As a newbie, when you study Buddhism, you come across “Tantra” sooner or later, and make a decision whether that’s something for you or not. As a Tibetan, you are born and bred into Tantra and you carry on as if it’s the most natural thing on earth. But the longer I dwelled upon Tantra or Vajrayana, the more it started to look like a huge superstructure built to explain Buddhism by adding complexity with a pantheon of gods, demigods, more strange-looking creatures, and a whole lot of mysterious rites to go with them.
Out of the 84,000 methods the Buddha is said to have taught to reach enlightenment, why on earth did the Tibetans pick this complicated one?
I would have liked to be more positive about Tantra since I was Tibetan and this was our natural creed. But I didn’t understand anything. To me it was Tantra Mantra mumbo jumbo, and so one day, when an introductory course about tantric deity meditation was on offer, I thought this could be the chance to change my perception. So I signed up hoping to gain some insight.
It turned out to be a good idea because I came back with two important personal takeaways: a)Tantra is an advanced meditation practice and nothing too mysterious b) I don’t need to bother about Tantra at my level of Dharma!
The Lama said there is nothing secretive or mysterious about Tantra. He said it is a meditation technique with specific deities (Yidam) and could be an effective method to gain insights quicker than the other methods, provided that the students fulfill three main criteria: Having embraced the Three Jewels; having realized in one's mind the three fundamental insights of renunciation, compassion and wisdom (aka having understood “emptiness”), and having an unshakeable faith in one’s tantric teacher.
Then the Lama said that expecting Tantra to lead to enlightenment, without having acquired the necessary mental preconditions, would be futile - like sitting in a jet expecting it to fly without fuel in the tank; or like trying to climb up to the branches of a tree without touching the trunk; or building a house by stacking floor upon floor without a proper foundation.
At the end, the Lama also cautioned that there have always been charlatans. He said there are people styling themselves as tantric masters since the idea to reach enlightenment in one lifetime was so tempting. The Lama said all the “strange” ideas about Tantra - did he mean sexual techniques? - could be traced back to impostors. He didn’t give any names but presumably he meant fake tantric masters. He only said genuine tantric masters do not exhibit any eccentric features; they are inconspicuous. Jetsun Milarepa, the Lama pointed out, was a shining example of an authentic tantric master.
But what about the hordes of gods and goddesses with multiple arms and heads, some copulating, some looking really pissed off? When Buddhism is atheistic what are all these gods good for and why would people have to pray to them? Isn’t that the epitome of idolatry? Luckily, someone asked just this question during Q&A whereupon the Lama graciously replied: “When we speak of ‘deity meditation’, many, who are normally dedicated Dharma practitioners, become disinterested or disapproving.”
It sure felt like he was talking to me.
Buddhist concepts like “emptiness”, “non-duality”, “no creator-god”, “compassion” and so on were cool because you could fit them into a Western-science driven mind. But “deity meditation” was esoteric, irrational, theistic, in short: dubious. Which modern Buddhist needs “Voodoo” stuff to gain enlightenment?
The Lama said feelings of inner rejection of the tantric path were a sign that the student is not mature. Apparently, tantric practice is indeed not suitable for all students and therefore should not be taught indiscriminately. It could facilitate your way to enlightenment only, when you had absolute trust in your teacher after a thorough examination of the teacher’s qualities. He said it’s written in the scriptures that a student can spend up to twelve years examining whether a teacher is a qualified tantric master.
Twelve years! Oh boy, I was shaking my head out of hopelessness. But real pros would probably say:” Twelve years are peanuts for a Buddhist because we are people who are trained to think in kalpa (eons)!”
Anyway, the Lama also said once renunciation, compassion and wisdom have been brought forward in our minds and absolute trust in the teacher has developed, that would be the point when the deity meditation comes in. Then progress would come quickly.
As for the multitude of meditational deities, he explained that some people respond better to Avalokitesvara and others to Tara and so on and so forth. It would depend on your personal situation. A qualified master would be able to show you the deity most suitable for you to visualise in meditation. You visualise yourself as the deity and to possess the qualities of the deity, you do not pray to the deity, in tantric meditation you are the deity, the Lama said.
And then he gave a typical Tibetan analogy comparing deities to food. He said just like some people prefer rice over noodles, some people used Yidam X over Yidam Y. It’s personal inclination. All foods sustain the body so what you pick is meaningless. The same goes with the deities. They are the food for your mind to work towards enlightenment.
I believe I gained some understanding of Tantra after this course. You basically develop your mental capacity from the bottom up. After the course, I took a shot at visualising my learning with an illustration. Not sure though if Theravada Buddhists would be happy with my illustration. It makes their path look so preliminary and I am not sure that’s their understanding as well?
The course helped me see that Tantra can be explained and understood in a perfectly rational manner. So I am okay with Tantra as an idea now!
Or so I thought, until some friends announced that they were going to the Kalachakra in Washington DC. Whether I was also coming?
Oho, Kalachakra: The biggest Tantra event the world over… - attend or not attend?
I’ve been to two Kalachakras since the Dalai Lama began teaching them to the rank and file. At the first one, I was a kid taken along by my parents. It was held near where we lived and every member of every Tibetan household in our town went. It never crossed my mind not to go. Nobody in his right mind would ever stay away from an event of this caliber. It was the mother of all events for us Tibetans.
