Essence of the Vajrayana


New Delhi, 11 January 2015

Essence of the Vajrayana

Brussels, 6 November 2015

During one of Orgyen Tobgyal Rinpoche’s visits to Antwerp, some of his Brussels-based friends asked Brussels Rigpa if they could use the centre for a day-long tsok practice. Naturally, the Brussels Sangha were delighted and immediately agreed. And, naturally, they were also determined to make the most of Rinpoche’s visit. So they asked him to teach them about The Essence of the Vajrayana.


As several of my former monks live in Belgium, I came here, few years ago, to perform a drupchen practice with them. I’m here again today because it seemed the right time for me to do another practice with them, called ‘Ngakso’ (Ocean of Amrita: A Vajrayana practice of Mending and Purification). At first, they thought we could do this practice in the Kagyu monastery near Antwerp, where we did the drupchen. But I thought it’d be better to practise here, in the Brussels Rigpa centre. So we got in touch and I am very grateful that you agreed to let us practise here.

You also asked if, after the session tonight, I would talk about the practice of Secret Mantra Vajrayana. You should know that I don’t usually give this kind of teaching and that I’m only doing it now as a way of serving Sogyal Rinpoche. Whenever I go to Rigpa centres, I do everything he asks of me, because I want to help him. This is the only reason I agreed to say a few words to you tonight.

The Situation: the Trials and Tribulations of Samsara

The first thing you need to understand is that all the sentient beings living in this world – ‘the sentient beings of the three realms of existence’ – are a product of mind. And as all sentient beings have been manufactured by mind, they are all under the influence of delusion. When we’re not under the power of delusion, we are buddhas. Therefore, sentient beings and buddhas share the same ground. That ground is called ‘buddha nature’; it is present in all sentient beings and the cause of enlightenment.

As the buddhas have recognized their mind’s delusions, they are free. Whereas sentient beings, who have not recognized their delusions for what they are, are not free; they have been spinning around and around on the wheel of samsara from time immemorial.

Samsara has but one quality: suffering. Nothing else. On a very superficial level, the three realms of existence that are samsara give the impression of being quite pleasant, even enjoyable. But if you examine samsara in greater detail, the more you look, the more clearly you will see that it is nothing but suffering. Why is it so difficult for us to recognize the intense suffering that we find ourselves in? Because we are completely blinded by the obscurations of karma, negative emotions and habitual tendencies.

If you’d take the trouble to examine this place we’re stuck in – samsara – and the problems that beset us here, you’d see them all. The Buddha Shakyamuni often spoke in great detail about the trials and tribulations of samsara. And when he spoke, he never once invented a single thing that he hadn’t seen for himself. All he did was look at our reality then describe it, exactly as it is.

The Bhagavan Buddha Shakyamuni himself spent a great deal of time in samsara – an infinite number of eons. And having realized its problems, it was in samsara that he attained liberation. This is how he was able to describe the shortcomings of samsara in such detail. In The Words of My Perfect Teacher, you will find a chapter called ‘The Defects of Samsara’. Read it and you’ll realize for yourself how problematic samsara really is.

The Solution: the Teachings of the Buddha

Once we acknowledge our situation and are clear about samsara’s problems, it’s very likely that we become eager to learn how to free ourselves from it. How to free ourselves is precisely what, out of his immense kindness, the Buddha taught.

There’s not enough time today to go into ‘The Defects of Samsara’, so you can look into it for yourselves. Once you know what these defects are, you’ll see them everywhere. You’ll realize that samara – all phenomena – has no solidity, no reality and is by nature impermanent. Actually, there people all over the world, not just Buddhists, who can see just how terrible samsara really is – those, for example, who commit suicide.

There are so many methods for freeing ourselves and every religion has its own approach. Some explain that what Buddhists call samsara and karma was created by the ‘All-mighty’. However, Buddha Shakyamuni taught us that samsara wasn’t created by any one being, it is the product of our karma.

In fact, it is said that, "The world is the product of karma". In other words our actions create the world. Since I created this world through my own actions, the methods for freeing myself can also only come from me. I cannot and do not need to rely on anyone else. If, as other religions believe, the world of the three realms of existence, samsara, had been created by an almighty being, I wouldn’t be able to do anything at all about my situation.

