannot practise. Some kind of realism is important here. I remember an amusing instance of this when my brother once took me skiing. I had never been skiing before. He thought he would like to give me this experience; and it was nice, actually. He took someone else along as well – his wife’s sister. On the first afternoon, he got us on the skis at the grounds of our hotel. He was generally showing us what to do on this little slope – you could go about twenty yards and stop and then climb back up and do it again. The next day we went out to the ski grounds and signed on for some instruction. They asked us to put up our hands who had no experience of skiing at all. I put my hand up. My brother’s sister-in-law, however, said she had some experience, i.e. on this little slope outside the hotel. I was placed with a bunch of elderly people and children. That was OK; they were showing us things to do, and that was all quite comfortable. Then we came back for the afternoon, and there was just me and one young man left; because all the rest had had enough in the morning. The two of us ended up having this instructor on our own all afternoon; he helped us a lot, because we got massive personal input – we would have had to pay a lot of money for that otherwise. The other lady however, had a miserable day with people who did have some experience of skiing; she just kept falling over and felt thoroughly bedraggled and humiliated. I thought that that was an interesting experience. I thought: ‘I am really glad I said I knew nothing.’

It is really worthwhile acknowledging where you are with what you do; otherwise one insults oneself: ‘The real me is worthless; so I will have a phoney me and live as if I were that other me, and practise as if that was the other me.’ A lady in New York came up after a teaching once and told me that she had been in ‘dark retreat’. [break in tape] … ‘Having a lot of stuff come up’..? That is for the therapist. It has got nothing to do with dark retreat. Dark retreat is something you enter into when you have stable rigpa; it leads to rainbow body.

Q: Was she doing it under the instruction of a Lama?

R: I presume so. To speak of ‘a lot of stuff’ coming up shows that there is no sense at all. A lot of stuff can come up in any retreat – you lock yourself up for a couple of days, and stuff comes up. But one is not working at that level with tö-gal. Stuff should not be coming up any more! Even regular retreats are not for that. In my first retreat—a three-month retreat—stuff came up; it was interesting. I was quite young then, and I did learn a lot from it. It was hell for the first two weeks – but again, that was not the purpose of the retreat.

It is important to have an understanding – ‘Where am I? What am I capable of doing?’ and working with that. Anything I miss out on in terms of practice experience, makes anything else I practise later worthless. One needs experiences in order to pursue the path; and silent sitting is important there, because it is the basis of many other practices. If one cannot sit, then all kinds of other practices are useless and form some entertainment rather than a real practice.

The Three Yanas from the Perspective of Dzogchen:

One has to be at the base; and the base of Sutra is this experience of unsatisfactoriness. We spoke of that with the sense of irritation that occurs: ‘What is it about my life? What is it that is happening here?’ We spoke of how that experience evolves – how it is based on attaining a certain degree of success with samsara to realise that it always fails. Without that one cannot succeed; one needs to have that experience of life.

The goal of Sutra is the realisation of emptiness. This is why it involves monasticism. Monasticism has a principle: that one wears a regulation costume, that one accords with 253 vows, that one lives in an institution in which set things happen at set times – one disappears into that rôle. I do not decide what I do next – there are orders to follow; I follow them – everything is laid out. At a certain level of practice, this is extremely helpful. Sutra is known as the path of renunciation. This principle is based on the fact that we attach to form as a definition of our existence. I want to prove all the time that I am solid, permanent, separate, continuous and defined; these are the form qualities of emptiness.

