The Characteristics of Vajrayana
This speech is a good guidance for the study and practice of Vajrayana Buddhism. Vajrayana Buddhism has plenty of supreme teachings and pith instructions which help practitioners to attain enlightenment in the shortest time. Here in this speech, the supreme qualities of Vajrayana and the order to practice it are introduced concisely and clearly. In addition, from this speech, you will also know how Buddhist practice can help us to gain genuine happiness and face difficulties in our life.
“I wish you to have courage in your life. People don’t believe they can be happy without a particular person. They build their happiness upon others. In fact, this is not the case. Each one of us can be happy. So, be brave and pursue happiness for yourself, your life will be transformed.”
Necessity of Keeping the Tantra as a Secret
Let us give a warm welcome to Khenpo Sodargye Rinpoche! Khenpo is a renowned Buddhist teacher. He comes from Larung Gar Five Sciences Buddhist Academy, which is located in Sertar County, Sichuan Province in China. Many of his teachings are about Tibetan Buddhism and he is famous for introducing Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhism to different audiences. In general, Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhism is seen as a continuation of Buddhism in India. It’s really our honor to have this opportunity to listen to Khenpo’s perspective on Tibetan Buddhism.
Since you hear me speak every week, without further ado, let us invite Khenpo to give us a speech.
Many teachers and students in our audience today are from different places. As a Buddhist, it is really pleasing for me to communicate with all of you. So personally, I feel grateful to have this opportunity. I come from Tibet, and traveled this far to meet all of you in Europe. We come from different places and we have different habits and life styles. But I think we have the same wish to pursue happiness and eliminate suffering.
Other than that, I was surprised by something else that we have in common. When I was young and herding yaks in different mountains on the Tibetan plateau, there were little white flowers, Edelweiss, called zha qia ha wo in Tibet. Wherever I went, it would accompany me. Edelweiss is commonly seen and used as medicine. We could see this flower everywhere in my hometown.
I saw this flower over here as well in the last two days. I heard that it is your national flower. Well, on the one hand, each of us has different values, but on the other hand, we share the same admiration for this flower. This admiration is quite fitting, as this flower is a symbol of courage and eternal wisdom. It embodies a quality of steadiness within wisdom and many other wonderful symbolic characteristics. With that in mind, I consider we have a good foundation to communicate with each other today.
Today, we are going to talk about The Characteristics of Vajrayana in Tibetan Buddhism. This is the topic that I’ve been asked to give a speech on. I think except for very few teachers and students, not too many of you pay attention to the characteristics of Vajrayana. Nowadays, most people care about how to get rid of suffering in their lives, so they work hard to amass wealth. They attach great importance to fulfilling their needs in life. Those who are interested in Buddhist studies are in fact quite rare, even among teachers and students in universities. But since you’ve asked me to speak on this topic, I will then give a brief introduction on Vajrayana.
In the University of Vienna, it is said that the research on Tibetan Buddhism has lasted for over 80 years. I had some conversations with teachers in this university. Some of them study Mahamudra, and some research Drikung Kagyu, or the Commentary of Valid Cognition. Some conduct research on Tibetan Buddhism or related subjects. Their studies and researches are so profound and extensive that even some Tibetan Geshes or Khenpos may not be able to study on those subjects this comprehensively.
I truly rejoice in those brilliant teachers who continue to pursue the study. Generally speaking, conducting such studies is a good method for senior Buddhists to uphold and spread the Dharma. Study and research also offer an opportunity for more people to get to know Buddhism. Many people hold such an aspiration in their studies. In contrast, some studies of Buddhism are established to refute Buddhist teachings. Some are driven by commercial benefits or personal interests. Whatever the case may be, they are using their own ways to approach the knowledge of Buddhism or related subjects with others. In life, people have many pursuits. It could be wealth or fame. However, the time and energies put in the study of wisdom are the most valuable.
