The Bristol Talks

Ngak’chang Rinpoche on Vajrayana topics

Questioner: Rinpoche, Vajrayana Buddhism is highly complex and intellectual – is there an approach for people who don’t have academic minds?

Ngak’chang Rinpoche: Yes – certainly. I do not have an academic mind, and am not even more than averagely intelligent. So there would have to be a way wouldn’t there [laughs]. There is the approach through devotion and faith. And actually – these are indispensable for intellectuals too – in fact, even more so, because for intellectuals there can be immense slipperiness to overcome. So, the relationship with the Lama is the key right from the outset. One needs to find a Lama in whom one can place one’s entire trust. There are still such Lamas to be found – Lamas such as Kyabjé Künzang Dorje Rinpoche and Jomo Sam’phel – such as Dung-sé Thrin-lé Norbu Rinpoche. With Lamas such as these one can easily establish such trust.

Q Where would you begin in terms of addressing someone who found Vajrayana symbolism too immense and complex?

R I would say that symbolism is essentially a simple matter. We are all symbols of ourselves. We are not the real thing and therefore we work with symbolism. That is to say: we do not experience ourselves to be the enlightened beings we actually are. Rather, we experience confusion and a variety of problems. So how can we relate to our innate enlightenment – our non-dual state? Let’s begin with ‘the banal’. In everyday life, people dress in certain ways in order to accomplish certain ends. If they lack confidence in the business world they ‘power dress’ – if they lack sexual confidence, they might present themselves provocatively. Banal as these dress codes may be, there is a link with the Tantric method of yidam, awareness being, or meditational deity.

Q Could you explain what is meant by yidam, Rinpoche, in terms of their origin?

R A yidam is a visual description of our own enlightened state, as well as a method of reaching, understanding and experiencing that state. A yidam arises as a method to reach enlightenment, in the ‘heart-mind’ of an enlightened yogi or yogini. Because they have realised their own enlightened nature, such masters manifest compassionate methods at the level of vision, through which others can also arrive at the enlightened state. In Vajrayana these methods arise in the visionary dimension of enlightened masters in order that others can employ the methods to realise the non-dual state. There are few such masters.

Q So – how are yidams practised in Vajrayana, are they like archetypes?

R Yidam can possibly be described in many ways, but they are definitely not an archetype. There have been a number of Western people who have who started describing yidams in this way, but it is neither accurate nor helpful. An archetype arises out of the human psyche, whereas a yidam arises from the primordial emptiness of mind. Yidams do not arise from concept consciousness – no matter how extraordinary that consciousness may be. Some yidams however, were living enlightened beings who took form in the world, but who have since moved into other dimensions. Padmasambhava and his spiritual wife Yeshé Tsogyel are examples of this form of yidam. Yidam, in this sense, refers to the many facets of compassionate activity which the person displayed. In a small way, we are all used to having many facets of personality within our lives. One is a mother or father, a son or daughter or policeman, contract killer, cook, cowboy, artist, rock star, etc. But a rock star is not just a rock star, he or she is everything else too – maybe not a contract killer, but possibly a daughter, a wife, a mother, a cow-girl etc. Take John Lennon for example. There is the ‘long-haired bearded’ yidam form, and the ‘short-haired-boiler-suited’ yidam form. You could look at his styles throughout his whole career, and see that they were different versions of the same thing. But theses images can come to have a life of their own in terms of how we relate to them. I could decide to buy a white suit, grow my hair long and wear round glasses – I could try to be ‘that’ John Lennon, but I would not be the whole person, I would just be myself manifesting what Lennon reflected at that moment in his life. The difference between such hero or heroine worship and Tantra is that John Lennon is not necessarily a visionary reflection of one enlightened nature. With yidams like Padmasambhava, there are many manifestations, each reflecting one of his many facets, but each one also reflecting his entire being in terms of the non-dual state. Each manifestation reflects a method according to the enlightenment which he has displayed of different people at different times. Padmasambhava was an historical person, and so some of the methods were those he displayed during his human life; whereas others were displayed after he left the world. These other visionary forms would have arisen as ‘compassionate appearances’ to an enlightened master, who would have realised them as manifestations of Padmasambhava.

