How to Practise Vajrayana, in a Nutshell


Amsterdam, 20 September 2023

How to Practise Vajrayana, in a Nutshell

Amsterdam, 20 September 2023

During a short visit to the Netherlands, Rinpoche was invited to teach one evening on the Vajrayana tradition, specifically—what are the unique qualities of this path? how does it relate to the other Buddhist vehicles? and who is it intended for? This is an edited transcript of what he said that evening.

It’s been many years since I was last here at the Rigpa centre in Amsterdam and I’m very happy to be back. I’ve been told that I need to talk tonight about the Secret Mantrayana tradition, at least that’s what they said to me earlier. It’s a little strange to ask me to do that, I must say, but I will try.

Before hearing about the Secret Mantrayana, however, it’s important that you first have a grounding in the general Buddhist teachings. If you don’t have such a basis, listening to teachings about the view, meditation and conduct of the Vajrayana will only lead to a strange result. This is how some people end up becoming quite weird.

As Lama Mipham said:

With your great compassion, you embraced this turbulent and degenerate world
And made five hundred mighty aspirations.
You are as exalted as the white lotus; whoever hears your name shall never return to samsara—
Most compassionate teacher, to you I pay homage![1]Mipham Rinpoche, ‘The Treasury of Blessings—A Practice of Buddha Shakyamuni’ in Meaningful to Behold” the Official Bilingual Prayer Book of the Nyingma Monlam Chenmo Great Prayer Ceremony for World Peace, Bodhgaya. 1st Ed. Bylakuppe: Nyingma Monlam Chenmo International Foundation, 2016, page 78.

So that is the root. Explanations of these few words are actually very extensive but we don’t have time to go into them now. In short, for the sake of all sentient beings living in these turbulent times of the five degenerations, our teacher, the Buddha, first gave rise to the precious mind of enlightenment and for three countless aeons perfected the accumulations of merit and wisdom, eliminating all obscurations and reaching the state of complete and perfect buddhahood at the Vajra Seat.

The time that we are living in now is called the ‘Age of Strife’ or ‘Kaliyuga’, the time of the five degenerations[2]The five degenerations of the age of strife are:
1. degeneration of life-span: the shortening of the length of life;
2. degeneration of time: the decline in the quality of things, grain is less savoury and nutritious, fails to ripen and so on;
3. degeneration of disturbing emotions: the decline in the virtues of householders, negative emotions thrive;
4. degeneration of views: the decline in the virtues of the ordained sangha, wrong views proliferate;
5. degeneration of experience: the decline in physical form, intellect, good health and so on.

. This is something that not only Buddhists speak about, but also Hindus, though their explanation differs. The way that we, the Buddhists, understand this concept comes from our teacher, the compassionate Buddha; you won’t find this explanation in any other religious tradition.

During the Kaliyuga it is almost impossible for a great being like the Buddha to manifest and even if one does, it’s very difficult for them to actually help sentient beings because of the five degenerations that are prevalent in these times. However, our teacher, Buddha Shakyamuni, due to his compassion and the power of his vast aspirations, and the blessings of all the buddhas that were directed towards him, was able to appear during this turbulent age in order to help sentient beings.

That’s why the prayer mentions that in the Age of Strife, the time of the five degenerations, when the lifespan of people is one hundred years, the Buddha was able to manifest as Shakyamuni and help beings in this troubled period thank to first having generated the mind of enlightenment and then made five hundred great aspirations.

In what way how did the great kindness of the Buddha manifest itself? By turning the Wheel of Dharma on three occasions—at Sarnath near Varanasi, at the Vulture Peak mountain, and in the Akanishtha realm. These are not mere stories or legends, they are historical facts that cannot be disputed.

Many buddhas came to our world; the story of Buddha Shakyamuni is something that everyone knows and is perfectly true. It really happened that way. Everybody knows that the Buddha Gautama came into this world, no one says otherwise. He not only came into the world, he turned the Wheel of Dharma, and that is also true. And many people have been able to reach the state of enlightenment by practising those teachings of the different turnings of the Wheel of Dharma.

It is important that you know the distinguishing characteristics of each of the three turnings of the Wheel of Dharma. If you don’t know that background, you are really missing something, and it is difficult to consider yourself a Buddhist. The second turning is more profound than the first, and the third is even more profound than the second; it is known as the “inconceivable wheel of dharma.”

So this is what I’ve been asked to talk about tonight. During an inconceivable number of kalpas, an inconceivable number of buddhas appear. During the present kalpa in which we live, 1002 buddhas will appear. And it said that during the time of “the fourth guide of the Fortunate Aeon”, Buddha Shakyamuni, the Secret Mantrayana teachings will be taught. It is also said, however, that even though these teachings will be made available, they will not remain for very long because of the diminished merit of sentient beings.

