1. The Uniqueness of Tantra

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Sutra and Tantra

AFTER HIS ENLIGHTENMENT under the bodhi tree more than twenty-five hundred years ago, the historical Buddha, Shakyamuni, taught continuously for more than forty years to many different followers in many different places. All of the Buddha’s teachings are without contradiction in that they all lead to freedom from suffering. Still, esoteric teachings like the Vajrayana practices can seem far removed from the more common ethical advice and meditation techniques of his other teachings.

Tibetan Buddhism is generally divided into three vehicles, or yanas: the individual liberation vehicle, the Hinayana; the universal liberation vehicle, the Mahayana; and the tantric vehicle, the Vajrayana. The practices and teaching of the first two vehicles, the Hinayana and Mahayana, are the foundation of Vajrayana practice. The main teachings of the Hinayana are the four noble truths, the thirty-seven aspects of enlightenment, and the twelve links of dependent origination.1 In the Mahayana, the main teachings are the practices of the altruistic awakened mind (bodhichitta) and the trainings of the bodhisattva, such as the six perfections.2 It is crucial that anybody interested in practicing tantra prepares by first thoroughly practicing the path laid out in the other two vehicles.

Hinayana practitioners can choose whether they incorporate teachings from the other two vehicles into their practice. For practitioners 2of the Mahayana, however, there is no choice—they must base their practice on a firm foundation in the Hinayana teachings. This becomes even more important for a practitioner of Vajrayana. This is not to say that there is a “superior” or “inferior” vehicle—which vehicle is best is determined by the disposition of each individual practitioner. But the later vehicles are built upon the wisdom and practice of the earlier ones; there is no shortcut. Thus I cannot emphasize enough how vital it is for a person entering the Vajrayana to be fully grounded in the teachings of the other two vehicles. To attempt tantric practice without the foundation of the four noble truths or a well-developed sense of altruism would be at best futile and at worst disastrous. It is important to see how Vajrayana fits into the whole of Buddhism so you don’t make the mistake of seeing it as a separate and unconnected practice. The tantric tradition is rooted in all of the Buddha’s teachings. Thus before you attempt to understand tantra, it is very important to have a basic understanding of the fundamentals of Tibetan Buddhism—from the other books in the Foundation of Buddhist Thought series or elsewhere.

Furthermore, it is important to note that Buddhist Vajrayana tantra is quite different from the tantra practiced in non-Buddhist Indian traditions. On the surface there are many similarities, but as you will see, Buddhist tantric practices are imbued with the realizations of the other two vehicles, making it quite distinct.

Tantra and the Mahayana


The goals of Buddhist tantric practice are the elimination of all delusions, the cessation of all suffering, and the attainment of enlightenment. Its main objectives are the cultivation of an altruistic mind and 3a realization of the nature of reality. As such it is no different from any other Mahayana practice. The methods it employs, however, are quite different.

Vajrayana practices are incredibly powerful. Vajrayana is called the resultant vehicle, as opposed to the Sutrayana, which is called the causal vehicle. This is because in Vajrayana practice we imagine ourselves as we would like to be, as an enlightened being, and this enables us to actualize that state much more quickly. However, the quick development and power of the practice can be dangerous if done incorrectly, so our foundation must be firm before we can begin.

First and foremost, tantric practice requires refuge. Somebody with a genuine interest in Vajrayana practice requires a strong refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. This is true for any Buddhist practice.

Because Vajrayana practice belongs to the Mahayana tradition, we also need a good understanding of and feeling for bodhichitta, the mind that aspires to enlightenment in order to benefit all other beings. The compassionate mind of bodhichitta that cannot bear the suffering of others and strives to find the best way to eliminate it is the essence and core practice of the Mahayana. Without a mind utterly determined to do whatever is possible to free every other living being from suffering, our practice of Vajrayana cannot succeed.

Vajrayana practice is also impossible without a deep understanding of emptiness. During Vajrayana practice we are asked to visualize ourselves as a deity arising from emptiness. What does that mean? These visualizations are subtle and the understanding that underpins them profound. Without seeing these visualizations in the context of the emptiness of inherent existence, they are no more effective than a child imagining herself as a fairy. Only with a good understanding of emptiness will these practices make sense, and only when they make sense will we be able to gain any benefit from them.


