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...

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