The Brilliantly Illuminating Lamp of the Five Stages


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1. What Is a “Buddha Vajradhara,” the Goal of This Tradition?

Ablaze in the glory of wondrous signs and marks,

Forever playing in the taste of the bliss-void kiss,

Recklessly compassionate, free of extremist calm —

I bow to the Victor with the seven super-factors!2

To study this work fruitfully, we need first of all to understand what the author thinks is the goal of the practices described within it. That is to say, we need to imagine what Tsong Khapa imagines is the kind of being called a “buddha vajradhara” — what a buddha really is — whether viewed from the tantric perspective or not. What he thinks a buddha-being is, is so utterly fantastic, even preposterous, from the perspective of our philosophically materialist modern culture, it takes a real effort of imagination, a nearly sci-fi exercise in openness of mind. We don’t have to agree that in reality there is such a thing, but to understand the work at hand, it is fruitful to place ourselves in the position of Tsong Khapa’s audience. To catch a glimpse of where he is coming from, we have to review the parameters he sets up for our imagining. This is an effort required to understand any form of Buddhism, but it is particularly important in the tantric or mantric context, since a lot of the work of mantric practice involves contemplative deployment of the structured imagination.


It is also quite probable that Tsong Khapa feels he should salute Vajradhara Buddha in this technical way because even his own Tibetan Buddhist contemporaries and successors might not so easily imagine what a buddha is, in its inconceivable reality. Tsong Khapa himself said — after what he referred to as his coming to complete clarity about the uttermost subtleties of the realistic view, and what others refer to as his perfect enlightenment — that it was the opposite of what he had expected it to be, indicating that even a great scholar such as he had not fully been able to imagine what the buddha-awareness was really like. When even a Buddhist thinks of enlightenment, she thinks of a kind of awareness far greater than her habitual own, but still it is difficult to imagine a being whose consciousness is at once infinitely expanded and minutely detailed, who feels him- / her- / it-self a timeless eternity of utter freedom ecstatically blissful, and whose multi-sourced presence can manifest in relation to countless individual beings as countless different relational beings at once.

To try to express the inexpressible, from the three-buddha-body theory perspective, a buddha is a being who is not restricted to having to be enclosed in a single separate embodiment that faces an “other” universe and yet who does not neglect the countless beings who persist in feeling that they are separate, and are facing him, her, or it as an “other.” When a buddha completes its, her, or his wisdom store in the buddha-truth-body (Skt. dharmakāya), it viscerally experiences itself as indivisibly one with all realities, and other beings and things and the spaces and energies within and around them are felt to be part of its body. This feeling feels those beings, things, and energies as configurations of a limitless bliss, as the truth body is simultaneously a bliss body, the buddha-beatific-body (Skt. saṁbhogakāya). This bliss feeling does not anaesthetize the buddha-being from also feeling what the beings feel of suffering; in a way the bliss energizes the ability to remain aware of the others’ feelings of dissatisfaction and pain. Indeed, the awareness of others’ dissatisfaction and pain in turn stimulates the spacious cloudlike truth-beatitude-indivisible buddha-body to manifest or emanate limitless forms of embodiment (Skt. nirmāṇakāya) as beings or things that can be perceived by the suffering beings and that perfectly mirror to them, according to their perceptual capacities, their potential freedom from suffering and their potential awareness of their own natural bliss.

Although this description of the inconceivable, amazing cognitive-5dissonance-tolerant, dichotomy-reconciling nature of buddhahood is ultimately ungraspable in linear binary terms, we can imagine it with the help of limiting concepts such as voidness, freedom, nonduality, and the elaborated theory of the three bodies of buddhahood. Imagining it, we can aspire consciously to evolve toward achieving it for ourselves and those with whom we want to share it, in case it is really possible and not just a Buddhist fantasy. At any rate, the mantric or tantric path is presented as the science and art of accelerating such conscious evolution by employing a supremely subtle technology of spiritual genetic engineering of a buddha-mind and buddha-bodies.

