Ocean of Attainments

1. The Creation Stage and Deity Yoga

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1. The Creation Stage and Deity Yoga

THE WORK TRANSLATED HERE is entitled Ocean of Attainments: The Creation Stage of the Glorious Guhyasamāja, King of All Tantras.1 Composed by Khedrup Jé Gelek Palsang,2 one of Tsongkhapa Losang Drakpa’s3 most prominent disciples. Its subject is the creation stage,4 a quintessential Buddhist tantric meditation that together with the completion stage5 comprises the tantric path of the unexcelled mantra. The Guhyasamāja Tantra, here referred to as the “king of all tantras,” is one of the tantras of the unexcelled mantra; it is revered in Tibet, especially by the Geluk school, for its hermeneutic methods, which are in turn applied to other tantras.

In the colophon, Khedrup Jé does not specify the date of his Ocean of Attainments, but he does note that it was written in Palkhor Dechen.6 We know that Khedrup Jé served as the abbot of this monastery from 1421 to 1427.7 In 1426, Ngorchen Kunga Sangpo8 wrote his two works on the Hevajra body maṇḍala,9 and in them he cites passages on the body maṇḍala from Khedrup Jé’s Ocean of Attainments at length. Thus it seems clear that Khedrup Jé completed this work between 1421 and 1426.


I begin with an introduction to the subject matter: the creation stage, the author—Khedrup Jé—and the Guhyasamāja Sādhana itself.

In practicing the creation stage, meditators visualize themselves as awakened beings at the center of the embellished celestial mansion of the maṇḍala. In this visualization, they are surrounded in all directions by other male and female buddhas, bodhisattvas, vajra ladies, and so forth, abiding on their thrones. The core of the practice is visualization, and thus this meditation—perhaps even more so than many other meditations—presumes the creative power of the mind. Visualizations form the basis not only of the creation stage and deity yoga but of all tantric practices and rituals, since no tantric practice or ritual takes place in mundane existence.

Let us take, for example, the ritual of making offerings to the buddhas, a preliminary step in most Buddhist practices. Often, these offerings are represented by eight bowls of water, but even such representations are optional. The buddhas are not actually offered material flowers, incense, food, and music, but rather magnificent fields of flowers, food, music, and so forth that are produced by the mind and which cannot be apprehended by ordinary witnesses of the ritual. Likewise, the buddhas and bodhisattvas who are the recipients of these offerings cannot be seen by the casual observer. The entire ritual takes place in the minds of the yogis visualizing it.

In a similar vein, tantric aspirants visualize themselves as awakened beings, not only on their meditation mats but also in the world of ordinary appearance. They aspire to continue to function in the world as awakened beings, and so they think of themselves as buddhas, act and speak as buddhas, and teach others how to become buddhas. They behave as though they have already attained the goal of their practice; in tantric terminology, they take the fruit as the path. Since they perceive themselves as buddhas, they even make offerings to themselves as buddhas. This actualization of Buddhist teachings and the bodhisattva ideal has a significant impact on tantric aspirants. The practice serves to transform their mental state and open it to a new reality while altering their mode of participation in the world. At the same time, as we will see, yogis remain aware of their ordinary surroundings.

In this process, aspirants not only see themselves as an awakened being or a buddha; they also develop a strong identification with that buddha, known as “divine pride,”10 and a “vivid appearance”11 of their entire visualization. At the same time, they are taught to regard their visualization as “illusion-like”12 and devoid of intrinsic existence. At the end of a meditative session, 5they dissolve the entire visualization into clear-light-emptiness, only to arise from the meditation with a conventional, but altered, identity.

By visualizing themselves as awakened beings, aspirants endeavor to attain the rūpakāya; by meditating on their visualization as illusion-like and empty of intrinsic nature, they aim at actualizing the dharmakāya. The realization of the dharmakāya—the true nature of all phenomena—is a goal for the sake of the aspirant’s own awakening, but impossible to attain without at the same time achieving the Mahāyāna ideal of the bodhisattva, compassion—assisting other sentient beings to attain enlightenment. Therefore aspirants arise again in the world as awakened beings in the form of rūpakāyas.

