Questions and Answers

with Ngak’chang Rinpoche

Devotion as Emptiness in Tantra

Questioner: You mentioned active imagination as a struggle to see, and visualisation as arising out of emptiness. I understand those as polar opposites in a way – but if you are doing a practice in which there are visualisations to be done, aren’t you nudging emptiness a bit?

Rinpoche: Oh, sure. That is one of those interesting things – that however you approach it, there is always another approach that is built into that. That is interesting in terms of wisdom and compassion practices too. Through compassion you get to emptiness, or through emptiness you get to compassion – because they are not separate. To approach Tantra one has to have some experience of emptiness, and yet one can realise emptiness through the practice of Tantra – so this is always contradictory. Whatever there is, that is possible.

With Tantra, the equation in terms of emptiness is devotion. I am empty in relation to whatever it is that I have devotion for. Like my desire for a Snickers bar at this moment, perhaps. It depends how strong that desire is – what I do about it. If my desire is strong, I might say, You know, the best thing is that we sit for an hour. Then I sneak out the back, get the Snickers bar and come back. It is what I am prepared to do – what else I am prepared to put on one side in order to get this. I have to make all kinds of aspects of my life empty in order that I get that. Devotion and desire are similar; these are not separate areas. This is what is interesting in Tantra. Through one’s devotion one becomes empty in relation to the object of devotion. So one has some experience of emptiness there.

Devotion is a bit like ‘sneaking in the side door’ – it has that quality. There is a story someone told me of the tomb of Mullah Nazruddin in Turkey. I love this story. You visit the tomb, which is an imposing marble structure. It has iron gates which are chained. Apparently every third Wednesday of the month, or some such obscure time, an appointed personage will allow you access. But it is not every month; and, sometimes he doesn’t turn up. Sometimes he is late; sometimes he is early – so getting inside the tomb is tricky. The interesting thing is though, that if you walk around the side, it is all open! You can actually get in at any time. If you try to get in the front, you cannot get in – there is no way in, unless you can find this little man who is never there. You could put a lot of effort into finding him, and maybe you would find him and he would let you in; that is possible. But why do you walk around the side, when the front is so well guarded? If the front is so well guarded, surely one would imagine that at the sides and back there will not even be a gate; it will be solid wall. That is conventional intelligence. So that has no use in devotion, either; it has no use for a Snickers bar either – for anything. Where there is an object of desire, intelligence does not come into it. If my desire for the Snickers bar is so strong that I do not care whether you suspect that I’ve nipped out for one or not, then I will risk that. There is risk-taking there with any kind of desire, or lust, or devotion. There is this empty quality – there is risk there. I have to put my whole personality at risk in terms of devotion. This in itself becomes a practice of emptiness. With visualisation then, that struggle to visualise is useful. It depends what kind of energy is there. So, yes.