Not all yidams have had incarnation as people, but some people are considered manifestations of Yidams. Such a person is the Dala’i Lama who is considered to be a manifestation of Chenrézigs. To say that someone is a manifestation of Chenrézigs, simply means that they manifest the quality of unquenchable compassion of everyone and everything everywhere. These are the qualities of the yidam called Chenrézigs. This is obviously a different idea to that of the ‘God King’ – embodiment of a deity on earth.

Q We often see a painting called the ‘Tibetan Wheel of Life’ is this also a form of yidam practice?

R No. Also, the Tibetan Wheel of Life is more accurately termed ‘the wheel of cyclic experience’. If we look at the picture, we see a circle within which is a rooster, a pig, and snake. The rooster signifies attraction, the snake signifies aversion, and the pig represents indifference. These three states generate the energy which power dualism. Dualism is the habit of attempting to divide ‘that which is indivisible’, and then relating to part of the whole as if it were the whole. The twin aspects of reality could be called by many names: emptiness and form, chaos and pattern, intuition and logic, intangible and tangible, lateral and linear. Dualism is the illusion that it is possible to relate to form rather than the non-dual play of emptiness and form. Or to put it another way, ‘this’ substantiates my perception of being ‘solid, permanent, separate, continuous and defined’, ‘that’ threatens my perception of being ‘solid, permanent, separate, continuous and defined’, and the ‘other’ is neither here nor there. The peaceful, joyous, and wrathful awareness beings equate with these three states. Peaceful yidams transform indifference, joyous yidams transform attraction, and wrathful yidams transform aversion.

Q Could you expand a little on what is meant by peaceful, joyous and wrathful?

R Peaceful yidams can be male or female; they sit calmly and smile serenely. Examples of these are Drölma, Chenrézigs, and Jampalyang. Joyous yidams can be seen in several forms. There is the dancing Dakini form, such as Dorje Naljorma, who is always solitary and female. There is also the yab-yum or ‘father-mother’ form, where the male and female yidams are in sexual union. Joyous male awareness beings are never seen on their own. Men are not joyous without women [laughs] but women can be joyous by themselves. But this is not a statement about human beings – it is a statement about the nature of emptiness and form. In Vajrayana, maleness is seen as ‘form’ and femaleness is seen as ‘emptiness’. When you see a female yidam on her own, she is emptiness because she is female; but, you can also see her – so she has form. The form of the female yidam is what is seen – therefore femaleness is always both emptiness and form; and, for that reason, she is complete in herself. Maleness is form. A male yidam is form, so he has to describe his emptiness in some way – and this is the reason why male yidams are shown in sexual union. They show their non-dual nature by depicting their emptiness as the consort with whom they are in union. Sometimes the male yidams such as Padmasambhava carry a trident to portray their empty aspect rather than manifesting in sexual union, but whatever the form of the male yidam – emptiness always has to be portrayed in addition to his own appearance.

A wrathful yidam is a powerful demonstration of transformation. The horrific appearance of the wrathful yidam shows that no matter how evil I am, no matter how viciously deranged we may be – these distortions are connected to the enlightened state. Vajrayana proclaims that everything can be transformed – it is impossible to be too bad. This is an enormously powerful stance, because if such a practice can even transform the Hitler or Stalin, then it can transform anything [laughs] even Ngakpa Chögyam.

Wrathful Yidams all hold weapons and sometimes scorpions. The scorpion is a beautiful wrathful example. It is said to be the only animal who will kill itself, or anything else for that matter – on immediate impulse, and even the scorpion can be transformed. The weapons held by wrathful yidams destroy the illusion of dualism. There are swords, lances, axes, spears, flaying knives, daggers – a vast array. It is not that dualism has to be destroyed in all these different ways, simply that we all need different ways to destroy our individual illusions of duality. Our illusions take many different forms; so, paradoxically, many illusory methods are needed to destroy illusion. At the ultimate level, the weapons held by wrathful yidams all perform the same function; whether it is a spear, a lance, or a dagger – duality is murdered.