The necessary prerequisites for a Vajrayana practice are therefore refuge, a strong yearning for the altruistic mind of bodhichitta, and a good intellectual understanding of emptiness. The greater these precious states are within our mindstream, the more powerful our Vajrayana practice will be; the more we advance in our Vajrayana practice, the more we will develop toward the true realization of bodhichitta and emptiness.


We can reasonably say that 2,550 years ago in Sarnath, India, the Buddha taught the essence of the four noble truths. Likewise we know the precise location and circumstances of many sutras, so we can imagine with relative accuracy the monastery, the shady trees, the disciples clustered around the Buddha, and the Buddha giving his discourse.

The origins of the Vajrayana teachings are not so easy to pin down. Not only were the place and time of the teachings very different from the other parts of the Buddhadharma but so was the aspect the Buddha took when he taught them. As an enlightened being, the Buddha had the ability to manifest in many aspects. During his forty years of teaching, he most commonly assumed the aspect of a monk in simple robes, leading his community of Sangha and going out among the laypeople to tell them about the Dharma. The aspect he chose for giving the Vajrayana teachings was more mystical.

There are said to be three bodies of a buddha: the dharmakaya, or truth body, the sambhogakaya, or enjoyment body, and the nirmanakaya, or emanation body. A buddha in the dharmakaya aspect, the essence of a buddha’s inner realizations, is unable to communicate with other beings. In the sambhogakaya aspect, he or she is able to communicate with arya beings, those who have reached an exalted level of realization. Ordinary beings like us can’t perceive a sambhogakaya, however, 5so a buddha must assume the nirmanakaya aspect to reach out to us, which is what the Buddha did during his time on earth. For the Vajrayana teachings, however, he assumed the sambhogakaya aspect, as did the beings who received the teachings.

The teachings of the Buddha preserved in Tibetan are collected in what is called the Kangyur. Of the just over one hundred volumes in the Kangyur, about a quarter are filled with texts on tantra. Most of these are brief ritual texts, and there are many hundreds of them. The link between the transmission of the tantras by the Buddha in the form of Vajradhara and us is the mahasiddha, a Sanskrit word meaning a tantric master with great (maha) attainments (siddhi). Each of the sadhanas and root tantras in the Kangyur was transmitted by a particular mahasiddha; there is a well-known enumeration of eighty-four such Indian mahasiddhas who lived around the end of the first millennium, the heyday of Buddhist tantra in India. A mahasiddha’s disciples received the direct lineage of that tantra from him or her and then passed it on to their disciples, setting up an unbroken lineage that extends to us today. That means that the tantric empowerment or the commentary on the practice we receive comes in a lineage from the Buddha himself.


Notice how I have used Vajrayana and tantra as synonyms. There are in fact several terms that refer to this same practice, each with a slightly different flavor. Although tantra is probably the most common term used for this practice, Vajrayana is perhaps clearer in that it avoids confusion with the Hindu tantra.

We don’t generally translate Vajrayana into English, although some commentators call it the “diamond vehicle.” In Tibetan it is dorje tegpa. Dorje, or the Sanskrit vajra, is a word that comes up frequently in 6Mahayana Buddhism. There is no exact English translation. Although it is sometimes used as a noun to describe the five-spoked implement used with the bell in Vajrayana practices, in this case it is used as an adjective to mean “indestructible” or “inseparable.” “Adamantine” is probably as good a translation as any, although I prefer “inseparable,” with its connotation of emptiness and the mind realizing emptiness being one.

Tegpa, or the Sanskrit yana, means “vehicle” or “path.” It is a “vehicle” in the sense of being that which carries us from one place to another—tegpa literally means “to support”—and a “path” in the sense of being the route we follow—in this case, to enlightenment.

