Entering the Vajrayana Path
Some people think Vajrayana Buddhism is very mysterious. This is because they lack an understanding of the Vajrayana system of thought and practice. In fact, it is not at all mysterious; it is just that the methods are very special, very fast, and relatively easy to practice. To comply with the teachings, a Vajrayana practitioner should progress along the path from aspiration to attainment of buddhahood in stages as follows.
We have mentioned many times before that renunciation and bodhicitta are the basis of Vajrayana practice. Why is it necessary to reiterate this point here? Because they are the prerequisite a practitioner must have; without renunciation and bodhicitta, no benefit is to be derived from undertaking even the very sacred Vajrayana tantras such as Dzogchen—the Great Perfection. Only with renunciation and bodhicitta as a foundation can one formally enter Vajrayana practice.
Patrul Rinpoche once said: “If renunciation and bodhicitta are absent, a person cannot sow the seeds of liberation even after nine years of Dzogchen retreat.” We ought to reflect deeply on this statement: it is the most sublime Dzogchen that one spends not a few days or several months but nine years to practice; in terms of methodology, it is undertaken in retreat away from any contact with the world outside; despite this, one cannot sow the seeds of liberation because one does not have renunciation and bodhicitta. This should be enough of a warning. Without renunciation and bodhicitta, we may find ourselves in a position wherein the cause of liberation cannot be established even after nine years of Dzogchen practice! Thus, renunciation and bodhicitta are extremely important to any practitioner.
Lacking this understanding, a lot of people only know that the Vajrayana path is sacred and unsurpassed. They aim high and delude themselves in thinking they can get there without practicing the preliminaries. Exhausted in the rush to receive all kinds of Vajrayana empowerment and fully engaged in the practice of tantra, their effort is nonetheless wasted in the end, their attainment barely noticeable. This is not the fault of Vajrayana Buddhism, but the result of not laying a firm foundation for the practice. Therefore, Vajrayana followers must have renunciation and bodhicitta. It is the foundation common to sutra and tantra, and the main precondition to undertaking any practice.
All the practices in Highest Yoga Tantra, without exception, place great emphasis on renunciation and bodhicitta. At the generation stage, for instance, one may have a very clear image of the buddha during visualization, but without compassion and the correct view of emptiness, it is meaningless. Similarly, the sutras say there is nothing special in reciting the deity mantras 100,000,000 times if one does not have renunciation and bodhicitta. Thus, the critical factor in all the practices is renunciation and bodhicitta. Lacking a proper foundation as well as an understanding of the generation and completion stage, many lay followers now blindly recite the liturgy of some yidam practice in the hope of gaining something from the endeavor. It is necessary here to remind everyone this is not very meaningful.
The sutra and tantra paths are consistent in expounding all phenomena are a product of our aspiration. In Gateway to Training the Mind by Chengawa Lodrö Gyaltsen (1402–1472), it is said if a person is practicing the Dharma, releasing animals from bondage, and making offerings to the sangha and the buddhas all in the hope of living well in this lifetime, the outcome can be no more than that, even if his expectations are met; if his expectations are not met due to his past negative karma, these virtuous activities cannot in any case lead to supramundane retributions. This is because during the course of practice, he has never considered achieving liberation, benefiting sentient beings, realizing buddhahood or the like, only attaining happiness and prosperity in this lifetime. Since the motivation is so obvious, how can his virtuous actions possibly become the cause of liberation?
The sutras also have this kind of analogy: a person is on the verge of death owing to extreme hunger and will, without food, die in a few minutes. If at this point he is allowed to go to the king’s palace and given a choice of treasures, what should he choose first? Definitely food. Because none of the treasures, however valuable, can solve his problem. They are useless to him at the moment. Similarly, the generation and completion stage practices are very sacred, but they are too profound for someone without a foundation in renunciation and bodhicitta. At present, we do not need to take up these practices; the urgent task at hand is still to cultivate renunciation and bodhicitta.
Another analogy is this: in ancient times, most of the towns in the East and West are surrounded by a wall; one must enter the town through a gate. If the town only has one gate, a person who wants to go into town must enter through this gate. Many families live in the town; once inside, the person is free to visit any family. However, if the person does not pass through this gate, he can only stay outside and never get in. Renunciation and bodhicitta are the same—they are the only entrance to practice. After cultivating renunciation and bodhicitta, we are free to take up Dzogchen, Mahamudra, Kalacakra, or the generation and completion stage practices. Without renunciation and bodhicitta, it would be foolish to think we can succeed in any of these practices.