Q The weapons of the past look a little tame these days in comparison with modern military weapons – wouldn’t missiles make a stronger point in terms of negativity to be transformed?

R In one sense – possibly. Maybe if a Western Tantric master realised a yidam practice in this time, one of the weapons might be called ‘nuclear overkill’. Such a ferocious method of transformation might be armed with machine guns, revolvers, rifles, land-mines, and all manner of implements of death. But this would not be a human creation, the yidam would arise out of the vision of an enlightened yogi spontaneously. I am not a gTértön, so I will never give rise to such a vision. But a knife is quite enough to kill me – so I am satisfied to have my sense of self-clinging slaughtered by a vajra dagger.

Q Tantra seems to be intrinsically shocking.

R Yes. Wrathful imagery describes a high level of energy. Shock was the major theme of Vajrayana in ancient India, where Vajrayana was juxtaposed against the dominant Brahmin culture. Tantrikas had low caste sexual consorts, they gambled, drank alcohol, and—horror of horrors—they were not vegetarian. This was horrendous to a Brahmin. It is still horrendous to ‘Western Buddhist’ types who tend to make a codified moral stance of vegetarianism. It may be useful to consider that Vajrayana is not influenced by concepts of political correctness. Perhaps today we think of swords as romantic, and inoffensive, but it is important to understand that Vajrayana is not merely a methodology from the ancient world. It might be offensive to the politically correct to encounter a wrathful yidam replete with a machine gun, chain-saw, and the freshly flayed skin of an infant child – but, somehow, even though that might not be considered ‘spiritual’, it might point to something far kinder in essence than the tightly structured ‘goodness’ which cannot tolerate human diversity. So yes – Vajrayana is intrinsically shocking, because we need to be shocked into contact with our natural kindness.

Q Does a practitioner always work with one yidam?

R Not necessarily. A yidam is a practice received from one’s Lama, as a means of reaching the enlightened state. In the course of our lives we may work with many different yidams, or settle to one major yidam as our life’s practice. It depends on the relationship you have with your Lama. One can begin with a ‘peaceful’ yidam, move to a ‘joyous’ form, and finally to a ‘wrathful’ type. This process represents an acceleration through three phases, which allow practitioners to gauge the speed at which they can let go of reference points. Wrathful practice can induce paranoia if approached prematurely, so a balance of caution and courage are required.

Q If you want to change, then the ‘changes’ need to be ones you can handle?

R Certainly. If you frighten yourself, you are not going to want to change anymore; rather, you will want to lock the door and hide. We need to have a sense in which we can shake ourselves up a bit [laughs] but also have confidence, in the aftermath, of being able to say: ‘That was a Hell of a ride, but it didn’t kill me.’

Q So, changes can happen in different ways?

R For instance on the yogic encampment we used to hold each year in Wales, amazing things would happen. Nothing miraculous perhaps – just ordinary human magic. On hot summers people would often go for a swim after vigorous sKu-mNyé exercises. They would always take their clothes off to swim and others would follow suit. Often this would have been the first time some people would have undressed in public, and they would usually be totally delighted afterwards: ‘Hey! I did that, I swam naked with a group of total strangers, and the world didn’t fall apart!’ If people break through barriers slowly, they can grow and get used to changes as occurrences which are not entirely threatening. Then, one day, having got used to the idea of ‘change itself’, we might wonder what slightly swifter more pervasive changes might be like. Or, we might ponder the experience of rapid changes in quick succession. At first every change is threatening; but then ‘change itself’ becomes a workable possibility. This is known as peaceful practice. When change becomes ‘workable ground’ one can approach the practice of a ‘joyous’ yidam, in which it is the rapidity of change, which becomes ‘workable ground’. From that basis one can come to challenge the entire fabric of one’s dualistic delusions, which is known as ‘wrathful’ practice. Change is a reflection of emptiness because change is a step into the unknown, in which one dissolves ones familiar forms.

Q What is necessary before someone could go into yidam practice?