The Secret Mantrayana teachings that take the fruition as the path is like the root, the essence, the result of all the teachings. Just to hear the name of these teachings is said to carry great power.

In the First Turning of the Wheel of Dharma, the Buddha spoke about the vows of refuge that we need to adopt. Once we have taken refuge, if we then train in the two aspects of bodhicitta (bodhichitta of aspiration and action), carried by the mind of renunciation, we have become Buddhists. The basis of the vows of refuge and the bodhisattva path, the way to practise them, and the results that will be obtained, have been explained in great detail in the teachings. This foundation is absolutely necessary before entering the Secret Mantrayana. If you don’t have that basis, you cannot receive Vajrayana teachings. You need to commit yourself to the trainings of the bodhisattva path beforehand. Just taking the vows is not enough, you need to abide by those precepts and to maintain them. If you have just simply taken the refuge and bodhisattva vows but not really familiarized yourself with them nor committed yourself to their training, it will be almost impossible for you to follow the Vajrayana path.

The basis for receiving the samaya precepts of the Vajrayana is the ground of buddha nature which is present in all of us, completely pure, free of any kinds of stain. Unless you know about this buddha nature, how it is utterly pure and free of any kind of obscuration, present within all of us, and the basis that enables us to reach enlightenment, it is impossible for you to receive a Vajrayana empowerment. If you have some understanding of the buddha nature and some awareness of it, then you can receive an empowerment in the proper way.

To receive an empowerment, therefore, you need to know about the buddha nature and how it is present in each one of us. This buddha nature is completely pure and devoid of any obscuration. It is also endowed with all the enlightened qualities of a fully enlightened buddha that are naturally present. This is the ultimate teaching of the sutras. There are many sutra teachings that explain about buddha nature and you really need to know them before you attempt to follow the Vajrayana path.

The Sutras and the Tantras are different sets of teachings but what brings them together and acts as a bridge, is the Uttaratantra Shastra (The Sublime Continuum). What this shastra teaches in essence is buddha nature. You need this as a basis, a ground. We need to have the greatest respect for ourself since we have this buddha nature; we value all sentient beings but equally recognize our own quality.

When we say you need to value yourself, we don’t mean that you value your body which is made of flesh and blood, nor your name, which is merely a temporary delusion. What we mean is that you value your mind. Some say that you should value its emptiness while others say you should value its clarity. There are these two approaches. However to consider the empty aspect of mind to be of greatest importance would not be the right approach, nor would emphasizing the clarity aspect alone. The correct way to relate to the mind is as being the unity of emptiness and clarity­, the clear light nature of mind. This is the root of the Secret Mantrayana teachings.

To meditate upon a deity, you need to receive the empowerment. There are four categories of empowerments: the vase empowerment, secret empowerment, wisdom empowerment, and word empowerment of primordial purity. Once you receive those empowerments, you become a ngakpa, or mantrika, basically a practitioner of the Secret Mantra.

To receive the vase empowerment, you rely upon a mandala that can be made from coloured sand, or painted, or composed of heaps of grain. There’s also the mandala of the vajra body of the master, and so on. We need a mandala to receive an empowerment from.

You might, however, have the most elaborate and beautifully made mandala, but if the master who gives the empowerment is not fully qualified, it will not bring much benefit. The person who gives the empowerment needs to have all the qualities of a vajra master and whether we talk of ten qualities, a hundred qualities, or a thousand qualities, in essence he or she needs to be realized. Unless the master is realized, they will not be able to transmit the vase empowerment. Nowadays there are many lamas who give empowerments. They’re ready to give you whatever empowerment you want, and they don’t seem to mind how many they give.

When we receive an empowerment, we need to have complete confidence in the fact that we have the ground continuum of buddha nature. Even though we have the buddha nature endowed with all its qualities, it is temporarily veiled by the two types of obscuration and the habitual tendencies related to them. Since these obscurations are adventitious and merely temporary, they can be purified and eliminated. Basically the purpose of the vase empowerment is to wash away the impurities, but unless the master is realized, the empowerment will not have much effect. Even if you spend ten years in a special, purposely-made machine, you won’t be able to remove those obscurations that way. A realized master is, however, able to clear away those obscurations through the empowerment. This is a special feature of the Vajrayana teachings. Even if the empowerment doesn’t remove all your obscurations and their associated habitual tendencies when you receive it, at least some of them will be purified. You can see for yourself that your obscurations have been purified to some extent.

Once you have received the vase empowerment, you are qualified to practise the stages of the generation phase, to visualize yourself as the deity and to meditate upon that. In that way, you will be able to eliminate what remains of the two obscurations and their related habitual tendencies. There are cases of practitioners who have been fully purified of defilements through empowerment. After receiving empowerment and purifying all their obscurations, some students see the entire mandala of the deity in the sky before them. This has happened. Still, they need to practise. Indeed, during the empowerment we pledge that, even at the risk of our life, we will continue to uphold the practice.