The Bhagavan Buddha – the complete and perfect awakened one graced with omniscient wisdom – followed the path until he finally attained liberation. He therefore experienced samsara. The Buddha then explained the situation we face in samsara, the methods we can use to liberate ourselves from it, and what, once we’ve attained liberation, the omniscience of a buddha looks like. Everything he taught was based on what he himself had seen; and he shared all his experiences in order to help others. Such is the teaching of the Buddha.

Three Levels of Capacity

The Buddha presents three vehicles in his teachings, which can be subdivided into nine. When he first began to teach, Buddha took into account the capacities and diverse dispositions of sentient beings. In spite of this infinite variety, beings can be categorized into three: those who have superior, average and lower capacities. These three rather broad categories can also be refined. Those with superior capacities can be broken down into smaller groups: the best superior capacities or ‘superior-superior', average superior capacities or ‘superior-average', and the least good superior capacities or ‘superior-lower'. The same designations apply to the second category, those with average capacities who have ‘average-superior’ capacities, ‘average-average’ capacities or ‘average-lower’ capacities. Similarly, those with lower capacities will include those who have a little more capacity than the others or ‘lower-superior’ capacities, those with ‘lower-average’ capacities, and the lowest who have ‘lower-lower’ capacities.

What causes this variation in capacity among sentient beings? From the point of view of the ground, buddha nature, there is no difference between us whatsoever; buddha nature is the basis of buddhahood for everyone. The differences lie in the quantity of obscurations. We are unable to see our buddha nature because obscurations conceal it, and each of us has a different thickness or density of obscuration. This is where we are all different.

Our temporary obscurations cast a shadow over our buddha nature. Those whose obscurations are the thickest are only capable of having thoughts of desire, aversion, ignorance, jealousy and pride – these are the only kinds of thought that arise in their minds.

For example, if your predominant negative emotion – the emotion that has motivated you for thousands of lives and whole eons – is strong aversion, there’s a good chance that you’ll be reborn in the form of a snake. If you look at snakes carefully, you will see that the moment they hatch, their disposition is already very aggressive. Similarly, even if you are born in a human form, you will be born with the tendency to flare up in anger and to have strong aversions. The same reasoning can be applied to all the other negative emotions – desire, ignorance, jealousy and pride.

From the point of view of the spiritual path, those who have cultivated these habitual tendencies for a long time are described as people with ‘lower capacities’. To give you an example, when a pure white cloth gets dropped in wet mud we can no longer see any white at all. But if the cloth is just a bit grubby, we can still make out that its true colour is white. If the cloth is slightly smeared with black streaks, we can easily see that the cloth is white streaked with black. In the same way, the various capacities of sentient beings are defined by the depth of their obscurations, which are produced by negative emotions.

How to Follow the Path

What Does 'Buddhist' Mean?

Everyone, whether we are of superior, average or lower capacity, must use our own intelligence to evaluate our mind and see where we are at. Intelligence is the wisdom within us, but when our obscurations are very dense, wisdom cannot express itself. Those of average capacity will, from time to time, enjoy a burst of wisdom. Those of superior capacity only need to hear a short explanation on a point of Dharma to understand it; and they are also capable of recognizing the various implications that relate to other aspects of Dharma. So clearly, for a practitioner, wisdom – or intelligence – is the most important quality on the path.

Therefore, if you wish to become a Buddhist, the first thing you must understand is that there’s no point in waiting for solutions to your problems to come from the outside; you yourself must examine your own situation and your own mind.

For us, "the authentic master, the complete and perfect awakened buddha” is a teacher, and a teacher is a person who teaches. All our teacher, the Buddha, could do was show us what to adopt and what to avoid, because when it comes to how we act, it’s up to us. We will always do what we want to do, so, the Buddha can only show us what we should do. It’s then up to us whether we do it, or not. If Buddha could enlighten all sentient beings himself, without us having to do anything at all, there would no longer be any such thing as ‘sentient beings’ because we would all already have been liberated.

