On Visualisation in Tantric Practice by Peter Morrell
On Visualisation in Tantric Practice
by Peter Morrell
There is a fundamental strand of Buddhist logic which forms the bedrock of the Mahayana view that visualisation is a very important foundation for many Buddhist practices. This view receives special amplification in the Vajrayana school of Buddhism.
- "The Hevajra Tantra dates from approximately the eighth century AD." [Farrow and Menon, p.viii]
- "The Mahasiddhas, or Great Accomplishers, were the synthesisers and systematisers of the tantric tradition during the classic 'tantric period' between the fifth and 13th centuries AD..." [Farrow and Menon, p.ix]
- "...the Mahayana and Vajrayana traditions in India were again introduced into Tibet from the tenth to the thirteenth centuries AD prior to and during the Muslim invasions which finally destroyed the great Buddhist monasteries and universities in northern and eastern India." [Farrow and Menon p.xii]
- "The last transplantation of Vajrayana Buddhism from India to Tibet was methodically planned and executed. It was a project which took some hundreds of years to complete. A vast number of texts were translated..." [Farrow and Menon, p.xiv]
- "Physically, climatically and demographically, Tibet is in contrast to India. Once well-established, the Tibetan tantric tradition evolved in an almost exclusively Buddhist religious environment which had not existed in India." [Farrow and Menon, p.xv]
The basic strand of this logic begins with the posited fundamentally unsatisfactory nature of the outer physical realm (samsara), which is regarded as fleeting, unreal, innately flawed and not as it appears. Its gross and subtle impermanence (shunyata; emptiness) means that it is nowhere near as real it seems. That is the basis for the turning inwards away from the outer world and into the realm of thought and the mind. The mind is, in fact, regarded as supreme, and a far more permanent realm than the outer physical world. Why is this?
Mind is regarded as precious and supreme because it is seen as being much more permanent. Once the subtle impermanence of the outer world is explored and grasped in fine detail, this leads one then to follow Buddha's basic logic that this outer world is intrinsically unsatisfying and quite unable to provide us with any real form of lasting security anywhere. Once it is realised that no single particle in the world can escape the imminent danger of decay, loss, destruction and extinction, this means, inevitably, that the whole fabric of external reality is flawed and cannot form the basis for any lasting happiness. The next logical step, then, is to try and find a place where such happiness can be found. Mahayanists turn to the mind for just such a place.
Turning inwards to the mind, it is possible to look at two things:
When we turn to these fields of study we find, partially, a similar form of impermanence to that found in the outer physical realm, in the sense that mental events flow along and are fleeting or transient: one moment we are happy and then due to some upset we are then sad. Our moods and our thoughts are ever-shifting and inconstant. But we also find a form of continuity in the mind which is lacking in the external world. That continuity is termed mindstream or flow of consciousness. Having an underlying flow or continuity to mental events means that mind must be somehow different from the material world. Fundamentally so, in fact, as this continuity can be expressed as a form of permanence or indestructibility which forms the underlying bedrock of mental reality. Thus Buddhism asserts that the mind is superior to the external world.
It therefore also follows from this basic position, that developing the mind is much better than developing anything at all in the outer physical world, subject as it is to continual change and decay: a state of flux.
- "One often hears the statement that all phenomena are not truly existent and that they are like dreams... although phenomena do not truly exist, nevertheless, the relationship between actions and their results, that is to say the law of karma, of suffering and of happiness, conventionally do exist." [Dhargyey, p.121]
The flow of consciousness can also be observed in relation to changes in mental states such as sleep and dreams. Dreams and visions, in particular, are regarded most certainly as being superior and far more real than external reality. An internal and self-generated image is considerde more 'reliable' and secure than the outer physical realm. Sounds weird to westerners, but that is the Buddhist position.
It derives from a deep distrust for an impermanent external reality and also from observing the seemingly more permanent nature of mental events. In the case of sleep and waking, this illustrates a broadly parallel position and thus seems to add proof to the idea of death and rebirth. The fact that mind can 'disappear' at the point of sleep and then 'reappear' on waking, suggests that the 'reality' of death is thrown into doubt while the imputed reality of rebirth is rendered more probable. Thus, from a comparison of the two events, which are indisputably real phenomena, support for the idea of rebirth is increased. Furthermore, many Buddhists also add the suckling of new-born animals, as evidence of memory of what to do, having done it in many previous lives. Disbelief in 'genetic drives' or 'instinct' places them in a different position on this topic.
Having thus established that developing the mind is the soundest basis for religious practice, the next step is to abandon and negate the apparent reality [or vivid manifest realness] of the outer world and to replace it with a more developed, and at least equally vivid, internal reality. Thus the 'trick' of the vajrayana is to 'undo' the appearance of the outer world, and to replace it with a new spiritual reality of our own creation. And thus to see the world and ourselves anew. In short, to see the world as a Buddha does, through a Buddha's eyes.
The mode of creating an alternative reality is very similar in all the tantric texts. The aim is to replace the ordinary perception we have of the world and ourselves with a new vision of pure, spiritual forms. A tantric practitioner 'suspends' the natural process of engaging, through the senses, with the outer world of forms, and instead takes control of the process internally, by creating an image of a pure form (the deity, mandala, palace, attendants, ritual objects). Through continuous and extended practice this pure form increasingly becomes intensely vivid and real and can then displace the 'impure forms' normally seen, i.e. ordinary objects and people. Moving from this private inner practice, which takes several years of continuous practice to perfect, the next stage is to project this conception at all times onto the outer world, so as to suspend our ordinary mundane perception of the world completely, and replace it with a perception of only pure forms at all times. In essence, that is the aim of all vajrayana practice. All forms, beings and phenomena are seen (not as they ordinarily appear to our senses), but as aspects of deities and as manifestations of bliss and emptiness combined, which ultimately is their real nature anyway (according to Buddhist logic).
