THE TIBETAN TEXT translated here is a concise yet thorough exposition of the essentials of Tibetan Buddhist meditation practice by one of the most brilliant minds of that tradition, Jamgön Kongtrul Lodrö Thaye (1813–99). The Tibetan title of the text is lam zhugs kyi gang zag las dang po pa la phan pa’i bskyed rdzogs kyi gnad bsdus, “The Essential Points of Creation and Completion That Will Benefit the Beginner Who Has Entered the Path.” It is known to Tibetans simply as Kye Dzog Ne Dü (bskyed rdzogs gnad bsdus), or “Essential Points of Creation and Completion.” Creation (or development) and completion (or perfection)1 refer to the two stages of meditation involving deity visualization practice, a meditation technique for which Tibetan Buddhism is widely known. The text is not a specific meditation in itself, but rather describes the meaning and effect of such practice, and in doing so the essential Buddhist outlook on the nature of mind and reality. It describes with masterful clarity the profound view and vast method within which meditation practice must occur.
Jamgön Kongtrul designed this text as a guide to meditation practice. It is written entirely in verse, in the style of the songs of realization and other inspirational spiritual literature of Tibet, following a very similar tradition in ancient India. It is not an in-depth analysis or scholarly treatise. Jamgön Kongtrul, a masterful scholar, was above all interested in the actual application of the teachings in meditation. His intention in this text was to convey just what was necessary for effective practice. The intention in translating and publishing it is the same: simply to make it available for people interested in Buddhist practice. Although each verse warrants a volume of commentary, this might just result in obscuring the essential points. So what is offered here is a minimum of commentary, just enough to provide some context.2
The Buddhist teachings originated in India in the sixth century B.C.E. with Gautama, or Shakyamuni Buddha,2 the prince who renounced his kingdom in search of wisdom. After an inner journey of many years, he experienced a total awakening, or enlightenment,3 and went on to teach about this experience for forty-five years.
India at that time already had a strong tradition of contemplative practice, but these new teachings were unusual not only in their content but in that they reached across social and religious boundaries in their appeal. They offered to everyone equally the possibility of achieving liberation through personal effort. During the forty-five years that Buddha Shakyamuni traveled around India imparting his profound knowledge, many different aspects of it were presented in many different ways to a great variety of people. This special talent to present the truth (Dharma) in the way that is most practical and appropriate to a particular audience is called skillful means.4 It is symbolically represented in the account of one of the Buddha’s special qualities of speech: that he could deliver a discourse to a group of people all speaking different languages, and they would each hear it in their own language.
Three Turnings of the Wheel of Dharma
THE FIRST TURNING
The great variety of Buddhist teachings that arose in India over the next millennium are classified into the three “turnings of the wheel of Dharma.”5 They are all said to originate with the Buddha Shakyamuni during different phases of his teachings, at different places, speaking to different audiences, sometimes simultaneously to different audiences. In the first phase, the four noble truths6 were emphasized: the truth of suffering, its cause, its cessation, and the path to its cessation. Since the first pair describe the reality of our experience of life—cyclic existence (samsara)— and the second pair encompass all the modes of transcendence of it (nirvana), there is nothing not included in this simple classification.3
Among the important concepts revealed during this phase was the explanation of the totally dependent and interrelated nature of all phenomenal reality.7 This is said to be the overarching vision that the Buddha experienced during the night of his awakening. If one can understand the intricate relationship of all phenomena, and particularly of one’s own emotional and conceptual patterns, then the cycle of suffering can be broken. An in-depth analysis of the process of suffering also reveals that the notion of an intrinsically, independently existing “self” is at the bottom of it. This is considered to be a false notion, since upon direct examination through meditation and analysis, such a self cannot be found. Ignorance is the belief in this myth of the self and the dualistic thinking that it spawns. In protecting the self and distinguishing what is other than it, the emotional reactions of attachment and aversion along with many other “afflictive emotions”8 occur. These in turn give rise to actions and their consequences (karma). These are the sources of suffering. So the idea of nonself9 is another crucial idea presented in the first turning teachings. These concepts form the basis for all further developments in Buddhist thought.