A point that should be clarified here is that the buddha-mind is referred to in the theory as a “body of truth,” and the buddha-bodies of beatitude and emanation are referred to as a “material body” (Skt. rūpakāya, often wrongly translated as “form body”). This may be a hint in the exoteric universal vehicle of the esoteric doctrine of the nonduality of body and mind at the ultimate or supremely subtle level.

To such an end of stimulating imagination and inspiration, Tsong Khapa embeds in his opening salutatory verse a standard formulation of the seven super-components of the material body of a buddha vajradhara (inconceivably indivisible from his and all buddhas’ infinite truth body, itself completely interpenetrating all other embodied beings and discrete things).

There are seven super-components of a buddha vajradhara’s material body.


There are traditionally thirty-two auspicious signs and eighty auspicious marks that a buddha vajradhara’s material body has in common with other buddhas such as Shakyamuni. Nāgārjuna in his Jewel Rosary details these 112 signs and marks, explaining in brief how each one is the evolutionary (karmic) result of specific deeds in the many lives leading up to buddhahood (see below).

The final body of a buddha is the truth or reality body, which is infinite and timeless and indivisible. The individual expands always embodied awareness to encompass the ultimate reality of infinite worlds and beings, both enlightened and unenlightened, mental and physical. At the same 6time, the individual momentum of positive engagement with others — the love and compassion that drives a being to evolve into the ability of providing happiness to countless others — persists in the physical omnipresence of a buddha in an equally infinite beatific body that infinitely enjoys having all reality as its body, and simultaneously encompasses the awarenesses of the infinite others who suffer due to their failure to realize their oneness with such a universe. This awareness automatically and effortlessly then manifests as infinite seemingly discrete embodiments, called “emanations.” For their own evolutionary benefit, self-alienated migrating beings can interact with these emanations. Therefore, a buddha vajradhara is not just one individual, beautiful, divine embodiment, a separate superbeing in a desire realm heaven — that manifestation is just one of countless manifestations, but it is the one that best expresses to the evolutionary psychonaut, or adept, the ideal and goal he or she is aiming for.

Regarding the emanation bodies, there are said to be three kinds: artistic, incarnational, and supreme. The artistic emanation body consists of all representations of buddhas and their deeds by artists whose aim is to help beings imagine the supreme evolutionary state all beings can achieve. The incarnational emanation body is all the manifestations a buddha can create to interact with alienated beings in order to help their development, including inanimate objects such as buildings, continents, even planets, in addition to plants and animate beings. The supreme emanation body is a buddha like Shakyamuni Buddha, who manifests descent from heaven, conception, birth, and so on (the twelve deeds with which we are familiar). It is such a supreme emanation that manifests a body that carries on it the graphic demonstrations (the signs and marks) of all his or her evolutionary achievements. In this way all emanation bodies are themselves teachings for specific beings in specific evolutionary times and places.

In his Jewel Rosary,3 Nāgārjuna gives a summary of the marks and their causes in a buddha’s evolutionary past:

Through proper honoring of stupas, venerables, noble ones, and the elderly, you will become a universal monarch, your glorious hands and feet marked with wheels.


O King, always maintain firmly your vows about your practices; you will then become a bodhisattva, with very level feet.

By giving gifts, speaking pleasantly, fulfilling beings’ wishes, and practicing what you teach, you will have hands with glorious fingers joined by luminous webs.

By always generously giving the finest food and drink, your glorious hands and feet will be soft, and along with your shoulder blades and the nape of your neck, seven areas will be broad, and your body will be large.

By never doing harm and freeing condemned persons, your body will be beautiful, straight, and tall, your fingers will be long, and the backs of your heels will be broad.

By spreading spiritual disciplines, you will have a good complexion, a good repute, your ankles will not protrude, and your body hairs will stand upward.

Due to your enthusiasm in propagating the arts and sciences, and so on, you will have the calves of an antelope, a sharp intelligence, and great wisdom.

When others desire your wealth and possessions, by disciplining yourself to give them immediately, you will have broad arms, an attractive appearance, and will become a world leader.

By reconciling friends who are in conflict, you will become supreme, and your glorious private organ will retract within [like a stallion].