Thus, instead of chasing after the more advanced tantric practices now, we ought first to generate a resolute and unwavering heart of renunciation. An occasional thought of renunciation is not reliable; our practice must be repeated over and over again so that it does not regress. There is only one way to generate renunciation, that is, by practicing the four outer preliminaries—precious human birth, the impermanence of all phenomena, and so on.
What qualifies as renunciation? In Three Principal Aspects of the Path, the great master Tsongkhapa said: “The thought of attaining liberation, day and night without interruption, is renunciation.” This is a relatively high standard that is difficult to comply with right away. We will thus propose a lower standard of renunciation for now.
A person without renunciation only seeks satisfaction in this lifetime, and rebirth in the human or god realm; apart from being content with his lot in life, and getting by, he does not have a loftier goal. A person with renunciation may occasionally think the same way or enjoy good food, fine clothes, and a nice home. However, deep inside, he knows: this is not the purpose of my existence, merely a temporary lifestyle and means to an end which may or may not be necessary—my ultimate goal is to attain liberation. This way of thinking is basically considered renunciation. To sum up, a Vajrayana practitioner must first generate a heart of renunciation.
Next is cultivating bodhicitta. Here it is necessary to emphasize once again bodhicitta is essential to a Vajrayana practitioner. Without bodhicitta, there are no bodhisattva precepts. Some of the Vajrayana schools hold that, in the absence of bodhisattva precepts, empowerment cannot be attained; there can be no Vajrayana precepts either. Among the three types of precepts, the lower level serves as the basis of the next level up. That is, the pratimoksa precepts are the foundation of the bodhisattva precepts; without the pratimoksa precepts, there can be no bodhisattva precepts. The bodhisattva precepts are the foundation of the Vajrayana precepts; without the bodhisattva precepts, there can be no Vajrayana precepts. Hence, bodhicitta is also indispensable on the Vajrayana path.
In the absence of bodhicitta, even if we recite the deity mantras billion-plus times, we may take rebirth as a fierce ghost or devil-like being with special powers if our aspiration and method of practice are incorrect. In this case, a similar outcome is also possible when in visualization we create the image of the deity, especially a wrathful deity, as clearly as seeing the deity in person. Some people frequently visualize the wrathful deity and recite its mantra headlong with the intention of cursing or taming others; these actions are entirely misplaced. Although unlikely, a person may descend into the ghost realm if he does not undertake the generation stage practice the right way. However, this cannot happen if one has cultivated bodhicitta or realized emptiness. Thus, bodhicitta and the view of emptiness are also an integral part of the generation stage practice of Vajrayana.
The profound significance of renunciation and bodhicitta can be realized only through direct personal experience and actual practice, not just by listening and contemplation. I have always hoped all of us can understand we don’t necessarily have to practice the generation and completion stage, but renunciation and bodhicitta we must develop. Even if we have not realized Dzogchen, recited the deity mantra more than 100,000,000 times, or attained a clear visualization during the generation stage practice, no one will say we are not Buddhist practitioners; without renunciation and bodhicitta, however, we are truly not Buddhist practitioners!
I once came upon this story in which a scholar crossing the river on a boat asked the boatman, “Do you understand mathematics?” The boatman replied he did not. “Then you have wasted half your life!” He proceeded to ask, “Do you understand philosophy?” The boatman said he did not. “In that case you have again wasted half your life!” Along the way, the boat broke down in the middle of the river at which point the boatman asked, “Do you know how to swim?” The scholar replied he did not. The boatman said, not without regret, “Then you have wasted your entire life!”
In the same way, even if it seems we have missed out on a lot by not undertaking the generation or completion stage practice, in reality we have not. Conversely, without renunciation and bodhicitta, we have truly lost everything since we have not even entered the door to practice. Therefore, these two fundamental aspirations are extremely important.
The practice of tantra can be undertaken when a person has a firm foundation in renunciation and bodhicitta. The great Nyingma master Rongzom Pandita divided the process from initial aspiration to final attainment of buddhahood into five stages.