Therefore Vajrayana can be defined as “the inseparable vehicle that will take us to our destination.” In this practice, the two wings of Buddhism, method (or compassion) and wisdom (or emptiness), are practiced together, inseparably, within one single mental state. Both are practiced in the Sutrayana, too, but only in alternation; they cannot be practiced simultaneously within one mental state. As we will see later, this is why Vajrayana is such an expedient means to enlightenment—it brings bodhichitta and the wisdom realizing emptiness together in an entirely unique way.

The second name often used is Mantrayana. Again, yana tells us it is a vehicle or path. Manas means “mind” or “think,” and the suffix tra means “to protect,” so a mantra is something that protects the mind. Hence Mantrayana means “the vehicle that protects the mind.”

There are many different ways to protect our mind, but here we are referring to protecting our mind from the sense of our own ordinariness. One of the most damaging concepts that we live with all the time, carrying it around like a huge weight, is the feeling that we are nothing special, that we are an impure being with an impure nature. In modern psychological terms, we might call this “baggage.” We have all seen people who are crippled by a low sense of self-worth. Even if we are not like that ourselves, our own sense of limitation 7still blocks us from achieving our true potential. “I can’t do that” is our mantra. The Mantrayana kind of mantra protects us from that defeating ordinariness.

The great teacher Lama Yeshe says:

Our problem is that inside us there is a mind going, “Impossible, impossible, impossible. I can’t, I can’t, I can’t.” We have to banish that mind from this solar system. Anything is possible. Sometimes you feel that your dreams are impossible, but they are not. Human beings have great potential; they can do anything. The power of the mind is incredible, limitless.3

Through meditation on emptiness and bodhichitta, we use the visualization of arising as the enlightened deity to eliminate this sense of ordinariness. The practice of generating ourselves as the deity and holding a sense of what is called divine pride or divine identity is an integral part of Vajrayana practice. It is a way to bring the result into the practice by feeling that we are already what we will one day be. Generating this vision of ourselves as the deity with all of the deity’s attributes can eliminate any sense that we do not have those qualities and can purify our delusions of inadequacy. By using our meditation practice to embody the final destination now, we create the causes to achieve that destination. This is the vehicle that protects our mind from ordinariness, Mantrayana.

Vajrayana is also called the secret vehicle. Its practices are incredibly subtle; they require a deep and experiential understanding that can only come from the initiation and instructions of a fully qualified spiritual teacher. To read randomly and idly about Vajrayana can lead to misconceptions. Western scholars’ early labeling of Tibetan Buddhism as “Lamaism” is an example of this, as if Tibetan Buddhism were the cult of the lama.


It is strongly stated in the Vajrayana teachings that tantra should not be revealed to those who are not ready and that people who practice Vajrayana should do so privately and without showing their practice or the things they use for their practice to anybody else. It has been the tradition to not explain even the theory of Vajrayana to noninitiates, since any misinterpretation could weaken the lineage of the teachings. These days, however, many books about Vajrayana are available, and His Holiness the Dalai Lama has explicitly stated that there is no problem as long as the motivation for teaching or writing about Vajrayana is positive. Although in recent years this practice has begun to change, the tradition is still shrouded in more secrecy than perhaps any other Buddhist teachings.

Vajrayana is also sometimes known as the resultant vehicle. We are not yet enlightened, and although the environment we live in might be nice, I doubt if many of us consider it a celestial mansion. In Vajrayana, we bring the end results of the vehicle into the present; we become the enlightened being with all the enlightened qualities, and our environment—our mandala—becomes the divine environment.

Sutrayana is called the causal vehicle because it works on creating the causes for enlightenment. We want bodhichitta, so we start with our small compassion and develop it slowly until we achieve the precious bodhichitta. We want the wisdom realizing emptiness, so we take our small understanding and develop it to its fullest. In Vajrayana, we are both creating the causes and bringing those resultant aspects into the path. This strong belief in our buddha nature, our divine identity, has the power to destroy that sense of ordinariness incredibly quickly.