By bestowing upon others excellent dwellings, your complexion will be soft, like stainless refined gold.

By granting to others superior powers and dutifully following your teachers, your each and every hair will be your ornament, including a special tuft of hair between the eyebrows.

By speaking pleasantly and meaningfully, and by acting upon the good speech [of others], you will have curving shoulders and a lionlike upper body.


By nursing and healing the sick, the area between your shoulders will be broad, you will live in a state of ease, and all your tastes will be excellent.

By conducting your affairs in accord with the Dharma, your skull dome will be beautifully elevated, and [your body] will be symmetrical like a banana tree.

By speaking true and gentle words over a long time, O lord of men, your tongue will be long, and your voice like that of Brahma the creator.

By always speaking truth continuously, your cheeks will be lion-like, glorious, and you will be hard to overcome.

By being carefully respectful, serving others, and doing what is proper, your teeth will be shining, white, and even.

By always speaking true and nondivisive words, you will have forty glorious teeth, set evenly and wondrous to behold.

By gazing at beings with altruistic love without desire, hatred, or delusion, your eyes will be bright and blue, with lashes like a bull’s.

Thus, in brief know well these thirty-two signs of a great lion of beings, together with their [evolutionary] causes.

Nāgārjuna then goes on to mention the eighty auspicious signs, not listing them, saying it would take too long; but the lists are common in the sutras. This list gives us the feel of the Buddhist worldview. Life is evolutionary. The acts we perform of body, speech, and mind in any given life produce their result in the future of this life or in a future life. The patterns cited in this specific case of attaining the thirty-two auspicious marks of a superbeing (mahāpurusha) connect moral actions with biological results.

A point to be emphasized is that this counts in the Buddhist culture as a “scientific” explanation of the physical characteristics of a “supreme emanation buddha-body,” such as that of Shākyamuni. Therefore, less evolved beings who have some physical marks resembling these thirty-two have been committing acts of the same type. Thus, if you are tall, with long 9fingers, and the backs of your heels are broad, you have been relatively less harmful to other beings in many previous lives; in numerous life-forms, and in previous human lives you have saved lives and pardoned condemned beings.

Anything in these directions — height and breadth and beauty of body, nature of hands and feet and limbs, shape of eyes, length of tongue, beauty of cheeks, and so on — all these physical traits come from past evolutionary actions of body and speech and mind. The Darwinian theory of “survival of the fittest” — meaning increase of the survival-enhancing qualities of a species (not individuals) due to the physical propagation of the offspring of better equipped individuals, generation after generation, producing mutations that cope better with the environment, that are transmitted by physical genes, and so forth — is somewhat parallel to the Buddhist theory. But added here to that picture (of the mutations of species over countless generations in coordination with environmental changes) is the individual’s own personal evolution. That individual carries the results of his or her own evolutionary actions encoded in a mental gene (Skt. gotra) that goes from one coarse flesh and blood embodiment to another, meeting the physical genes of fathers and mothers in human or other animal forms born in mammalian womb, reptilian or avian egg, insect moisture, or magical environment.

Once persons encounter such a “karmic” biological worldview and come to think of it as realistic, either through cultural conditioning in a Buddhist culture or through historical and internal scientific investigation, they adapt their lifestyles to consciously cultivate that mental gene through skillful evolutionary actions, considering that cultivation to be the prime priority of their lives, since its results will determine the qualities of their inevitable lives far into the future. The ultimate change of lifestyle is precisely the tantric one, where individuals decide that they cannot wait for countless rebirths of gradual progress to reach the summit of positive life experience for self and other that is defined as buddhahood. And so they enter the tantric path of self-creation and self-perfection, compressing all those deaths and rebirths into a single intense lifetime or a few lifetimes in order to get to the highest goal as soon as possible.

