It is important to remember that for a serious practitioner an initiation is not something that he or she receives only once. It is customary to receive initiation into a particular tantric practice again and again, each time being better able to receive deeper and deeper levels of experience. So we should not be disappointed if at first our meditation stays only at the level of mere imagination rather than true experience. That is still good enough; don’t think that it’s not. Merely to imagine an experience plants seeds in the vast field of your consciousness and eventually these seeds will ripen into the actual experience itself. This is a natural progression. So you should always remain open and relaxed and be satisfied with whatever happens.
The Formal Practice of Guru - Yoga
Once we have received an initiation into the practice of a particular meditational deity we may begin our daily practice of that deity’s sadhana, and one of the first meditations of the sadhana is the practice of guru-yoga, done in a way similar to the following:
Either in front of us or above the crown of our head we visualize the main meditational deity of the tantra we are practicing surrounded by the various gurus of the lineage. These lineage gurus are the successive masters who have passed on the teachings and realizations of that particular practice and include everyone from the first master of the lineage through to our own spiritual guide, the guru from whom we received the empowerment.
We then request the members of this assembly to bestow their inspiration and blessings upon us and, in response to this request, they merge with one another, enter us through the crown of our head in the form of light, descend our central channel, and dissolve into our heart center. As this happens, all ordinary dualistic appearances and conceptions dissolve into the clear space of emptiness. We then meditate upon the feeling that our guru, who in essence is identical with the deity, and our own subtle consciousness have become indistinguishably one.
The essence of the guru is wisdom: the perfectly clear and radiant state of mind in which bliss and the realization of emptiness are inseparably unified. Therefore, when we visualize the guru absorbing into our heart we should feel that an indestructible impression of that wisdom is being made upon our fundamental mind. From this time onwards we should try to recall this inner experience of great bliss and non-dual wisdom repeatedly, no matter what circumstances we may encounter. If we let our mindfulness of this inner experience deteriorate, we will easily fall under the influence of grosser sensory experiences and the inner bliss of non-dual wisdom will eventually vanish completely.
When we visualize our spiritual guide as the meditational deity we should think especially about his or her great kindness and concern for us. Simply speaking, although the guru-deity is not my father, not my mother, not my wife, not my husband, still, he is as concerned about me and my situation as if he were. It is as if he exists solely for my sake, so that I might develop a supremely healthy body and mind. This is how we should relate to the visualized guru-deity.
By visualizing in this way and thinking of the personal kindness shown to you by your guru, a powerful connection is established. Instead of being some vague, impersonal image, the deity is seen as being inseparable in essence from your own immeasurably kind spiritual guide. In this way a feeling of incredible closeness develops. Because of this feeling of intimacy and because the deity is visualized as a radiantly beautiful being of light, inspiration can come very quickly. Your visualization magnetically attracts such inspiration, such blessing, and this enables you to develop clear realizations. This, after all, is the entire point of the guru-yoga practice.
The purpose for seeing the guru in an exalted aspect has nothing to do with benefiting the guru – a true guru has no use of such homage – but is solely to speed your own spiritual evolution.
Seeing the underlying unity of our guru, the deity and ourselves is not something we do only during formal meditational practice. We need to practice guru-yoga – identifying ourselves with the guru’s essential buddha nature – during every moment of our life. Instead of always thinking about our miserable, dissatisfied mind, we should cultivate the recognition of our fundamental unity with the absolute guru residing within.
Even if our most egotistical mind is arising, instead of adding fuel to it by identifying strongly with this deluded state, we should try to recognize that very mind as the enlightened totality of the guru-buddha nature: the so called dhamakaya experience. Then suddenly even this deluded mental energy can be utilized and transformed in such a way that it is digested into great wisdom. This is the outstanding teaching of tantra.
To be able to accomplish such a profound transformation, however, we must practice guru-yoga continuously. We must become intimately familiar with the essential oneness of the guru, the deity, and our own innermost nature.
In Offering to the Spiritual Master it is said ‘You are the guru, you are the deity, you are the daka/dakini, you are the dharma protector.’ To interpret this we can borrow an image from Christianity, a spiritual tradition based on the existence of one God, one absolute reality. Although God manifests in the three aspects of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, God is essentially one: the principle of totality. Similarly, although tantra speaks about many different deities, dakas, dakinis, protectors and so forth, at a certain point all the apparently different entities are to be seen as a unity, one all-embracing totality. That is the fundamental concern of tantra. When you develop yourself so that your entire inner potential is realized, then you yourself become a deity, you yourself become a buddha. This is the ultimate aim of guru-yoga.