We must reflect on the Dharma that the Buddha so kindly explained to us, and by meditating and by using our own intelligence, we must then apply it. We are all perfectly free and it’s entirely up to each one of us whether or not we follow the path. This is why the Buddha said:

I have shown you the methods
That lead to liberation.
But you should know
That liberation depends upon yourself.[1]Patrul Rinpoche, The Words of My Perfect Teacher, trans. Padmakara Translation Group (Yale University Press, 2010 – first published 1991), 10-11.

For example – imagine that I put two plates on a table, one containing food, the other poison. I then explain: “This is a plate of food, if you eat it, it will do you good. This is a plate of poison, if you eat it you will die.” Once I’ve told you clearly what’s what, it’s up to you what you then do.

The Buddha was extremely kind to have explained all this. The usual example of the effect of his teachings is that it’s like restoring sight to a blind person. However, the Buddha also said:

Examine my words carefully and
Do not accept them simply out of faith in me.

So the perfect Buddha himself said that we must each check his teachings. The more we examine what he said, the more we will understand. The more we recognize the fundamental points of his teachings and realize the reasons behind his words, the more we realize just how true they are – this is the most important aspect. To believe everything the Buddha said just because he said it, is not a good approach. If you follow the Dharma in this way, even if you practise for decades, you will never truly understand the teachings or know what, as a Buddhist practitioner, you should do.

This is the traditional approach of Buddhism and there’s a very profound point to it. The Buddhist approach is very different to that of other religions. Many religions depend on writings and reasoning to inspire and educate practitioners, but the Buddhist tradition is almost unique in emphasizing logic and reasoning over reliance on the words of the scriptures. Teachings are given to help us appreciate certain points of Dharma, but it is through logic and reasoning that we are able to check what is taught. This is how we come to truly assimilate the teachings.


To free ourselves from samsara we must turn to the Buddha’s teachings and check that they make sense.

The Buddha’s teachings begin with renunciation. So the first thing we must do is develop the deep desire to free ourselves from samsara – renunciation. By spending time examining your samsaric situation, thinking about it and researching all possibilities, you will be able to distinguish each one of samsara’s problems. However, recognizing the realities of samsara does not, in itself, help much. The point is for us to long to free ourselves from the trails and tribulations that are samsara. But without renunciation – the desire to be free from samsara – the rest is useless.

For example, Antwerp is not far from here, but if you never conceive the wish to go there, you never will. If, on the other hand, you decide you really want to visit Antwerp, you will make all the necessary arrangements and eventually you’ll get there – even if you end up having to go on foot. The more you want to go somewhere, the more likely it is that you will get there.

So, what if you do free yourself from samsara, where will you go? You will find yourself in a state of total and perfect awakening – in other words, omniscience. And omniscience is what we want to achieve. What does "to reach the state of total and perfect awakening of omniscience" mean? This is something you will have to think about!


As Chandrakirti said in The Introduction to the Middle Way:

The Shravakas and those halfway to buddhahood are born from the Mighty Sage,
And Buddhas are born of Bodhisattva heroes
Compassion, nonduality, the wish for buddhahood for others’ sake
Are causes of the children of the Conquerors.[2]Padmakara: Chandrakirti. Introduction to the Middle Way: Chandrakirti’s Madhyamakavatara with Commentary by Ju Mipham (Shambhala Publications, 2005), 59. Verse I, 1.

Shravakas and pratyekabuddhas – those who are ‘halfway to buddhahood’ – wish to free themselves from samsara. How do they free themselves? By practising the Dharma, as taught by the Bhagavan Buddha.

How do buddhas liberate themselves? First, they are bodhisattvas who perfect the accumulations and eliminate all obscurations by following the path, eventually attaining complete and perfect buddhahood. And, wrote Chandrakirti, the cause that results in the birth of bodhisattva is compassion.

Shravakas can free themselves from samsara, but it takes a long time. To achieve the state of complete liberation – of complete and perfect awakening – shravakas eventually have to become bodhisattvas by generating bodhichitta.

Pratyekabuddhas first reach the state of arhathood, then concentrate on training in bodhichitta – that is “as vast as the ocean” – and eventually become buddhas.

It is also said that the very moment a person gives birth to bodhichitta the foundation for the attainment of enlightenment is laid.

Should bodhichitta come to birth
In those who suffer, chained in prisons of samsara,
In that instant they are called the children of the Blissful One,
Revered by all the world, by gods and humankind.[3]Shantideva, The Way of the Bodhisattva, (Shambhala Publications, 2011). Verse I, 9.