The motivation is to become an actual Buddha by copying the exact mode of perception which a Buddha has. Through practice one thus becomes a Buddha, through using tantric practice as a dress-rehearsal until imagination transfers into reality itself.
- "In order that the tantric method of Wisdom and Method can be perceived as a dynamic force for transformation, the other schools of Buddhism should be viewed as necessary stages of discipline and preparation required to arrive at the developed stage of tantric practice. The Vajrayana tradition was and is a radical development of orthodox Buddhism... and utilises and refines the basic emotions which arise in the body as the very means for total transformation... because the emotions arise in the body the deities are said to reside in the body. The presence of the deities is therefore confirmed by the arising of the unpurified emotions... the work of the Yogi is first... to purify the obscuring unrefined emotional natures by continually identifying with the form and nature of the principal deity." [Farrow and Menon, pxviii]
- "The positive and negative emotions found in the personality are the unpurified manifestations of the principal deities." [Farrow and Menon, p.xiv]
- "Deity yoga is the principal method that the tantras add to perfection vehicle practices" [Cozort, p.26]
- "Deity yoga...is a technique that actually resembles the countenance... of the form body of a Buddha." [Cozort, p.27]
- "Highest Yoga Tantra comprises...the transformation of one's mind and body into the mind and body of a Buddha." [Cozort, p.27]
- "Special insight is a conceptual or direct realisation of emptiness occurring within a state arisen from meditation..." [Cozort, p.56]
- "...one meditates on a subtle drop, visualised as containing an entire mandala of deities... one then visualises that deities are emanated from the subtle drop out into the world in a number equal to the number of sentient beings in order to help those beings, and then visualises the withdrawal of those deities back into the drop." [Cozort, p.56]
- "As one gains facility in visualisation, the mind becomes entirely absorbed in the imaginary divine appearances to the mental consciousness such that, although objects continue to appear to the senses, they are no longer ascertained." [Cozort, pp.57-8]
- "In the stage of completion, one is actually transformed into the deity one has merely imagined... within the vivid visualisation of oneself as a deity and one's environment as divine, one practises penetrative focusing..." [Cozort, p.65]
- "The meditation on a mandala in a subtle drop is the main practice...the subtle drop, though extremely tiny, is to be seen as containing the entire mandala, with deities, palace, guards and so forth..." [Cozort, p.68]
- "Through the power of Secret Mantra our mind is protected from ordinary appearances and ordinary conceptions...[which form) the root of samsara and the foundation of all suffering...ordinary conceptions are obstructions to liberation and ordinary appearances are obstructions to omniscience." [Gyatso, pp.13-14]
- "In order to break this cycle we need to overcome ordinary appearances by visualising ourself as a deity, and overcome ordinary conceptions by generating divine pride of being the deity." [Gyatso, p.14]
- "In tantric practice, the conception and appearance of ordinariness are to be isolated, i.e. suppressed, in order to protect the mind from them. The senses are indeed withdrawn from external objects during meditative equipoise in the various levels ...isolating the yogi from the conception and appearance of ordinariness...one makes ideal substitutions for ordinary appearances by seeing them either as manifestations of bliss and emptiness or as deities. Mere withdrawal of the mind from external objects would not be deity yoga." [Cozort, p.69]
- "All levels of the stage of completion are isolations because they suppress the conception and appearance of ordinariness. [We create a]...visualisation of all phenomena as deities and a divine environment..." [Cozort, p.70]
- "The entire mandala of deities and a divine mansion, containing representatives of all types of objects, is visualised in a subtle tiny drop..." [Cozort, p.71]
- "...one's mind is so permeated with a feeling of bliss that all appearances are strongly affected... phenomena appear to be light, ephemeral, and like illusions... a similitude of a Buddha's actual mode of perceiving phenomena at all times... sealed with bliss and emptiness." [Cozort, p.79]
- "...one mentally divides all of the phenomena of the world... and then sees them all not only as manifestations of bliss and emptiness, but as taking on the specific form of a single deity..." [Cozort, p.80]
- "The deities which are vividly visualised in tantric meditation are the imagined forms of various Buddhas..." [Cozort, p.80]
- " ...the meditator...must attempt to construct a mental picture of the mandala for visualisation practice..." [Cozort, p.81]
- "The deities imagined in meditation are, in one sense, recognised to be products of the imagination...on the other hand, the deities imagined in meditation are definitely held to exist in fact.." [Cozort, p.82]
- "Deities are visualised in a mandala, a symbolic representation of a divine mansion and its immediate environment in which the principal deity and his consort are at the centre." [Cozort, p.82]
- "An illusory body is so-called because, like a magician's illusion, it is non-obstructive, being made only of wind, and seen only by the yogi and others who have attained an illusory body. Nevertheless, it bears the complete markings of a Buddha..." [Cozort, p.95]
- "...the coarse minds are the sense consciousnesses; the subtle mind is the conceptual mental consciousness; and the very subtle mind is the mind of clear light... the difference in the subtlety of these minds is said to be like the quality of the subtlety of the mind at the time of being awake (coarse), when dreaming (subtle), and when in a dreamless sleep (very subtle)." [Cozort, p.96]
Daniel Cozort, Highest Yoga Tantra, Snow Lion USA, 1986
- Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey, Kalachakra Tantra, Library of Tibetan Works and Archives, Dharmsala, India, 1985
- G W Farrow and I Menon, The Concealed Essence of the Hevajra Tantra, M Banarsidass, India, 1992
- Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, Tantric Grounds and Paths, Tharpa, UK, 1994
- Glenn H Mullin, The Practice of Kalachakra, Snow Lion USA, 1991