Questions and Answers

with Ngak’chang Rinpoche

The Nature of Tantra & the Mahasiddha Tradition

Questioner: Could you speak a bit about the type of practice that typified the Mahasiddha?

Rinpoche: To do so, I will speak a bit about the nature of Tantra. In terms of the Mahasiddhas, I would like to talk about the principle of the practice – what that was; how that manifested. I think this is crucial for Buddhism in the West and how it will be in the future. When we look at the practice of Tantra, we have to remember that there is what I would describe as ‘cultural Vajrayana’ and ‘essential Vajrayana’. These two are not necessarily always the same thing. It is difficult to look at this subject and to work out what is cultural and what is not cultural. To this end it is interesting to look at the lives of the Mahasiddhas, and to realise that the Tantra that was practised in India was in some ways different to that which was practised in Tibet – especially according to different periods in Tibet.

If we look, for example, at the period of the Mahasiddhas in India, one can find there the practice of sadhana, or drüpthab. ‘Drüp’ means accomplishment; ‘thab’ means method – so sadhana or drüpthab means method of accomplishment. Now usually in Tibet the word sadhana or drüpthab applies to a text. This is something that we chant; it is a text which describes a series of visualisations, ritual practice, lineage prayers, long-life prayers – there is a whole body of material which we chant. This is usually how the word drüpthab is used. But actually drüpthab is a far more expansive idea than simply a text and what one chants or visualises. Drüpthab—as a method of accomplishment in the time of the Mahasiddhas—applied not only to a liturgical practice, but to a way of life. If one takes the advice of the teacher in terms of how one lives one’s life, one can say: ‘This is my sadhana; this is my drüpthab’. If my teacher told me I should go away and study ballet, or that I should become an accountant, and come back in three years time, then I would say, ‘This is my sadhana’. This would much be understood in the language of the Mahasiddhas. Usually what was interesting in the drüpthab of many of the Mahasiddhas was, what they practised was linked very much to who they were. There was one who was a cowboy, one who was a thief, one was called ‘the lazy man’, one was a rock star of his time. There was a restauranteur, a wine salesman, one who crushed sesame seed – an oil manufacturer, a king, a prostitute, an arrow-maker. There were all kinds of different people.

One of the interesting things about the Mahasiddhas was that they were often offensive; they were offensive to spiritual society. Buddhism in India at that time had been taken over, to a certain degree, by high-class society; they were often Brahmins. You will find that when you look at that period, that practitioners such as Tilopa or Naropa were engaged in overcoming Brahmanical ethics. Naropa had to go through many hellish situations which were basically around breaking-through the codified aspects of being a Brahmin: washing in gutter-water, stealing from weddings, all kinds of things that he was not allowed to do. There was this emphasis on high and low caste there. If you let the shadow of a low-caste person touch you, this was bad; if it passed over your food, you could not eat it. Naropa was having to be humiliated in these ways, according to his ideas of pure/impure. You find this quality in the practice of the Mahasiddhas, where pure and impure are being transcended through the ways in which people were taught.

It was interesting in that time that there was one particular Mahasiddha, a woman, who would be fabulously offensive these days. She was called ‘the perfect housewife’. I am always interested in her, because I think she would be really interesting today. You would say, Could I study with you?, and she would say, Yes, we are going to shampoo the carpet now. We are going to arrange these flowers and make little doilies. You would get the horrors about this. Whatever I think is valuable, whatever I think I should be breaking away from, usually the style of the teacher who is the Mahasiddha is to push your nose right back into it again. This was always interesting to me.

I never studied with Trungpa Rinpoche. I observed him at a distance, because I lived in Britain. People wondered why he got people to wear shirts and ties and suits. I said, I think that was because they were all hippies. It seems logical to me from the perspective of him being a Mahasiddha, that he would work in this way. It was not that there was anything about suits that was better than not-suits; it was just that these people were offended by them. They thought they had escaped from suits, so he put them back in suits again. This is purely my perspective on that. I have no idea; but this is my reading of events.

This fits in much with the tradition of the Mahasiddhas – that wherever you are, if you have some constraint around what spirituality is, then this gets blown apart. Your everyday life has to be your spiritual practice, whatever that is. The lazy man’s practice was lying down. The thief’s practice was stealing the entire phenomenal universe – before stealing it in reality, he had to sit down and steal it in his imagination first: steal it and put it somewhere. Everyone had a practice that was based exactly on what they were. They did not have to give that up and do something else. This applies to the idea of transforming neuroses as well: that in order to become a spiritual practitioner, we do not have to change completely. What we are has to be useful; because if I have to get rid of it before I start, then somehow that is a statement that that material cannot be transformed: ‘This is bad stuff; so I take the bad stuff away. Then I do something good.’ That is not the principle with Tantra at all. The principle there is always ‘What is there can be transformed’.

Q: But then isn’t wearing suits getting away from being hippie, rather than being more hippie?

R: It entirely depends where you are. It depends whether you are doing it yourself, or whether your teacher is getting you to do it, in terms of your obstacle. This is one aspect – overcoming obstacles. There are two different principles here: there is the principle of the Mahasiddha style being offensive; that is one principle in terms of breaking through barriers. The other principle is one of using how you are – that ‘how you are’ is more at the level of what your personality is. Different people will be encouraged in different ways, according to how they are; that is individual.