What are deities, mantras, and absorptions meant to do?
I am not a wakefulness that comes from practice.
In these two lines, Jigmé Lingpa seeks to wean the reader away from the idea that the wakefulness (buddha) he is describing is something that we control, not to mention the superstition and magical thinking that surrounds deity practice.
I’m reminded of the Zen story of the monk who was sitting in the courtyard. When his teacher saw the monk, he asked, “What are you doing?”
“I am meditating to attain enlightenment,” the monk replied.
The teacher sat down beside him, picked up a stone and started to rub it with his robe.
After several hours, the monk turned to his teacher and asked him, “What are you doing?”
“I’m polishing this stone to make a tile,” was the reply.
“You can’t make a tile by polishing a stone,” said the monk.
“Nor can you attain enlightenment by meditating,” said the teacher.
Jigmé Lingpa does not see wakefulness (buddha) as something that can be made, that can be conjured into experience or generated by energy transformation practice. The wakefulness that Ever-present Good represents does not come about through methods aimed at control or transcendence. It is just there.
Does this mean that such the deity practices of vajrayana are pointless? Not at all, at least, not in my own experience.
I found deity practice more than a little difficult. The approaches and methods described in the texts didn’t work very well for me, so what follows isn’t in any way authoritative. It’s just how I work with these practices.
When I imagine myself as a deity, be it Chenrezi, Tara, or any of the many other deities that I’ve practiced, my efforts to visualize the form clearly usually leave me with a headache. I find it works better to feel as deeply as possible that I am the embodiment of the awakened principle the deity embodies, e.g., compassion in the case of Chenrezi or the power to destroy emotional disturbances in the case of Hayagriva. As I rest in that feeling, a sense of the form of the deity arises, and also what the form expresses through its symbolism. I don’t think much about the form or the symbolism, for thinking just leads to distraction. I keep a sense of the deity present in my mind. In other words, the feeling of being the deity is a place for me to come back to, and I let that feeling grow and evolve on its own. The symbolism, which I have usually learnt from study, begins to speak in its own language, directly, bypassing the intellect.
Mantra works a little differently. As it says in the texts, you recite mantra when you have run out of juice for deity practice. It’s a way of resting and refreshing your energy. While I repeat the mantra, thoughts come up and distract my attention. When I recognize what has happened, I go back to the mantra. Gradually, the mantra replaces the subconscious gossip (to use Trungpa Rinpoche’s phrase) that is the basis of distraction. When the mantra has completely replaced the subconscious gossip and repeats itself, my mind is quiet and the mantra just echoes on its own.
For samadhi or absorption, I bring attention to the personality of the deity, feeling what it’s like to be the deity not just in form but how that would be in the world, in interacting with others. The method of practice (sadhana) for the deity provides a way of acting that out. Again, I don’t think about it. I just feel it as I go through the various dramatic elements of the practice. Parts of me resonate with being the embodiment of compassion — the infinite strength, ability and resilience to help others. Those parts wake up and come to life. Other parts are relieved and relax. And other parts, those that have a problem with that way of being, go into rebellion. Practice consists of coming back again and again to the sense of just being the deity and seeing and appreciating that all those different parts are also expressions of the deity. In doing so, I meet my own emotional material over and over again, not as something to oppose or possess but as something to experience as completely as possible. Approached this way, it can be experienced it in all its intensity or banality without my being carried away by it.
When you experience emotional reactions without being carried away by them, the energy of those reactions is transformed and becomes available as a higher level of attention. This transformation is not something you notice happening. It’s not something you do. It just happens.
As all that confusion, the nagging, sulking, furious, outraged, relieved, frightened, critical, joyful, proud, angry, open, confident, greedy voices seize and squabble over the microphone, along with their associated bodily sensations and all the confused thinking and projections that arise, I keep coming back to being the deity, in form, mantra and presence, and gradually find a way to be in the whole mess.
Bit by bit, it becomes clear that everything that I experience —everything, the deity, the symbolism, the emotional confusion, etc. — is mind. At the same time, it is clear that there is nothing that is mind, nothing whatsoever.
Jamgön Kongtrul, the great 19th century master, put it this way:
When the deity’s form is clear, the clear appearance is your own mind.
Acceptance that it is not clear is your own mind.
While you want it to be clear, what works at meditation is your own mind.
Your mind is also timeless awareness, guru and deity.
Everything is the arising of mind, yet mind itself is not something made.
The beauty of this crucial point of the two phases is how conclusive it is:
No matter how many different creation phase practices you do,
If you make awareness clear and just keep it from wandering,
Clarity arises as clarity-emptiness and disturbance arises as disturbance-emptiness.
(You can find these verses in Creation and Completion, pg. 49. The above is my own translation. See this note to for a brief explanation of the two phases.)
In other words, you discover how to be awake right in your own experience. This wakefulness is completely different from the idea of wakefulness as the ability to observe thoughts and feelings come and go without being caught by them. That wakefulness is like a person sitting on the banks of a river, watching the water tumble over rocks, swell in waves and swirl in eddies. The wakefulness Jigmé Lingpa is pointing to is more like a person in a kayak, right in the river, tumbling over the rapids, pausing for a split second here or there to balance and set direction, then back into the flow, the swirling eddies and swelling waves, moving in and with the water but not swept away or capsized.
Vajrayana practice is about being awake in the thick of life, which is why it is so challenging and so intriguing.