- Dr. Peter Della Santina
As noted in Chapters 22 and 23, the Vajrayana and the Mahayana are
identical in their views of the beginning and end of the path. Where the two differ is in
methodology. The special claim of the Vajrayana is that it provides a more skillful and
rapid means of getting from that beginning (the initial situation of suffering) to the end
(the goal of Buddhahood). Therefore a look at its methodology is particularly important to
an understanding of the Vajrayana.
Let us begin by discussing the mechanism of the initial situation of
suffering. The fundamental cause of suffering has traditionally been called ignorance. But
ignorance means the dichotomy or duality between subject and object, between self and
There are different ways to deconstruct or dismantle this duality which
is the substance of ignorance. In the Abhidharma literature (see Chapter 19), the emphasis
is on the dismantling of the self. By taking apart the self--one pole of the duality-- the
subject is dismantled. And ultimately, dismantling the subject implies dismantling the
object, too. This is why great emphasis is placed on the analytical dissection of the
self. This has been the main thrust of the Abhidharmic tradition, although not its
exclusive contents, since the Abhidharma Pitaka also contains the important Book of Causal
Relations (Patthana), in which the object as well as the subject is dismantled.
In the Mahayana and Vajrayana traditions, there is a slightly different
approach, in that these traditions begin by attacking the object in various ways. For
instance, in Chapter 23 we discovered that the object is not stable in its mode of
appearance, and that an object can appear even without any external stimulus. Thus the
object is like an object seen in a dream; it is unreal.
The discovery that the object is unreal raises the question of the
status of the self, or subject. In the Mahayana and Vajrayana, the general procedure for
deconstructing the subject-object or self-and-other duality follows these lines: We begin
by showing that the object is dreamlike and unreal, and then apply our understanding of
interdependence to reveal that, if the object is unreal, then the subject which is
dependent on the object is also dreamlike and unreal. If the seed is unreal, the sprout,
too, must be unreal. This brings us to the understanding of the emptiness of subject and
object. This process is reflected to an extent in the attitudes of the two main Mahayana
schools--the Mind Only school, which focuses on the dreamlike nature of experience, and
the Middle Way school,
which focuses on the idea of interdependence.In addition to this
fundamental duality--the subject-object or self-other duality--there are many others that
must be removed if we are going to achieve enlightenment. The other major duality which
produces suffering, and on which the Mahayana and the Vajrayana focus, is the duality
between samsara and nirvana. In general, this is a duality between what is conditioned and
what is unconditioned. Samsara is conditioned and nirvana is unconditioned. This is
reflected in the technical description of the phenomena of samsara as conditioned
phenomena and nirvana as unconditioned reality. Samsara is conditioned because it is
characterized by origination and destruction, by birth and death, whereas nirvana is
unconditioned because it is characterized by non-origination and non-destruction.
But is this duality real or is it merely constructed? The position of
the Mahayana and Vajrayana is that the duality between samsara and nirvana is unreal. It
is merely constructed by, and hence an illusion of, the mind. This is shown by an analysis
of the characteristics of samsara--that is, by an analysis of origination and destruction.
There are various ways origination and destruction are examined within
the Mahayana and Vajrayana traditions. One is found in Nagarjuna's extensive examination
of origination in his Foundation Stanzas of the Middle Way (Mulamadhyamakakarika.). There
he considers the four possibilities of origination: (i) from self, (ii) from other, (iii)
from both, and (iv) without a cause (see Chapter 18). But here we can content ourselves
with an analogical examination of origination, in which it is said that if objects are
like objects seen in a dream, then there is neither any real origination nor any real
In the Samadhiraja Sutra, it is mentioned that if a young, virgin woman
has a dream in which she gives birth to a child, and in that same dream she sees that the
child dies, she will (of course) experience first happiness and then sorrow in the dream.
But when she awakes she will realize that there was no real birth or death of a child.
Similarly, all phenomena have no real origination and no real destruction. If, in reality,
all things have no origination and no destruction, then the characteristics of samsara no
longer hold good as real characteristics. The distinction between samsara and nirvana
collapses, and we are left with the conclusion that, as Nagarjuna puts it in the
Mulamadhyamakakarika, there is not even the subtlest difference between samsara and
nirvana. If there is no origination and no destruction, then samsara's characteristics are
the same as nirvana's, since nirvana is characterized by the absence of origination and
destruction. There is, therefore, no difference between samsara and nirvana.
To summarize, we arrive at the identity of samsara and nirvana first
through a dismantling of our conception of samsara. We define samsara as conditioned. We
say that the characteristics of the conditioned are origination and destruction, but find
that there is no real origination and no real destruction. If samsara does not have these
characteristics, then its opposite, nirvana, has no meaning. In this way we arrive at the
identity of samsara and nirvana.
Everything I have said thus far about ignorance being the fundamental
cause of suffering, about the duality of subject and object and of samsara and nirvana,
and about the emptiness of each pole of these dualities--all this holds true for the
Mahayana as well as for the Vajrayana tradition. There is complete agreement between the
two up to this point. There is also complete agreement about the distinction between
indirect knowledge and direct knowledge.
The distinction between understanding the truth intellectually and
seeing the truth directly is, of course, recognized throughout the Buddhist tradition. For
example, in the Theravada tradition, there is recognition of the difference between
understanding the Four Noble Truths intellectually and seeing them directly. In the
Mahayana and Vajrayana traditions the crux of the matter is whether our knowledge of the
identity of samsara and nirvana is intellectual or direct and experiential.
If we follow the procedures laid down in the Perfection of Wisdom
literature--the arguments spelled out by Nagarjuna, Asanga, and Vasubandhu--we arrive at
an intellectual, indirect understanding of the non-differentiation of subject and object,
samsara and nirvana. It is with the quicker, more skillful methods by which indirect
intellectual understanding is turned into direct and transforming understanding that
Vajrayana methodology comes into play.