Stage one is taking refuge in the Vajrayana guru. Tantra cannot be understood or practiced just by reading the texts. For instance, the specific terms used in tantra are basically incomprehensible to people in general; moreover, to mislead and prevent non-Buddhists from stealing these methods, the practices appear in many of the tantras in the wrong order—the last practice in front, the first practice in back; without a guru to guide us, the outcome of blindly following the texts on our own is unthinkable. We look to the sangha to guide us in thought and practice even in sutra, let alone in the sacred and unsurpassed tantra. Thus, the first step is to take refuge in the guru.
Presently, some lay people study and follow the teachings in the tantric texts entirely on their own; this is a very serious transgression. In the end, nothing can be attained; in misappropriating the practices, a wrongdoing is also committed.
As for the qualifications of a Vajrayana guru, these are clearly prescribed in Finding Rest in the Nature of Mind, The Words of My Perfect Teacher, and other teachings about vajra masters. It is my hope that you read these texts carefully before taking refuge in the guru.
Stage two is receiving empowerment. According to tantric regulation in the past, the four stages of empowerment—vase, secret, wisdom-knowledge, and precious word—are given separately in accordance with a person’s capacity; the practitioner receives the empowerment consistent with his or her level of practice and does not lightly overstep this rule.
Today, in many initiations of the Highest Yoga Tantra, the four empowerments are conferred at the same time. Although this is understandable, we must nevertheless consider our specific situation and choose the empowerment that is most appropriate for us. Currently, there are many problems with the initiations, especially in areas populated by the Chinese. This topic is addressed in the “Vajra Master and Empowerment” chapter in this book; related issues are also covered by Mipham Rinpoche in his Essence of Clear Light. They shall not be repeated here.
Stage three is receiving the Vajrayana precepts. Actually, receiving empowerment is the same as receiving the Vajrayana precepts; however, Rongzom Pandita separated this practice into two stages—first entering the Vajrayana mandala, next receiving the precepts.
Before receiving the Vajrayana precepts, we must understand what they are, then decide whether or not to receive them. That is to say, before receiving empowerment, we must first obtain the precepts manual, read through the precepts that relate to the empowerment, next determine whether or not we can comply with them. If we are certain we can follow the precepts, only then can empowerment be conferred; otherwise, no.
This is true with all precepts. For instance, lay practitioners also need to examine which of the lay precepts they can comply with before receiving them. As for the bodhisattva precepts, practitioners of slight capacity only need to uphold aspiration bodhicitta, the other precepts not just yet; practitioners of middling capacity can receive the four root precepts (eight separate precepts) prescribed by Asanga, the rest at a later time; practitioners of great capacity can receive the twenty root precepts (also said to be eighteen precepts) prescribed by Nagarjuna. The Vajrayana precepts are the same way. The sure guarantee of protecting and maintaining the precepts is to do what one is capable of.
However, what troubles me is that not much emphasis is placed on the Vajrayana precepts by the conferrer of empowerment during the ceremony. Practitioners are basically not even aware of the requirement to uphold Vajrayana precepts after the empowerment; when the ceremony is over, they think their work is done. Actually, the most difficult task after empowerment is upholding the Vajrayana precepts.
Stage five is practicing in a quiet place. The above are the five stages in tantric practice that Rongzom Pandita expounded. In the following, we shall mainly introduce the fifth stage—understanding and practicing tantra.
In the generation stage, the image of a yidam and a buddha realm, or mandala, is visualized. What use is this? Ordinary people are clouded by ignorance; thus, all that we perceive are deemed impure phenomena. The tantric view allows us to come to the realization that everything is unreal, illusory, and fundamentally pure.
The sutra system also holds that the world perceived by a bodhisattva on the eighth ground, or eighth bhumi, is pure. How is it pure? In The Ornament of the Mahayana Sutras (Māhayānasūtrālamkāra), one of Maitreya’s five treatises, it is stated: “On the eighth ground, the bodhisattva begins to transform consciousness into wisdom; when the transformation of the five-sense consciousness into wisdom is complete, the world outside is likened to Western Pure Land; the ground is no longer comprised of soil, stone, tile or gravel, but lapis lazuli, precious gems, etc.” Actually, the so-called ground of “lapis lazuli” that people have in mind is also tainted; but because people like lapis lazuli and other such gems, Pure Land is described this way to accord with their liking. In reality, everything in the world of the bodhisattva is a manifestation of wisdom and purity: the sounds are wondrous, the food is nectar...... Naturally, anything which is communicated through words is categorized as discriminating thought; it cannot truly describe the state in which the bodhisattva abides.