To think, ‘I am this kind of person: impure, full of hatred, ignorant and greedy. I am so bad!’ – This kind of thinking – holding such a low opinion of ourselves, even if we do not express it in words – is completely negative. This is what we need to purify.
Tantra says that human beings have a truly divine quality. The nucleus of each human being, each person’s essential nature, is something divine, something pure. To realize this, and to make this realization an integral part of our life and not a mere intellectualization, it is necessary, as we have already discussed, to emanate strongly as a deity.
Emanating yourself as a deity has nothing to do with a particular culture ora particular set of beliefs. You are already emanating. When you emanate your self-pity image you do not think that you are involved with a particular culture; you just do it. So stop following this ignorant habit; cultivate strong divine pride and emanate yourself as a deity instead. Begin to live up to your tremendous potential.
The best, most precise way to practice emanating as a deity is to do the three-kaya meditation. The great tantric masters of the past, such as Lama Tzongkhapa, have emphasized that there is nothing more essential than this practice.
The sadhana of the deity we are practicing may contain an elaborate description of the three-kaya practice, but it is sufficient to do an abbreviated version such as the following:
We start by reminding ourselves of the refuge we have taken in the Three Jewels and cultivating the heartfelt bodhicitta motivation to achieve enlightenment in order to benefit others. Then we engage in guru-yoga, the root of the tantric path.
We visualize our tantric master before us and see him or her as the embodiment of all the enlightened qualities we wish to realize within ourselves. We imagine that the guru comes to the top of our head, dissolves into light and descends into our heart. As the guru sinks into us in this way, we visualize that we are experiencing the various visions of death that lead up to the dawning of the very subtle clear light consciousness.
In this way we meditate upon the unification of our guru’s blissful wisdom with our own very subtle mind. Drawing upon our memory of the initiations we have received and upon our contact with the guru’s clarity and compassion, we should imagine this unification to be as blissful as possible. The more we are able to experience bliss, the better it will be for the process of transformation.
This subtle, blissful experience of union is beyond any of our ordinary dualistic concepts. As all our ordinary appearances dissolve into the empty space of non-dual wisdom and simultaneous great bliss, we concentrate upon this dissolution as single-pointedly as possible. We should think, ‘This is the enlightened truth body (dharmakaya) and this is who I really am.’
By identifying ourselves as completely as possible with the dharmakaya, we transform the ordinary death experience into the path to enlightenment.
As we meditate upon the dharmakaya in this way, the self-concepts we have been holding onto will break down somewhat; this is good enough to qualify as an actual emptiness experience.
Don’t become discouraged and think ‘I don’t have any realization of emptiness. I don’t even understand the word emptiness or how to practice anything!’ Don’t think this way; it is only a hindrance. After all, to some extent we do already have some experience of the clear light. We have died many times in the past and tantra explains that the process of dying antomatically involves the discovery of the clear light and the non-dual nature of totality. Not only while dying but during sleep and orgasm as well we get a taste of this clear light totality.
To a certain extent these experiences break down the concrete concepts of the self-pitying mind, softening them somehow. So do not worry about how profound your understanding of emptiness should be; it is enough for the moment that you are no longer involved with the concrete concepts of this and that. Just let go and allow all your grasping to dissolve into clear spaciousness.
Remain alert and feel that this alert consciousness is the wisdom embracing the universal expanse of clean clear space. In this space the self-pitying me, crying and complaining about this and that is nowhere to be found; it is completely non-existent. Allow the mind to stay in this spaciousness, which is free of all relative puzzles and all false functions, recognizing it as the actual dharmakaya experience. It is a clean clear natural state without even a speck of rubbish thinking, completely empty of all complicated ego conflicts. It is reality and you merely allow your mind to dwell there alertly.
Perhaps you feel uncomfortable with this explanation of the clear light experience. Intellectually you might argue, ‘Wait a minute, Thubten Yeshe! If you are saying that emptiness is nothing but the emptiness of space, you are wrong. You have over-simplified a very complex subject. This is not Nagarjuna’s view; this is not the Madhyamika philosophy. True emptiness is not the same as merely pretending to dissolve into space.’
You can argue in this way. You can debate all the fine philosophical points and prove that dissolving into space is not what is meant by emptiness – but actually this is a garbage argument. Why? Because such an intellectual approach to emptiness often becomes an obstacle to discovering the actual experience of emptiness. You can write a whole book conclusively refuting emptiness-as-space, or argue and debate for an entire lifetime, but it would be a complete waste of time.
