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Thursday, November 13, 2014

An overview of vajrayana

Here is a somewhat non-traditional overview of vajrayana based on what I’ve come to understand through my own study and practice.

The origins of vajrayana are far from clear. My own view is that it originated in esoteric cults in early medieval India, as I describe here. Practitioners in these cults were not concerned with conventional lives. They followed the Indian renunciate tradition, lived apart from society and sought powers and transcendent experiences through the practice of sorcery and energy transformation. 

Many of these practitioners felt that the deity, itself, was the source of power. They invoked their deities through ritual and supplication, praying to the deity to exercise its power on their behalf. Spells (mantras) composed of sacred syllables were also held to embody power and were used to invoke the deity, to protect the practitioner and those close to him or her, to heal, to exercise magical powers and to destroy enemies. They also felt that power came through high levels of attention (samadhi). One reads about sorcerers entering a water samadhi, say, and bringing about rain, floods, hail or drought. The practice of sorcery was fueled by devotion and intense loyalty to both the teacher and the deity. These were, after all, secret cults.

Over time practitioners applied these methods to spiritual attainments, seeking to develop spiritual insights and qualities through the same sorcery techniques. Their whole approach was based on the premise that we can control what happens in our lives and we can control what arises in our experience. That changed when direct awareness methods (which probably came from central Asia) entered the mix.

Vajrayana has three components that have no a priori connection but were brilliantly crafted together by the practitioners of early medieval esoteric Buddhism in India. Outside the mainstream of monastic and conventional Buddhism, in typical Indian fashion, these practitioners assembled bits and pieces from a vast range of practices, forging them into systems of practice that matured over hundreds of years into such collections as The Eight Deities, The Five Tantric Deities, The Six Yogas of Naropa, etc., and culminated in such elaborate systems as the Kalacakra tantra.

First, there are all the deity practices, which are largely derived from sorcery cults. In sorcery, focused attention and creative imagination are used to charge objects or people with energy. This energy in turn is used to generate transcendent or shamanic experiences, develop special power and abilities or to heal or manipulate others. When you perform the sometimes very elaborate rituals associated with deities and protectors, the sorcery elements are very clear. You invite the deity, invoke his or her power, and generate powers (siddhis) in yourself — using spells (mantras), visualization, empowerments, fire ceremonies and other rituals to focus the energies and realize their potential. The essence of sorcery is the ability to transform energy to the point that you experience the world differently and are able to induce similar experiences in others. 

This component forms the basis for creation phase practice in vajrayana, a set of practices in which you aim to experience yourself and the world as the expression of an aspect of timeless awareness. In effect, you are substituting a transcendent identity for an ordinary identity. This replacement loosens up the hold of your conventional identity and conditioning and opens up other possibilities.

The second component consists of a set of high level energy transformation practices. Some are based on or derived from kundalini-type practices. In all these practices, you transform basic energies — the energy in sensory experience, the energy in breathing, sexual energy, emotional energy, etc. — into higher levels of energy and attention. In the sorcery cults, these abilities were first used to enhance the basic sorcery abilities.

Many of the practices view the body as a basis for energy transformation, using natural energies (prana), energy centers (cakra) and the channels through which energy flows. The transformed energy and attention can be used to generate powerful experiences, similitudes of timeless awareness, intense bliss, and profound clarity, including lucid dreaming and other experiences. At first, different practices were associated with different deities, but over the centuries, they were combined into groups of more or less related practices.The possibly unintended consequence was that the solidity of the transcendent identity developed in creation phase is necessarily called into question, and with it, the solidity of ordinary identity. I imagine that the early practitioners were surprised, intrigued and possibly frightened by the possibilities that then opened up. 

This component is called completion phase because you complete the experiences generated by creation phase by letting them go.

Both creation and completion phase practices, because they involve explicit energy transformation, are inherently dangerous, like any powerful tool such as a scalpel, chain saw, or car, etc. If the energies developed are not in balance, you become ill and ordinary medical treatment will not help. In particular, if you are unwilling, unable or don’t know how to experience what arises as conventional conditioning opens up and starts to fall apart, the energies you develop flow into old patterns of conditioning and you fall into obsessions with food, sex, power or money. If you are unwilling, unable or don’t know how to let go of identity, then you become a megalomaniac, convinced that you have transcended ordinary human experience and are no longer bound by social conventions or biology. The warnings for energy practice traditionally include death, paralysis or insanity. Sadly, I have seen all three. 

The dissolution of identity opens up completely new possibilities that differ from the aims of conventional sorcery and transcendent experiences. Those new possibilities led naturally to the incorporation of creation and completion phase practices with the third component, direct awareness methods. Placed in the context of Mahayana Buddhism, the experience and understanding of compassion is similarly enhanced. Awareness came to be viewed as a unity of three aspects: empty in essence, clear in nature and compassionate in its unrestricted expression.

Mahamudra and dzogchen are the best known of these practices, but there are a number of others in the Tibetan tradition. These practices consist of letting your mind (your way of experiencing life) resolve itself. You establish a base of relaxed open undistracted attention, and then you let things take care of themselves. This requires great resolve, great trust, great determination and great patience. Through all this, one develops a quiet resting mind that is able to see (shamatha and vipashyana, to use the Sanskrit terms). One of the differences in vajrayana practice is that shamatha and vipashyana are results, not methods, as they are in mahayana practice.

The higher levels of attention and energy developed in creation and completion phase practices increase your capacity to experience the often conflicting and intense experiences locked up in biological, psychological and social conditioning. They can also be used to deepen and extend the experience of not being a thing, of freedom, of peace or of timeless awareness in a number of ways. However, they are not absolutely necessary. You can practice direct awareness methods without creation and completion phase practices. The path may be longer and less dramatic, but it is a lot safer.


Anonymous said...

Very timely ... Thank you for the clarity!

Anonymous said...

I have been waiting over 20 years for something this clear and precise on the subject. I cannot thank you enough. I don't know if you feel comfortable doing this, but could you also speak to the phenomenon of western students entering into vajrayana through attachment to a teacher and later dropping deity practice due to the inability, unwillingness or lack of knowledge to come to terms with the symbolism and (possibly) the sorcery aspects of it. However, if one has a connection with a teacher, and deity practice is the prescribed means to sustain that connection (within the tradition into which one has been initiated), it seems to me that the method you describe here is a much more grounded way of dealing with the potential destabilisations that are the dangers of the method. Again, profuse thanks. May you live long.

BuddhaManjushri said...

Thank you Ken, I'd echo 'Anon' and thank you for your clarity and precision. I'm starting to wonder if my 5 year dalliance with (and abrupt exit from) Vajrayana are a direct cause of my current malaise. I have a few major stresses and strains, a lot of confusion, a very disturbed mind, an almost total lack of concentration and a 'trapped energy wind' kind of feeling in my chest whenever I sit meditate. I felt allergic to the cushion for 3+ years and only now can face sitting in attention and awareness thanks to what I've come to understand via Unfettered Mind.

Maybe practice is only just now getting real? That the above is just a pointless desire to understand the archers's name when really I should just sit, in attention and let it all work itself out?

Ken said...

I'm putting together a post on energy transformation and some of the potential downsides. In the meantime, you might look at