The Experience of Transformation


Lama Yeshe on Tantra: The Experience of Transformation (Italy 1982)

By Lama Thubten Yeshe
Pomaia, Italy (Archive #275)

Lama Yeshe gave this introduction to tantra at Istituto Lama Tzong Khapa in Pomaia, Italy, in October 1982, during His Holiness the Dalai Lama's tour through Europe. Edited by Nicholas Ribush.

Lama Yeshe at Istituto Lama Tzong Khapa, Pomaia, Italy, 1983. Photo: Merry Colony.

I’d like here to give just a brief introduction to tantra.

The first thing to understand is that Buddhism has broad and far-reaching array of teachings for human development. However, before we can begin actualizing the tantric path we need to understand the sutra path of human development, the three principal aspects of the path—renunciation, bodhicitta and universal reality, shunyata—which is the main prerequisite for entering tantra.

With respect to renunciation, we first need to understand the dissatisfactions and complications of our own daily life that result from ego conflict and that worldly wealth and pleasure are not the answer to the human search for satisfaction.  Therefore renunciation means avoiding the extreme of grasping at worldly pleasure and beginning to recognize that the source of everlasting satisfaction can be discovered within oneself.

In order to develop bodhicitta, we also need to realize that the problem of human ego conflict is not just our own but a universal problem and therefore feel sympathy for all living beings. His Holiness the Dalai Lama often talks about universal responsibility because if we’re too obsessed with our own problems, for our mind they become bigger than the entire universe. So the way to rid ourselves of the self-cherishing thought, which is the biggest obstacle to our developing bodhicitta, is to change our attitude to one of dedication towards all living beings in the universe. Sutrayana explains that self-cherishing is symptomatic of all human problems: when we seek pleasure motivated by self-cherishing, we mislead ourselves; what we get is increased misery. All problems, from those between a married couple to international conflicts, are all because of the self-cherishing thought.

To totally get rid of self-cherishing we have to sever its root—dualistic concepts—which brings us to the third principal aspect of the path, the wisdom realizing emptiness, or shunyata.

Dualistic concepts have to be understood by analyzing the ego conflicts in our own everyday life. Dual phenomena exist relatively but non-duality implies psychological contradiction or comparison.

Say our neighbor buys a car. We look at it and think, “I should get a car, too.” Then he gets a boat and we think, “I should have a boat as well.” Then he gets a second car and we think, “Why shouldn’t I get another car?” This is what I mean by contradiction; our restless mind is never satisfied with what we have.

That’s why when we seek good ideas in our materialistic environment we have to pay for them. This is because of the build up of duality, samsara and restlessness. Therefore the result is conflict: between parent and child, husband and wife, even food and stomach. Buddhism can explode such dualistic superstition and the function of meditation is to extinguish the restless dualistic mind.

So, if we have gained realizations such as those of the three principal aspects of the Sutrayana path, why do we need to actualize tantra? Philosophically, Tantrayana is the vehicle by which humans can attain liberation most quickly but how quickly depends upon the individual practitioner. It takes much skill to utilize the powerful, sensitive tantric methods and techniques effectively.

One big difference between sutra and tantra is that Sutrayana emphasizes the faults of worldly pleasure whereas Tantrayana says that worldly pleasure can be the source of liberation. The Tibetan term for this concept is dö-yön-lam-khyer, which means, essentially, taking desire as the path to enlightenment. This indicates that the practice of tantra is very suitable to the materialistic life of the modern world, which is totally dedicated to the pursuit of pleasure, because all these modern objects of pleasure can be used to develop the path to liberation. This is an extremely practical approach to spiritual practice because we encounter these objects every day. So rather than telling us to renounce pizza and mozzarella, tantra teaches us how to eat them in a positive way.

Italians have been eating pizza and mozzarella for centuries without knowing how; Tibetan monks have never eaten pizza or mozzarella but know how to do so!

