I hope to give a very brief, personal view of the Tantric attitude to life. Tantra is an enormous subject, and this therefore is a very small aspect of it.
I think the most important thing about the Tantric view or the Tantric attitude is that it is a sacred world, a sacred dimension of life. I often think of William Blake as the English Tantric. In a few of his attitudes this would not apply, but much of his poetry, especially for instance, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell could really be a Tantric document. One of the things he says there is: ‘Everything that lives is holy.’ Another beautiful saying is: ‘Energy is eternal delight.’ These two could be the essence of Tantra.
Some people might think that compassion is rather left out in Tantra because the Tantric texts don’t speak much about it; they speak rather about bliss and luminosity. But it is very important to realise that Tantra is based on all the previous Buddhist teachings. We talk about the three yanas [vehicles] — Hinayana, Mahayana and Vajrayana—and these are a continuous thread. Tantra itself means ‘a thread’ or ‘a continuity’. When we talk of Tantra, therefore, we have to automatically include all the previous teachings of Buddhism.
It is sometimes said that the main emphasis of Hinayana is emptiness, the main emphasis of Mahayana is compassion, and the main emphasis of Tantra is bliss. But these three, I think, are really indivisible, inseparable, and lead into each other; they are completely interrelated. The symbol that best expresses the whole Tantric view is that of the mandala, and one aspect of the whole mandala idea is that everything is interrelated.
First of all, what is emptiness? In Tantra we have the idea of openness and luminosity, perhaps, rather than emptiness. Every single thing in Tantra—all the imagery, symbolism, technical terms—refers directly to things that we can experience. Everything comes from our own hearts and minds, and even though we cannot experience them fully in the real Tantric sense, we can have a glimpse of them. Tantra is not something strange and different; like Buddhahood itself, it is inherent in our own nature. Even this Tantric bliss which you might think is the result of very advanced practices, can be glimpsed a little in ordinary, everyday life. Otherwise there would be no possibility of ever being able to understand or to practise.
What, then, is the idea of emptiness? In meditation we might get a glimpse of freeing ourselves from the feeling of ‘self’. In Tantra this tight bondage of ‘self’ is described as ‘ego freezing the states around itself’. Our nature is pure, open, like empty space, open and luminous, but this tight concentration of ‘self-feeling’ is continually manufacturing the feeling that ‘I am I’ and ‘you are you’, that ‘everybody else’ is something separate from ‘me’. This is the action of the five skandhas [the five aggregates of form, sensation, perception, mental formations, and consciousness]. The five skandhas continually recreate the feeling of ‘self’, and the feeling of ‘self’, in turn, manufactures the five skandhas. It is a continual process of ‘self’ arising, an interdependent creation occurring all the time. And this is referred to as ‘frozen space’ or ‘cluttered up space’. We are cluttering up the natural openness of space and freezing it so that we cannot feel anything any more. A glimpse of emptiness, then, is a sudden release of this constricted feeling; it is a wonderful freedom, a feeling of warmth and release.
Once this happens, once the barrier between ‘I’ and ‘other’ comes down, there is a natural sense of oneness with the whole environment and all the people around; there is a natural flowering of compassion out of this emptiness. The feeling of emptiness and the feeling of compassion are completely interrelated. You could not have one without the other. You could not have genuine compassion without the feeling of emptiness and openness behind it.
In Tantra it is said that this indivisible union of emptiness and compassion gives rise to Bodhicitta, or the awakened mind, the awakened heart. Bodhicitta could not come about without these two things—emptiness and compassion—which are inseparable. And this in fact brings us to one of the very beautiful elements of Tantric symbolism, which is the male and female Buddhas and male and female Bodhisattvas in union. These two symbolise the inseparable union of emptiness and compassion. The two of them together create the ecstatic feeling of complete happiness, complete bliss, which is the third element.
One could say that bliss is the subjective side of compassion. We can feel this in very ordinary things. When we are very happy in a selfless kind of way, we radiate our happiness to others. If we are happy in a selfish way through suddenly getting what we want, say, this doesn’t have the same natural, radiating effect. For this to happen, there has to be the element of emptiness as well, or of nonself. Here again, these three—emptiness, compassion, and bliss—are completely interrelated. In Tantra the texts usually talk about the union of emptiness and bliss rather than the union of emptiness and compassion, but really all three are completely together. So this is just one aspect of how everything in Tantra actually does relate to our own experience.
Another thing to say about compassion is that all the imagery of the Tantric deities are expressions of different aspects of compassion, different aspects of enlightenment itself. And all the little details of the iconography can be related to different ideas that we have related to wisdom and compassion, because enlightenment itself is something quite beyond our comprehension. It is like a brilliant, clear, white light that we cannot even look at directly. Just as white light comes through a prism and we see it in all the colours of the rainbow, so the pure light of enlightenment is split up so that our human minds can comprehend it and get some sort of grasp of it. This is the imagery that gives rise to all the different Buddha figures in Tantra.