Many scholars are studying Buddhism now. I feel happy for them. Last year, when I went to America, I gave some suggestions to many teachers there. I directly pointed out that Vajrayana in Tibetan Buddhism has unique methods of approach. It falls into two categories of theory and pith instruction. We could use the scientific method to delve into its theory when we study Sutrayana, the causal vehicle. However, if we approach Vajrayana by writing a commentary without any corresponding empowerment or permission from a guru, it is not appropriate. Both theory and practice could be approached from a scholastic method, generally speaking. But if we write comments on the pith instructions which are supposed to be kept in secret, we have broken the precept of leaking out secret teachings. So the way of obtaining pith instructions are different from that of a theoretical study.
Some may think there is no need to keep secrets and it is quite alright to directly spread it. Some people oppose the maintenance of secrecy of Tantra. In fact, the reason why we keep it in secret is not because it is flawed. It is because keeping it in secret can help us to attain achievement more easily. We could also see this principle in our mundane life. The day before yesterday, I was in Grenoble, France. Many people proposed a toast to me. But I don’t drink any alcohol. So they told me this wine is extremely good. It is made according to a formula of adherents of Jesus. This formula has a history of two or three hundred years, brewed with more than one hundred components. The making procedure strictly follows that secret formula. It is kept in secret and at no chance it will be told to others. It is passed down from generation to generation within this family. So even till today, people have no idea about their formula and making procedure. This makes the wine extraordinary from all the other wines. This is just one example to show that keeping in secret is a method to transmit the experience within the family and it finally brings fruition.
Some people oppose the maintenance of secrecy of Tantra. In fact, the reason why we keep it in secret is not because it is flawed. It is because keeping it in secret can help us to attain achievement more easily. We could also see this principle in our mundane life.
Preliminaries — the Indispensable First Step
Coming back to today’s topic. Many teachers asked me to explain the visualization method of Vajrayana and analyze it from an academic perspective. In Tibet, the esoteric teachings are the most profound. If we could understand its teachings, our mind would receive enormous benefits from its potent strengths and blessings. Nowadays, from a worldwide perspective, whether it be mainland China, Western society or other places, people pay lots of attention to Tibetan Buddhism. We can say that it is because people love new things. But if Tibetan Buddhism offers no support to people’s mind, they may abandon this new philosophy swiftly. As a Tibetan monk, I’m not boasting about Buddhism. I have no intention to win you over. I really do think Buddhism is effective in transforming our mind. I’m speaking from my own experience.
The esoteric teachings are supreme but it is hard to put them into practice correctly. In Tibetan Buddhism, the Great Seal and the Great Perfection are two of the most profound teachings. The lineage masters taught people that the prerequisite for receiving the Great Seal is the completion of five preliminaries—prostrations, reciting the refuge prayer, reciting the prayer of arousing Bodhicitta, mandala offering and reciting the one-hundred syllable mantra. Each needs to be completed one hundred thousand times. In the Kagyu lineage, the most profound pith instructions of the Great Seal are given on the basis of completing five preliminary practices first. In our Nyingma lineage, completing five preliminary practices is also the very foundation to receive teachings of the Great Perfection, which are needed in order to practice. This tradition has been preserved until today.
Some teachers say that people in the 21st century are too busy to practice, so some people use this as an excuse for not practicing the five preliminaries. These people seem to think that this tradition is outdated. Others give people permission to finish only part of the five foundation practices. People have many different perspectives on this subject. Once, when a teacher from the Kham area of Tibet was asked by his Han disciples that whether they need to finish the five preliminaries, because at that time the teacher’s monastery was under construction, he said 600 yuan could be given as a substitute for the five foundation practices. So each one hundred thousand practice repetitions would be worth 120 yuan. Six hundred yuan would be enough to replace the completed practice of Five Preliminaries! Taking prostration practice as an example, it is only worth 120 yuan, which is what it equates to if we divide six hundred yuan by five. This happened five years ago. Now the world economy has changed a lot, even in Europe and the USA. So I wonder how much do the five preliminaries cost today? This kind of behavior actually violates the tradition and I think it is really bad.