Tantric art and contemplative technology are thus a form of genetic engineering. The main tool is the highly concentrated and stabilized creative imagination, which uses the patterns of the mandala environments and the divine embodiments (themselves derived from meritorious actions 10and scientific insights) to shape the spiritual gene of the practitioner. This shaped gene then simulates, in the virtual reality of the lucid-dream-like contemplative performance (Skt. sādhana), the death, between, and rebirth processes; first as a rehearsal of out-of-coarse- or subtle-body performances; and then as actual mind- and shape-shifting transformations in the evolutionary direction of buddhahood.


The highest pleasure in ordinary life is generally conceded to be the release experienced in sexual orgasm, wherein an individual melts his or her normal bodily rigidities and feels intense rapture through a blissful inner flooding of pleasurable energy. In Buddhist neuro-biology, this is explained as the bodily energies (or vital energies) dissolving away from their normal functions in the limbs and muscles and nerves (including the brain) and concentrating in the central channel of the nervous system, said to run through the body from mid-brow up to crown of head and down in front of the spine to the tip of the genital organ. These energies take with them endocrine drops that anchor blissful feelings and concentrate them into a powerful force that carries the mind with it into release from all mental and physical preoccupations. The most powerful bliss experience of this kind occurs in a “normal,” egocentrically-wired being only at death, as the mental energy is released from preoccupation within the coarse body. That experience dissipates as that mental-subtle-energy continuum arises as a subtle dreamlike body in a “between state.” This fairylike “between being” (Skt. gandharva) migrates in its state of separateness throughout all the optional forms of existence in the vast universe other than it. When eventually the gandharva being itself is attracted to the coupling of a male and a female of some species, it melts into their state of self-expanding passion and is drawn into its next coarse embodiment in a womb etc.

Therefore, that a vajradhara buddha is always in embrace with a wisdom-intuition consort indicates that this embodiment is not a coarse, non-blissful, ordinary one. It is perpetually indivisible from the bliss of orgasmic freedom, experiencing the male and female complementarity of orgasmic wholeness and contentment at all times. This gives a hint that such a being is nothing but a manifestation of the infinite bliss-void-indivisible of the 11infinite truth and beatific bodies, where every atom and subatomic energy is experienced as orgasmic release in creative magical emanation.

A very key point to note here — to clear up a general scholarly misapprehension about tantra, namely that it is essentially a male chauvinist tradition — is that a vajradhara buddha is both the female and the male in the embrace, not just the male exploitatively wrapping himself in some sort of subservient female as a mindless accessory. On simpler levels, the male is universal compassion and the female transcendent wisdom; the male is superbliss art and the female is profound voidness wisdom; or the male is the magic illusion body and the female the clear light transparence of the total voidness.


This emphasizes the transcendent nature of buddhahood: a vajradhara buddha body-mind represents the ultimate nondual awareness of enlightenment that experiences its own/everything’s reality as unobstructed bliss of orgasmic freedom, nirvana. This is the reality that Shākyamuni and all buddhas proclaim as the very substance of even samsaric reality, not enjoyed by beings who misknow it as otherwise, even while their bodies and minds are essentially constituted of bliss and their whole beings are primally interpenetrated by uncreated nirvana. In the exoteric universal vehicle this is taught by the Buddha in the Lotus Sutra and other cataphatic sutras, wherein the Buddha shocks his dualistic elder disciples, monastic vehicle arhat saints, by proclaiming the world’s purity, blissfulness, eternal selfhood, and transcendent freedom.


This blissful wisdom that enjoys the inconceivable exquisiteness of the relative world never loses sight of its essential freedom, its ultimate peacefulness, its brilliant infinite energy that therefore has no need to do anything, and so has done all that needs to be done. So the nirvanic bliss-awareness is not contradictory to the ultimate calmness and oneness of the immanent beyond; it neither troubles the ocean of bliss with elaborations nor constrains it by clinging to non-elaboration. Being “aware of voidness” simply means that the blissed-out subjectivity remains in a limitlessly melting, 12nongrasping flow, in unity with an infinite horizon of openness pervading all objectivities.