I didn’t understand anything during the preparatory stage or the actual initiation. All I recall is everyone had those red ribbons around their foreheads at one point. I also remember we were asked to put a dry twig under our pillow at bedtime and watch our dreams. I didn’t take any of the vows that day so I never actually received the wang (“empowerment”) unlike some friends, who had to skip volleyball that evening: They were afraid to ruin their vows by unintentionally killing invisible insects in that lawn.
Twelve years later, I went to another Kalachakra. By then I was a graduate student and a confirmed atheist who went by her own conscience. Everyone who knew me found it strange: What does a godless Tibetan do at the Kalachakra? Well, this time, I was going for the cultural experience surrounding the Kalachakra, I told everyone who wanted to know. My first visit to Tibet was behind me and now I wanted to see how the Tibetans in the Indian settlements lived, and generally just be there and “observe”.
Again I attended all the sessions and listened attentively just as I had done during my first Kalachakra. But while I was innocent and clueless the first time, by the second time I had become opinionated: “You don’t need that to get your life together, it’s only important to be informed”, was my inner attitude. So no further deliberation necessary: When the actual empowerment came, I opted out again because I was a mere “observer” and I knew as much about it as the man in the moon.
Since then, countless Kalachakras have been given all over the globe and I missed them all. Shouldn’t I go now that I have started a genuine interest in the Dharma?
Still can’t decide!
The purpose of the Kalachakra ceremony is to become “empowered” through visualising the tantric master as the deity and yourself as the “child”, and in this condition, bring about the necessary mental transformation required to progress quickly on the path. The real work on the mind, however, begins after the Kalachakra when you’re home alone starting to systematically reflect and meditate upon what you’ve learned. Only when you follow through like this and achieve a mental transformation can you hope to have become “empowered”.
Well, then I’m definitely out, that’s as sure as eggs is eggs - but what about all the others?
I believe many who attend the Kalachakra hardly fulfill the basic technical requirements of a proper Tantra student either, because to be honest, these requirements are very difficult to reach. But maybe others have something I don’t? Maybe it’s unshakeable faith in the tantric teacher.
I guess to some extent, they are able to compensate their lack of technical expertise with this strength of faith. Maybe that’s what many Tibetans have always and successfully been doing because I do believe people manage to get inspiration and blessings from the Kalachakra this way even when they don’t understand the practice per se.
Perhaps most folks also attend with the more modest goal to collect wholesome actions for a positive rebirth and not with the big tantric goal to reach enlightenment in one lifetime. So for them the blessings (jinlab) they can hope to receive are probably just perfect. And since they never expected more to begin with, it all works out for them.
Whereas I have zero expectation, little faith, and a lot of questions.
Imagine: If I went to the Kalachakra with my current mindset, it’s as safe as the bank of England that I’d come back not having understood a thing - for the third time in over twenty years! Ouch!
Talking about questions, here we go: If the maximum ordinary people can hope to get out of a tantric initiation such as Kalachakra is “mere” blessings and inspiration, why not try and obtain these by following a basic teaching? Why “waste” a Kalachakra for that? Why, among a myriad of choices, does the Dalai Lama pick a complicated practice like Kalachakra for a public mass event. Isn’t that negligent? Isn’t that – excuse my language – casting pearls before swine?
Of course His Holiness is aware of the dichotomy between tantric practice and a public event. On the official website of the Kalachakra in DC he explains that he holds the empowerments because they attract a lot of people, but his ultimate aim is to improve people’s grounding in the Dharma via the preliminary teachings and not the initiation itself.
But even those who are more experienced in the Dharma will freely admit that it’s difficult to gain tantric insights by merely spending a few days in preliminary teachings. How appropriate is it then, I dare ask, to use the empowerment as some kind of magnet to draw people when clearly most of them aren’t qualified to apply it? What’s the purpose of sprinkling such an intimate and precious initiation indiscriminately over every Tom, Dick and Harry?
Kundun said himself we need to work on our Buddhism more when he recently came to Minnesota. He said he met people who were barely able to explain the meaning of “The Three Jewels” or the “Four Noble Truths” and he urged them to study. But if after more than one thousand years since the introduction of Buddhism to Tibet, we are still struggling with the basics, then what for Buddha’s sake can we do with a Kalachakra or Tantra?
I vaguely remember Gedun Choephel saying the Tibetans have a flair for complicated stuff and an ingrained slight for simple things. Rings true. I believe it’s not only obvious in the form of religion we practice but also in the archaic orthography and grammar of our language that a few literati insist on preserving. But I gave my two cents worth on the language topic and won’t go into that further.
It would have been lovely to attend the Kalachakra in DC this summer: Hanging out with a Tibetan crowd, enjoying the vibes of the event, letting our children immerse in the experience and connect, catch up with old friends, talk about old times - my personal sense of wellbeing would have been on cloud nine. Yet my head keeps telling me these shouldn’t be the reasons for going to a tantric initiation. I have the uneasy feeling that these might be what they call “the Eight Worldly Dharmas” or eight worldly concerns (Jigden Chö 8) and which you’re supposed to abandon.
Anyway, only because I have a mind that can’t handle Tantra and can’t fit in a Kalachakra, doesn’t mean others shouldn’t be interested or curious, or can’t fit it in either.
I wish all participants a happy and memorable Kalachakra with lots of positive impulses for their Dharma practice.
All written content on this blog is coyprighted. Please do not repost entire essays on your websites without seeking my prior written consent.