The people who received, practiced, and accomplished the teachings of this early phase of Buddhism were called arhats.10 This group includes most of the earliest disciples. The lifestyle that was stressed was one of renunciation and moral discipline, and the goal was to attain one’s own liberation from the cycle of existence. These teachings developed over time into at least eighteen separate schools. Today they are represented by the School of the Elders (Theravada), prevalent in Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, and Cambodia. This path was later called the “Lesser Vehicle” (Hinayana) by other traditions.
THE SECOND TURNING
The second phase of teachings coincided with the wisdom literature,11 a new phase of literature that began to spread between 100 B.C.E. and 100 C.E. and continued to develop for centuries. The two great ideas emphasized in this phase were emptiness and compassion.12 Emptiness is a further development of nonself and of the interdependent nature of phenomena. Not only was the self discovered to be empty of any independent existence, but so too was all phenomena. The lack of independent existence of 4phenomena is emptiness, and this truth is called the absolute truth.13 On an ordinary level, the interrelated existence of phenomena and the functioning of cause and effect (karma) are considered the relative truth. 14 To comprehend these two truths simultaneously is to maintain a “middle path” without falling into extreme notions of either existence or non-existence. With no ground to stand on and no concepts to cling to, the causes of suffering are no longer operating. This is wisdom, the opposite of ignorance, which must be perceived experientially through meditative practice, not only by philosophical contemplation.
Compassion is the recognition that other beings are embroiled in lives of suffering exactly because they lack this understanding of emptiness. Their suffering is not inevitable, but it is self-perpetuating unless insight into the cyclic pattern arises. The person who begins to comprehend the true nature of emptiness naturally feels less self-cherishing and develops concern for others who exist interdependently. Compassion in turn promotes the experience of selflessness. Thus compassion and emptiness, or wisdom, are seen as the two necessary qualities to cultivate together on the Buddhist path, like the two wings of a bird.
The people who received, practiced, and accomplished these teachings were called bodhisattvas.15 The lifestyle emphasized was one of great compassion and good deeds for the sake of others, as well as meditative discipline. For this, a monastic life was not necessarily relevant, so laypeople could be equally involved. The goal was the full enlightenment of all sentient beings, and thus it came to be called the “Great Vehicle,” or Mahayana.
THE THIRD TURNING
The third phase was again based on these same concepts, but with a further development, that of buddha nature,16 the inherent potential for enlightenment. This seemed to spring out of the meditative experience of a radiant awareness, or knowing capacity, inherent in the mind that could not exactly be just empty. Speculation on emptiness can lead to the question of whether the essential nature of everything is empty of a concrete self and other dualistic notions, or whether everything is truly empty in and of itself. The direct experience of intrinsic awareness would tend to 5indicate the former, and this essence that could be experienced came to be called buddha nature. This nature is an integral part of every single sentient being and endows that being with the opportunity to become enlightened. Enlightenment then comes to mean the recognition and full realization of this true nature of the buddha that one already is.
The goal is still the liberation of all sentient beings, and so the teachings of this turning belong to the Mahayana, and the practitioners are bodhisattvas. The literature connected with this phase as well as with the first two turnings are called sutras,17 the discourses attributed to Buddha Shakyamuni. The idea of buddha nature that developed in this last phase is crucial for an understanding of another kind of literature that existed in Buddhist India, that of the tantras.