The previous two super-components of a vajradhara indicate the buddha-mind’s nature as the ultimate tolerance of cognitive dissonance, the reconciliation of all dichotomies, the unity of simplicity and complexity, and not simply as a collapsed state of total extinct oblivion or resigned relational bondage. Particularly, this fifth super-component indicates that a vajradhara buddha is not tempted to escape into sheer infinity without any differentiated objects; his/her/its transcendent wisdom is absolutely self-transforming into the infinite compassion that cannot abandon beings trapped by ignorance in the suffering of egocentric separateness and alienation from the multi-dimensional, inconceivable universe of freedom.


Being an infinite awareness beyond unity and plurality, one indivisible — with every detail — with all buddhas of the past, present, and future, along with all unenlightened beings of all those three times also, and being also indivisible with the infinite clear light transparency energy of absolute void freedom, a vajradhara buddha effortlessly responds to the needs of infinite numbers of suffering beings. A vajradhara buddha manifests from this inexhaustibly energetic nirvanic reality whatever medicine will relieve that suffering, whether it be the magical emanation of a vajradhara, a buddha, a bodhisattva, a person, a companion, an enemy, a substance, a continent, a planet, a star, a deity, a demon, a death, a rebirth, and so forth.

The fact that some sensitive humans who seek freedom and enlightenment carry subconsciously the notion that they are somehow going to escape from embodiment, going to have a rest, going to get out of entanglements, and so forth is nowhere more powerfully responded to in the Buddhist sutras than by the iconic event of the supreme emanation body Buddha’s parinirvana, ultimate freedom understood by dualistic Buddhists as “no more rebirth.” However, the proposition that a buddha simply disappears from existence upon final enlightenment is definitively refuted by the many universal vehicle presentations of nonduality.



Seeing nirvana as here and now, as nondually and blissfully immanent within all details of differentiation and manifestation, means that there is no need at all for any interruption of embodiment. Ironically, this presents buddhahood not as the permanent extinction attractive to escapist dualists, but rather as a glorious explosion into infinite life, driven by infinite compassion into hyperdrive to manifest whatever is needed to tame whomsoever.

This last super-component of vajradharahood adds to the tantric dimension an encouraging transhistorical dimension where the aspirant needs no longer feel lost in a decadent historical era when buddhas are gone, enlightened institutions have been crushed, beings are deluded and self-destructive, and so on — just how the world looks to us when we read the news or get bogged down in confronting political confusion, venality, and incompetence. The investigator and adventurer who seeks the real meaning and purpose of life wants to live it by taking up the priceless and rare human opportunity to become truly consciously awake. This involves mastering the evolutionary process to accelerate her or his development toward the ideal evolutionary condition of bliss-freedom indivisible and wisdom-compassion irresistible, infinitely alive because firmly rooted in the transcendent rootlessness of death. This scientist-explorer can always and without fail discover the past present and future vajradhara buddhas to help her or him find knowledge, consecration, instruction, wisdom, and artfulness. As far away as they may seem at times, their enlightened deeds are unceasing, they are never retired or unavailable.

I am fully aware that this unpacking of Tsong Khapa’s opening salutation reveals a worldview profoundly at odds with that of “modern” scientific materialism. I do not expect academic colleagues — committed to the institutions founded on spiritual absolutism and now devoted to scientific materialism — to be convinced that such things can be realistic: such things as real former and future life continua, mental genetic evolution, a teleology not based on an omnipotent creator god but on individual choice of purpose made by rational persons who scientifically investigate reality in systematic ways and discover the void nature of things as being in nondual harmonious equivalence with a causal coherence of lifestyle leading to buddhahood as the logical summit of evolutionary potential. However, 14there is no way to understand the works of the Indian and Tibetan great adepts (mahāsiddhas) — great yogi/nīs, scientist-explorers, astronaut-like psychonauts — unless one at least makes the effort to imagine the world they discovered, considered, and then persuasively argued is the more real world. After all, if modern or postmodern scientific materialists wish to be truly scientific, and not dogmatic and fundamentalist, they must admit that the cutting edge of science has reached the uncertainty principle, the mutual transformability of matter and energy, the inconceivability of the macro- and micro- universes, and the openness to the principle that all “laws of the universe” are hypotheses awaiting falsification by new data and new theories. Thus, the examination, evaluation, and imaginative experimental appreciation of realistic worldviews and paradigms that at first seem completely strange and outlandish is part of the advancing of the frontiers of knowledge and the deepening of scientific and humanistic wisdom.