It is true that in our studies we try to gain as philosophically correct view of emptiness as we can so that we can understand it exactly as Nagarjuna and all the other great scholar-meditators have understood it. But now, during this meditation, we are not concerned with studying and analyzing; we are concerned with acting. And in the context of actualizing the dharmakaya clear light experience, all Indian and Tibetan gurus have stated that space is the number one example for comprehending non-duality, or emptiness.
To gain the true emptiness experience you have to begin somewhere. You have to have some experience, some taste of what it is like to go beyond the mundane, ego-generated puzzles of this and that. This is the main point. Somehow we have to let go of all the gross, concrete and limiting concepts keeping us trapped in an unsatisfactory, mundane view of ourselves and everything else.
From a philosophical point of view, it is said that in emptiness there are no forms, no sounds, no smells, and so forth. Such a view can be translated into actual experience by allowing everything to dissolve into space by means of the death process absorptions. In that moment of dissolution your mind has no way to magnetize contact with the accustomed sensory world. In the clear light space of emptiness there are no colors, odors, sensations and so on. All narrow dualistic puzzles disappear and, as a result, the narrow state of our mind is allowed to radiate, to embrace the entire world of reality. You stay as long as you can in this spacious, non-dualistic state, and feel that by doing so you have reached the actual dharmakaya: the completely unobscured wisdom of full enlightenment.
Now, how do you move to the sambhogakaya experience? While floating in the space of the dharmakaya you let go until there is nothing left to disturb your mind. Nothing at all. Then, after some time, the puzzles of relativity will start to reassert themselves, somehow beginning to magnetize your mind, drawing your attention to them. This is the time for you to move from the dharmakaya to the sambhogakaya experience. Only you know when; no one else can tell what is going on in your mind.
When this dualistic shaking arises in your mind, remember your compassionate wish to benefit others and make the strong determination to arise in a form to which others can relate. Then within the space of non-duality – the clear light space of emptiness – something begins to appear. This is like a small cloud suddenly appearing in the expanse of clear sky. The shape and the color of what appears in the spaciousness of your mind at this point depends upon the type of practice you are doing. In many sadhanas it is a syllable or letter symbolizing the main deity. Or it can be a squiggle, or a seed, or some other shape. But whatever it is should be understood as a subtle manifestation of our consciousness itself. It is not something that you are watching from the outside; instead, you should feel completely unified with it. It is the shape of your own emerging mind.
Then, just as you strongly identified the spacious clear light as the actual dharmakaya experience, you should now recognize this subtle, transparent form – which is similar to the immaterial body we possess when in the ordinary bardo between death and birth – as the actual sambhogakaya experience. It, too, should be experienced as the indistinguishable unity of great bliss and non-dual wisdom, now identified as the actual enjoyment body (sambhogakaya) of a buddha. Think, ‘This is the real sambhogakaya; it is who I really am.’ For a while maintain the clear appearance of this seed-syllable and the divine pride of being the sambhogakaya, thereby transforming the ordinary intermediate state experience into the path of the enlightened enjoyment body.
When you are ready, bring to mind your bodhicitta motivation to work for the sake of others and make the strong determination to arise in a form to which even more beings can relate. With this compassionate motive the seed sylable suddenly transforms into the transparent rainbow body of the deity itself. Understand this as being the actual emanation body (nirmanakaya) of full awakening that replaces the gross physical body of ordinary rebirth and has the nature of simultaneous bliss and wisdom. Once again, identify strongly with this appearance by thinking, ‘This is the real nirmanakaya; it is who I really am.’ In this way, then, ordinary rebirth is taken into the path as the emanation body of a buddha.
When you see yourself as a deity, you should feel that you are the real emanation of the deity. Don’t think that you are just pretending; you should be convinced. Then, like the actor who remains in character even after the play is finished, you might surprise yourself to find that you have actually become the deity. Such divine pride – the strong sense of actually being the deity – is crucial. With it, tantric transformation will come naturally and be very powerful. Those people who think that tantra is only involved with pretending to be the deity are completely mistaken.
Although during your meditation you may be trying your best to stay in a conscious, open state of non-duality, you may easily become distracted by the arisal of various superstitious thoughts. When this happens, instead of fighting with these superstitions it is often best to simply imagine yourself strongly as your particular deity – as Tara, for example – and develop a deep awareness of great love and compassion. Stay within the space of this deep awareness and just let yourself be Tara.
If again you find yourself distracted by concepts of this and that – suddenly you are thinking about eating a pizza! – do not give them a lot of energy . Instead of entering into conversation in your mind – ‘How I wish I had a pizza! Instead of sitting here miserably in meditation I could be enjoying myself’ – start to say Tara’s mantra, om tara tuttare ture svaha, until you settle down again. This is much more skillful.