Tantra18 refers to a special kind of literature of esoteric teachings and also to those teachings themselves and their practice. The path of tantra is also called Vajrayana,19 the “Indestructible Vehicle.” Thus it is often classified as a third vehicle, although it is actually part of the Mahayana since the intention is the liberation of all beings. Another name for it is the “secret mantra,”20 reflecting the widespread use of special sounds and syllables called mantras. There were both Hindu and Buddhist tantras in ancient India, and it is unclear how much one influenced the other. The Buddhist tantras are said to have been taught by the Buddha Shakyamuni manifesting in various forms on specific occasions to special groups of adepts. The main emphasis in Buddhist tantras is the natural purity or intrinsic perfection of all being. The method for realizing this is to cultivate pure vision,21 or sacred outlook, at all times. The lifestyle tends to emphasize the unconventional in order to break through ordinary barriers and personal inhibitions to a nonconceptual understanding of true nature. The techniques that are taught in the tantras are visualization of enlightened forms (deities and mandalas22) and cultivation of the subtle energies of the psycho-physical body, along with recognition of the ultimate inherent nature. These two are the stages of creation and completion that are the subject of the text translated here.6
Buddhism in Tibet
Buddhism in Tibet and the other Himalayan regions not only preserved all of these strands of Buddhist thought without denigration or contradiction, but it also maintained a tradition of actual practice incorporating all the vehicles in an effective way. In addition, it encompassed the practices of the native Bön religion already present in Tibet when it first spread there, thus becoming the rich treasure of spiritual wisdom that we still benefit from today.
Buddhism may have entered Tibet as early as the fifth century C.E., but it was during the reign of several religious kings from the seventh to ninth centuries that it became the established religion. King Trisong Detsen23 invited the great scholar-monk Shantarakshita,24 who founded the monastic lineage, and the tantric master Guru Padmasambhava,25 who brought the esoteric teachings of Buddhism and subdued opposition from local forces. This first spreading of the Dharma in Tibet established the Nyingma, or Ancient, School,26 which continues today. After a dark period, when the anti-Buddhist king Langdarma27 suppressed the religion, the later spreading28 took place in the eleventh century, with a new influx of great teachers from India and new translations of sacred texts. Eight main practice lineages29 flourished, as well as many smaller ones. From those, the four main schools, which are well known today, were established: the Nyingma, Kagyu, Sakya, and Gelug.
Many great saints and scholars from these traditions have appeared continuously in the Himalayan regions and have contributed richly to the great treasury of Buddhist literature that had been brought from India and translated into Tibetan.
In terms of practical application, scholars such as Jamgön Kongtrul have simply classified all those teachings and practices into the two approaches of sutra and mantra,30 representing, roughly, exoteric and esoteric. The sutra approach encompasses the general methods and ideas expressed in the three turnings of the wheel of Dharma. In our text, Kongtrul summarizes that approach with the famous verse:
Doing no unvirtuous deed whatsoever,
engaging in prolific virtuous activity,7
completely controlling one’s own mind,
this is the teaching of the Buddha.31
The approach of mantra (Secret Mantra Vehicle) or tantric Buddhism is basically the two stages of creation and completion. But to try to practice them without the ethical foundation and mental control gained through the sutra approach is considered useless, at best. Kongtrul thus advises us in this small meditation guide on ways to practice all of the characteristic methods of both approaches. He summarizes them into three techniques for dealing with the afflictive emotions: rejection, transformation, and recognition (spang bsgyur shes gsum). These three techniques for dealing with emotions that would interfere with the meditation process clearly correspond to the three phases of teachings described above as the three turnings. Rejection of afflictive emotion reinforces the attitude of renunciation so important in the First Turning teachings. The second turning teachings are applied in transforming so-called negative states into conducive conditions on the spiritual path through meditations based on compassion and the realization of emptiness. Finally, recognition of one’s own true nature, which is intrinsically pure and pervasive even within one’s affects, represents the ideas of buddha nature expressed in the third turning as they are applied in the practices of secret mantra. In Tibetan Buddhism this involves primarily meditation using visualized forms representing the awakened mind: the deities and mandalas.
