Introduction to Tantra

By Lama Thubten Yeshe
Grizzly Lodge, CA 1980 (Archive #038)

In 1980, in California, Lama Yeshe gave a commentary to the Avalokiteshvara (Chenrezig) yoga method. This talk is Lama's introduction to this series and constitutes a wonderful explanation of the fundamentals of tantric practice.

These teachings are included in Lama Yeshe's book The Essence of Tibetan Buddhism. You can also view the talks on our YouTube channel or listen to the audio recordings online.  The DVD has also been translated into Spanish and is available from Ediciones Dharma.   

Lama Yeshe teaching at Lake Arrowhead, California, 1975. Photo by Carol Royce-Wilder.
Introduction to Tantra: Second Teaching

When we are seeking liberation, or inner freedom, there are two vehicles, which we call the Hinayana vehicle and the Mahayana vehicle. When somebody is seeking liberation, there are two things. Hinayana and Mahayana are Sanskrit terms, but if we translate their meaning into English, they mean the small attitude and the great attitude.

The small attitude is, well, we already have a small attitude! Especially when we're in trouble: "I want happiness, liberation, freedom." The "I want" attitude leads to small action, small vehicle, small boat. Mahayana means the great attitude; that's what we are trying to do.

When I mention these two vehicles of Hinayana and Mahayana, perhaps you think I'm putting the Hinayana doctrine down. That's not the case. I'm not interested in giving you philosophical comprehension. You already have more philosophical comprehension than a supermarket has stuff. Also, when I talk about Hinayana and Mahayana-small mind and great mind-I'm not talking about doctrine. I'm talking about us.

We mean well; we want to practice Mahayana. We'd like to be as open as possible. We want to go that way, even with hardship. But the narrow mind is overwhelming. It keeps on coming all the time. Maybe intellectually we try to be as open as possible but the narrow mind overwhelms us yet again. Therefore, it is not easy to be a Mahayanist. Both Atisha and Lama Tsongkhapa said that it is not enough for a person's religion to be Mahayana; the person himself or herself must become Mahayana.

This is similar to what a Kadampa geshe once said: "It is not enough that your doctrine is dzog-chen; you yourself must be dzog-chen." Dzog-chen means great completion, so he was saying that it is not enough for your doctrine to be complete; you yourself must be complete. That's clear, isn't it? Of course, we talk about Mahayana philosophy, so perhaps we can say we are all Mahayana philosophers, because we talk, talk, talk about it. But we are not Mahayanists. It is a sort of realization; a level, or state, of mind. Intellectually you can't say, "Oh, today I learned some Mahayana philosophy so I'm a Mahayanist." You can't say that; it's not possible. Until I have solved certain problems, until I have transformed something, until some change has happened in my mind-I'm happier, more open, more satisfied in myself-only then can I say, "I'm a Mahayanist."

Anyway, I don't want to talk too much that way. I'd better attend to the business at hand. In America we don't have time to do so many things, do we? Better make sure we finish.

So, the business at hand is that both Hinayana and Mahayana practitioners are seeking liberation by understanding the nature of samsara, but one of them is making tremendous effort on the basis of, "I am the suffering one; I cannot stay there in this way. I want to liberate myself." The emphasis is on liberating me. Great vehicle practitioners, Mahayanists, don't cry so much. Even though they have problems, they are more concerned about other people's problems than their own. That's the difference.

That's why we say that bodhicitta is the door to enter the Mahayana vehicle. That's why bodhicitta is the principal, most essential need for stopping the problem of the self-pitying, self-cherishing thought. Therefore, if you are a Mahayanist, you have bodhicitta. What makes you a bodhisattva is having the realization of bodhicitta.

Then perhaps you will think, "I'm seeking enlightenment; that's why I'm meditating. I desire to reach enlightenment; that's why I've come to this meditation course. So how can that be?"

Let me give you an example. Say you are hungry and you go to a restaurant. In some restaurants they have a system where before you can get your food, you have to buy a ticket. Once you have a ticket, then you can get the food. Some places are like that. Your principal aim is to get food to stop your hunger, isn't it? To do that, you have to start by going through the business of getting a ticket. It's the same thing: we are Mahayanists; our job, our duty, is to serve other people. That is our principal aim, not getting enlightenment. We should not cry and grasp, "Enlightenment, enlightenment, enlightenment; I'm unhappy. I want to be happy." That is not principal. Now you can see the difference.