Some people told me that western practitioners are too busy, so they do not need to finish so many practices. Regardless of whether you live in the West or in the East, everyone is busy. The real question is how devoted are you to the Buddhist teachings? The practices of the preliminaries are a warm-up before the actual practice of more profound teachings, for example, the four common preliminary practices that turns our minds away from samsara—the thought of precious human life, impermanence, law of cause and effect and the suffering of cyclic existence, and the five unique practices mentioned above—including taking refuge, arousing bodhicitta, mandala offering, etc. As a practitioner who wants to actualize the Dharma, all of these practices are essential. If I were requested to transmit Dzogchen teaching, even though I don’t consider myself to be qualified, I wouldn’t dare to transmit a word of Dzogchen to any student who hasn’t completed the five preliminaries and hasn’t received the corresponding empowerment.
In general, the esoteric teachings have the aspect of practice and theory. It is recommended that we repeatedly use our own wisdom to analyze and realize the teachings.
Buddhist teachings should be based on reasoning and theories. I am in favor of this approach. A few teachers are studying and translating books on the Middle Way, the Uttaratantra and many other books from the Kagyu Lineage including The Principle of Mahayana Buddhism. This is quite important. During the process of learning about Buddhism, our mind can be tamed and be joyful. The Buddha dharma is very effective in taming the mind, but you need to experience it yourself. It’s like the sweetness of sugar, which you have to taste yourself.
For most Buddhist studies, using an academic approach is recommended. For example, some teachers and scholars say that Vedism includes some teachings of the Buddhist tantra and scriptures. Not only that, they even say that Tibetan Buddhism is borrowed from and influenced by Vedism. Before we can rush to this conclusion, more research and evidences must be shown. Current studies focus on the development of a period of history at a particular time, such as looking at what happened in a specific century or year. According to this method of study, reaching the conclusion that Tibetan Buddhism is originated from, or influenced by Vedism is too frivolous. Regarding the historical study of Tibetan Buddhism, many scholars both in Europe and the Han area should hold a meeting with scholars, Geshes, Khenpos or gurus from Tibet to further discuss this topic in person. This is really important. In Tibetan history, there was a master who travelled to Tibet three times to finish his study. Back then, traveling to Tibet was quite a task. Nowadays, the commute is no longer a concern. I think it’s necessary to go to monasteries in person to study Buddhism, wherever you are from.
Our mind is without inherent nature. It is just like space. But it has the unceasing luminous quality. So emptiness and luminosity are inseparable. If we could use this method in our everyday life and observe the nature of mind carefully, it would benefit us enormously.
Observe the Mind and Realize Its Nature
Back to the topic. Actually, the esoteric teachings in Tibetan Buddhism are somewhat irrelevant to those who have no faith or no knowledge of Buddhism. My point is that there is a big difference between Sutrayana and Vajrayana. For example, it is recorded in one tantra that Sutrayana holds the view that sentient beings have the potential to attain Buddhahood, whereas in Vajrayana it is said that sentient beings are the Buddhas. In Sutrayana, sentient beings’ potential to attain Buddhahood is like a seed. Accumulating merits and the purification of obscurations will progressively bring the fruition of Buddhahood. Vajrayana teachings tell us sentient beings are the Buddhas. Those are two states of the Buddha nature: One is an immaculate state after purification and the other is an inherently immaculate state. Beings are born with that Buddha nature. Just like a prince, though he hasn’t been crowned, he is the future king because he has been born into royalty. For the same reason, in Buddhist scriptures, though Sutrayana believes in the logic of generation of the Buddha, the Vajrayana path will unveil our Buddha nature. This is how these two traditions understand the connection between the Buddha and sentient beings. Sutrayana teachings tell people that a sentient being is the causal stage of a Buddha. It is like a seed which can grow into a fruit. The Tantrayana teaches that our mind is covered by some dust and Buddhahood is the state of mind after the dust has been removed. What we need to do is simply rediscover that Buddha nature.
There are four distinctive differences between Vajrayana and Sutrayana. The Torch of the Three Methods describes the Secret Mantrayana as follows:
It has the same goal but is free from all confusion,
It is rich in methods and without difficulties.
It is for those with sharp faculties.
The Mantra Vehicle is sublime.