One of the goals of the creation stage is the deconstruction of conceptual thinking and the attainment of altered mental states that are not conditioned by ordinary mental activity. Toward this end, aspirants dissolve their ordinary world and recreate it as a maṇḍala inhabited by awakened beings. In this way, they begin to grasp the workings of their ordinary mind and therefore the illusory nature of all appearances. They come to recognize conceptualization as conceptualization, and thus they begin to understand how their ordinary world came into being, why it appears to them the way it does, and why they perceive things as they do. They come to know how their minds work, and they can then apply these insights not only to their ordinary world but to their visualized maṇḍalic world.

The use of the conceptualization involved in visualization for the sake of overcoming conceptualization is an application of a basic tantric technique known as employing one’s “enemy” to overcome that “enemy.” A well-known expression of this notion is found in the Hevajra Tantra: “By passion beings are bound and by that very passion they are released.”13 The same chapter of the Hevajra Tantra provides an explanation of tantric visualization: “By means of the yoga of the creation stage, aspirants must meditate on the proliferations of mental constructs. Once they have made the proliferations dream-like, they should use this very proliferation to deproliferate.”14 Yogis who practice the creation stage first meditate on mental proliferation15 by visualizing themselves as the maṇḍala and the awakened beings residing within it. Then, as they come to understand that this mental visualization is a dream-like illusion, they comprehend the nature of all mental elaborations. 6In this way, deproliferation16 is accomplished by means of proliferation. Just as, upon awakening from sleep, one understands a dream as a product of the mind, meditators in the creation stage grasp the dream-like nature of their visualizations.

Although they are initially created by proliferations of mental constructs, visions seen during the creation stage are in a sense “more than real,” that is, more real than any other saṃsāric appearance. The visions, after all, depict the buddhas and other awakened beings who dwell in the maṇḍala. Aspirants cannot completely discard these visions; they know precisely how the visions appeared, since they themselves created them. At the same time, these visions are considered “reality” as it appears to the awakened eye, and they constitute the transformed reality that is a central goal of tantric practice.

Nevertheless, Indian and Tibetan works differ considerably as to the extent of the creative power they are willing to grant to a mind engaged in meditation. Moreover, they vary in the degree to which they accept the reality of the yogis’ visions of themselves as awakened beings. Still, these different approaches do not necessarily typify the general perspectives of different Indian and Tibetan scholars, but rather may reflect the various contexts in which a single scholar is writing.

Among Tibetan scholars, there is a range of opinions. At one end, we find the position that the yogis in fact see themselves as they are, since awakening is their true nature; at the other, we see attitudes that limit the visualizations’ scope, claiming that the yogis merely meditate on themselves as having an appearance similar to the rūpakāya of the Buddha. For them, if mere visualization were to be regarded as the creation of a true reality, it would be like a beggar claiming to be a king. Most Tibetan scholars, however, position themselves somewhere between these two extremes.

It is worth mentioning that although I use the term “the yogis visualize themselves as the deity” in accordance with Tibetan scholars, this characterization is certainly not accurate. It is not themselves that yogis visualize as deities, and therefore they are not like beggars claiming to be kings. Yogis first dissolve their ordinary existence into emptiness and only then create a deity out of emptiness—the potential or ground for everything.17 Thus, because the deity is born from emptiness, it is regarded as more real. As we have seen, the appearance of the buddha in the center of the maṇḍala is even more than real.

Additionally, it is important to bear in mind that when tantric Buddhism evolved in India, the predominant philosophical systems were the 7Yogācāra school and the Yogācāra-Madhyamaka.18 Therefore the profound impact of these systems on Vajrayāna is not surprising. Moreover, from among all the Buddhist approaches, Mind Only19 is best suited to explain the creation stage. Indeed, we find that Indian scholars writing on the creation stage often use the terminology of Mind Only. These include not only Ratnākaraśānti but also scholars classified as belonging to the Ārya school—in other words, to the tradition of Ārya Nāgārjuna, which purportedly follows the theories of Madhyamaka. Among these scholars are the Candrakīrti, who composed the Vajrasattva Sādhana,20 and the two commentators on Nāgārjuna’s Five Stages,21 Muniśrībhadra and Bhavyakīrti, all of whom use the terms of the Mind Only school in their works on the “Ārya tradition” of the Guhyasamāja.22

In Tibet as well, as late as the fourteenth century, Butön Rinchen Drup23 deployed this terminology in his tantric works alongside Madhyamaka vocabulary.24 Once the Madhyamaka school reached a prominent position among most Tibetan scholars, however, it became difficult to explain the workings of the creation stage on the basis of the philosophy of Mind Only. Hence, while most Buddhist traditions emphasize the creative power of the mind, they do so only in a limited fashion.