There are two things. A bodhisattva has two goals, two destinations: to help other people and to become self-sufficient by receiving enlightenment, by becoming totality. If we grab that-"It is more important that I become enlightened"-it's partial. But still we have to do it. It's not the principal thing, it's partial, but we still have to get the ticket in order to solve problems and help other sentient beings. I think this example is clear, isn't it?

Still, some people debate philosophically. The Western mind is sneaky, always intellectualizing this and that. They say that since desire and grasping at sense pleasure is the irritant that leads to the cycle of confusion, one should not wish to get enlightened or to help other people-that that is also desire. Some people argue that way. They say that you're in bondage whether you're bound by wire or by silver or gold; whatever it is that binds you, you're still bound. Therefore, we should be completely free of any kind of wish. Many people say this. Have you heard that kind of thing? That kind of wrong philosophical debate is a waste of time.

They are different. Can you see the difference? Don't be confused about important things. Wishing to open other people, especially to the highest destination, enlightenment, is very important. I think you know this already and I don't need to talk too much about it. So, bodhicitta is the open, enlightened attitude-or, saying it another way, the healthy mind. Instead of using the Sanskrit-the healthy mind. No irritation; plenty of room. That's all. That is bodhicitta. Citta is Sanskrit; it means mind, in the sense of heart. Heart feeling is what we need. We need that attitude, not just an intellectual explanation.

Normally, Western people say, "I need so much love; nobody loves me." They say that kind of thing, don't they? Use that expression in the reverse way: We need the totally opened attitude. It takes care of all the problems that the narrow attitude brings. If you have this attitude you make yourself a complete human being-that's a better way of putting it-because you have complete comprehension. Otherwise, you're in the dark shadow of ignorance. You can see one thing but the rest is in the dark. You know that. Even in everyday life, you need some kind of complete comprehension to keep your house and family together. If the husband sees only one thing, he cannot see the totality of his family's needs-especially in America! It's the same thing with the wife. Of course, a woman comprehends things differently than a man does, but again, she sees only one thing and cannot see totality, what is needed for a totally satisfied life or total mental integration.

These examples are very good. Our lifestyle deteriorates because we don't put our life together. We don't see the totality of our needs. When we don't see totality we can't see how everything is interrelated-when we move one thing, everything else moves too. We have to know that.

Anyway, the enlightened attitude of bodhicitta allows your energy to expand universally. You develop a broad view. Now, one who has bodhicitta can follow one of two vehicles, the Paramitayana and the Tantrayana. The Paramitayana is like the lam-rim, where you understand karmic causation and recognize your own profound ability, or potential, to solve completely all levels of ego problem, not just those on the human level. The Paramitayana takes you through the three principal paths to enlightenment and your job is to actualize the six paramitas. You know this already; I'm just repeating it. That is the Paramitayana. Practicing in that way leads you to enlightenment. But don't think that the enlightenment the Paramitayana path leads you to is a small enlightenment, whereas Tantrayana leads you to a great enlightenment. The enlightened experience that results from following both these yanas is the same; the way they function is where they differ.

Paramitayana and Tantrayana differ in that Tantrayana has the skillful wisdom by which you put totality together. Tantrayana has that kind of key. The Paramitayana also has a key, but its path is slow. The Paramitayana practitioner cannot put two things together simultaneously and keep going. To do that is difficult. Like my cook, Babaji-he can't be in the kitchen and here listening to teachings at the same time! That's his problem. The practitioner of Tantrayana has the skill and intelligence to both see reality clean clear in a penetrative way and simultaneously keep going in a unified way. There's a great difference between the two.

For example, Lord Shakyamuni, the present Buddha, discovered enlightenment after struggling for three countless great eons; three countless great kalpas. Shakyamuni himself made a long journey and led a very ascetic life. Some people say he did not eat for six years; others say he ate the fruit of the palm tree. Palm trees bear fruit [dates]. If we Americans tried to survive on that, we couldn't; we'd die. Back then, maybe the taste was different from what it is today; maybe better than chocolate. Who knows how it was at the time?