There are many different Buddhas and deities—male and female Buddhas, Bodhisattvas and all kinds of other divine beings. But essentially they spring from five Buddha families which make up the basic mandala figure that you see in Tantric art. These are presented in five different colours. For instance, in the Tibetan Book of the Dead [Liberation Through Hearing] they appear as five coloured lights, streaming towards your heart. And these represent five different kinds of wisdom or aspects of enlightenment. From this basic pattern of the five Buddhas, all the other details of the complicated Vajrayana mandalas develop.
The Tantras say that the five skandhas are the five Buddhas. The five skandhas are the aspects of how the ego is built up, aspects of the personality or the individual. These five groups of dharmas or elements of existence are continually interacting in order to make us believe that we are who we are, that we are separate individual beings. So, the basic principle of the mandala is that we try to see everything that happens in our lives, which is based on the five skandhas, as part of the mandala pattern. And the mandala becomes the basis of transformation. Tantra is about transforming the energy of our ordinary samsaric [worldly] life into enlightened energy, through the power of meditation.
Of course, it is very important to start off with basic meditation. This is the way to look into the complexity of our ordinary samsaric experience, which is basically the five skandhas. Gradually, as one begins to notice what is going on and get some distance from it, one becomes slightly less entangled with the whole thing. This frozen space then becomes less frozen, less cluttered, and less tightly bound up with the idea of ‘I’ and ‘mine’. And this is the beginning of the transforming process. We can therefore say that right from the very beginning of Buddhist practice, it is all Tantric, it is all a process of transformation. Of course, you don’t have to label anything as Tantric. It is not a question of putting anything into categories, but one can do any kind of Buddhist practice with this sacred outlook.
The five colours of the mandala also refer to the five elements of earth, water, fire, air and space. We know that everything in the universe—including our own bodies—is composed of these five elements. It is not just ordinary earth or ordinary water that we look at, however, it is also the qualities behind the elements that matter. Earth represents the quality of solidity, cohesion, and weight. Rocks or anything that has hardness and weight belongs to the element of earth. Everything in our bodies that makes us solid—our bones, the heavy element of our flesh—that comes from earth. And one can also look at it in a psychological way. Every organisation or every idea must have some kind of structure, some kind of solidity to it. This is the earth element in an abstract sense. All the different parts of the mandala that we gradually build up can be looked at with reference to anything that one can think of. The human body, the natural world, the mind, emotions—everything is made up of these elements.
Water has the quality of liquidity and flowing. Anything in our minds that is flowing and flexible and adapts to circumstances, therefore, is the element of water. We need the structural element of earth and we also need the fluidity of water in everything that we do. In our bodies, blood and all the liquid elements come from the element of water.
Fire is not just literal fire. The sun is fire. The moon is fire. Everything connected with light and heat in any form belongs to the element of fire. In our bodies we have the fire of digestion, the fire of energy. And in psychological terms if we say that someone is fiery—they might be passionate or angry. Fire can enter into almost any emotion. We need that energy of fire to be able to live at all.
Then there is the element of air. Every breath we take is thanks to the element of air. Air has the quality of moving, it gives us the ability to move our bodies. It gives lightness to everything we do. If we walk, dance, or jump, we need the power of air. And, in thinking, we need the power of air to make our thoughts rise upwards and be buoyant.
And space—this is the all embracing, all containing element, the condition for any of the others to exist. It can be regarded either as the first or the last of the elements, and it contains and sustains them all. Space exists within the heart of the atom. Space is not just a huge universe; it exists within the heart of everything.
These five elements are extremely important. They are also in the mandala, and are actually represented by the feminine Buddhas, the Devas.
There are many other sets of five that could be put into the mandala. But the really important thing about the Tantric outlook is to catch sight of these correspondences in our daily lives. We can only start from what we have here and now—our bodies, our minds, perceptions, and feelings. This is the whole basis of Tantra. It is extremely practical and down to earth. For example, all of our emotions can be fitted into this mandala. And by thinking in this way, and getting used to looking at things in this way, it begins to make sense of our chaotic daily experience; it provides a pattern.
Trungpa Rinpoche wrote a book on this subject entitled Orderly Chaos. The mandala is really a tool for ordering the chaos that goes on in our minds all the time. But it is not a question of imposing order onto chaos. It is a question of gradually uncovering, through meditation, and seeing the underlying pattern that is already there. When we see that, that is the beginning of seeing our experiences as deities, as male and female Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, dakinis, Herukas, all the other dharmapalas, peaceful and wrathful deities, male and female deities. They all have their particular part to play and every single one of them represents experiences that we are continually having here and now all the time. They are not things that just happen to us after practising Tantra; they are actually things that are happening continually.
The Dharmapalas, for instance, the terrifying, frightening figures, are really not frightening at all. Some people think of them almost as demons who are going to punish us if we break our vows, or do something bad. But that is not so. They are protectors of dharma. Dharma is within us; it is the path that we are treading within our own hearts. The Dharmapalas are there to help us stay on the path. In the mandala context this is expressed by the four gates. The mandala is a circle, but it is not a closed circle. The circle is inside a square and on each side of the square are four gateways. Each of these gateways has a deity—not to keep anyone else out of the mandala, but to stop us from getting out. The mandala is the sacred space in which we tread the path of dharma. It is the sacred space in which we transform our samsaric being into enlightened being. And so the Dharmapalas are there to remind us by their specific qualities that this really is what we have chosen to do. This is what we were born for. This is what we want to do, and is, in fact, our essential nature. All the other deities have functions of this sort as well.