The moment a person awakens to the ‘two-fold mind’ – bodhichitta of aspiration and bodhichitta in action – they are freed from the shackles of negative emotions and karma that have kept them chained to the prison of the three realms of existence, samsara. They then become a "heart son or daughter of the buddhas" – in other words, a great bodhisattva, a hero of awakening – and an object of veneration for other beings, such as gods and humans, who show their respect by prostrating to them. Therefore, we must cultivate bodhichitta, the mind of awakening.

Bodhichitta, the awakened mind,
Is known in brief to have two aspects:
First, aspiring, bodhichitta in intention;
Then active bodhichitta, practical engagement.[4]Shantideva, The Way of the Bodhisattva, (Shambhala Publications, 2011). Verse I, 15.

To put it simply, the mind of awakening has two aspects: bodhichitta of aspiration and bodhichitta in action. “Having bodhichitta is cherishing others more than yourself”; this, the teachings tell us, is the foundation of bodhichitta. Without bodhichitta, we think only of ourselves; with bodhichitta, others are more important than we are.

There are three approaches to benefiting others: the approach of those with a higher capacity, the approach of those with an average capacity, and the approach of those with a lower capacity.

Aspiration bodhichitta is resolving, with great conviction, to do exactly what all the buddhas and their sons and daughters, the bodhisattvas, have always done and continue to do for the benefit of beings. It is also training yourself in the same way all bodhisattvas have trained themselves, so that you accomplish everything fully, just as they have. So, you develop the bodhichitta of aspiration and get accustomed to continuously bearing it in mind. That is to say, you spend as much time as you can getting used to aspiring to be a bodhisattva, by thinking about and meditating on bodhichitta, so it becomes completely integrated into your mindstream.

Once you have cultivated the aspiration of bodhichitta, you must practise bodhichitta in action. To put bodhichitta into action is to accomplish activities that actually make a positive difference to the lives of others. How? First, practise generosity by giving; start by giving away small things, then gradually give more and more. Next, cultivate discipline, by trying to help others, neither too strictly nor too lackadaisically. It’s also necessary to develop patience, perseverance, meditation and wisdom. In fact, putting bodhichitta into action is to train in the six perfections.

What does training in bodhichitta bring us? It develops our wisdom. As Shantideva said, the first five perfections – generosity and so on – are ancillary to wisdom. Therefore, by cultivating the first five perfections, wisdom will arise. The signs that wisdom has arisen within you are: compassion comes naturally; you begin to consider others to be more important than yourself; and the two aspects of bodhichitta – aspiration and action – increase.

Absolute Bodhichitta: Understanding Emptiness

There are meditations we can practise to cultivate these two bodhichittas. If you have something to meditate on, you are practising relative bodhichitta. When you reach the point where there is nothing left to meditate on, absolute bodhichitta has arisen. As Shantideva said:

When something and its nonexistence
Both are absent from before the mind,
No other option does the latter have:
It comes to perfect rest, from concepts free.[5]Shantideva, The Way of the Bodhisattva, (Shambhala Publications, 2011). Verse IX, 34.

"When" your mind is left without the slightest relative bodhichitta meditation, and there’s nothing left to do – just like writing on water or a rainbow dissolving into the sky. Mind “comes to perfect rest, from concepts free”; absolute bodhichitta has risen and you realize emptiness.

Absolute bodhichitta is also the source of what the teachings call the ‘Great Madhyamika’, the ‘Great Mudra’ (Mahamudra), and the ‘Great Perfection’ (Dzogpachenpo) – “Great Madhyamika is the base, Great Mudra is the path, Great Perfection is the fruition.”

Vajrayana: Pure Perception

To recap, briefly, in order to follow the path we need to:

  1. develop renunciation;
  2. develop compassion; and
  3. realize emptiness.

These three are the basis on which we develop the pure perception that is the Vajrayana. Emptiness is a necessary prerequisite – it must be understood, experienced and realized –before we can give birth to pure perception.

Having realized emptiness, we will see everything purely – the entire external environment, the universe and all the beings living in it. It is therefore necessary, at the very least, to have an intellectual understanding of emptiness, or even better, to have realization, so you can think about what emptiness means.