The historical development of the tantric path to enlightenment provides another reason for the relegation of the creation stage to an inferior position. When the creation stage first developed in India, it is likely that it was an independent practice aimed at reaching buddhahood. Later, perhaps at the time of Jñānapāda,25 the completion stage was added to the creation stage to create what is considered in the tradition as a complete tantric path. As is typical of such developments, the later practice became the predominant one, 8relegating the creation stage to the margins as preliminary to or prerequisite for the completion stage—much as Christianity regards its predecessor, the old covenant, as a plan directed to prepare for the coming of Christ.

In the second stage, the completion stage, visualizations retain their importance; however, the stage’s goals are achieved through actual bodily transformations, albeit mainly transformations of the subtle body, which is made of cakras, winds,26 and drops. Practices of the completion stage include the yoga of the winds, the penetration of the vital points in the body,27 the power of great bliss, and so forth. In this stage, which has its antecedents in Indian yogic practices, a nonconceptual mind is achieved when all the winds and minds of the so-called subtle body dissolve into the heart cakra.

Notably, the creation stage was not entirely disregarded. First of all, as this stage is considered preliminary or prerequisite, the actual practice of the tantric path must always begin with it. The fact that the creation stage incorporates multiple Mahāyāna notions also contributes to its enduring status. However, in the later model, the goal of the tantric path is attained only at the culmination of the completion stage, not during the creation stage itself. The creation stage nonetheless remains indispensable to the tantric path, as without first practicing it buddhahood cannot be attained. Moreover, we find an emphasis on the “union of the two stages,”28 which is required to reach enlightenment.

One of the reasons that the creation stage is said to be merely preparatory is that it is based on visualization. Since visualization involves mental contrivance, the deity’s body that arises from it is also contrived; therefore, only the subsequent steps of the path, which do not involve mental creations, can bring about true divine bodies. Thus the creation stage has come to be called “contrived” or “conceptual,” while the completion stage is known as “nonconceptual yoga,” “noncontrived yoga,” “innate yoga,” and so forth. Still, the two stages are considered to constitute a single sequence.

Here we come to a crucial point: the attitude we find in Tibetan writings on the creation stage is twofold. In certain contexts, the creation stage is regarded as a mere preliminary to the later stages of the tantric path, but in other contexts it is regarded as a practice that can achieve soteriological goals of its own accord.

As an example, when Tsongkhapa describes the entire tantric path, comprised of both the creation and completion stages, he asserts that the creation stage is a method contrived by the mind, while the completion stage is not; 9therefore, only the latter practice can bring about a result that is not conceptualized by the mind.29 Tsongkhapa then cites the verses from the Hevajra Tantra mentioned above on using proliferation to deproliferate.30 In this context of the entire tantric path, his aim is to demonstrate that conceptualization should be used to overcome conceptualization not in the creation stage, but rather in the completion stage, because the creation stage cannot lead to a true transformation.

Conversely, in the very same work, when Tsongkhapa discusses the creation stage on its own terms, he has a different purpose in mind and therefore interprets the very same verses of the Hevajra Tantra in a different way.31 In this context, meditators on the creation stage can certainly achieve the final goal by using conceptualization to overcome conceptualization not only within the completion stage but specifically within the creation stage itself. Notably, the aforementioned verse of the Hevajra Tantra speaks explicitly about the creation stage, implying that this stage itself can bring the yogis to de-proliferate. Therefore we turn now to the varied and often opposing positions of several Indian and Tibetan scholars dating from the eighth century and up to our time on the nature of the visualizations during the creation stage.

Is the Visualization Contrived?

Notwithstanding the waning status of the creation stage, it has still retained its capacity to achieve a mind apprehending nonduality, one of the characteristics of the goal of the entire path. Such an equivocal approach should not surprise us, since it is also found in relation to several types of meditation.

