Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche
Vienna, October 1987
Buddhist teachings can be divided into the sutra path and the tantra path.
The sutra path is based on causes, and the tantra path is based on fruit. Both
are about using a path to free us from the dualistic view in order to reach
the state of liberation.
On the sutra path, first, the cause for a dualistic view is analyzed. One finds that the root for this is clinging to an "I," our ignorance. Then one goes on analyzing. Where does this idea come from? What is the essence of clinging to an "I?" What are its signs? What is its cause, etc.? Finally, one comes to the conclusion that one's own identity does not truly exist. On the sutra path, one starts from the understanding that now we are in a state full of suffering and one looks for the cause of this suffering. One finds that the cause is the various actions one did before. Then one questions what led to these actions and their resulting karma. One finds that the cause is our disturbing emotions, which again are caused by our dualistic view and our clinging to an "I." Thus, one comes to the point where one recognizes that clinging to the "I" is the cause of all our experiences.
Based on this understanding one follows the sutra path in which one primarily maintains the rules of discipline with body and speech. Also, one comes to an understanding of the mutual dependence of all things, and that they do not inherently exist. Thirdly one tries to attain a benevolent attitude toward other beings.
Therefore, on the sutra path one proceeds by analyzing things, investigating the causes. Based on understanding which results from that, one applies different methods. Thereby one reaches the point where one becomes free from suffering. One attains liberation and the state of omniscience as well. However, this path is very long. It is said that the bodhisattva path takes three endless kalpas to attain buddhahood. On the tantra path, Vajrayana, one proceeds in a completely different way. One doesn't analyze causes, one works directly with one's own experiences. For example, when disturbing emotions come up, one doesn't analyze their cause, but experiences them directly and comes to the point where one is able to transform them. For that reason, it is said that this path works with the fruit and is therefore a very fast path. The result which is attained through both paths is the same: one becomes liberated from suffering and inner disturbances subside, one attains realization. The difference between the paths is only the way in which one practices.
The tantra path starts from different conditions than the sutra path. This path is only suitable for practioners with the highest capacities, since one works directly with disturbing emotions without analyzing their causes. On the other hand, it is also said that in this degenerated time this path is suitable for people with the strongest disturbing emotions. The reason is that these people don't have the patience to accumulate merit over a long period of time and to practice the bodhisattva path. They simply cannot manage it. If one really can practice the tantra path and is able to deal with the disturbances in one's mind, it is a very fast path. Nevertheless, one will not reach buddhahood in a few days or years.
It is always said that the Vajrayana is about bringing impure experiences and appearances to a pure level. However, this does not mean that this transformation consists only in thinking or believing that things are pure. It is rather about real transformation. In order to be able to do this, one needs the "three roots" (sources) of blessing, accomplishment, and activity. The root of blessing is the lama. The root of accomplishment (siddhis) is the yidam. The root of activity is the dharma protectors. The lama is the most important of the three roots. Yidams and protectors are manifestations of the lama. No yidam or protector is separate from the lama. For that reason, the lama has a very special meaning in the Vajrayana.
In order to understand this, it is beneficial to look again at the sutra path. Here one relies on a teacher or spiritual friend who shows one the way. According to their explanations one practices and in that way one progresses through the various bodhisattva levels and five paths (accumulation, junction, seeing, meditation, no more learning).
In the Vajrayana, the teacher has a much more important significance. One does not see him simply as one who shows the way, but one sees him as the Buddha himself. With this attitude, the blessing of the lama can directly enter one's mind, mature and awaken one's mindstream. In order to make this possible, two elements are needed. On the one hand one has to practice and on the other hand one has to open to the lama and really see him as the Buddha.
On the sutra path, one deals with one's actions very consciously. One puts effort into avoiding all negative actions and only doing positive things. But since one is always "accompanied" by one's own ignorance and since one has various disturbances, one never succeeds completely and always does something negative again. The sutra path takes so long because the striving for positiveness and the disturbances in the mind which tempt us to do negative actions, are always in conflict which each other.
On the tantra path however, there is an additional element in connection with the lama. In the true nature of mind there is no confusion to be found; it is only the way we experience things which is marked by confusion. If we open ourselves to the lama filled with trust, and therefore get his blessing, our mind will be guided to maturity. This means that through the power of blessing we are able to recognize the true nature of our mind. Thus the lama - the source of blessing - is so important in the Vajrayana and is called "the first root."