Then there are the emptiness qualities of form. This is peculiar language – this is paradoxical. One talks about the form qualities of emptiness and the emptiness qualities of form. One does not just say ‘form qualities’ and ‘emptiness qualities’ because they are actually nondual. The reason for using this rather strange language is to speak in a dualistic manner about dualism from the perspective of nonduality. The language of Tantra is one of paradox, where form is emptiness and emptiness is form. We find this first in the Heart Sutra. The understanding of the Heart Sutra is the basis of Tantric practice. In Sutra we have the idea of ‘anatman’: there is no self, no soul, no core, no abiding ‘I’ – renunciation is the principle. Tantra is not the path of renunciation; Tantra is the path of transformation. Here one is talking about: ‘Who is doing the practice?’ and ‘I am visualising myself as…’ Suddenly this ‘I’ is not an issue anymore. People who are steeped in the practice of Sutra will sometimes ask: ‘Well, who is it that’s doing this visualisation, anyway?! I thought there wasn’t any ‘I’.’ This is a question from the perspective of Sutra, in which ‘I’ or atman is undermined. The reason that Shakyamuni Buddha said ‘anatman’ was not particularly because there is nothing there; but that there is nothing there that is solid, permanent, separate, continuous and defined. ‘I’ is form – a particular form. ‘I’ exists in the moment – but only in the moment. If I want a momentary ‘I’, I can have one. If I want an ‘I’ that lasts more than that moment, I cannot have one. I can only have it if I do not want it; if I want it, I cannot have it. If it is only there in the moment, then it is there. If I want to protract it in any way, it is not there. This becomes interesting; and it applies to many different things.

Now we start to use the language of Tantra. We speak of ngo-wo, rang-zhin and thug-jé – essence, nature and energy. Ngo-wo is essence – the essence is empty. Rang-zhin is nature – the nature is clear. One can either translate thug-jé as compassion/bodhicitta, or translate thug-jé as energy; and the energy is all-pervasive in terms of compassionate activity. The language of Tantra is energy – the energy of paradox, riding the energy of duality. Tantra—as the path of transformation—deals with energy; and it deals with the paradox of our situation, with the tension between emptiness and form. In Tantra, samsara is seen in terms of the electricity that exists between these two terminals of emptiness and form. As the two come close together, what happens is that finally they arc across. That arcing across is the practice of Tantra; it is the area of ambivalence between emptiness and form. Tantra is the practice of working with form. From the experience of emptiness, one reintegrates with form. All the practices in Tantra are about form – this is why it is a ritual practice; this is why it is symbolic. This is why there is mantra, mudra, music, ’cham or dance – all the sense-fields are there. This is why the shrine has light, water – the sense offerings. All the sense-fields are there because form is not a problem; form is simply that which has to be united with emptiness. Tantric sadhanas that deal at the level of chant take that quality: I visualise the seed syllable; the seed syllable expands out and becomes Chenrézigs; I unite with Chenrézigs; then that dissolves; then there are other arisings and dissolvings… it is always changing. The visualisations are continually changing because form is always changing, impermanent – which is the quality of form; it is continually shifting.

From a Sutric point of view, one renounces form because there is no refuge in form – it is unreliable, impermanent. The Sutric vehicle looks at form as ‘that which lets me down’; so I won’t be addicted or attached to it. From the point of view of Tantra, the disparagement of form is highly problematic; because emptiness is the mother, form is the child. You cannot be friends with the mother and hate her children – this is not generally advisable. Form arises out of emptiness – it moves, it changes; that is its quality. In terms of Tantra, its movement is compassionate activity. That is the meaning of compassion within Tantra – this movement of form, the way that form changes continually, the way that form dances.

Contradiction Between the Yanas:

We have this idea of yana or vehicle, which has a base; then there is a path and a fruit. I start here; depending on what here is, I move and I end up somewhere else. For example, I start out in South Glamorgan, Wales; I go to Heathrow and get on the plane; I end up here. This is the fruit. That was the base. The path is how I got here. Now, if somebody were to say to me: ‘How do you get to San Francisco?’, if I were to say: ‘First you go to Wales; and then you drive to Heathrow; you catch a plane; you end up…’ This would not be useful to someone who is living somewhere else. The idea of yana is that you have to look at where the base is. According to the base, you do different things; so the paths are contradictory. If one does not understand this, there are all kinds of problems.