Finally, Vajrayana is also called the method vehicle. The Sutrayana and Vajrayana vehicles produce the same result, but their methods for achieving these goals are distinct. In the causal, or perfection, vehicle, we develop each of the six perfections, the sixth of which is wisdom, or the realization of emptiness. Each practice is extremely helpful in developing our mind along the path to enlightenment, but none has 9the power to bring us to enlightenment in and of itself. In Vajrayana, however, since we arise out of emptiness as the deity and then perform the divine activities of the deity, both method and wisdom are developed simultaneously. This gives us the chance to advance incredibly quickly.

Each of us has many subtle layers of body and mind; this subtle physiology is the site of many of tantra’s unique methods. The subtle body consists of drops or essences (Skt. bindu; Tib. tig-le); psychic energies called winds (Skt. vayu; Tib. lung); energy channels (Skt. nadi; Tib. tsa); and areas where those channels concentrate, called chakras, such as at the crown, the throat, and the center of the chest. The manipulation of these subtle energies to attain bodhichitta and realize emptiness is a central feature of Vajrayana practice. This special methodology is only found in Vajrayana, hence the name method vehicle.

Although Vajrayana is known by many different names, they all serve to reference the same unique and expedient means that characterize this practice.

The Unique Features of Vajrayana

As we have just seen, Vajrayana and the causal perfection vehicle share a single goal—full enlightenment—but their methods differ. In order to understand the defining characteristics of Vajrayana, let us first look at the similarities between Vajrayana and Sutrayana practice. It is said that both vehicles are the same in five ways:

image  attainment

image  bodhichitta

image  the six perfections

image  view

image  intention 10

The attainment, or result, of both vehicles is identical. Both lead to enlightenment, so neither vehicle is inferior in this respect.

The mind of enlightenment, bodhichitta, is also identical in both vehicles. There are two levels of bodhichitta—aspiring bodhicitta, the genuine, uncontrived aspiration to attain enlightenment that nevertheless lacks the power to actually perform a bodhisattva’s activities, and engaged bodhichitta, where the mind is purified enough to spontaneously and continuously develop the six perfections. Engaged bodhichitta can be actualized in the practice of either vehicle; when we attain bodhichitta in Vajrayana, it is exactly the same as in Sutrayana.

Likewise, the six perfections—generosity, patience, morality, joyous perseverance, concentration, and wisdom—are perfections whether they are achieved through Vajrayana or Sutrayana practice.

The view is the wisdom realizing emptiness, the final mode of existence of things and events. There is no difference between the emptiness we realize as Sutrayana practitioners and the emptiness we realize as Vajrayana practitioners.

Finally, there is no difference in the intention of the practice. A Sutrayana practitioner’s motivation is to attain enlightenment in order to be able to free all sentient beings from suffering. A Vajrayana practitioner’s motivation is exactly the same. Both aim to benefit all living beings without exception and without discrimination. This is what defines both Sutrayana and Vajrayana as Mahayana practices. If one vehicle had a lesser intention, it would not be Mahayana.


As we have seen, although the results of the two vehicles might be identical, the methods are quite different, and this is what makes Vajrayana both unique and extremely powerful. In Vajrayana practice we develop divine pride, where we feel we really are the deity we are 11practicing, which cuts through our ordinary appearances. We can understand the elements of this unique deity practice through what are called the four complete purities. They are:

image  the complete purity of environment

image  the complete purity of body

image  the complete purity of resources

image  the complete purity of activities

The first is the complete purity of environment. In most Vajrayana meditation manuals, or sadhanas, there is a section where practitioners are instructed to visualize the environment of the deity, called the mandala or celestial mansion. These visualizations are often quite elaborate, with many attendant deities and structures. We are asked to imagine the mandala in such a way that we feel that it is our present reality, with us here and now. This is part of losing the sense of ordinariness. At present we see the places where we live and work as ordinary, with good and bad features. By purifying into emptiness and then visualizing our environment as perfect, we are bringing the result into the present by feeling we are already a buddha in a buddha’s perfect environment.

In the same way, the complete purity of body is not our current impure body but the pure body of the deity that arises out of emptiness. Just as the house we live in, on this noisy street, with its dirty windows and broken door, is transformed into the divine residence of the deity, so the sense we hold of this body, with its pains and imperfections, is dissolved into emptiness. And from that emptiness we visualize ourselves arising as the body of the deity.