The apparently terrifying, wrathful deities are the most wonderful expression of compassion. The peaceful deities show us the very beautiful, self-existing aspect of compassion and enlightenment. They are just there, very peaceful, very beautiful, inviting us to open our eyes and see them, inviting us to see them in our hearts. But because we do not usually respond to that, we do not see that enlightenment is our essential, basic nature. Out of compassion, therefore, the wrathful deities manifest as ordinary life situations which may be frightening or threatening to the egoistic sense which wants to cling onto its ideas of ‘I’ and ‘mine’.
It is only to the ego that the wrathful deities are wrathful and frightening. In fact, ‘wrathful’ is not really a good word for them, although it is a literal translation of the Sanskrit. They are the energetic deities—vivid, forceful, and absolutely wide awake. If you look at these wonderful images, you will see how huge they are. Their limbs are fat, large and strong. They have three eyes—wide open, bulging—with flames coming from their hair and sometimes snakes twining round their bodies. And they are dancing. Even though they are so huge and fat, they are extremely graceful. Usually one leg is bent stamping on the ground and the other is stretched out. They may have several arms, stretched out holding different weapons. They are figures of truly awe-inspiring, forceful, powerful energy to show us how enlightenment is reaching out to us in its compassion, to make us wake up.
When you begin to feel like this about these deities, you can catch sudden glimpses of them in things that happen to make us wake up. If you are going around in the usual kind of mindless, half asleep way and stumble over a paving stone or something like that, then you can suddenly see that that paving stone is a wrathful deity waking you up. This can actually happen if one begins to think in this way and enter into this wonderful Tantric, sacred outlook.
The wrathful deities are usually very dark—black or dark blue—and the peaceful deities are of clear, beautiful, vivid colours of green, red , white, blue or yellow. One may see them suddenly when catching a glimpse of a beautiful, red rose, for instance. You see the warmth of Amitabha shining out in that rose. Or when you see something brilliant white you may see the purity of Vajrasattva who is white. And in the blue of the sky you can see all the qualities of space, emptiness, and the Buddha Akshobhya, for instance, who is blue.
You can get to know all of these different correlations in the mandala—the meanings of the symbolic attributes of the Buddhas, their colours, the element that they are connected with, the emotion that they are connected with, and the skandha that they are connected with—all these things relate. And, although it may seem very complicated at first, if one begins to get interested in this kind of world, it can have a remarkable effect on one’s perception of daily life.
All we have to deal with, really, are our natural perceptions and emotions that are going on inside us all the while. It is just from these very simple, direct, everyday experiences that the whole complicated edifice of Tantra is built. It seems very complicated, but also it is extremely simple. Practice sometimes seems very complicated because we ourselves are so complicated, but all the complications are just to lead us to one very simple central point.
The word ‘mandala’, which means a circle, implies something that goes round a centre. There must be a centre. And when there is a centre, there must be a periphery. This is the basic principle of ‘mandala’. And, as we know, the central point of the mandala of samsara [the phenomenal world] is always ‘I’. This confused mandala that we normally inhabit, then, has this unreal centre of ‘I’, and all around it is the mandala of our own interpretation of the world. We can say, therefore, that our world as we perceive it is our mandala.
‘Mandala’ can also be used in a figurative sense. Just as we use the word ‘circle’ in English to talk of someone’s ‘circle of friends’ or someone’s ‘sphere of influence’, so ‘mandala’ can mean all these different things. Any system of relationships that relates to something at the centre can be seen in terms of the mandala. So, we each inhabit our own mandala, but also every organisation is a mandala, a family is a mandala, a group of friends is a mandala, a business is a mandala. We can apply these principles to anything of that sort.
If, through meditation, we begin to see the unreality of the centre of this samsaric mandala, the whole thing then begins to open up. We find that this apparently solid centre around which the mandala revolves is really an empty hole. In consequence, the mandala begins to transform itself into the mandala of enlightenment.
The mandala of enlightenment of the five Buddhas is based on openness, empty luminous space—free, unobstructed. And instead of ‘I’ at the centre, there gradually comes to be the glimpse of Buddha-nature. This Buddha-nature is pictured as one of the five Buddhas. So this is how the mandalas that are used in Vajrayana practice come about.
The practitioner is always at the centre of the mandala. When you look at pictures of these mandalas, you will see one Buddha-figure at the centre, and either a whole group of other figures around, or the basic mandala of the five Buddhas—one at the centre, and one in each of the four cardinal directions. There may also be many other figures in the intermediary directions and all around. However, you must always think of it as yourself at the centre, yourself transformed into the Buddha-nature. These mandalas are expressions of our own enlightened nature. They are not just patterns or pictures of an ideal enlightened state; they are pictures of our own nature. And this is how we should read them and look at them when we see such mandalas.
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From a talk given at the Buddhist Publishing Group, Leicester summer school in August 1994.