We will look first at three works from the Indian subcontinent: Indrabhūti’s Jñānasiddhi, dated to the eighth or ninth centuries;32 10Puṇḍarīka’s Stainless Light, dated to the eleventh century;33 and Ratnarakṣita’s Padminī, dated to the twelfth or thirteenth centuries.34 While Indrabhūti and Ratnarakṣita clearly recognize the soteriological value of the creation stage, they introduce positions of real or imagined opponents in order to refute them. These opponents raise the following arguments: Deity yoga is a conceptual meditation, because yogis are overburdened by numerous details of colors, shapes, numbers, and so forth. The deities are constructed and therefore impermanent as a pot and as such are limited to a particular place and time, while deities are omnipresent. Since visualized deities are lacking qualities such as the super-knowledges, how can they lead yogis to buddhahood? Mental elaboration cannot even achieve a single-pointed samādhi. Contrived thoughts are false because they arise from clinging to unreal objects.

We know that Ratnarakṣita was familiar with the Jñānasiddhi, since he cites it in other contexts in the same chapter. His arguments clearly follow the Jñānasiddhi and echo the positions of the opponents in the Stainless Light. By relying on Dharmakīrti, a subject that will be elaborated below,35 Ratnarakṣita concludes that, whether real or not, visualized deities can be seen by yogis nonconceptually with all their various aspects appearing simultaneously, when the meditation is powerful. While the opponent in the Jñānasiddhi argues that meditation on forms is futile, Ratnarakṣita replies that when yogis visualize the deities, they do not meditate merely on their forms, but rather on nondual union36 of forms and emptiness, another topic we will return to below. According to Ratnarakṣita, while a pot is indeed neither pervasive nor omnipresent, this is not because it has a form but because it arises through bifurcation into subject and object. Deities, on the other hand, arise from aspiration prayers based on great compassion inseparable from emptiness. Therefore they can take every form and act to benefit others.

These discussions continued among Tibetan scholars as well. 11For example, Barawa Gyeltsen Palsangpo37 cites and refutes the position of the opponent in the Stainless Light.38 According to Barawa, deity yoga is uncontrived because it has the potential for actualizing its goal.39 As he adheres to the tathāgatagarbha theory, for him all sentient beings have the potential to attain enlightenment.

Yet another essential question asked in our texts is whether yogis meditating on themselves as deities do so with wrong cognitions.40 The opponent in Indrabhūti’s Jñānasiddhi41 argues that when yogis who are not deities meditate as if they were, their cognitions are wrong. On the basis of a wrong meditation, yogis will never become buddhas, just as a destitute man who, for a billion eons, entertains the thought “I am a king” will never become a king, because his meditation is based on a mistaken thought. Indrabhūti’s42 own position, however, is that through meditative absorption, “may I be such,” the yogis’ concentrations become lucid and the deities are seen as clearly as if they were in paintings in front of them. Likewise, in his commentary on a Guhyasamāja sādhana, Muniśrībhadra says: When you know all the variety of the ordinary world to be in fact the maṇḍala, how could your mind be wrong?43

According to Barawa, yogis, in fact, do not visualize their ordinary forms as deities, hence their cognitions are not mistaken.44 This is because prior to the visualization of the deities, they dissolve all appearances into emptiness through the mantra svabhāva or śūnyatā.45 Only then, from within the continuum of emptiness, do they visualize the deities arising from their seed syllables and so forth. In his public talks, the Fourteenth Dalai Lama provides a similar reply, framed in Prāsaṅgika terms. The Dalai Lama emphasizes that when yogis dissolve, on the level of their minds, the ordinary existence of 12themselves and their environment into emptiness with the śūnyatā mantra, they change the bases of imputation, because when they habituate to the thought “I am a deity,” the referent for “I” is not their ordinary selves but the deity that has arisen from emptiness. Therefore their cognitions are not wrong; rather, the claim that yogis meditate on their ordinary existence as deities is wrong.

The issue of the mind meditating on deity yoga being a wrong cognition is not only philosophical in nature but psychological as well. If, while meditating on themselves as Vajradhara, yogis’ experience confirms that their bodies are in no way adorned with the major and minor marks of the Buddha and their minds are unable to realize the nature of all phenomena, they surely feel that they are pretending to be someone other than who they are. Those who accept the tathāgatagarbha view might explain that this feeling results from the yogis’ habituation to conceive themselves and their environment as impure, while their true nature is pure. Yet these yogis still require a method to dissolve the discrepancy. One remedy offered to yogis engaged in deity yoga is to invite the real deity in the form of the jñānasattva into themselves, visualized as the samayasattva. This visualization is included in a large variety of sādhanas.