There are different explanations about the way he became enlightened. We can't go into detail here; it takes too much time. However, one explanation is that when he came to earth he was a tenth stage bodhisattva, ready to become enlightened in just a second. And while he was in samadhi during the ascetic phase of his life, other buddhas awoke him from his samadhi, saying, "Hey, what are you doing? You're having a good meditation, but that's not enough for you to expand into totality." So they gave him the four great initiations, including the third and the fourth initiations, and he became enlightened.

So, why did he show that aspect? Normally we say "show" because he was already enlightened before he came to earth and everything he did in his life was just a show.

The reason is that, from the tantric point of view, without practicing tantra, it is not possible to discover enlightenment. Following the Paramitayana alone can take you to only the tenth bodhisattva bhumi, or level, and without receiving initiation and practicing tantra, there's no way to achieve enlightenment. This is tantric propaganda! I'm joking! There are many reasons for this, but without practicing tantra, you can't fully open; the extremely subtle mind cannot function. It's something like that.

The difference between Paramitayana and Tantrayana is that the Tantrayana has the skillful methods whereby you can use desire objects that usually bring reactions of confusion and dissatisfaction in the path to enlightenment; by practicing tantric yoga, you can transform the energy of desire into the path to enlightenment. We call it taking desire as the path to enlightenment, but it is dangerous if you do not understand what these words mean; it takes some research to understand them correctly.

Once, during Lord Buddha's time, a king asked him, "As a king, I have so much business to attend to, so many responsibilities in taking care of my nation and so many pleasures. Given my situation, please give me a method to quickly discover enlightenment." Then Shakyamuni gave him the method of Tantrayana.

You can see why Lord Buddha gave the king such teachings from the way he asked, but the person practicing Tantrayana has to have the skill to transform daily pleasures into the path to enlightenment. Let's take our body as an example. As a matter of fact, our body comes from the functioning of desire, doesn't it? Desire made this body; ego made this body. Our grabbing ego made this body manifest, come out. However, instead of looking at it negatively, we should regard it as precious. We know that our body is complicated, but from the Dharma point of view, instead of putting ourselves down with self-pity-"My body is a heavy burden; I wish it would disappear"-we should appreciate and take advantage of it. We should use it in a good way.

So, my example is-I'm not going to miss my example-the point is that despite where the body comes from, the way it manifests, despite the fact that it's not so easygoing, that it's complicated, this body has great ability; it can do so much. With this body, not only can we take care of our food and clothing, but we can also reach beyond that; we have the opportunity to gain the eternal goals of liberation or enlightenment. That's why our human body is precious; that's the point. We can use it in a good way, even though it is potentially poisonous in that it can create more complications, confusion, suffering, loneliness, dissatisfaction and samsaric rebirths for us. If we can change in a positive way, we can feel grateful for having this body and make it worthwhile.

It's similar with our daily pleasures, our sense pleasures. Normally, grasping at sense pleasures brings the reaction of confusion and so forth. We know that. Now, Paramitayana and Tantrayana both lead to enlightenment, but even though at the beginning it might look like contact with sense pleasures is negative, Tantrayana gives us the powerful skill to transmute desire into the blissful path to enlightenment. That's why the wisdom of tantra is perfect.

And especially, when you practice tantra, instead of thinking, "I'm a problem; my ego's a problem; I'm a weak person; I need..." instead of thinking of yourself with self-pity, think, "I am the Buddha; I am Chenrezig; I am universal compassion." The difference is unbelievable. There's a huge difference.

Paramitayana does not have the skillful means whereby you think, "I'm Buddha; I'm an emanation of the Buddha." You already know that there's no such thing. But with Tantrayana, "My body is a buddha body-as clean clear as crystal, and radiating light; my speech is mantra-whenever I open my mouth, good things manifest; my thought is wisdom." Somehow, you become transcendental; you bring the enlightenment experience into the now. That is the beauty of Tantrayana.