2. Who Are the Beings Who Maintain This Tradition?

To the Lord of Secrets, collector of all secrets combined,

And to the ancestral mentors who achieved supremacy

Through the path of the Community, King of Tantras —

Indrabhūti, Nāgaḍākinī, Visukalpa, glorious Saraha,

Vajrin Nāgārjuna, Āryadeva, Nāgabodhi, Shākyamitra,

Matangi, Chandra[kīrti]pāda and the others —

I bow with the mind of ferocious faith!


The “Lord of Secrets” (Guhyapati, gsang ba’i bdag po) is considered an emanation of Vajradhara Buddha, incarnating the powerful energy of all buddhas as a bodhisattva who asks Vajradhara to explain the esoteric teachings and then records what he is taught. He is usually represented as dark blue in color, often one-headed and two-armed, holding a vajra five-pronged double scepter that symbolizes the buddhas’ wielding of the supreme power of the relative universe — this power being fierce love and compassion — basically the indomitable bliss of deathless freedom that seeks to go beyond 15being contained within any individual’s experience and to share itself with all sensitive beings.

Tsong Khapa had a personal mentor and colleague named Hlodrak Khenchen Namkha Gyaltsen, who, when teaching Tsong Khapa, would be perceived as transformed into the iconic form of Vajrapaṇi. When he learned from Tsong Khapa, he would perceive Tsong Khapa as transformed into Mañjushrī. The Khenchen was gratefully credited by the late lama, Kyabjey Lingtsang Rinpochey — the Dalai Lama’s senior tutor and the ninetieth Ganden Throne-holder of the Gelukpa order — with having dissuaded Tsong Khapa and his eight close followers from going on pious pilgrimage to the Buddhist holy places in India in 1399. For had they gone, they might not have returned very easily, if at all in that era, and Tibet would not have benefited from the twenty-one years of writing, teaching, and building Tsong Khapa gave to it from that time until his passing in 1419.

And what are these “secrets” of which Vajradhara/Vajrapāṇi is the “Lord”? These are the esoteric teachings of the tantras, which are the “continua” of person, reality, and teaching, that are the highest technologies of transforming the meaningless, purposeless, and miserable world of cyclic living — wherein misknowing egocentric beings struggle futilely and endlessly against an overwhelming infinite universe — into a buddhaverse of mutual love, compassion, and blissful pleasure energizing the inconceivable positive evolution of interconnected self and other.

Why are they “secret”? They are not secret from anyone who needs them, just as the formulas and procedures of subatomic quantum physics are not intrinsically secret from anyone, but are as good as secret for anyone who is unprepared by a complex and sustained education. For such persons, they are incomprehensible and useless. Moreover, there is an additional element in the need for secrecy in the context of tantra; the need to protect such unprepared persons, as they can hurt themselves in profound evolutionary ways if they misuse the powerful technologies of tantra.

A cardinal tantric technique is the art of purifying perception: to visualize and gradually learn to perceive the universe as a buddhaverse or mandalic paradise, with all beings as divine “buddhine” beings and all environments as perfected divine abodes. If this were to be employed with sustained concentration by persons who have not first had some level of experiential realization of voidness and its inevitably entailed awareness of the relativity and constructedness of all things, it would lead such practitioners into the 16trap of psychosis, getting them stuck in an alternate reality far more pleasant and seemingly secure than the jarring and dangerous ordinary reality. A second cardinal art of tantra is purifying self-conception: cultivating a divine buddha-identity to replace the ordinary, habitual self-identity of the ignorant person. If that were to be practiced by someone without at least some level of the realization of selflessness and its entailed insight into the constructedness of relational self, it would lead to megalomania. Thirdly, if a practitioner does not have at least some degree of detachment from primal subconscious drives of eros and thanatos, and some degree of universal compassion toward others, the powerful energies of the deeper mind and body, when aroused within the tantric atmosphere, are likely to carry the person still perceiving those energies as lust and hostility into dangerous areas of manipulative exploitation of others, which would prove enormously destructive to both self and others.