Since every day we’re immersed in a materialistic environment and under the control of sense gravitation attachment, we can’t escape this situation; we’re born into it. Therefore it’s absolutely essential that we develop the skills to deal with this situation instead of being overwhelmed by it and find a realistic way of transforming our situation into the path to liberation or, at least, into a subdued and tranquil life. If we can learn to do that then it’s fine for us to enjoy our material life as much as possible.

It’s like certain poisonous plants will kill you if you eat them directly but with skill you can manipulate their negative energy and convert it to medicine. These days many people blame society and the environment for life’s ills but they’re wrong; it shows they don’t understand inner nature. From the Buddhist point of view, those who always blame external factors for their problems will never ever be able to solve them until they demolish such concepts.

According to tantric philosophy, as long as you harbor the misconceptions that make you interpret both yourself and the environment negatively and incorrectly there’s no way you’ll find true happiness. And tantra also contains the methods whereby you can purify yourself of negative projections of yourself and the environment.

Practically speaking, human beings are responsible for their own body, speech and mind, to not give and to purify negative projections and to recognize the pure nature of their body, speech and mind. Therefore the practice of tantra involves transformation of body, speech and mind.

The way to transform your own self-pity imagination of your body is to transform that energy into a deity, such as Avalokiteshvara. You can check right now through your own experience how your own ego projects, interprets or imagines your own body, how your self-pity imagination identifies yourself. So that’s why you have to change your unrealistic self-image into a higher, realistic one.

What I mean by unrealistic is my imagining I’m a manifestation of Mao Tse Tung or Hitler, or even a handsome Italian man. That’s unrealistic imagination.

So we have to identify ourselves physically in a healthy reasonable way. Also we have to recognize that as human beings we have a conscious, or psychic, body as well as a physical one.

Also, normally we all interpret ourselves as hopeless and bad and feel deservedly guilty. We can tally our bad motivations and evil actions like counting mantras: “I did this, I did that, I did the other, I did this, I did that, I did the other…” infinitely. “Therefore I’m bad, therefore I’m hopeless, therefore I’m guilty….”

So the emphasis of tantra is that the essential you is clean clear. You have buddha nature and it’s that with which you should identify yourself in a transcendental way; you should identify yourself as a fully developed being with completely developed knowledge and completely developed compassion. I truly believe that all human beings have love and wisdom; it’s simply a matter of recognizing and developing them.

Therefore you have to understand that emanating yourself as a buddha or a deity purifies your self-pity imagination. That’s why instead of counting off our negative qualities we count mantras instead. The energy of mantra involves nothing mundane—food, clothing or anything else. It’s a sound that automatically brings your mind into a transcendental experience or single-pointedness. That’s the function of mantra. It’s like fire; it incinerates your negative, impure mundane concepts.

You’re going to receive the initiation of Avalokiteshvara. There are many levels of initiation. Realistically speaking, what you receive depends upon your level of mind and how well you communicate with the guru giving the initiation.

As the word implies, initiation means an initial experience through the meeting of two minds and the energy activated by the initiation has to be maintained through continual practice.

Especially at this time you are going to receive the initiation of Avalokiteshvara from Avalokiteshvara himself. His Holiness the Dalai Lama is an emanation of Avalokiteshvara, who is a manifestation of all the buddhas’ universal compassion, so you’re very fortunate to receive this initiation from the real Avalokiteshvara himself.

Now, you should not interpret Avalokiteshvara as something that exists only as an external object. In fact, when you develop your own compassion to the level of universal compassion, you become Avalokiteshvara. My experience has been that Westerners commentary with this deity very well; much better than they do with other deities; sometimes have problems communicating with deities that aren’t related to some kind of archetypal image. Avalokiteshvara has something to do with you. Buddha itself means something to do with you. So it’s important to connect our present limited compassion to the achievement of universal compassion.