It is not as if we slip a deity body on top of this imperfect body like some rubber suit; we actually feel that we are the deity and our body is the divine body of the deity. With this level of identification with the deity, we have the power to completely purify our sense of ordinariness. 12Where the Sutrayana chips away at our delusions, here we blast them into nonexistence with the power of our pure visualizations.

Likewise we see all the objects around us as pure in the complete purity of resources. In every Vajrayana practice, we as the deity make offerings of flowers, incense, light, and so forth to the deity. These are ordinary objects, but we do not offer ordinary objects to the deity. We must see these offering objects as divine objects and the action of offering as a divine action.

Thus the resources we use while we are doing Vajrayana practice are transformed into pure substances. Everything we eat, drink, or wear; everything we feel or sense; everything our mind comes into contact with is seen not as an ordinary object of the senses but as divine. Seeing everything that arises to our consciousness as extraordinary develops our potential to experience joy or bliss. This meditative bliss is far greater than any bliss we could experience in ordinary life through encountering the everyday pleasant objects of the senses.

Finally there is the complete purity of activities. During Vajrayana practice, the sadhana will instruct us to do many things to benefit sentient beings. These are the pure activities of that deity, and as we have visualized ourselves as that deity, these are also our activities. In Sutrayana we practice generosity, but the generosity practiced in Vajrayana can be far more extensive, because it is not an ordinary human but the deity giving things—food, money, teachings, and so forth—to all sentient beings. Whatever we do, we try to experience as divine. None of our actions retains the least trace of ordinariness; this is why it is called the complete purity of activities.


In both Sutrayana and Vajrayana, the method side and the wisdom side of the practice must be fully developed to attain enlightenment. Sutrayana practices can combine these two aspects but not, as in 13Vajrayana, in one mind, and so both are developed at different times using different types of mind, the emotional side of our mind bringing about a deeper and deeper compassion and the rational side bringing about a more profound understanding of reality.

We have already seen that there are three bodies of a buddha, but in fact there are various ways of designating how a buddha can manifest. The sambhogakaya and nirmanakaya of a buddha are aspects of the form body (Skt. rupakaya), and so a more elemental way of looking at this is to divide the enlightened aspects into two: the truth body and the form body—the dharmakaya and rupakaya. The dharmakaya is mainly the nature of a buddha’s mind, and the rupakaya is a buddha’s form and vast activities.

This neatly links with the two sides of the practice, method and wisdom, and the two truths that must be realized, relative truth and ultimate truth. Relative or conventional truth is that which is true to a valid conventional consciousness. It is the world as we see it, when we are not analyzing how things actually exist, which is ultimate truth, the understanding of emptiness.

The great pandit Nagarjuna, in his Precious Garland (Ratnavali), shows how the two truths are the bases for the two bodies of the buddha, where the base of conventional truth is the method side of the path leading to the rupakaya, and the base of ultimate truth is the wisdom side of the path leading to the dharmakaya. Similarly, as humans, our interactions with one another are driven by two basic components: emotions and rational thought. Our emotions can be likened to the method side based on conventional understanding, while rational thought can be likened to the wisdom side based on an understanding of how things truly exist. When we become enlightened, these two aspects form the two bodies of the buddha we have become. To attain full enlightenment, these two causes must be accumulated equally—realizing emptiness will not take us all the way, nor will realizing bodhichitta. Sutrayana sees these practices as distinct.


Of course, during the path, these two minds do support each other. For instance, meditating on emptiness just before practicing generosity or ethics makes those practices more effective. They are supported by, or conjoined with, the wisdom realizing emptiness, but they are not the wisdom realizing emptiness itself. And it is the same the other way around—if we engage in extensive practices of generosity or ethics, our meditation on emptiness will become far more powerful. Generally speaking, however, the two minds remain distinct in the Sutrayana. In the Vajrayana, by contrast, by arising as the deity out of emptiness, whatever activities we do—the method side of the practice—are combined with the understanding of emptiness. Thus both method and wisdom are developed simultaneously, making our development very rapid indeed if we do the practice purely.

