Mind itself has no heads, hands, or regalia.
With your fixed notions you make the mistake
Of seeing what arises as a deity’s form or mistake sound as mantra,
And don’t see it through the path of great union!
Probably no practice in Tibetan Buddhism creates as much confusion and frustration as deity practice. The problems aren’t limited to Westerners, by any means. One of my teachers, Dezhung Rinpoche, scrunched up his eyes as he mimicked intense concentration while he gave a running commentary, “Deity practice is so difficult! You imagine the heads, the arms, the legs and all the regalia, one by one. When you have one clear, the others fall out of focus. You pull them back in. You keep trying, harder and harder. Bit by bit the form becomes clearer. You have the whole deity, except for one toe. You bring that toe in and the whole image collapses. Then you have a headache!” he said, as he leant back, laughing.
A deity is an expression of mind itself, or to word it more loosely, the spiritual in us and in the world. By the spiritual, I mean a way of experiencing life that is beyond the ordinary, that is free of thinking and emotional reaction, that is clear and vivid, alive, awake and present, a way in which “I” and “other” lose their meaning. In the practice of great union (mahayoga), the spiritual is given a form. We use this representation to make a connection with the spiritual by suspending our habituated patterns and filling our minds with the symbols and magic of the deity. We transform the way we experience our lives and the world, ideally experiencing everything that arises as the spiritual taking expression in our lives.
For example, Avalokiteshvara is the expression of awakened compassion. Rather than try to see yourself in a white body with multiple arms while arrayed in princely Indian attire from a bygone era, ask yourself, “What is it like to be the embodiment, the expression, of awakened compassion?” Immediately, everything changes — your relationship with your body, your senses, your feelings and the ordinary stream of thoughts that make up everyday experience. They don’t go away, necessarily, but their importance and influence fade and something else comes into the picture, perhaps only for a few moments. In those moments, you sense another possibility — a way of knowing that is not limited to blind reaction and conceptual thinking, a way imbued with the qualities represented in the iconography of Avalokiteshvara, a way which presents you with tremendous challenges, a way in which you are present and free. That is what you cultivate. Then you extend your practice. Ask yourself, “What is it like to see and regard others as being the embodiment of awakened compassion?” Another shift takes place right there. And you go further, again, with, “What is it like to see this person who has or is hurting me as being the embodiment of awakened compassion?” Forget any starry-eyed idealism, here. What is it like, in concrete terms, to see others that way, with all their anger, jealousy, ambition, suffering, love, joy, corruption, selfishness, generosity and care?
The form of the deity, along with all the visualization practices, being honored and initiated by buddhas and bodhisattvas, being praised and honored by all beings, sending light and offerings to all the buddhas, drawing in all their power and energy, sending millions of your own forms into every realm of existence and freeing all beings from their struggles and sorrows, etc., are all ways to instill in you a sense of being the expression of awakened compassion and what that is like in terms of your relationship with the world you experience.
The same holds for mantra. You repeat a mantra such as om mani padme hung over and over again, until it becomes such a part of you that it replaces the stream of subtle thinking in your mind. When it does, you have a quiet mind, for that stream of thinking has gone, and with it, the tendency to be grabbed by reactive emotions. Voices and sounds you hear don’t elicit the same reactions. You hear them as sounds, pebbles falling into a still pond — there is no reaction or disturbance in you. The world takes on a magical quality and other possibilities open up. Recitation of the mantra generates energy which powers your attention. The mantra instantly cuts through distraction and disturbance. The higher level of attention it generates transforms how you experience the world.
However, often we take the instructions too literally. If the deity is Avalokiteshvara (Chenrezi) for instance, we try to see everyone as having clear radiant white bodies with four arms, draped in silk and jewelry, beautiful and graceful beyond the imagination. We try to see ourselves in the same way. We do the same with mantra, trying to hear all sound as the mantra. But this is to miss the point, utterly and completely. When we focus on the form and iconography of the deity, or even on the symbolism, we are unlikely to connect with the qualities the deity represents. With Avalokiteshvara or White Tara, you are awakened compassion. With Hayagriva, you are the awakened energy that simply incinerates emotional reactions. With Vajrakila, you are the awakened wrath that expresses the fury we feel when we see how suffering destroys the souls of people and kills their spirit.
This verse concludes the first section of this poem. In these ten verses, Jigmé Lingpa has set out ten different paths, beginning with ordinary life and the way of the conceptual philosopher through the first eight spiritual paths according to the Nyingma tradition. All of us, at one time or another, have taken each of these paths of practice. Sometimes we ignore the possibilities of giving expression to the spiritual and just revert to ordinary life. Sometimes we seek the spiritual anywhere but in our own knowing. Sometimes we think about things too much and get trapped by our conceptual systems. At other times we are too self-reliant, or too concerned with truth or purity or symbols. Jigmé Lingpa points out one of the traps in each approach. When we can recognize these traps and step out of them, we are in good shape to practice the non-practice of the great completion, and that is what Jigmé Lingpa turns to next.