From the cultural point of view, when you people look at me, I'm mumbling mantras with this mala, I'm wearing these strange clothes; I'm surrounded by strange art and so forth. You get culture shock. And sometimes you're in conflict: "Why do I need these things? Why do we have these things? I don't want this Tibetan trip." And when it comes to mantra: "Why do mantras? I'd be better off saying 'coffee, coffee, coffee, coffee!'"

One way, Tibetan Buddhism says that liberation is an inner thing, but the other way, it has too many external things. But we're not yet buddha; that's why we need help. We need help. Actually, mantra is an inner thing. We do mantra in order to develop comprehension. That's a small example. What I'm saying is that to recite mantras, we don't need a rosary. People practicing Tibetan Tantrayana don't need rosaries! It's true. That's what we should understand. But of course, sometimes they can be useful too!

Now I'm a little lost somewhere!

So, by using a skillful method, it's possible for your life to become a transcendental experience. Your life can perhaps become an enlightened experience. Maybe I shouldn't use those words, but I think it can become an enlightened experience.

But you should not be in conflict or get mixed up when in one way you have the Tantrayana recognition that, "I am Chenrezig; I am the Buddha; I am totality," and in another way you again have to do all the relative things [like saying mantras].

Tantrayana is the way to achieve the perfect body, speech and mind we need in order to help other people. The purpose of meditation is not to reach nirvana and then disappear. If that were the case, it would be better that you manifested as a flower. The purpose is to emanate in the beautiful, radiant, white light body of Chenrezig, as clean and as clear as crystal. That emanation can really help people. Sometimes Westerners worry, "I'm practicing meditation so much; perhaps eventually I'll disappear into nothingness. Then what can I do?" Better learn Tantrayana and instead of disappearing, emanate as Avalokiteshvara-transform the purity of your consciousness into the complete, pure body of Avalokiteshvara.

Perhaps I can put it together this way. Each of us does have a psychic, or conscious, body as well as a physical body. It is not this blood and bone body that we are radically transforming into Chenrezig. It's not that radically, my body becomes Chenrezig. But my consciousness, or psyche, can transform. Perhaps you can say that one aspect of my psyche is already Chenrezig.

For example, each day of our life we manifest differently. When we get angry, a wrathful manifestation comes out. Some-times we manifest as Chenrezig, loving kindness, and try to give all of our body, speech and mind to others. You can see; you become an entirely different person. We know this according to our own and each other's lives. Sometimes our dear friend becomes so good, like Chenrezig. And sometimes so wrathful that we get hurt and our heart breaks.

You can see this objectively, if you look at one person; we've all experienced it. We don't know what's happened to this person: "What happened to him?" What makes this change happen? For thirty years the person is one way and then all of a sudden, he's the opposite. We want to understand why it has happened but we don't understand. Of course, I don't understand either.

So, that is the beauty of the human being. Human beings have so many aspects, qualities-good and bad-and different manifestations. If you are sensitive, you can see them through the aura, or vibration-especially Californian people. They always say, "Oh, those are not such good vibrations; oh, very good vibrations." Sometimes it seems that they are very sensitive, but I'm not sure about that. I'm doubtful! I don't know what that is! Maybe that's a new expression. We know people who use that kind of language. But those examples are similar. Tantrayana has reasonable scientific explanations; it's not something imaginary. It relates to the circumstances of our life.

Both Buddhist sutra and tantra say that the nature of the human mind is clean clear light; clean clear mind. So what I'm saying is that the nature of our consciousness has always been clean clear; is clean clear; and will always be clean clear. You don't need to worry about it.

 "But we talk about delusions and confusion. What about that?" Delusion is not the character of our consciousness. Clouds are not the character of the sky. You have to change the attitude that thinks like that. Fundamentally, we are wrong when we think, "I am delusion; I'm a bad person who always has bad thoughts; who always acts badly." You cannot sum up your whole, "I am this." It's not true. You cannot put limitations on even your own reality. You cannot; you should not. Each of us has problems and difficulties, but we also have something similar to buddha and bodhisattva energy within us. We do; we do.

For example, sometimes when I'm talking I get surprised at what I'm saying. I don't know what I'm saying. That's a good example, isn't it? I'm an ignorant person, talking like this, and somehow some wisdom also comes out. I can't believe it myself! It's true. I don't think I'm an enlightened being. I don't. But for some reason, good things sometimes come out along with the bad things.