Therefore, the guardian of the secrets of the tantras is the fierce Vajrapāṇi, who appears occasionally in the exoteric sutras as a yaksha-like fierce protector of the Buddha, who dwells under his teaching throne. I recall the Sutra of the Wise and the Fool account where several vajrapāṇis come out from under Shākyamuni’s throne to ward off the six false teachers.


This term “ancestral mentor” (Tib. brgyud pa’i bla ma), usually translated “lineage lama,” is translated this way to reveal the feeling of a practicing great adept, who is not identified in her or his mind with his blood lineage and does not look back to great grandparents and so on as the most important ancestors. We can see in the case of Tibetan culture that the common institution of ancestor worship or preoccupation with bone (father) and blood (mother) lineage is almost completely neglected, having been thoroughly eroded by the commonsensically accepted, culturally embedded, biological theory of karmic evolution. That is, persons so acculturated consider their own past existences to have been in other families, nations, genders, races, even species, and so there is not a very strong connection with the blood or bone of the parents of this life and their forebears. Further, a dead parent or great grandparent is considered more likely to be reincarnated as one’s neighbor than to be in some ancestral happy hunting ground awaiting veneration and the offerings of tea and cookies from successive generations.


However, in past generations, those who provided and preserved precious Dharma teachings and practices are the spiritual ancestors who engendered the good qualities and liberating realizations in oneself that really enhance one’s “spiritual gene” (gotra, rigs); so they are considered the real ancestors. Spiritual adepts — and, by their conscious and subliminal example, all Tibetans — are acculturated to view their Dharma ancestors as more important than their clan forebears. The rituals of offering drops of elixir to them in one’s daily prayers and performances are in effect substitutes for the more usual ancestor rituals we find in other Asian societies. Every ritual performance (sādhana) written by lamas such as Tsong Khapa and his successors, and performed by hundreds of thousands of monks and nuns over the centuries, includes an invocation of these ancestral mentors at the beginning and makes offerings to them during a later section of the performance.


From among the unexcelled yoga tantras, the Esoteric Community Tantra (Guhyasamāja) is considered by Tsong Khapa the paradigmatic “father tantra.” I say “paradigmatic” rather than “supreme,” as is often said, since every tantra proclaims itself to be “supreme.” Indeed, each of them can assist the practitioner to the supreme achievement of buddhahood if properly implemented. The special virtue of the Esoteric Community is said to be that it has five explanatory tantras taught by Vajradhara Buddha which complement the originally revealed root tantra. It therefore provides all the materials needed for a student and practitioner to understand all tantras, many of which are less complete in their teachings.

The “father” category of tantras is critically defined by Tsong Khapa as characterizing those tantras that emphasize the methodology for attaining the magic body (māyadeha, sgyu lus), a subtle body like a dream body. The practitioner learns to release this subtle body from within his or her meditatively entranced coarse body, which subtle body can then act in the universe to accelerate the accumulation of the stores of merit and wisdom that are required for buddhahood, gathering lifetimes of merit and wisdom in a single lifetime dedicated to such meditation.

The “mother” category of unexcelled yoga tantras emphasizes the arts of deepening the wisdom of either a coarsely or a subtly embodied practitioner 18by plunging her or him again and again into the clear light transparence realms within the infinite event horizon of deep voidness. With all due respect, Tsong Khapa critiqued those venerated mentor scholars, such as Butön Rinpochey, who argued for a third category of “nondual” unexcelled yoga tantras, on the principle that all of them are nondual; the “mother” and “father” categories simply describe their dominant emphasis, not an exclusive focus. These most advanced tantras are all called “unexcelled” (anuttara), rather than “highest” (parama), because they reveal and make accessible the innermost core of nondual reality, and nothing can go beyond them since they contain everything within their matrix; “highest” implies a hierarchy in which the goal is somehow above and away from the “lower” things, which would carry a trace of dualism. unexcelled yoga tantra teaching

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