In Sutrayana, the cultivation of bodhichitta and the first five of the six perfections are cooperative conditions rather than direct causes of eventually achieving the rupakaya. In Vajrayana, on the other hand, methods such as utilizing the subtle body, the subtle winds, and the subtle mind within the practice of the visualization of the deity—based on a strong understanding of emptiness and bodhichitta—are direct causes of the rupakaya.

In other words, the causes and conditions we create by practicing the four complete purities are the direct causes and conditions of the rupakaya. This is the power of the resultant vehicle, of bringing the result into the present. This is why the Vajrayana path is thought of as a quicker way to enlightenment.

Deity Yoga


The principal technique used in Vajrayana is visualizing a deity, either in front of us in front-generation, or visualizing ourselves as the deity in 15self-generation. With this method we are able to practice the four complete purities and conjoin method and wisdom within the subtlest mind. This is called deity yoga.

There are various prerequisites for the practice of deity yoga. At the physical level, we need to be human. In Vajrayana terms, that means we need to have subtle channels running through our body, along which the mind travels riding on the wind energies. In our normal daily existence, two faculties are necessary to experience the universe we live in. One is the ability to know. Thus we require a mind, since mind in Buddhism is defined as “that which is clear and knowing.” The other is the ability of the mind to move to its object; that is the function of the wind energies. We also need the chakras—the concentrations of these channels at various points in our body—and the drops, which encompass the subtlest mind and winds. These are vital attributes needed in any tantric practice and particularly in the final part of highest yoga tantra, the most subtle of the Vajrayana systems of practice. We will discuss this in further detail when we look at highest yoga tantra in the later chapters of the book.

Although non-Buddhist tantric teachings and practices use similar visualizations of channels, winds, chakras, and drops to cultivate concentration and other achievements, in Vajrayana these practices are taken one step further and used to actualize bodhichitta and emptiness in the swiftest possible time. We are very fortunate to possess the physical requisites for the Vajrayana meditations. Over time, the visualizations become easier, our concentration increases, and we become more adept at utilizing the wind energies in our body, manipulating them so they aid our practice.

As we have just learned, in deity yoga we see ourselves as the deity and our environment, resources, and activities as pure. But what is a deity? The word has many connotations, which can cause confusion. The specific Tibetan term for a meditational deity is yidam (Skt. ishtadevata); deity yoga is called lhayi neljor. Neljor means “yoga,” and the 16“yi” of lhayi refers to yidam. Therefore, in this instance, the lha of lhayi means an enlightened being. But outside of the context of deity yoga, lha (Skt. deva) may not necessarily refer to an enlightened being. It could just be a denizen of one of the god realms or a Hindu god.

Enlightened beings manifest in different aspects to best benefit sentient beings. The historical Buddha, Shakyamuni, manifested as an ordinary monk in order to establish the Dharma and the community of Sangha. It is a different manifestation of enlightened beings, however, that we call deities. There are many deities in Tibetan Buddhism: Tara, Avalokiteshvara, Vajrasattva, and so forth. These deities are enlightened beings, but it is mistaken to feel that they, like Shakyamuni, were once people who sat under a bodhi tree and attained enlightenment. Rather, they are manifestations of a particular enlightened energy. Individual beings attain enlightenment through practicing an attitude such as compassion. Their enlightened minds then manifest into an Avalokiteshvara aspect or a Tara aspect. For instance, the compassionate-action aspect of an enlightened being manifests as Tara. Avalokiteshvara is the buddhas’ compassion.

Thus a deity may or may not be an enlightened being, and an enlightened being may or may not be a deity. The two categories overlap, but they are not identical. Thousands of beings have become enlightened in the same way Shakyamuni was, but it is inaccurate to call them deities. However, as enlightened beings they can manifest as a deity.