There is no difference on the view of ultimate truth between Vajrayana and Sutrayana. However, from the perspective of subject, there is significant difference in the manner, in which the ultimate truth is reached. For example, if we want to realize the nature of our minds, Tantrayana takes the most direct way to reveal its nature by using special pith instructions. The way in which the ultimate truth is apprehended is the first distinctive difference of the two. With regard to practice, Tantrayana contains many skillful means. In the generation and the completion stage, the path of certainty through method and the path of liberation through prajna are two examples. Regarding the manner of accomplishing, the methods of Sutrayana and Tantrayana are different. It will save a lot of time by practicing according to the skillful methods in Tantrayana, possibly eons of time. Historically, many practitioners have attained enlightenment without much hardship.
Practitioners of Tantrayana are inclined to have certain characteristics. They must have five spiritual faculties including faith, vigor and wisdom. However, the most important thing is to have unshakable faith in the Guru and Buddhadharma. Based on a stable faith, a practitioner will soon be well versed in true meaning and achieve enlightenment.
There are different methods in the esoteric teachings of Tibetan Buddhism and other traditions. The purpose of all the methods is to realize the nature of mind. Though there are many sufferings in life—anger, attachment and many other afflictions coming to our mind from time to time, whenever an affliction arises, if it came from the past, it would have already disappeared; if it is in this moment, it would have no inherent nature; and the affliction of the future does not even exist. When we have intense anger, we should endeavor to simply observe its nature. Like a rainbow, it will disappear naturally. This is one of the utmost important teachings in Tibetan Buddhism.
In Sutrayana, we have teachings about observing the nature of our mind:
The mind is devoid of mind,
For the nature of mind is clear light.
Our mind is without inherent nature. It is just like space. But it has the unceasing luminous quality. So emptiness and luminosity are inseparable. If we could use this method in our everyday life and observe the nature of mind carefully, it would benefit us enormously. The dharma, be it an esoteric teaching or an exoteric teaching, is beneficial if applied in everyday life. Even if you cannot practice daily, you can still obtain happiness from Buddhist teachings.
As human beings, we have various needs. We think that we need grand apartments, cars and high status as well as many other unnecessary things. People constantly bathe in their hopes and fears. From my perspective, people in the 21st century have tremendous suffering. On one hand, our life has become much more convenient. We have convenient modes of transport, smart mobile phones and computers. But since we can watch and hear everything that happens in this world, our minds are filled with anxiety, affliction and suffering. If we can calm our mind by the application of Buddhist teachings, we can rest and become mentally relaxed and we will be practicing the dharma one-pointedly. Calmness of mind is essential to all regardless of whether you’re a Buddhist practitioner or not.
Many people are confused about the meaning of life. Some think an authentic life means receiving a good education, collecting knowledge and then having a wonderful marriage and children. These people don’t know the deeper meaning of life. However, practitioners who choose to observe their mind constantly and scholars who choose to pursue higher knowledge may have more or less a true heartfelt experience about what genuine happiness means. As human beings, we deserve a happy and thus high-quality life. That’s why the practice and study of Buddhism is so important and it should be our way of life. Confused about how to lead our life, we experience sufferings brought about by the countless desires we are unable to fulfill.
This is my own experience: Studying Buddhism, being engaged in debate, writing, translating and teaching, this is how I have spent most of my life over the past thirty years. I have connected with many people from Han and Tibetan areas and have met many westerners as well, I consider the practice of Buddhadharma the most important. I would like to recommend you to meditate or contemplate upon teachings of impermanence. Countless things happen in this world every single day. Whether big or small, it should not surprise Buddhist practitioners. But things are different when people don’t have this basic knowledge of impermanence. For example, someone said his father had died several days ago and he sobbed his heart out. It’s common for people to feel sad about one’s father’s death. But as a practitioner, one knows that no one can escape the suffering of birth, aging, sickness and death. It’s the law of nature. Everyone will come to the end of his or her life. When someone comments “There are many wrinkles on your face,” though the first feeling might be sadness, meditating on impermanence can give us the courage to face that truth. So it can bring tremendous benefit to people.
