Approaching Vajrayana – Part Two: Ground Tantra and Blessing
By Jakob Leschly
In the first instalment* of this four-part series, we looked at how we can gradually eliminate the causes of suffering and confusion through the Sutra path of rational knowledge of cause and effect. Yet, the very premise for working with these conditions is the underlying purity of Buddha nature beyond the narrow grasp of conceptuality, which is the foundation of the Mantra Vajrayana path. Here we will look at how this is approached in theory and practice.
Recognition of Buddha nature is the foundation of Vajrayana. Here, the result of the path is not merely a potential but acknowledged as actual reality, already perfect, just as a statue is perfect although hidden in its mold. In the Vajrayana we are empowered to reclaim our Buddha nature, also referred to as our heritage or lineage. We often find in scriptures the expression, “Listen, son or daughter of noble family . . .” This noble family is our innate enlightened heritage. All Buddhas and all beings belong to this family; we can say it is the unifying DNA of all life.
In Vajrayana, recognition of this heritage is called ground tantra . While tantra refers to the unchanging continuum that runs through both confusion and awakening, one speaks of three moments: namely, when it is dormant, when it is being unveiled, and when it is fully manifest. These three stages are called ground tantra, path tantra, and fruition tantra. Yet through all these moments, the nature does not change — ground and fruition merely differ in whether it is unveiled or not. While the gradual Sutra approach is understood as transforming a sentient being into a Buddha, the approach of Mantra is based on the recognition of the unchanging abiding reality that is ever present and real, regardless of whether it is manifest or not. Taking this innate reality of Buddha nature as the path is referred to as “the path of the result,” or the resultant vehicle of Vajrayana.
THE PRACTICAL FOUNDATION
It is said that Vajrayana is the path of all the Buddhas. Any practitioner who eliminates obscurations and unveils the qualities of enlightenment gradually gains a clear recognition of Buddha nature and takes this indestructible or vajra nature as the path. While Vajrayana is the scope of practitioners such as great bodhisattvas, it is also taught to ordinary individuals, and offers methods by which even they can recognise the innate wisdom of their Buddha nature lineage. However, it is repeatedly stressed that to engage in the resultant Vajrayana path requires a solid foundation. As it says in the tantric scriptures:
“Innate absolute wisdom can only come
As the mark of having accumulated merit and purified confusion
And through the blessing of a realised teacher .
Know that to rely on any other means is foolish” (Patrul Rinpoche 1998, 310)
Common to all gradual paths is purifying confusion and creating the necessary conditions for unveiling wisdom. In addition to that, the uncommon method of blessings is the entrance into Vajrayana. The path of blessings is based on devotion, which is the deep respect for and recognition of enlightenment as embodied in the teacher. The student’s sensitivity to and awareness of the teacher’s qualities open up the possibility of the teacher communicating directly to the student that which is beyond language and conceptual thinking. We can say that the fusing of the student’s devotion with the teacher’s compassion results in the blessing that opens the student’s own wisdom. These auspicious conditions are at the very heart of Vajrayana practice.
THE AUTHENTIC TEACHER
Only sublime persons with genuine wisdom and compassion qualify as authentic teachers who transmit enlightenment. The student needs to be uncompromising in assessing who is an authentic teacher and who is not, which is not easy for an ordinary person. Particularly in our mechanistic world, something as non-linear as wisdom finds many of us ill-prepared, lacking the intuitive edge and knowledge that are essential in assessing the values of a genuine guru. We have plenty of discouraging stories of people engaging with inauthentic gurus and teachers. In the traditional homes of Buddhism such as Tibet, there is a very pragmatic culture of discerning authentic teachers. Yet even if we don’t have that living tradition in our modern culture, there is extensive guidance on it in the Buddhist teachings.
The guru also needs to be discerning in accepting a student. A student may have little interest in attaining perfect enlightenment for the sake of all sentient beings, and may approach the Vajrayana teacher only in terms of their own habitual agenda. As for the nature of involvement in the teacher-student relationship, the great master Padmasambhava said:
“Not to examine the teacher
Is like drinking poison;
Not to examine the disciple
Is like leaping from a precipice” (Patrul Rinpoche 1998, 141)
While Buddhist students in general see the qualities of their teacher and follow in their footsteps, the Vajrayana student in particular sees enlightenment as fully present in the teacher. Having established the authenticity of the teacher, the student trains in developing a penetrating insight that sees beyond his or her own projections and appreciates the innate, pure qualities of the teacher. The student recognises that ultimately the teacher is not external and is the very embodiment of his or her own Buddha nature. Hence the student trains in seeing the guru as a perfect Buddha, such as the Buddha Vajradhara or Padmasambhava. The guru is seen as embodying any Buddha, bodhisattva, or sacred principle of enlightenment.
The path of devotion is a very real process of apprenticeship, where the student discovers the teacher’s wisdom and experience. The student becomes acquainted with the teacher’s outlook and skillfulness, and in this way begins to intuit the teacher’s qualities, which eventually results in a transmission of wisdom. While the teacher is seen to embody the wisdom of all the Buddhas and hence as equal to all Buddhas, the teacher’s kindness is recognised as far superior because of being present in a tangible form, giving instruction and guidance.
BLESSING AND EMPOWERMENT
Openness and devotion enable the student to intuit the nature of the teacher’s greatness and qualities, such as wisdom and compassion. While a rational intellect and the logic of the vipashyana path are an indispensable foundation, as the 8th century Indian master Shantideva says in The Way of the Bodhisattva, “The ultimate is not within the reach of the intellect” (Shantideva 2006, 137). The deep respect and devotion the student has for his or her teacher enable the perception and experience of a dimension of being that is not the domain of conceptual constructs.
When the student is touched and awed beyond words by the qualities of the teacher, this creates a space of softness and appreciation that penetrates the thickness of the rational intellect. This is where the teacher’s wisdom may be seen to resonate with what is within. Blessing enables the experience of an abiding common ground with the teacher and the teacher’s lineage. This is the experience of ground tantra and is the entrance to path tantra. It is at this point that the teacher can mature the student through empowerment and guide the student to achieve liberation.
LINEAGE AND GURU YOGA
The devotion to the teacher also extends to the rest of the lineage, all the way to the primordial principle of enlightenment. Invoking the lineage, the student connects with his or her actual heritage as an enlightened person; he or she shares the ground and path of the great beings and sages of their lineage. Whether these awake persons of the lineage, such as Padmasambhava, Naropa, or Yeshe Tsogyal, lived in a different time and within a different cultural discourse is irrelevant; what matters is that they faced their confusion and uncovered enlightenment within. We are doing the same. We are heirs to their know-how and guidance, and we possess their genes. The lineage masters are present beyond time and space. In practicing the path, we invoke these masters along with our guru as our confidants and sources of Refuge, blessing, empowerment, and accomplishment.
In addition to apprenticing with the teacher, serving him or her and following their specific instructions, the single most important Vajrayana meditation is the practice of guru yoga. Generally practiced in a formal setting, the student invokes the teacher’s presence through visualisation of the teacher surrounded by the lineage, as the embodiment of the wisdom of all Buddhas. Supplicating the teacher with heartfelt, yearning devotion, the student experiences the teacher’s blessing, receives empowerment, and settles inseparably within the teacher’s wisdom, just like water being poured into water.
As the student matures, he or she purifies the remaining confusion and unveils innate perfection, in the same way as gradually removing the mold that conceals a perfect statue. The guru empowers and introduces the student’s nature and the world as the fresh and vivid display of wisdom’s purity through the practices of path tantra.