R Before you can work with a Yidam, you have to have received empowerment.

Q This may be a silly question Rinpoche – but could you explain empowerment? I have a rough idea of what this means, but it has never really been explained to me in a way that I can usefully remember.

R Right, so let us begin with ordinary human behaviour. If you want to enter into a relationship with somebody; maybe you invite him or her to dinner. This is like an empowerment, the invitation of the yidam. There are offerings such as food and wine. There is the mandala: the restaurant and its atmosphere with the waiters and waitresses. There is the visualisation of what could be available to eat, and the mantra in terms of words which are evocative. The whole event is symbolic. There are qualities here that speak of many aspects of a yidam empowerment. In the case of the empowerment of the practice of yidam, the Lama has to ‘arise’ in the form of the yidam in terms of their internal visionary experience. Lamas have to dissolve themselves into emptiness and arise as yidams within their own experience. To dissolve into emptiness, Lamas have to lose their ‘everyday personality’ as reference points, lose the inner picture of themselves. When Khandro Déchen or I give an empowerment of Padmasambhava or Yeshé Tsogyel, we have to lose our identities and become the yidam.

Historically an empowerment was given and received – one-to-one. That can still be the case today. Empowerments however, tend to be given to groups of people. Empowerment usually takes the form of a ceremony – but ceremony is an odd word, and I would rather describe empowerment as ‘symbolic activity’. At both the mundane level and at a highly profound level, a dbang has much in common with what might manifest in a restaurant – when something crucial is being communicated: a marriage proposal for example. The right moment has to arrive and the entire meal is a preparation for that moment.

In a Tantric empowerment, there are four phases of symbolic activity. The first empowerment is the ‘form’ or ‘body’ empowerment, in which water is received from a vase crowned with peacock feathers (bum-pa). This is a symbol of the physical aspect of reality. The vase has both external space and internal space – so, pouring water from it represents the unification of internal and external space. The water, or transmission, bridges the divide between Lama and disciple, destroying the illusion of separation.

In the next phase is the energy empowerment which is given with a ga’u (shrine box or reliquary). The ga’u has within it a picture or statue of the yidam, and you are touched with it on the forehead, throat, and heart. These represent the three spheres of being, Mind, Energy, and Body symbolised by the syllables Om, A’a, and Hung. The forehead is the sphere of emptiness, the throat is the sphere of energy, and the heart is the sphere of form.

Then comes the emptiness empowerment in which you are touched again at the three points with another ga’u. This second ga’u can contain various images, but what we use is a picture of His Holiness Düd’jom Rinpoche. Khandro Déchen and I use a picture of Düd’jom Rinpoche because he was the teacher of most other Nyingma teachers alive today. He was the teacher of all my other teachers, and as such represents the enlightened nature of all beings. Lastly there is the non-dual empowerment, in which a crystal is held up. This is not touched on anyone’s head, but rather everyone gazes at it at the same time. This is a symbol that the previous three empowerments are not separate, and that they are non-hierarchic.

Q The three empowerments represent Nirmanakaya, Sambhogakaya, and Dharmakaya?

R Yes.

Q I thought they were regarded as being an ascending realisation from Nirmanakaya to Dharmakaya?

R Certainly. That is how they are spoken of in Sutra; and also in outer tantra. But in the Nyingma inner tantras we move away from this sense in which the empty nature is superior to the form which arises from it. In terms of Dzogchen, we do not really speak of Nirmanakaya, Sambhogakaya, and Dharmakaya – we speak of ngowo, rang-zhin, and thug-jé; and when we speak of these three we do not speak of them hierarchically. They are equal. Now the four empowerments of Nyingma inner tantra are a bridge between Tantra and Dzogchen – which is why we have the Nirmanakaya, Sambhogakaya, and Dharmakaya empowerments followed by the essence kaya—the ngowo-ku—which unites the Nirmanakaya, Sambhogakaya, and Dharmakaya.

Q So, then, after the empowerment you work with the yidam.