Another way to address the dis-ease yogis experience while “pretending” to be something they are not is to point out that self-deception is a part of the tantric approach called “taking the goal in the path.” In order to become buddhas, yogis purposely meditate on themselves as buddhas already during the path. For example, Drakpa Shedrup46 maintains that as long as yogis are aware of being self-deceived—though they meditate on something not present as if it is present—their cognitions are not mistaken.47 In other words, in meditating on the creation stage, yogis intentionally engage in self-deception, while being aware of this. Another point Drakpa Shedrup makes is that although the deities are not real, it is not inconsistent to identify with the deities as if they are real for a short time. This is because if yogis block their clinging to ordinary appearances in this way, they will focus on the supreme appearances of the celestial mansion and the deities dwelling there, and thereby attain extraordinary goals. Drakpa Shedrup’s conclusion has wider implications. He explains that the special wish for the deity to be real is inconceivable, that is to say, beyond the reach of human intellect, hence it cannot be refuted by mere rational reasoning. In other words, no logical discussion can lead us to an understanding of deity yoga.


In his own explanations, Tsongkhapa follows Jñānapāda, who maintains that meditators on the creation stage are endowed with the yoga of nondual profundity and manifestations. We turn now to this unique yoga.

The Yoga of Nondual Profundity and Manifestations

According to Tsongkhapa, the creation stage is not just simple visualization, but rather a type of yoga called “deity yoga.”48 This is the defining characteristic of the Mantra Vehicle, making it superior to the method of the Pāramitā Vehicle. While deity yoga is practiced in all four classes of tantra,49 the creation stage or the deity yoga of the unexcelled tantra is superior to the deity yoga of the lower tantras. The deity yoga of the creation stage is a unique practice that indivisibly unites the meditation on emptiness with the visualization of the maṇḍala and its deities in a single mind. Tsongkhapa describes how to meditate on this yoga of nondual profundity and manifestation50 in his Great Treatise on the Stages of the Mantric Path:

Once you have meditated on the circle of deities, you should take the deities as the focus of your visualization, and allow the subjective aspect of your mind—in its mode of apprehension that understands the meaning of appearances without intrinsic nature—to be absorbed in emptiness, while the objective aspect of your mind arises as the maṇḍala with its celestial mansion and deities.51

Tsongkhapa stresses that the yogi’s mind meditates simultaneously on emptiness and manifestations, or appearances. He does not speak here about nonduality of form and emptiness in general, but specifically in relation to the meditating mind. Form and emptiness, or manifestation and profundity, are united indivisibly in a single cognition.52 He explains how a single mind can be absorbed in both the meditation on the absence of intrinsic nature and the 14visualization of the maṇḍala wheel. While the subjective aspect of the mind that understands the absence of intrinsic nature is absorbed in emptiness, the objective aspect of this mind arises as the maṇḍala, with its celestial mansion and deities. In other words, one aspect of the very mind that realizes emptiness arises as a special appearance of the celestial mansion and the deities therein. Hence, this mind, endowed with nondual profundity and manifestation, is capable of achieving a soteriological goal.

In Ocean of Attainments, Khedrup Jé follows Tsongkhapa’s explanation.53 Like Tsongkhapa, he argues that this is another reason that the meditation on emptiness in the Mantra Vehicle is superior to that of the Pāramitā Vehicle:

Hence, in terms of its effectiveness as an antidote to grasping at true existence, the mind that takes the circle of deities for its focus and apprehends the absence of its intrinsic existence is a hundred times superior to a mind that takes a sprout for its focus and apprehends there an absence of intrinsic existence. Therefore you should use this human opportunity in a beneficial way by striving hard on a path such as this, whereby a single mind arises in the unique nature of the two accumulations, endowed with the full power to eradicate saṃsāra.54

This is the yoga of nondual profundity and manifestation, in which the subjective aspect of the mind focuses on the realization of emptiness while its objective aspect arises as the maṇḍala with its deities.