The Vajrayana is summed up in these three points: appearances are deities, sounds are the mantras, and thoughts are realization.

If you want to turn all appearances into deities, hear all sounds as mantras, and experience all your thoughts as realization, everything must arise as the manifestation of emptiness. The deity is emptiness, and emptiness has the capacity to manifest the display of primordial wisdom in the form of all that appears. It is only because everything that appears is empty that it can appear. If what appears weren’t empty, it wouldn’t be possible for anything to die or rot away or disappear. All that appears would be unchanging and would always be there. So we must understand that while phenomena that are empty do appear, even though they appear, they are empty. All that appears is but the display of the primordial wisdom that arises from the energy of emptiness.

Similarly, enlightened speech and all the manifestations of awakened mind arise from the energy of emptiness.

Unceasing empty sounds is vajra sound.


Liberation of what arises, with no grasping, is vajra mind.

Everything is but the “inexhaustible wheel of ornaments of enlightened body”, the “inexhaustible wheel of ornaments of enlightened speech”, and the “inexhaustible wheel of ornaments of enlightened mind” that manifest through the dynamic energy of emptiness. We must establish this view beyond all doubt. As Nagarjuna said,

If emptiness is possible,
Then everything is possible.[6]Nagarjuna. The Root Stanzas of the Middle Way. Verse XXIV, 14. Translation in Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso, The Sun of Wisdom: Teachings on the Noble Nagarjuna’s Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way (Shambhala, 2003), 156.

This is where the ‘clear visualization’, ‘confidence of vajra’ and ‘remembering the purity’ aspects of practice come from. Since everything is fundamentally pure, the most important thing is pure perception.

What is the point of cultivating pure perception in this way? The buddhas do not perceive impurely; their perception is always pure. We living beings, on the other hand, only perceive impurely; phenomena that appear purely do not occur within our limited perception. Even when you put every effort into perceiving purely, for example, as you meditate on the deities, it does not always work. This is why the Buddha taught us how to cultivate enlightened body, speech and mind.

So we must develop pure perception. The method for training ourselves, step-by-step, in pure perception is explained in many texts. As Shantideva said, "There is nothing that does not grow light through habit and familiarity."[7]Shantideva, The Way of the Bodhisattva, (Shambhala Publications, 2011). Verse VI, 14.

Everything can be learned through training. For example, Theravadin monks train themselves to meditate on women as skeletons; the method called "meditation on ugliness". They look at photographs of skeletons that are hung on a wall and meditate on the 32 repulsive parts of the body. In the end, that’s how they end up perceiving women.

A yogi who practises the Vajrayana will meditate on the pristine purity of all that appears and exists – samsara and nirvana – in the form of male and female deities. This is a meditation that requires cultivation. Similarly, if you train yourself to get used to perceiving all the sounds as mantra, you will end up hearing all sounds as mantra.


As you are all practitioners of Dzogchen and your master has introduced you to the dharmakaya – the recognition of which you maintain in meditation – you will reach enlightenment very quickly. All your thoughts, from the past, the present, and the future, will disappear instantly – like writing on water. In Dzogchen, we don’t say our thoughts ‘disappear’, we say they are ‘liberated’. If a thought is liberated, no karma is accumulated.

What is the benefit of liberating thoughts? You don’t create more karma. Past thoughts have gone, they do not exist anymore; future thoughts have not yet risen, so they don’t exist; and as for present thoughts, they are liberated. All thoughts are liberated. This is why Samantabhadra said, “I am the Buddha, I am the beings”[8]This is from the following verse in the Prayer to Kuntuzangpo: “All you sentient beings of the three realms are actually the same as me, the Buddha Kuntuzangpo, the ground of everything.” Terton Rigdzin Godem, ‘The Great Perfection Prayer Of Kuntuzangpo’. Translated by Ron Gary. (Bero Jeydren Publications, 2013).. He added that delusion has no foundation, and that he had never been under the influence of illusion. Liberation is only a word; in reality, as there has never been any delusion, there is nothing to be liberated. That's your view, right? The Rigpa view.

That's all.

Translated by Gyurmé Avertin
Edited by Janine Schultz

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