R Yes. After empowerment is given, there are many different ways of practising the yidam. These depend on the level of Tantra one practices. Kriya Tantra involves chanting long texts and performing elaborate visualisations in which there is not only be the yidam to envision, but also the kyil’khor of the yidam. At the level at which we give empowerments—the level of Anuyoga and atiyoga—there is only the yidam. There is no text or sadhana to chant – only the mantra of the yidam. One simply ‘self-arises’ as the yidam. One sings the mantra and finds the presence of awareness in the dimension of sound. Then there is the practice of recitation, which falls more into the category of the mahayoga tantras. Reciting a mantra, involves reciting the mantra of the yidam 100,000 times for each syllable contained within the mantra.

Q Can you give us an example?

R The mantra of Yeshé Tsogyel: Om A’a: Hung Bendzra Guru Jnana Sagara Bam Ha Ri Ni Sa Siddhi Hung: contains 20 syllables, so one would recite it 2,000,000 times.

Q Rinpoche – I hope this does not sound rude, but what is the result of massive recitation?

R By taking the recitation of a mantra to completion, one experiences the profound state of resonance with the yidam. It is a process of tuning oneself like a musical instrument. One begins to resonate with the power of the mantra. This is not to say that anything ‘magical’ happens, it is simply that the power of the mantra becomes manifest in one’s life in terms of the active compassion of which one is capable. Power is interesting. There are texts which indicate that after so many million recitations, you can manifest siddhis – but in some sense you could miss the point by approaching mantra with that in mind. Mantra is the sense of terminal intimacy with the sound – through which one’s capacities become ‘self apparent’. Mantra is a ‘carrier wave’ on which the unique frequency of the yidam travels. By reciting mantra, one tunes oneself to the ‘frequency’ of the yidam. In yogic song ‘sonic identification’ is the principle; but with recitation, rapidity and numerical drive is the principle.

Q Rinpoche – could say a little more about yogic song?

R By singing the mantra, rather than accumulating recitations, one finds awareness in the dimension of sound. The word dimension is important here. To find yourself in the dimension of sound is to say you are never distracted. Whatever happens simply happens within the dimension of sound. If a dog is barking, that simply occurs within the dimension of the mantra. The pain in the knee, the smell of the pizza cooking, the gun shots on the Lower East Side, all these are ‘within the dimension of sound’. With yogic song, one is completely identified with the sound – there is no other reality. In the Dzogchen view, there is no need whatsoever to understand any literal or symbolic meaning in terms of the mantra or tantric verse – they are primarily sound quality.

Q And chanting in the Vajrayana sense Rinpoche – could you define that for me?

R Chant (dönpa), is a method in which one is aware of the meaning of the text. One follows the meaning as one chants. The meaning can also direct the visualisations which accompany the chant. In Tantra, chants such as such as the Lama’i Naljor of Ma-gÇig Labdrön, direct your practice.

Om ma-gÇig ma la solwa dep / A’a ma-gÇig ma la sol wa dep / Hung ma-gÇig ma la solwa dep / Karpo Om gyi jing gyi lop / Marpo A’a gyi jing gyi lop / Ngönpo Hung gyi jing gyi Lop / Kusung thug gyi jing chen phob / Ma yum chen go pang tob par shog

As I start the melody, I visualise Ma-gÇig Labdrön in front of me. When I chant the first line, Om Ma-gÇig ma la solwa dep, I visualise a white Om at her forehead. With the next line I visualise a red A’a at her throat, the next line, a blue Hung at her heart. With the line Karpo Om gyi jing gyi lop, I visualise a stream of white light coming from Ma-gÇig Labdrön to me, the next line a red light, the next line a blue light. When singing Kusung thug gyi jing chen phob, I receive the three streams of light together, and in the last line I become Ma-gÇig Labdrön.

This text tells me what to visualise. This is why it is described as chant rather than yogic song – even though it has a beautiful tune. The difference between chant and yogic song has nothing to do with tunefulness or lack of it, as might be the case in the western use of these words. When we practice this Lama’i naljor, we use drums (gÇod damaru), bells (dril bu) and human thighbone trumpets (rKang gLing) to evoke the energy of the transmission. This chant also has other purposes. When practised, it re-creates the empowerment from Ma-gÇig Labdrön. It becomes a re-enactment of the original empowerment given by the Lama and contains the same four phases of form, emptiness, energy, and non-duality.