“One who drinks it knows best whether the water is hot or cold.” In the sutra system, to truly experience all this, a person must generate bodhicitta first, undertake the practices in sutra at length, accumulate infinite merit, realize no-self/emptiness, and attain the state of the eighth bhumi and above; only then can the person through his or her own practice apprehend all phenomena are primordially pure. In the tantra system, however, even an ordinary person can experience the state of intrinsic purity by undertaking the special tantric practices. What accounts for the difference?
Once, in an assembly of bodhisattvas, Sakyamuni Buddha said, “To experience the purity of external phenomena, all of you should purify your minds. When the mind is pure, the environment is pure; when the mind is purified through practice, the environment also becomes purified.” At the time, the Venerable Sariputra was also next to the Buddha; he thought: the Saha world is so impure, could it be the Buddha’s mind is still impure?
Knowing this thought on his mind, the Buddha turned to Sariputra and said, “A person who is blind at birth cannot see the sun or moon, is this the fault of the sun and moon, or the blind person?” Sariputra replied, “It is the blind person’s fault, not the sun or moon; because the blind person cannot see, not because the sun and moon do not exist.” The Buddha then said, “The essence of the Saha world is always pure, but ordinary people, like the blind, have never been able to see it.”
At this time, a bodhisattva who had come from another buddha field to hear the Dharma said, “Everything I see in this buddha field is pure.” Disapprovingly, Sariputra retorted, “This buddha field is not pure!” Hence, the two opened up an intense debate.
When neither side would give in, the Buddha utilized his extraordinary power to reveal the true face of the Saha world. Everyone in the assembly bore witness: the Saha world, like Western Pure Land and all other buddha fields, is perfectly pure and sublime.
Rongzom Pandita once said that the Hinayana scriptures also record how Sakyamuni Buddha formed aspiration and attained buddhahood, and how the bodhisattvas practiced, achieved perfect enlightenment, and benefitted sentient beings. However, lacking the corresponding methods, practitioners on this path cannot attain buddhahood or realize the state of the bodhisattva.
The sutra system is the same way; it talks about the basic purity of the world, but practitioners below the eighth bhumi cannot experience it. The tantra system, on the other hand, has the generation stage practice that is simple and direct. After apprehending all phenomena are intrinsically pure, one can by way of this method gradually eliminate impure phenomena and fully experience this kind of purity. An ordinary person who undertakes the generation stage practice can also attain its highest level of realization: upon completion of the practice, the external world naturally manifests as a pure buddha realm; this is a state ordinary tantric practitioners can all actualize.
Why is the generation stage practice necessary? Because we take all things that our five sense organs come into contact with to be impure. If things were fundamentally impure, we would have no way out. But in reality, all phenomena are fundamentally pure. That being the case, is there an expedient method that allows the inherent purity of the world to manifest? As explained above, this method exists, not in sutra, but in tantra. That is the significance of the generation stage practice.
What function does the completion stage serve? A person who is accomplished in the generation stage can perceive all external phenomena as a buddha realm. However, in the absence of realizing emptiness, he or she will again cling to the buddha realm as real. Although all phenomena appear pure at this time, the attachment to purity is not unlike the attachment to impurity; it is still an attachment and has to be discarded. How can it be discarded? This is where the completion stage practice comes in.
Why can one realize emptiness by working with these elements within the body? In his teaching on Kalacakra, Mipham Rinpoche said that if you imagine having a headache when there is no pain in your head, you will definitely get a headache after a day or two of practice; this is a function of the mind, but it does not happen quickly. If on the other hand someone hits you on the head with a stick, you will feel the pain in your head right there and then.
This analogy tells us although in sutra we can rely on the logic presented in Introduction to the Middle Way and Fundamental Verses on the Middle Way to overcome self-attachment, the progress is very slow, the result imperceptible; to attain the first bhumi, the initial level at which emptiness is truly realized, an ordinary person would need an asamkhyeya kalpa (countless kalpas). This is a concept of time so long it cannot even be measured.
In tantra, however, we can realize emptiness quickly by working with the winds, channels, and essences of the body. Why is this possible? Because our mind and body are intimately linked; by way of this practice, we are able to effect a decisive change in the mind.