Tibetan Buddhist spiritual practice centers around the deities in its devotional rituals and meditation techniques. It may be disconcerting for those who have heard that Buddhism is a “nontheistic” religion to discover an elaborate system of worship with a pantheon of goddesses and gods. It is for this reason that some other Buddhist schools have considered the Buddhism in Tibet to be corrupt or untrue to its original form. However, these deity practices are deeply rooted in the very foundations of Buddhist thought and represent an exceptionally skillful use of technique to evoke realization of those ideas on the deepest levels.8
One can impute emptiness logically when an independent reality of the self or of other phenomena is sought and not found. One also experiences it directly through meditation when the mind abides without ideas of existence or non-existence or both or neither. Meditators experience emptiness as a kind of fullness. Emptiness allows for the unimpeded radiance of intrinsic awareness. In the experiential sense, then, it is not only a lack of something, but also a quality of knowing, or pristine cognition, a luminous quality that is the actual nature of the mind that can be experienced once the veils of concepts and emotions have been cleared away. This experience is often referred to as clear light or radiance (’od gsal) and also as “compassion.” It is not something other than emptiness, for without emptiness it could not occur. It is the radiance-awareness that is the primordially pure basis of all manifestation and perception, the buddha nature.
This very nature of mind was always already there and is never corrupted or damaged, but only covered up by confusion. As such, it is the basis of spiritual practice, and also the goal or result. For this reason, tantra is called the resultant vehicle,32 because the approach is to rediscover the result already within. Buddha is not found anywhere outside of the intrinsic state of one’s own mind. In the traditional breakdown, then, of ground, path, and fruition, the ground is one’s own true nature, the fruition is the discovery of that, and the path is whatever it takes to make the discovery. Kongtrul describes the identity of ground (basis) and fruition when he says:
The basis of purification is the eternal, noncomposite realm of reality that fully permeates all beings as the buddha nature.33
Since every aspect of ourselves is intrinsically pure, the path can employ any method to bring us back to our own nature. The deities used in tantric practice are a manifestation of this pure nature. In one sense, they exist as a method to undermine our pathetic projection of ourselves and our universe as flawed, a way of connecting with our true human/buddha nature. At the same time, they are that nature.
Due to the complex process involved in engendering and maintaining a sense of a substantial self and of the world around us, we have lost touch with our basic nature. It is often explained that the actual emptiness nature of mind is misconstrued as a self, while the clear or radiant aspect is projected 9outward as the separate, external world of others.34 As the confusion proliferates, the concepts of duality, feelings of attachment and aversion, and consequent karmic actions and imprints become self-perpetuating. Thus it is called cyclic existence and is “characterized by the experience of suffering.”35 But the essential nature of emptiness and clarity has never for a moment been absent.
In contemplative practice we can watch this process in our minds moment by moment and recognize how we create our world. Then there is the possibility of creating it consciously. Now, because of the complications of our confusion, we visualize the world and ourselves as a mixture of bad and good, creating a constant tension of dissatisfaction. But we could choose to regard it as continuously manifesting the basic purity of emptiness/awareness. The deities represent an alternate reality that more precisely reflects the innate purity of our minds. In any case we visualize and create a world with its beings. The tantric approach is to use whatever we have, whatever we do already, as the method. So we use this capacity of projection and creation, which is really the unimpeded radiance of mind, as the path of meditation, but with a radical shift. Instead of imperfect women and men, we have goddesses and gods embodying the buddha qualities. Rather than run-down houses, there are brilliant palaces in divine configurations. The whole sorry world, in fact, is the buddha realm of magnificent glory manifesting as the mandala pattern of enlightened mind.
Emptiness and pure awareness allow us to do this. Deity visualization may seem contrived, and it is acknowledged as such, but if the fact that we create our own version of reality is deeply understood, it is very reasonable. We perceive water as something to drink, a fish perceives it as something to live in. We perceive the world now as impure, but we might as well see it as pure, which is closer to the truth if one considers its essential nature. The deities are forms that display the immanence of buddha nature in everything. All the different ways of relating with deities are ways we already have of relating to our experience. In this sense, the practice of deity meditation is a skillful way of undermining our ordinary mistaken sense of solid reality and moving closer to a true mode of perception.
The natural array of perceptions and feelings that arises can be regarded differently through deity practice. For instance, in Jamgön Kongtrul’s last example of transformation, when desire arises, it arises as the deity, and we 10relate to it, or to ourselves, in that form. The deity shares some familiar characteristics with desire, has the same energy, but is by nature a pure manifestation, untainted by ego’s complications. The deity in this meditation might be an embodiment of pure (com)passion, such as Chakrasamvara,36 and thus represent an aspect of enlightenment. But the process itself also recaptures and demonstrates that the essential nature of neurotic thought is none other than buddha nature, whatever its shape. By creatively using forms that recall innate purity, the habitual mistake of relating to thoughts and emotions as other than pure is reversed.