Q Rinpoche, I am interested in the nature of the Aro gTér – could you possibly tell us what its characteristics are – I mean, does it have a particular character which makes it different from other lineages?

R In some ways it could be said to be different. It is an Atiyoga lineage and even the way it approaches Mahayoga and Anuyoga reflects Dzogchen. In the Aro gTér lineage, all yidams are seen as manifestations of the Buddhas Yeshé Tsogyel and her consort Padmasambhava. This is slightly unusual. You will find in most Nyingma lineages, they have some yidams who are manifestations of Padmasambhava, but in the Aro gTér lineage this applies to all yidams. This relates with the central practice of the Aro gTér which is the Khandro Pawo nyi-da mélong. ‘Khandro’ is the female principle, ‘pawo’ is the male principle, ‘nyi’ is sun, ‘da’ is moon, ‘Mélong’ is mirror. So this practice is ‘The mirror which reflects the sun and moon of the Khandros and Pawos’.

This is a teaching for women and men in romantic relationship. It explains how relationships function as practice, in terms of how men and women can reflect each others internal pawo or khandro. Tantra sees us as divorced from those inner qualities – and when we are divorced from inner qualities, inequalities arise. Romance is normally viewed as neurotic, in Sutric Buddhism, but according to inner Tantra it is a powerful key to liberation. The key to this practice is openness and kindness / trust and respect. These are the same as the two Buddhist principles of wisdom and compassion, or emptiness and form. If these are functioning within a romance, then the honeymoon is never over – you stay in love forever. This spiritual romance ignites the fabric of duality, and liberation sparkles through the dualistic strategies which usually stifle our being.

So in relationship, I relate to my wife as Yeshé Tsogyel and respect her as such. She relates to me as if I was the consort of Yeshé Tsogyel, and in this way we become each other’s teachers. As an extension to this practice, men actively seek threat from their partners, and women seek challenge from theirs. Whenever Khandro Déchen and I teach this, people insist on asking the question: ‘So how do I threaten my husband’ or ‘How do I challenge my wife?’. This is absolutely not what we mean. You do not have to do anything. You simply are the threat. You simply are the challenge – within your own being. You simply exist, it is your partner who seeks threat or challenge from the display of how you manifest. People can be so damn pro-active around relationship. We feel there is enough threatening behaviour in relationship without instigating more of it. Threat is what the man has to find, because he is form. If you want to change your ‘form’, then ‘form’ has to be threatened. For ‘form’ to experience the possibility of being ‘re-formed’ is threatening. If you want to coax form out of emptiness, then one’s position requires challenge that welcomes you into the world of manifestation.

We are talking in simplistic terms here. Not that this practice is highly complex, but to approach practices like this, one has to develop an understanding of Tantra over a useful period of time. Tantra is not different from everyday life – but that is a deceptive statement. However, the more you understand the symbolism of Tantra, the more you understand that everyday life is Tantra – and when that begins to become apparent, your life commences to glimmer with limitlessness. Empowerment performs itself all the time: at the bus stop; in the cinema; in the bath; and, on the factory floor. This may sound banal, or profound, but the profundity of it is subtle. One has to really understand the context of Tantra if is to stand a chance of everyday life exploding into symbolic meaning. The context of Tantra is one in which symbolism is self evident: blue is blue; green is green; red is red; white is white; yellow is yellow; raven caws; wolf howls, frog croaks, bull bellows; scorpion arches its tail; cockerel crows; snake hisses; pig shrieks; sky is azure; sky is grey; sky glimmers with stars; horse whinnies; rain is refreshing; leaves are green; tears are wet; skin is soft; espresso steams; brandy leaves a pleasant burning sensation on the palate; wind moves; snow flurries; water sparkles – meaning is no longer hidden within the search for meaning.