In order to get the blessing, several things are necessary. On the one hand, one needs to develop full trust and complete devotion toward the lama. However, this does not refer to just any lama. It refers to the one we have chosen after having extensively checked several teachers. It refers to the lama in whom we are sure we can develop complete trust. On the other hand, the lama should check the practitioner as well in order to be sure that he is really able to help him.
If one has attained certainty that one can develop this complete openness toward a lama, it should give rise to an unshakable trust. It should really be as unshakable and as indestructable as a diamond. If one is able to do that, the result is not being influenced and disturbed anymore by common thoughts. This unshakability of trust is also the reason for the name "Vajrayana", diamond-vehicle, because this trust is like a diamond - indestructable. Many people erroneously believe that there is no difference between a Vajrayana teacher and other teachers. A common teacher can show one the path in a perfectly pure and clear way, and explain how to behave, how things are, etc. A Vajrayana teacher however, is somebody who does not work and teach only with words, but on all levels. With bodily behavior, with verbal teachings and through the inspiration of his mind, he can lead the mindstream of others towards maturity and liberation. Only someone with this capacity is an authentic Vajrayana teacher. There are many common teachers, but only few can be called a teacher in the Vajrayana.
In the prayer of Dorje Chang it is said that devotion is the head of meditation. This refers to the devotion which should be developed in the Vajrayana- a kind of devotion which completely and naturally awakens in oneself without imagination or fooling oneself. When it appears in one's mind, common thoughts subside through the blessing of the lama and the experience of meditation arises naturally, without putting any effort into meditation. Then the inspiration of the body, speech, and mind of the lama can be effective in oneself.
There is the quotation of earlier Kagyu masters that the preliminary practices - the Ngondro, are more profound than all other practices. This statement refers much more to the Guru-Yoga then to the prostrations, Dorje Sempa or mandala offerings, because here one receives the inspiration of the lama's blessing. For the practices like Mahamudra, or the developing phases in connection with yidam practices, or the completion phases - the Six Yogas of Naropa - which are all based on the Ngondro, it is always necessary to prepare one's mind properly. This happens through the blessing one experiences in Guru Yoga. Only through this, is one able to bring impure experiences to a pure level and to work correctly with the other practices. The devotion one should have toward the lama is more than one's feeling when seeing a certain teacher who behaves in a pleasant way toward oneself. If the lama smiles or speaks in a pleasant way, a feeling of devotion may arise, but this is called the "arising of a feeling due to various conditions." The aspired devotion toward the lama however, is a deep inner feeling which is independent from such outer conditions. In the beginning of course, it still depends on outer things; then it becomes an inner feeling which awakens independently from outer conditions and momentary experiences. Only when this completely deep devotion and this unshakable trust have arisen can the blessing work in a way so that common thoughts and the like, calm down naturally. There are descriptions about the signs of devotion: tears appear in the eyes and the hair on the body stands upright. But for this to happen it is necessary that one has a connection to one's lama for many lifetimes; to build it up in one lifetime is impossible.
Only if one receives the authentic blessing is one in the position to realize the authentic fruit, the ultimate accomplishments, the highest siddhis. If one tries to forcefully build up an artificial feeling of devotion and trust, the blessing and the inspiration will be only imaginary and artificial, and so will the fruit (result). Teachers themselves are just human beings. They have a body. They are sometimes in a good or a bad mood. They are sometimes angry, sometimes sad, etc. Without real trust and unshakable devotion, one will be influenced by these things and feel insecure. One will wonder why the experience of meditation today is not as strong as the experience yesterday; one becomes unstable and insecure in one's confidence. All this results from the fact that devotion and trust are not yet really unshakable.
When one talks about reaching the highest accomplishments, it is not something outer or something new one attains. It is the realization of the nature of ones own mind. One has attained the highest accomplishments when one is free of all momentary changing states and conditions, and when one has realized the mind as it really is.
Blessing is the ability to bring the mind of other sentient beings to maturity and to liberate them. Blessing does not have any form, nor any specific symbol of expression. Although during empowerments different symbolic objects are used, the actual blessing is that one becomes free of the idea that someone receives a blessing and is given a blessing. This is the ultimate empowerment and the real blessing. Everything else is just symbols and examples for the receiving of blessing.
Kagyu Life International, No.3, 1995
Copyright ©1995 Kamtsang Choling USA