Jñānapāda School

Tsongkhapa expands on a notion developed by Jñānapāda, the “founder” and namesake of a Guhyasamāja school.55 Jñānapāda explains the working of the creation stage by drawing upon the notion of the “profound”56 and “sublime,” or “vast,”57 15mind as antithetical to conceptual thoughts.58 Jñānapāda was no doubt aware that his terminological choice alludes to nontantric works, including the Mahāyānasūtrālaṃkāra59 and the Pramāṇavārttika.

According to Jñānapāda’s Samantabhadra Sādhana, a mind endowed with a profound and sublime nature60 is an antidote to ordinary conceptual thoughts,61 the source of saṃsāric suffering.62 This is because “conceptual thoughts will not appear to [the mind] endowed with a profound and sublime nature.”63 In the present context, the mind endowed with a profound and sublime nature is the mind that visualizes the maṇḍala with its celestial mansion and deities, and this mind dispels conceptual thoughts.64

In the next verse, Jñānapāda discusses how such a mind is capable of 16overcoming conceptual thoughts.65 What Jñānapāda seems to be saying66 is that when an antidote occurs once, it will advance and increase through practice, and finally become capable of blocking its opposite entirely. In other words, when a mind endowed with a profound and sublime nature is cultivated to an extreme degree, it will gain the capacity to wholly eradicate ordinary conceptualizations. It should be emphasized that this goal is achieved only after prolonged habituation. Jñānapāda does not explain why a mind endowed with a profound and sublime nature that visualizes the maṇḍala circle would be guaranteed to transcend ordinary conceptualization and liberate yogis from saṃsāra. To understand this, we need to rely on Indian commentaries on Jñānapāda’s Samantabhadra Sādhana.

All these commentaries resort to the Pramāṇasiddhi chapter in the Pramāṇavārttika67 to explain the verses in question.68 According to Dharmakīrti, by engaging in selflessness, the mind prevents the opposite of selflessness, thus eradicating the roots of grasping at the self. As Cristina Pecchia explains: “For the contrary of the view of selflessness can no longer maintain its grip on a mind whose epistemic condition is defined by selflessness.”69 Additionally, these commentaries explain that ordinary conceptual thoughts 17typical of saṃsāric suffering are identified with grasping at “I and mine,”70 while the mind that visualizes the maṇḍala circle is equated with the wisdom that realizes no-self. Therefore the mind engaged in the maṇḍala circle, which is endowed with the inconceivable nature, the all-good,71 is capable of bringing about the irreversible cessation of conceptual thoughts and saṃsāric suffering.

The example Dharmakīrti uses to explain why grasping at the self will not recur is the false perception of a rope as a snake.72 Vaidyapāda, one of the earlier commentators on the Samantabhadra Sādhana, offers this very simile to illustrate how the mind that visualizes the maṇḍala circle entirely blocks saṃsāric suffering.73

These commentators also follow Dharmakīrti’s view of the unique nature of this particular antidote.74 In the Pramāṇasiddhi, Dharmakīrti contrasts the antidote that can achieve an irreversible transformation with antidotes such 18as benevolent love,75 taken to be an antidote to aversion.76 The latter type of antidote cannot completely eliminate afflictions such as aversion, because it still has at its root the notion of an existing self. The mind endowed with the inconceivable nature of the maṇḍala circle, by contrast, is singularly capable of stopping conceptual thoughts and saṃsāric suffering, as a result of its nondual profound and sublime essence.

Thus, on the basis of Dharmakīrti’s theories, Jñānapāda and his commentators hold that the mind visualizing the maṇḍala is capable of achieving a soteriological transformation, such as putting an end to saṃsāric suffering, because it is characterized by nondual profundity and sublimity.77 For the Jñānapāda school, the nondual profound and sublime nature of the mind is one of the features that makes the Mantra Vehicle superior to the Pāramitā Vehicle.78

To conclude, Jñānapāda describes a contradictory event or an antidote that occurs once. After this single occurrence, through gradual practice, yogis intensify their experience of the mind endowed with the profound and sublime until they are finally able to totally block its opposite: conceptual thoughts—just as the mind that engages in selflessness cannot but prevent the opposite of selflessness in Dharmakīrti’s explanation. The rope that can no longer be seen as a snake, the example used for the irreversible cessation of conceptual thoughts and the attainment of the mind endowed with nondual profound and sublime essence, certainly indicates a single instantaneous transformation. Still, it seems that the process Jñānapāda delineates is not sudden, 19but rather requires prolonged cultivation of the mind before it can reach its utmost stage and eliminate ordinary conceptual thoughts entirely.