So our receiving this initiation and becoming Avalokiteshvara is a kind of insurance to bring true peace to the world. Also, don’t ask, “Am I going to receive a perfect initiation or not?” As I said, it depends upon your level of mind and how well you communicate with His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s realizations.

Philosophically speaking, Buddhism has a clean clear structure that determines whether or not you have actually received an initiation that you have attended, but personally, I truly believe that, irrespective of what the structure says you get, you definitely receive something to subdue your mind and develop your limited compassion. From the practical point of view, that’s enough for us.

I mean just to be in His Holiness’s presence gives you tremendous imprints. We all seek compassion; we’re dying for compassion, for someone to love us, for someone to have compassion for us. We’re dying for peace and happiness in the world.

And it’s so rare for there to be such a holy example of compassion in the world. That’s exactly what we need; we’re not liberated beings—we need to see a powerful visual example of fully developed compassion because we’re so oriented by our sense consciousnesses and don’t have the power to understand psychically or telepathically another being’s realizations and knowledge.

With His Holiness we see somebody who was the leader of a country that was occupied by another and rather than abandon his principles of non-violence he just left and has maintained a position of peace ever since. We can see this visually. Meanwhile, we observe how violent and impure the rest of the world has become in this twentieth century. Therefore we need the support of the kind of physical example His Holiness offers us.

I think that’s enough talk from me. We have time for a few questions, if you have any.

Student: I’d like to actualize the Buddhist path deeply within my heart and would like to know if there’s a fundamental difference between the monastic way of life and practicing as a layman?

Lama: The life of a monk or nun is very different from that of a layperson. However, some lay people’s renunciation is much better than that of some monastics’. Renunciation is a state of mind rather than not doing this or that. The thing is that some people are more suited to the monastic way of life, others to lay life, so Buddhism offers both paths in order to meet the needs of the greatest number of people. We have methods for the liberation of laypeople and methods for the liberation of monks and nuns; there’s no shortage of methods in Buddhism.

Student: I came to the Institute to live and study here. Can I not take the initiation and still do that?

Lama: Yes, of course. The nature of Buddhism is that you check out which teachings are for you and which are not and practice accordingly. Lord Buddha himself said you don’t have to accept everything he said. He taught according to different practitioners’ various interests and aptitudes and it’s up to the individual to choose which teachings to practice and which, at least for the time being, to leave aside.

Student: I’ve been interested in Buddhism for a long time but I find it difficult to penetrate the teachings deeply because I don’t have anybody to ask. Occasionally I can ask a geshe some questions through a translator but as time goes by I find new questions and problems that are rather extensive and I don’t know who to speak to about them.

Lama: It’s good that as you think about the teachings more questions arise. Buddhism is a path of research into the universal reality of your own mind, and when you examine this reality and where it comes from, countless questions come into your mind and this process begins to shake your previously-held concepts. However, from the practical point of view, you have to answer your own questions through meditation. I truly believe that you can’t get satisfactory answers from anybody else. Perhaps I’m ignorant—of course I’m ignorant!—but in my experience I’ve had to fertilize my own mind, be constructive and take personal responsibility, and that’s the way I’ve found answers to my own questions.

So my experience also applies to you—unless you’re merely seeking intellectual, verbal answers. But who wants those? If you have a philosophical question, we can give you philosophical Tibetan answers, but they probably won’t fit your way of thinking. There are cultural differences in Western and Tibetan philosophical thought. Anyway, if your questions are strictly philosophical and you’re seeking simply intellectual answers, then you can probably find some philosopher to reply, but if you’re looking for something deeper you shouldn’t expect an external teacher to be able to give you all the answers. That’s not the Buddhist attitude.

Student: Thank you, but I am seeking deeper answers than the merely intellectual. 

Lama: Then it’s best that you find the answer within yourself through meditation rather than expecting some Italian monk or other teacher to tell you. Through a combination of analytical meditation and single-pointed concentration you’ll get answers; the best answers.