This does not mean that tantric deities are merely an abstract, symbolic form representing something other than themselves. This again would be a dualistic concept. They are enlightened form, and they are intrinsic as part of buddha nature. Even the specific forms are understood as an integral part of awareness. This is a difficult point to comprehend. Jamgön Kongtrul refers to this truth when he says:
The basis of purification, which is this very buddha nature,
abides as the body with its clear and complete vajra signs and marks.
A similar form is used as the path and leads to
the fruition of purification: that very divine form that existed as the basis.37
“A similar form...used as the path” is the deity visualized in creation-stage meditation. Such practice leads to the realization of that divine form as it already exists within the true nature of mind. The idea of the intrinsic qualities of enlightenment, including actual physical attributes, can be found in such early texts as the Uttaratantra38 and other sutras and commentaries associated with the teachings ascribed to the third turning. Qualities and activity manifest from the fundamental enlightened nature in response to the needs of sentient beings, and yet are inseparable from that very nature, not something added on to it. In the Uttaratantra, thirty-two specific attributes of the form manifestation are listed, concluding with the reminder that they are intrinsic and inseparable:
Those qualities of thirty and two
are distinguished through the dharmakaya;11
yet they are inseparable like a gem’s
radiant color and its shape.39
Different dimensions or manifestations of the enlightened principle, buddha, are traditionally called bodies (kaya). The most common division is into three bodies.40 The body of reality (dharmakaya) is the ultimate true nature, beyond concept. Buddha nature refers to the same thing when it is obscured by the incidental veils in sentient beings. Although itself without form, this body of reality manifests spontaneously in ways to benefit beings, just as our intrinsic awareness radiates naturally from emptiness. The enlightened manifestations are called the form bodies (rupakaya). They are the body of perfect rapture (sambhogakaya), only visible to those of high realization; and the emanation body (nirmanakaya), the actual manifestations of the Buddha to our normal perceptions. The Buddha Shakyamuni is said to be such an emanation body. The deities visualized in Tibetan meditation practice for the most part represent the body of perfect rapture. When visualized for purposes of meditation or ceremony, the deity is called yidam, that which binds the mind.
It is taught that the practice of visualizing deities plants the seed for our later manifestation of form bodies for the benefit of beings at the time of enlightenment. This is why the seemingly simple approach of directly apprehending the empty, radiant nature of mind is not enough. The body of reality alone would be the result of that apprehension. But that would be, in a sense, emptiness without form, and would accomplish only one’s own purpose. The body of reality must be accessible somehow to sentient beings in whom it is still hidden. That is the natural function of the form manifestations. It is still necessary to work with the whole phenomenal world, form and emptiness inseparable.
The single most important factor in effective tantric practice of any kind is the relationship between the practitioner and the spiritual master. Although a teacher is also stressed in the other approaches, it is only in the Mantrayana approach that this relationship itself forms the basis of a spiritual 12evolution. Thus the covenant (dam tshig, Skt. samaya) between master and disciple must be carefully guarded and honored at all times from both sides or the process won’t work. Given the difficulties of relationships in general, and the delicacy and profundity of this tantric relationship in particular, it is not surprising that many misunderstandings and abuses have occurred, particularly in the West, where a committed, devotional relationship to another human being is quite alien and often confused with a personality cult. Although these problems require extensive consideration, here we are discussing the ideal.
The relationship with the guru informs both creation-stage and completion-stage practice...
Members of the Wisdom Experience will be able to read Wisdom books online as part of their membership. Please join our waiting list and be the first to find out when Wisdom Experience membership opens!
- Creation and Completion
- Technical Note
- Creation & Completion: The Root Text in Tibetan and English
- Commentary by Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche
- About the Authors