Whether you can purify all the habitual tendencies through practice depends on you, the individual practitioner. There’s no one who cannot purify their obscurations and habitual tendencies through practice. It’s not possible. If you study the life stories of practitioners from the past, you won’t find any who said that they practised their yidam but were unable to accomplish it. If you start the practice and stop in the middle, that’s a different story. But if you do the practice properly, you will accomplish it.

There are many different ways to practise kyerim, many different mandalas, deities, mantras, mudras, and based on that, many different types of samadhi. In any case, after having received the vase empowerment, the way you then take that as your path is through the practice of kyerim. 

You begin by meditating on the single mudra, the main deity alone, who embodies all the others. Then once you’re familiar with that, you meditate on, for example, the five main deities, the hundred deities, and so on until you can meditate on the complete mandala. It’s possible to do that.

More profound than the vase empowerment is the next, secret empowerment. The secret empowerment is conferred on the basis of the mandala of the vajra body of the guru in union. Nowadays, however, this empowerment has become like a mere reflection of what it once was. I’ve never heard of or seen a lama who has given the secret empowerment as originally instructed in the texts. It’s given on a symbolic level. Some people say that this empowerment is still given in that original way in India, but it happens in secret, so we don’t hear about it.

The practice of the secret empowerment is basically the practice of enlightened speech—recitation of the mantra of the deity. The nectar of bodhicitta flows from the secret place of the master and consort; this is then placed on your tongue and fills and purifies all the channels of your body. The vajra body then becomes manifest and within its channels all the different syllables of the Ali Kali (Sanskrit alphabet) appear. This then becomes the basis for your recitation of the mantra.

There are many different ways to recite the mantra. As is said in the texts, the best way to recite the mantra is:

The vajra recitation in which body, speech and mind are indivisibly united is supreme. 

The benefit of practising in this way is explained at great length in the teachings.

The practice related to the vase empowerment emphasizes meditation on the body of the deity, while in the secret empowerment, the emphasis is on the practice of the enlightened speech, i.e. recitation of the mantra. I cannot go into any more details now as the Tantra teachings are simply too vast.

Even more profound than the vase and secret empowerment is the wisdom empowerment. The benefit of receiving the wisdom empowerment and accomplishing the practice related to it is the realization of emptiness. Based on example, what is called the ‘illustrative wisdom’, we are able to realize the ‘actual wisdom’, through the great equality, without cause and result, as the teachings say.

These teachings are very profound and unique to the Secret Mantra. Actually, it is said that the main practices of Secret Mantrayana are to take union and liberation as the path. When we say that the Vajrayana has extremely powerful skilful means, this is what we are referring to. Its fruition is also exceptional and unique. The Vajrayana has the power to bring about the fruition much more quickly than other paths.

Related to this empowerment, there are many instructions that are given, such as practices related to one’s own body, or practices related to the body of another person. This constitutes the third empowerment.

The fourth empowerment is the ultimate empowerment, the introduction to the actual nature of mind (rigpa). 

The practice of the vase empowerment is meditation upon the deity. The way you meditate upon the deity is by using your mind; it’s your mind that meditates on the deity. And that mind which meditates is empty. The light-like expression of that emptiness is the deity.

The practice of the secret empowerment is mantra recitation. Through recitation of the mantra, the practitioner is then able to perceive the deity. You, the practitioner, and the deity, then become close. Ultimately, you become the same. That’s how you are taught, right?

For the wisdom empowerment, based on the illustrative great bliss wisdom, you are able to recognize the actual wisdom which is very similar, almost identical. The actual wisdom does not lie in the domain of the ordinary mind; it cannot be conceived of or arrived at by thinking, it is beyond, words, thoughts and description. It is likened to experiencing the taste of sweetness—you can experience it, but you can’t describe it. So here, the illustrative wisdom is the main emphasis of the practice.

During the word empowerment, you are shown the wisdom directly, exactly as it is, through the symbol of a crystal or a mirror. From that perspective, the Dzogchen empowerments are similar to the wisdom empowerment – the Great Perfection tradition talks about four symbolic empowerments.

If you put the four empowerments mentioned above into practice, you then become a tantrika or mantrika—a practitioner of the Secret Mantra.

When we receive the vase empowerment, the instruction is to meditate upon the deity. When we receive the secret empowerment, the instruction is to recite the mantra. At the time of the wisdom empowerment, the practice is focussed on using the skilful means of one’s own body or the body of another person. Finally, in the fourth empowerment, the practice is basically that of meditation. If you complete all these steps, then you are following the path of Secret Mantrayana. The result is something we don’t need to talk about since you will see it for yourself, if you do the practices.