So we should not make limitations when we judge ourselves. Actually, it's like they say in the West: you hear what you want to hear. Exactly like that. When you look within yourself, the quality you want to see appears. If you want to see the bad guy, the bad guy appears; if you want the good guy, the good guy appears. It's true. The thing is not to identify with your delusions. The quality you look for appears.

The example I like to use for the Western mind is that in the world, there are so many men and women. As a matter of fact, everybody is handsome or beautiful. Can you imagine? Somewhere, there's someone who finds you handsome or beautiful. There is; there is. So, that is scientific evidence that we are all handsome; we are all beautiful. Because some mind says you are beautiful-even though you are ugly!

But it functions in that way. When some person sees you as handsome or beautiful, that's exactly the way it works for that person. Let's say I think all of you are beautiful or handsome; for me, that's how you appear; for me, that's reality. But maybe somebody else thinks you're all ugly. I don't care what he thinks; that's his business. What appears to me is my business; that's what affects me. Anyway, you can see that's how reality is.

Look at modern society. Many people put themselves down; that's their worst problem. You can see this everywhere in the world; people put limitations on themselves, on their own reality. This reality, this judgment of the neurotic ego, is the human problem. Tantra has the methods to eliminate this immediately. So, you become the deity, having the divine pride that you yourself are a buddha, fully complete, and in that way you eliminate the ordinary ego projection.

Also, in this way objects you see don't irritate you. Objects don't irritate you. Now, when you see certain people, you immediately get irritated. That's karma. Something within you is magnetized; it is not out there. You have the preconceived notion, "He looked at me with his eye this way; therefore, I dislike him." You have a preconceived idea. We all do; to some extent, we all do. With certain kinds of people, we're very easygoing, but we're unsure of other people who present themselves in some other way. That is due to preconception; the ego's conception. We should be happy, really happy, to connect with any people-even the Shah of Iran, or the Ayatollah! We should be happy.

Take the preconceived idea of the Ayatollah: "This man; this man...." Our ego builds up such energy, can you imagine, that in our next life, when we are children, as soon as we hear the word Ayatollah, we think, "Ayatollah? I don't like." Normally we'd explain it as energy previously built up by the ego, "The Ayatollah is no good." Well, that's the way it happens. It's so easy to say that he's no good, and at the moment you might think that it's not doing any harm, but the thing is that it's not the Ayatollah who harms us, it's the energy that our own ego accumulates that gives us harm.

The reason I'm talking about this topic is that it's difficult for new people to relate to the idea that one can become Chenrezig; it's a new conception. "Who is Chenrezig? Some Chinese man? Some Tibetan man? Who is that? He doesn't exist anywhere in the world. Who's seen him?" Maybe you ask, "Has he seen me? I haven't seen him either." Well, my feeling is that even if we're ugly, our body is not handsome, still, since we were born up to now, an extremely clean clear, organic body has simultaneously existed within us, even while we've had this complicated body. That's the way I feel.

Of course, there are also yoga methods for transforming even this physical body into light. Even this body that our ego has built up in such a heavy, concrete way, "My body is bad," criticizing it as we normally do; "My body is heavy; this and that..." and so forth. So, by practicing, we can make this body light; the difficult heavy one disappears. For some reason, we can do this. Many times we experience symptoms that are simply made by our conceptions. For example, when I was in England last year I met a Tibetan lama who had come from India. He had a problem with his throat; somehow, he felt it was always blocked. When English doctors checked him out, they couldn't find anything physically wrong; it was all in his mind. Incredible, isn't it? Well, that's possible. There's nothing wrong with the body; the only thing that's wrong is the head. I'm sure you can think of many examples of this, where people say, "I hurt here, and here..." but it's only a symptom of a mental problem, not the physical body. I think this definitely happens.

I have more experience of this. I have an English friend whom I met when I was first meeting Western people in India. When he's unhappy, he always gets pain in his hip. He's a very strong guy, but if somebody makes him unhappy, he immediately gets sick there. I'm sure you know people similar to this. This is a good example. It shows that when the sick mind is strong, the body gets sick.