Through the visualization and practice of the generation stage, we can indeed perceive all external phenomena and sentient beings as a buddha realm. But after realizing emptiness through the completion stage practice, we are able to understand these things do not truly exist; even though the buddha realm is still there, it is illusory like a dream. That is the significance of the completion stage practice.
The completion stage without marks refers primarily to Dzogchen, also in part to the Kalacakra Tantra and others. With this practice, the practitioner does not rely on visualizing deities or working with the winds, channels, and essences of the body, but directly realizes emptiness. How is this any different from the realization of emptiness in sutra? As previously mentioned, the sutra system is likened to the thought of getting a headache; it depends entirely on logical reasoning to gradually realize emptiness. The tantra system, especially Dzogchen, enables an ordinary person in the early stage of generating bodhicitta and traversing the tantric path to experience emptiness, not in countless kalpas, but in just a lifetime, even a few months or years. In sutra, emptiness is an intellectual concept; in tantra, emptiness is a personal experience—for this reason, one progresses with extraordinary speed.
Dzogchen includes the completion stage without marks, as well as the generation stage. However, the generation stage in Dzogchen is not a visualization practice in which the buddha realm is perceived from outside; instead, through meditative concentration, the buddha realm manifests from inside the mind. It is completely uncontrived and naturally pure.
Although the visualization of a thangka can eliminate some impure appearances, there is still an element of fabrication because the thangka is man-made. For instance, let us shine a light on the top half of the thangka so that the top half is relatively light, the bottom half relatively dark; then let this thangka be the object of our visualization. Once the practice of the generation stage is accomplished, the deity or mandala that appears will also be relatively light at the top, relatively dark at the bottom.
This tells us that the generation stage entails some fabrication. Be that as it may, it can nonetheless eliminate our attachment to things that are impure. As an example, a bar of soap itself is not clean and eventually gets washed up; nevertheless, we can use it to clean both our hands. Similarly, the generation stage involves a certain degree of fabrication, but that which is fabricated can also eliminate impure phenomena, so it is useful to us now.
Dzogchen is different. In the practice of Dzogchen, it is not necessary to look at the image of a buddha, or visualize the buddha, the deity’s features, form, mudra....; it is only necessary to attain meditative concentration. The nature of all phenomena is never separate from emptiness, nor is it ever separate from appearance; while practicing clear light in the state of samadhi, the appearance aspect can break out spontaneously—that which manifests is a pure and uncontrived buddha realm. Dzogchen does not make a special effort to practice the generation stage, but it achieves an objective which actually surpasses that of the generation stage practice. Accordingly, Dzogchen contains all the practices of the generation and completion stage.
The concept of generation stage and completion stage is introduced above. Although the various schools of Vajrayana Buddhism have different practices, each special in its own right, all of the practices fall within these two categories.
The stages of tantric practice in general are as explained; however, because of external conditions, time, and other factors, we may not necessarily progress in that order; indeed, Dzogchen is often undertaken directly after completing the sets of preliminary practices including the generation of renunciation and bodhicitta. This is because Dzogchen is not practiced exclusively by monastics or highly realized masters. A lay follower of Vajrayana Buddhism who has a strong foundation in the preliminaries can also practice Dzogchen and work at the same time.
In the sutra system, there are no generation or completion stage practices. Lacking the concepts and skillful methods that are unique to these two stages, the effect and progress of the practice in sutra is very different from tantra even though its ultimate fruition is the same.
The sutras say even a practitioner of highest capacity will need an asamkhyeya kalpa to attain realization of the first bhumi. Actually, it does not take that long, because a bodhisattva on a certain level of realization has all kinds of methods, each of which can accumulate a great deal of merit; as one moves up along the paths of accumulation and preparation, the ability to gather merit increases such that in an instant the accumulation can reach an incalculable level. Despite this, the path from generating aspiration to arriving at the first bhumi is still a long one. Tantra is different. With all the prerequisites in place, the path of preparation only takes six months to complete, the path of accumulation is not very long either; a practitioner can arrive at the first bhumi within a time period that is not possible in sutra. Although sutra does not concede this point, substantial evidence shows tantra indeed has this advantage.