Austria is new to me. But people in other places consider that death, which is part of the process of birth, aging, sickness and death, is inauspicious somehow. Such as in Han areas, death is a taboo subject that people are not allowed to speak about in daily life. But as a human being, death is inevitable. Regarding death, Buddhism firstly guides people to think about how people die. Some people die suddenly in an accident but some die of other causes. When and how will people die? Buddhist teachings elaborate extensively on the above questions. Although I don’t know a lot about Austrian culture, to meditate upon impermanence will be good for you. When we experience difficulties in life, such as divorce, or being parted from our loved ones, even in death, meditation of impermanence can provide us with great strength to face these challenges and avoid the emotional turmoil of losing someone.
In conclusion, as a Buddhist practitioner, we accept whatever occurs in life as it is. When we have various afflictions, they can be transformed by our practice and become part of our path.
One more thing, I wish you to have courage in your life. People don’t believe they can be happy without a particular person. They build their happiness upon others. In fact, this is not the case. Each one of us can be happy. So, be brave and pursue happiness for yourself, your life will be transformed.
 Quoted from Perfection of Wisdom Sutra in Eight Thousand Lines
How to Follow a Guru?
Khenpo, would you please talk about the relationship between a guru and a disciple and its importance to practice.
In Vajrayana, the relationship between a guru and a disciple should be as follows: firstly, we need to examine the teacher; subsequently, we follow the teacher, and obey him in all things; finally, we emulate our teacher’s realization and actions. But before we can rely on a teacher, we must examine whether he has all the essential qualities a teacher should have. This phase can last up to twelve years, with six years as a minimum. Once you have agreed to follow a teacher, you need to obey every command; finally, you will attain all the enlightened qualities of your teacher in the same way that the Venerable Milarepa obtained all the qualities of his teacher, Master Marpa. We will also have the same realization and wonderful qualities as our teacher. This is how the teacher and disciple relationship works.
Thank you, your introduction is very enlightening. I have a question which is raised by someone else. Where is the literal document of five hundred thousand preliminary practices mentioned for the first time? And who is the first author that documented this, and when?
Generally speaking, lineage masters require their followers to complete the five hundred thousand preliminary practice. The number five hundred thousand is very important. For example, only when one is adequate with driving, can he get the driver’s license. In the same way, after a practitioner finishes a certain amount of practices, taking one hundred thousand prostrations as an example, a practitioner’s arrogance will gradually diminish. Nyingma master Rigdzin Jigme Lingpa and his disciples finished preliminary practices many times, as did Patrul Rinpoche. In Illuminating the Path to Liberation, Mipham Rinpoche stated that he himself finished the preliminary practice several times. In Gelugpa, master Tsongkhapa started a tradition of mandala offering which has been preserved till today. I don’t know much about Kagyu lineage, but in the tradition of Drikung Kagyu, lineage masters also require their followers to complete the five preliminary practices with quantity and quality.
Venerable guru, I’d like to ask a question. You’ve studied Buddhism for so many years. If you had to use one word to summarize Buddhism, which word would you use? You often tell us that Buddhism is more than a religion. It is also an education which lasts a lifetime and is a crucial part of life. So I’d very much like to know your definition of Buddhism. Thank you Rinpoche.
Thank you. If you ask me to use a word to define Buddhism, it might be “love.” But in Tibetan language, “love” has a wide range of meanings, so the Chinese word “ai” is more suitable in this case. Because the core teaching of Buddhism is to love all beings. For this reason, I would use “ai” to define the education of Buddhism. I don’t know how it will be translated into English or German. Anyhow, “love” in Tibetan may not be a perfect definition. It is somewhat vague and is not focused enough. So I choose the Chinese word of love “ai” to answer your question.
Since the word “love”, has different connotations in different languages, I will use the Chinese word “ai” to answer your question.
That was the last question. Thank you for your speech. It offers us a brief introduction to some of the traditions in Tibetan Buddhism. What an insightful speech. Now we all have a more vivid image of Tibetan Buddhism than we could have gained from books.