Since Tibetan Vajrayana employs many meditational deities whose function is to generate a specific energy determined by our particular propensities, some of us need to focus on a light, blissful energy, while others may be more suited to a forceful one. Just as sentient beings are diverse, we find a great variety of meditational deities in Tibetan Buddhism—peaceful and wrathful, alone or in union with a consort, with one head and two arms or with many heads, arms, and even legs. 17Each of these features and attributes are rich with significance for the practitioner.

In Buddhist tantra, you often hear references to Vajradhara (Tib. Dorje Chang), either as the aspect the historical Buddha assumed to teach the tantras to the bodhisattvas, or as the primordial buddha. In some respects, all the other buddhas manifest from Vajradhara in the same way that the various enlightened energies arise from the fundamental state of enlightenment. As we will see when we look at vajra repetition in highest yoga tantra in the later chapters, although the meditations we are doing lead us to the state of Guhyasamaja (in the examples we will explore), at certain stages in the practice we arise as this primordial buddha, Vajradhara. Achieving the state of Vajradhara is synonymous with gaining all realizations and attaining buddhahood.


There are four classes of tantra, ascending in subtlety and complexity from kriya tantra to highest yoga tantra. Each class has its unique features, but three aspects of deity yoga are common to all Vajrayana practices:

image  divine identity

image  clarity

image  profundity

Divine identity or divine pride (Tib. lhai ngagyal) literally means “the self-identity of being a deity.” As we have just seen with the four complete purities, an important feature of Vajrayana is the way the practice of visualizing ourselves as a deity can break us free from our sense of ordinariness. The goal is not to merely superimpose a deity form onto our ordinary, everyday self but to have the strong sense that we are indeed the deity. The stronger and clearer our identification with 18the deity is, the more effective our practice will be. It cannot work if it is a mere overlay on a persistent sense of ordinariness and inadequacy.

This concept might sound strange, but in fact we do it all the time—we take on roles and become them. Imagine you are training to be a teacher. When you first enter the classroom it feels a bit strange, but within a few years you are a teacher. When you are in front of a class, that is your persona. In Vajrayana we take it one step further. We let go of the mundane self-identity we carry around with us all the time, and when we lose that ordinary self, with all its faults and peculiarities, the space arises for us to acquire the persona of a deity with all the divine qualities.

This can only happen from the base of emptiness. Again, that is not as esoteric as it sounds. If we have no feeling for the mutability of the mind, then we will always be stuck in this mundane aspect of “me.” But by understanding that there is nothing fixed or intrinsic in the mind, the self, the body, or any other part of ourselves, we suddenly have the freedom to change whatever aspects of ourselves we want to. That is the incredible freedom that emptiness brings—and if we can be anything, why not be enlightened?

This is not something that happens immediately. At first the practice can seem like an ill-fitting suit. But if we train ourselves again and again, we will start to see a profound change, not just during a meditation session but in how we relate to ourselves and to the external world. With divine pride, we can see our environment, and all living beings with it, as divine.

The second common element of deity yoga is clarity (Tib. selnang). Clarity here means the crispness and lucidity of our visualization. In the more advanced tantras such as highest yoga tantra, the visualizations become very elaborate. We need to develop this skill in order to progress in our meditation sessions. Without a clear visualization, our divine identity can never be that strong.


The last aspect of deity yoga common to all the tantras is profundity (Tib. zabpa). The visualization of the front-or self-generation deity in deity yoga is profound. It is more than an imagined picture in our head. It is more than an image that we label “me”: “This is the deity with green skin and two arms, and this deity is me.” It is much more than that, because we arise as the deity out of emptiness. This is so vital. In any sadhana we use to do a Vajrayana practice, just before the visualization we meditate on emptiness. Then, with a deep understanding of emptiness and having dissolved our ordinary appearance into emptiness, the deity that is us arises. This is how it is described—tongpa ngenle, “From emptiness the deity arises.”

“From emptiness” does not mean that emptiness is like some kind of pot, and from that pot the deity appears. From a deep understanding of emptiness, an understanding of the mind itself arises. It is as if the self and the common concepts that pervade our whole experience dissolve, leaving a profound and blissful space. Within that space, with

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