What enables yogis to reach this stage is the antidote that, although devoid of any basis or ground,79 is endowed with nondual nature and therefore differs from ordinary antidotes such as benevolent love. In this way, a mind endowed with nondual profound and sublime essence that meditates on the maṇḍala can annihilate conceptual thoughts and thus achieve a soteriological goal.

It is worth bearing in mind that tantric authors writing on the creation stage, especially members of Jñānapāda schools and their followers, based their method on the theoretical approach of Dharmakīrti. Even so, it remains for us to explore if and when the views of these tantric scholars diverge from those of Dharmakīrti. In any case, a better understanding of tantric theories on the creation stage requires that we take into account the great Buddhist treatises on logic.

Mental Overload or Mental Deprivation?

As we have seen, according to Jñānapāda, the antidote that occurs once initiates a gradual process. The term translated here as “once,” sakṛt,80 is in fact ambiguous; it can mean either “once” or “simultaneously.”81 Indeed, in certain Tibetan translations of commentaries on Jñānapāda’s Samantabhadra Sādhana, this term was understood as simultaneously,82 but Ratnākaraśānti disagreed with them.83 For him, it is not the case that ordinary appearances are prevented from arising in the yogi’s mind simply because this mind is submerged in maṇḍala visualization.

According to Ratnākaraśānti: “Conceptual thoughts do not appear because the mind endowed with the aspect of the maṇḍala engages in dispelling all false conceptualizations, not because they do not appear simultaneously.”84 20“They” here refers to conceptual thoughts and the visualization of the maṇḍala. In other words, it is not that false conceptualizations cannot appear at the same time as the maṇḍala. Rather, Ratnākaraśānti emphasizes, a mind absorbed in maṇḍala visualization cannot help but dispel false conceptualizations, because it is “endowed with a profound and sublime nature” capable of eliminating the conceptual thoughts that bring about saṃsāric suffering. For him, such a mind is capable of “complete transformation of the basis”85 of the essence of the mental continuum, equivalent to the ultimate truth.

Ratnākaraśānti supports his argument by comparing the mind endowed with the form of the maṇḍala to the meditative absorption in infinite space.86 He concludes that, while the latter meditation cannot avert saṃsāric suffering, the mind endowed with “a profound and sublime nature” can do so.87 After citing Ratnākaraśānti’s explanation, Tsongkhapa concludes:

Thus Śāntipa [Ratnākaraśānti] clearly distinguishes between two methods of meditation: (1) The meditative absorption in infinite space does not turn the mind away from selflessness, and so this meditation does not prevent self-grasping. Therefore, even if yogis meditate on infinite space, they will not be liberated from saṃsāra. (2) The mind endowed with the aspect of the maṇḍala circle engages in selflessness and blocks the object grasped at as a self. Therefore this mind is able to counteract self-grasping.88

Here, the counteraction of self-grasping is synonymous with liberation from saṃsāra.

This comparison brings us to a fundamental feature of the creation stage. While the meditative absorption in infinite space reduces mental content to a bare minimum, the creation stage inflates it with incredible elaborations. This very difference also pertains to the closely related kṛtsna89 meditation, the single-pointed concentration of śamatha practice, and absorptions90 in the formless realm.91 21For Ratnākaraśānti, then, mental overload is more effective than mental deprivation. Hence, the mind meditating on an embellished maṇḍala—inhabited by numerous ornamented deities holding various emblems—can better achieve a transformation of soteriological significance than a mind emptied of any content. This brings us to revisit Dharmakīrti.

Authenticating the Reality of the Maṇḍala

For Dharmakīrti, meditations on kṛtsna and the loathsome92 are nonconceptual because they are created through the power of meditation.93 This is despite the fact that in these meditations, the objects are unreal.94 At the same time, in his Pramāṇaviniścaya,95 Dharmakīrti defines direct perception96 as nonconceptual and nonerroneous.97 As Eltschinger notes, cognitions meditating on the kṛtsn

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