To practice Vajrayana, to accomplish all these methods, is not at all easy. To meditate on the deity, recite the mantra, meditate on the enlightened mind that is bliss, clarity and absence of thoughts… that’s not easy. If, on the other hand, you are able to do all these practices properly, just one session can have a very powerful effect. What are the benefits? The teachings speak about the ability to accomplish the four activities—pacifying, enriching, magnetizing and subjugating—as well as attainment of the ordinary siddhis and the supreme accomplishment, which is the ‘great Perfection’ (dzogchen) or the ‘great seal’ (mahamudra). These teachings are easy to listen to, but much more difficult to practise. They don’t speak about the need to perfect the accumulations and eliminate the obscurations for three countless aeons before we reach enlightenment, as in the ‘Causal Vehicle of Characteristics’, the sutra path.

In any case, practice is a very individual matter – we need to do it ourselves. Even if Buddha Shakyamuni were to come to us in person, or the dharmakaya Vajradhara, we won’t be able to receive any blessings from them if we don’t practise. If you have read the historical accounts you will know that when Guru Rinpoche came to Tibet and conferred empowerments on the ‘lord and his subjects’, his main students, who each practised one-pointedly for seven years on the empowerment they’d just received. As a result, they all reached accomplishment and became siddhas. If you don’t practise so much as one session, how can you expect to reach accomplishment or gain any benefit?

Again, the result is something very easy to talk about, but here we don’t see anyone who shows those kinds of signs. If you had those signs, you’d be able to show us. Well, that’s how it is. There’s not much point therefore in talking about the fruition or the result. If we master our mind and reach realization, we’ll be able to bring within our realization and under our power the entire outer world and everything within it. It’s simple, in a way, but we don’t seem to see anyone like that. Nowadays we only see a pale reflection of what the Vajrayana truly is.

So, you asked me to talk about the Vajrayana, and that’s what I’ve done.

Generally speaking, this is not a subject to talk about. According to the original Indian tradition, the master first confers the vase empowerment and the student then goes away and practises that for many years. Then, either with the same teacher or a different one, the student receives the secret empowerment and practices that for many years. It’s the same procedure then for the wisdom empowerment and finally the word empowerment. Then they reach accomplishment.

The crucial point is that the guru from whom you receive empowerment must themselves have mastered that practice. Otherwise, how can that they transmit anything?

Based on what I’ve just explained, Guru Rinpoche shared a special set of instructions on the practice of tantra in Tibet, the essence of which is to pray to the guru. If you can pray to the guru with complete and heartfelt devotion, with absolute faith and trust, even if you’re not able to complete each one of the practices associated with the four empowerments, just by receiving the blessing of the guru, you can still reach accomplishment.

If you study the original terma of the Seven-line Prayer, it even says to forget about meditating on kyerim and dzogrim, making offerings, offering praise, and such like—it says to forget about all those practices! Instead, it tells to “simply let devotion flood your body, speech and mind, and pray, pray with these seven lines:”[3]See Lotsawas House website. If you can do that, Guru Rinpoche will definitely appear to you and bless you. This is a very special instruction of the Nyingma tradition. So basically, my advice to all of you is to recite the Seven-line Prayer and the Vajra Guru mantra.

If you practise like this, when you die, you will be reborn on the Copper-coloured mountain and will meet Guru Rinpoche face-to-face. The moment you meet him, all illnesses, harmful influences, negative actions and defilements, the two obscurations and all their associated habitual tendencies, will be completely purified, i.e. you will become enlightened. You will then manifest again as a nirmanakaya and truly be able to benefit sentient beings.

So that is by far the easiest approach. If you’re searching for a path that is very powerful and effective, this is it. This is what I usually tell people. I tell them to familiarize themselves with the original terma of the Seven-line Prayer[4]See previous note. and to meditate upon its meaning. Then to recite the Seven-line Prayer a minimum of one hundred thousand times. I tell them to then check and see whether there are any special signs or not. I’ve been sharing this instruction with people for several years now and everyone I’ve told to do this has reported some kind of special sign after they practice. Not one person has said nothing happened.

You all like to investigate and check, right? It only takes 21 days to recite a hundred thousand Seven-line Prayers. The related sadhana in the original terma is only one page. Many translations have been made which you can easily find. So that’s my advice to you.

Even in the Sutrayana, it is said that if you pray to the Protector Amitabha, you will be reborn in Sukhavati, the Land of Great Bliss. This happens simply as a result of praying to him. So in the Sutra teachings too, this is taught as the short path, the shortcut.

Since the topic of this evening is the Secret Mantra Vajrayana, the special instruction of the Nyingma tradition, the shortcut, is the one I have just explained to you which comes from Guru Rinpoche. Phowa is also a swift path. As far as all of you are concerned, I think following this instruction is the best thing you can do.

Translated by Gyurme Avertin
Edited by P. Philipou and D. Rand.

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