At what juncture does the discrepancy in sutra and tantra disappear? A person who has attained realization of the first bhumi in sutra has in fact also attained realization in tantra. After the first bhumi, sutra and tantra are one and the same. The so-called advantage in tantra exists only in the paths of accumulation and preparation, before arriving at bhumi. In other words, prior to attaining realization of the first bhumi, there is indeed a substantial difference between sutra and tantra; after arriving at bhumi, there is no difference at all.
For instance, there is no concept of vajra body in sutra, let alone its practice; this is a unique practice in tantra. In the context of tantra, a person’s body is not pure, but there are still some pure elements within it. If these elements can be harnessed and allowed to ripen, the tainted physical body will gradually disintegrate at the time the elements mature. When it disappears completely, the physical body is transformed into a vajra body, which is impervious to all external conditions—earth, water, fire, and wind.
But a practitioner who has attained realization of the first bhumi in sutra actualizes the illusory body, also called vajra body, immediately after coming out of the first bhumi meditation. Even though he or she has never practiced the generation stage, having realized clear light, the illusory body arises naturally. Thus, from the first bhumi up, there is no difference between sutra and tantra. A practitioner in sutra on the first bhumi level and up eventually enters the tantric path as a matter of course.
Longchenpa, Mipham Rinpoche, and many other masters believed since there is no difference between sutra and tantra after the first bhumi, a practitioner of low capacity can also upon realization enter the tantric path. Mipham Rinpoche and others further maintained it is possible for a practitioner in sutra to take up tantric practices even during the greater path of accumulation. This is because a person on the greater path of accumulation can during meditation go to all the buddha fields to hear the Dharma. There the tantric teachings are also given and can therefore be practiced.
Is there any difference in the fruition in sutra and tantra? Both sutra and tantra culminate in the attainment of buddhahood, but one is much faster than the other. Although some say there is a difference in the fruition, Padmasambhava and many accomplished masters maintained there is no difference; one can attain buddhahood either way.
The practice of illusory body in tantra is a very special one, but the Nyingma tradition places even greater emphasis on rainbow body. The illusory body is of two types, pure and impure; the pure illusory body is essentially the rainbow body. As explained previously, in Dzogchen, although a practitioner has never visualized a thangka, the mandala of the five Buddha-families can suddenly manifest at the moment the state of realization reaches ultimate perfection. At this point, all external objects are perceived as pure phenomena, the physical body is also gradually transformed into the rainbow body. This rainbow body can lead directly to buddhahood, and ultimately to actualizing the sambhogakaya.
Through the completion stage without marks practice, we can realize the emptiness expounded by Nagarjuna in Fundamental Verses on the Middle Way; through the generation stage or completion stage practice, we can fully realize all that is elucidated by Maitreya in The Mahayana Uttaratantra Shastra and by Nagarjuna in Praise to the Dharmadhatu.
Some people think Vajrayana Buddhism is very mysterious. This is because they lack an understanding of the Vajrayana system of thought and practice. In fact, it is not at all mysterious; it is just that the methods are very special, very fast, and relatively easy to practice. For instance, the view of Hinayana Buddhism is not at a very high level, so there are many precepts for the bhikshu, even more for the bhikshuni; to uphold all of the precepts, down to even the minor ones, is very difficult. The rules are strict because of the view.
The bodhisattva precepts are different. In Mahayana Buddhism, the view is more profound and broader in the scope of its application, so there are fewer rules. The bodhisattva is concerned not only with the self but also with others; given the motivation to benefit others, it is not necessary to be overly cautious; instead, with more flexibility on all sides, the goal of benefitting sentient beings can be accomplished with even greater skill and ease.
In Vajrayana Buddhism, if we have already gained realization of the tantric view, the tantric precepts to be applied are not as strict as in sutra; this too is closely tied to the view. It is another matter if we have not gained realization of the view. Tantric practice is easy to do, the precepts are also flexible, yet progress along the path is especially swift—that is the uniqueness of tantra.
Most people do not have an opportunity to study tantra; they read a book or two but may not necessarily be able to take in everything at a glance. Thus, I have only focused on the main points here and used simple everyday language to describe the practices in the hope that all of you gain a rough idea of the tantric path.