The system of Tantrayana is not something disorderly or something that you have to believe in with blind faith. The Tibetan system is set up dialectically; you can study it philosophically. I'm just talking here; there's no time to study tantra philosophically from beginning to end. But if you want to, you can; it's all there, dialectically, intellectually. The study of tantra can be super-intellectual. That's possible.

However, tantra has four schools; we call them cha-gyü, chö-gyü, näl-jor-gyü, and näl-jor-la-na-me-pa - kriya, charya, yoga, and mahayoga, or maha-anuttara yoga. These schools present tantra differently. Like the lam-rim has small, medium and great levels, so too do these four schools-just as those who practice it also have their own level, or degree, of capability. But while all four schools take the energy of desire as the path to enlightenment, there are degrees. Maha means great.

Now, as far as receiving initiation is concerned, I don't know much English, but initiation means something like initial experience, or beginning experience. When you receive initiation, you are beginning to get a taste of transformation; there's some communication; transformation is beginning to happen. That is empowerment. But the experience you get at the beginning is in accordance with your own magnetized readiness. Perhaps the first time you receive an empowerment, pam!-you immediately get some kind of result. But if you're like me, slow, perhaps nothing happens during your first experience and you need to receive initiation repeatedly in order to generate the kind of nuclear energy that makes an empowerment perfect.

Also, initiations themselves have many levels, or degrees. For example, of the four schools, the kriya and charya have only the first, the vase initiation; they don't have the rest. Furthermore, the first initiation itself also has degrees; you can't have the maha-anuttara yoga vase initiation experience in kriya or charya. But I don't think we need to go into all those details; you're not ready for them yet. Nor is it necessary to bring them up here. However, you should understand that there are degrees of initiation. Also, different deities have different numbers of initiation. For example, Yamantaka has four initiations; Kalachakra has sixteen; and so forth.

However, to some extent, an initiation is for you to receive an experience. It's like planting a seed. This is then repeatedly generated, fertilizing it, until finally it becomes a totally unified realization.

So, in preparation for this, we meditate upon and actualize the three principal aspects of the path. I've told you about these in a simple way, so I don't need to repeat it again. So, you people should be somewhat advanced. Instead of thinking that the lam-rim is so big, it should be a small package for you. In one meditation, when something changes, you should be able to direct your mind into renunciation; another change happens, let it happen-no rejection; no acceptance; let go, let it happen-then put that into bodhicitta meditation. When something else happens, put it into shunyata. But maybe I have to explain how to do this.

Contemplate on the clean clear energy of thought. This signifies shunyata: "This is my picture of shunyata." Why? First of all, your consciousness, or mind, is like a mirror. A mirror is a receptor for any object of form; whatever the color, a mirror receives it. It's the same with our consciousness; it's like a mirror; it can receive all kinds of objects of thought. All kinds of reflections appear in our minds-garbage reflections come; good reflections come. That is beauty; human beings are beautiful. Don't think that human beings are like wood. That's why we should respect human beings. Human beings have discriminating wisdom; they have that capacity. So contemplate on clarity-the clear light nature of mind and thought.

First of all, that clarity is formless. It is not color; it does not have color. Recognize it as space; universal space is empty. So, contemplate. The effect of this meditation, its impact, what happens is that, by having the experience of emptiness, empty space, you eliminate superstition and ego conflict. Having this kind of experience eliminates the ego thoughts that crowd your mind.

From there, you are led to having no thoughts at all; no thought. There is thought, but the crowded, gross level thoughts disappear so that you seem to experience no thought. Sort of, "Where are my thoughts? Where am I?" is what you experience. Of course, this is not exactly a shunyata experience, but it serves as such. I'm not sure about that language-what does "serve" mean? [Student: instead of.] Yes, it serves; perhaps it's better to say it sublimates-that's better. Something happens; there's an inner transformation. We have to go through this; we cannot be arrogant and say, "I want an exact experience of complete shunyata!" It's not going to happen. That's just ego. We have to begin somewhere and work towards that experience. We should be satisfied if even that approximate experience comes.

That's enough for today. Thank you so much.