Khandro Déchen and I have noticed articles in some Buddhist magazines that express problems around the fact that yanas are different. We have read the most extraordinary things – especially about ‘the teacher’. We could not understand where people were coming from. People with apparently a great deal of experience would make statements such as: ‘I prefer the spiritual friend model.’ You prefer? Great! – but what does that mean? It is like being outside when it is raining, and saying: ‘I prefer the sun to shine.’ So you do? Tough; it is not shining. It struck me that people have little understanding of the yanas. The spiritual friend—kalyanamitra in Sanskrit, or gé-wa’i shé-nyen in Tibetan—is the model of the teacher from within Sutra. It is not that one practises Tantra and says: ‘Oh, I don’t like the rôle of the Vajra Master. This is not suited to the West; let’s replace it with this other model, because they are exchangeable.’ It is like: ‘I don’t like the carburettor in my car; I want one from a jet engine – I’ll put that in instead… or I’ll put tractor tires on it.’ Then the wheels will not even turn, because they are too big for the wheel arches. These things are not exchangeable. They exist within paradigms, and they work within those paradigms. You cannot put diesel in your car instead of gas; unless it is a diesel car. I did that once. I was tired one night. Esso did a nasty trick once; and they changed the colours of the pump handles for some reason. So I got out the blue one that used to be Super Unleaded. I said: ‘Oh, no. That cannot be right. That says Diesel, doesn’t it? And I have just put four gallons in my tank.’ Fortunately, I did not start my car; I got the whole thing drained out. It makes a serious mess when you do that.

So, gé-wa’i shé-nyen, kalyanamitra, spiritual friend – this is a model within Sutra of how one relates with the teacher. At the level of Sutra the teacher manifests emptiness. The model is that he or she gives the teaching from the text. There is little of the personality of the teacher that comes out; because the personality of the teacher is regarded as an interference – the teacher is empty. The teacher is a manifestation of the teachings; there is no confusion around that. Also, one does not have a personal teacher. The personal teacher only exists at the level of Tantra, where you have the Vajra Master – and then the whole emphasis shifts. Now the same teacher can be both Vajra Master and kalyanamitra. There is no problem there about one person adopting both rôles; but they are different rôles. If one wishes to enter into Tantra, then one has to enter into relationship with the Vajra Master – otherwise one cannot practise Tantra. I do not mind if Western people discuss that this rôle of Vajra Master is unworkable in the West, as long as they also say that Tantra is unworkable. You have to get rid of all of it – not just say: ‘We’ll mix and match here; we’ll do bits of it.’ This does not make any sense at all. What suggests itself to me is that people do not understand the nature of the yanas. If people expect the yanas to be coherent, this is quite a mistake. The yanas are only coherent in terms of how they each function in terms of base, path and fruit.

There was a big controversy in Britain once about onions and garlic. Some teachers were saying you should not eat onions and garlic; it is bad for your practice. There would be some other teacher who was eating onions and garlic. People would say: ‘This is a bad mistake; you should not be doing this.’ It was not understood that at the level of Kriyatantra—which is the first level of Tantra—there is an emphasis on purity and purification. This is worked at much as a bridge between Sutra and Tantra; because one has been working within a sphere of ethics and morality, and one is beginning to work at the level of energy. To enter that sphere of energy, one has to be careful – there is a great sense of care that is involved in Kriyatantra. Statements of this care are made through practices of physical cleanliness, dietary concerns – being vegetarian and abstemious would be a valuable practice. One is beginning to open up to one’s energy in a different way; and it is important when one does that, that one does not enter into some craziness. Kriyatantra is like an introduction. This will be the first level of practice where one begins to experience the energy of being—the energy of ambivalence between emptiness and form—and one has to handle it in a careful way. One has to understand why contradiction exists between vehicles. There is the principle and function of each practice; and if one understands this, there is no problem with hearing teachings from any teacher. You will have your own tradition; it is important that whatever your tradition is, that you practise within that. Hearing what another teacher says should not be some disturbance for that. If one understands how that fits in with different vehicles, there is never a problem.