The specific generation stage and completion stage practices will not be discussed at this point. In the actual practice, there is no rush to start the tantric practices; the most important task at hand is to establish a solid foundation in renunciation and bodhicitta. This is particularly true of bodhicitta, which is easy to talk about but difficult to cultivate. As long-time students of Buddhism who are also relatively diligent, we have yet to perfect relative bodhicitta. Thus, bodhicitta is indeed difficult to attain.
If we recite the prayers for generating bodhicitta 100,000 times, does that imply we have perfected relative bodhicitta? Definitely not! Although the recitation of the prayers has its blessings and merit, it is not the criterion for having aroused bodhicitta.
To occasionally think “I want to attain buddhahood for the benefit of all sentient beings” is easy, but to put this thought into practice every day in life is not easy. Although in daily meditation or normal times, we are also sincere in generating the vow to help others, at critical moments, we may not see “bodhicitta” in our actions. As an example, when people find that helping others is possible only at their own expense, many hesitate, even back away from the idea. Where is our bodhicitta then? It has long since disappeared.
A bodhisattva must be able to serve beings unconditionally. Can we do that? How many people can give that guarantee with a clear conscience? Therefore, we must never make light of renunciation or bodhicitta, thinking there is a better method out there. Renunciation and bodhicitta are the supreme practices that surpass all others.
In the past, the great masters would at first only transmit the practice of renunciation to their disciples, and tell them, “There is no better method than this, so you should practice with great effort.” The disciples also firmly believed this to be the only path to liberation; by practicing strictly in accordance with the teachings, they succeeded eventually in cultivating true and stable renunciation.
At that point, the guru would again tell the disciples, “Over and above renunciation, there is another practice that is unexcelled called bodhicitta. This you should practice!” Knowing their place, the disciples did not hesitate to follow the guru’s instructions; with complete focus on this practice, they succeeded ultimately in cultivating true bodhicitta.
Finally, the guru would say, “All this is good and well, but there is another matter that remains unresolved—it is emptiness. After practicing emptiness, there is truly nothing that surpasses it.” Hence, the disciples again relied on the teachings in tantra or sutra to practice emptiness. With a good foundation in place already, realization of emptiness was only a matter of time.
“A man of great skill acts like an idiot; a man of great wisdom behaves like a fool.” The disciples who did not play tricks or try to get smart, who had absolute faith in the words of the guru—only they could tap into the wondrous state that is essentially the guru’s wisdom.
Some people who boast of having sharp faculties may dismiss this approach; they believe these practices are meant for people of low capacity and therefore decide on their own to enter the main practices of tantra. After years of practice, there is nothing to show for it; not only that, even the original faith in the practice is gone. When they consider themselves in the right and do not place importance on paving a foundation for the practice, their effort is to no avail. Some lay people will say proudly, “So-and-so has already granted me permission to skip the preliminaries, so I do not need to practice them.” Here, I must remind you this so-called permission is equivalent to saying you do not have to take the path of liberation. If you cannot attain liberation in the end, of what value is this permission?
In Serpa (Garze Prefecture, Sichuan), there used to be a highly accomplished Dzogchen master called Chogyam Rongdro, who also strongly believed in giving teachings to followers in stages. People who were there three to four years already had yet to receive teachings from him personally. They just received instructions from other khenpos on taking refuge, renunciation, and other methods, and undertook actual practice. When renunciation and bodhicitta were firmly established, only then would the master transmit and expound Dzogchen.
During the Cultural Revolution, the disciples who had developed genuine renunciation and bodhicitta took slight interest in secular matters, and were instead spared of the prospect of beatings and persecution; many retreated to the mountains just to practice. With the passage of time, some decades later, most of the disciples passed away; surprisingly—almost all exhibited signs of different levels of accomplishment. Although this can all be attributed to the special blessings that Chogyam Rongdro granted, it is also very closely connected with the emphasis he placed on paving the proper foundation.
If teachers persist in only expounding the advanced practices, lay followers will also take every possible measure to receive the empowerments at the earliest—to study the texts that can only be read after the empowerment. After understanding all the contents, they will still pursue a so-called “even higher” practice and discard the basics. This way of attending to the superficial and neglecting the essentials is not different from looking for fish in the trees. They have only themselves to blame for the final outcome.
“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” Renunciation and bodhicitta, and realization of emptiness complement each other; they are inseparable like one’s own shadow. It is essential that we take account of their importance. We should know that one can arrive at ultimate truth only after genuine renunciation and bodhicitta are developed!