The key to an understanding of Vajrayana methodology per se is an
understanding of the emptiness of all things. All phenomena (dharmas) are nothing in
themselves. They are what they are insofar as they are conceived of by the mind. Let me
refer to two examples from the Theravada tradition to illustrate this point of the
emptiness, or neutrality, of all phenomena. In the Discourse of the Water Snake,
Alagaddupama Sutta, the Buddha likens all phenomena to a water-snake and to a raft. He
says that someone who is skilled at handling a water-snake can capture and handle it
without coming to grief, but someone who is not skilled will come to grief if he tries to
capture one. He also says that phenomena are like a raft, in that we do not need to hold
onto them, just as we do not need to hold onto a raft once we have crossed a river.
The Buddha's discourse expresses very brilliantly and succinctly the
emptiness and neutrality of phenomena. All phenomena are neither this nor that. They are
neutral, dependent on how we take or use them. It is not in the nature of a water-snake to
cause grief; rather, grief depends on the manner in which the water-snake is caught.
Similarly, a knife is neither true nor false, but one who grasps it by the blade is surely
in error. If we grasp a knife by its blade, we hurt ourselves, but if we grasp it by the
handle, we are able to use it. If we use a raft to cross a river, we are using it
properly; if we carry the raft on our shoulders after crossing the river, we are making a
mistake. The usefulness or lack of usefulness of phenomena lies not in phenomena
themselves but in the way we use them.
This is true not only of objects but also of mental states like desire
and aversion. For example, there is the story of the Buddha's instruction to his cousin
Nanda, who was persuaded to join the Order on the day he was to have married. After his
ordination, Nanda began to miss his fianc?e and regret that he had entered the Order. The
Buddha was aware of Nanda's state of mind, so he took him on a trip to the heavens to show
him the lovely, heavenly damsels there. Nanda was so infatuated by the maidens in the
heavens that, when he was asked how they compared to his fianc?e, he replied that, beside
them, his fianc?e looked like the skeleton of a female monkey. The Buddha advised Nanda
that if he wanted to enjoy the heavenly damsels in his next life, the best way to do so
was to remain in the Buddhist Order and practice the Dharma.
Nanda went back to the Order with renewed zeal. When the other monks
found out why Nanda was practicing so diligently, they teased him. Eventually Nanda
realized the hollowness of his motivation and became an Arhat known as the foremost of
those who are able to control their senses. This is an example of the neutrality of the
mental state of desire. At a particular point in Nanda's progress, the Buddha used desire
as a motivation to get Nanda to settle down and practice diligently.
Thus we can see that not only are objects like water-snakes, rafts, and
knives neutral and dependent on how we take or use them, but mental states, also, are
nothing in themselves: they depend on how we use them, whether for spiritual progress or
spiritual retardation. This is why the Buddha said that 'killing anger benefits the
killer.' Aversion is neither good nor bad. If one is averse to unwholesome actions, this
is conducive to the goal of liberation, but if one is averse to wholesome actions, this is
not conducive to good. To reiterate, all phenomena are basically neutral or empty. How
they affect our progress depends on how we take them and what we do with them. This is the
insight or attitude which has been developed in the Vajrayana and which has enabled the
Vajrayana to use particular methods that utilize all phenomena for spiritual progress.
This is the key to the acceleration that Vajrayana methods bring to spiritual progress.
To the extent that we use only part of our experience to make progress
toward the goal of liberation, our progress is, inevitably, slower. For example, how much
time do any of us spend in meditation or in recitation? Most of our time is spent instead
on eating, sleeping, or chatting with our friends. We are wasting all that time, and all
that experience is not being used to make progress toward the goal of enlightenment. It is
here that the Vajrayana makes use of the idea of the basic neutrality of all phenomena,
for if all phenomena are empty, why not make use of them--all sights, sounds, and mental
states--for spiritual progress?
This is why the Vajrayana is said to regard all sights, sounds, and
mental states as deities, mantras, and the transcendental dimension of Buddhahood.
Everything that we see, hear, and think is really neutral and empty. If we take these
sights, sounds, and thoughts to be manifestations of the pure vision of enlightenment, we
can utilize these elements of experience to contribute to our progress toward
enlightenment. I will explain this in greater detail in the chapters that follow, but let
me give you an example at this point. The cup that I am holding belongs to the aggregate
of form, which is a manifestation of the celestial Buddha Vairochana. The object, which
belongs to the aggregate of form, is therefore not simply a cup but a dimension of the
Buddha Vairochana. This is what is meant when it is said in the Vajrayana that one regards
all sights as the deities, as the particular manifestations of a purified reality. By a
particular act of the mind, we can similarly regard all sounds as mantras and all mental
states as the transcendental dimension of Buddhahood.
This careful utilization of sights, sounds, and mental states is
especially evident in the form of the Vajrayana ritual of meditation. In this context the
Vajrayana practice of meditation may be likened to a raft--a raft that is composed of
sights, sounds, and mental states. In the Vajrayana ritual, for example, there is a visual
component, which is the visualization of any one of the deities of the pantheon; an
auditory component, which is the recitation of the mantra; and a mental component, which
is the identification of the meditator with the object of meditation and the cultivation
of the understanding of nonduality and emptiness.
This will become clearer in later chapters. For the time being, I would
like to conclude by observing that the ritual of Vajrayana meditation practice employs
these three components--visual, auditory, and mental--in order to create a 'raft of
ritual' that utilizes a variety of phenomena, and that this provides a particularly
efficient form of meditation.
Those of you who practice breathing meditation or other forms of
meditation will appreciate the truth of this. If you are trying to meditate only on your
breath, there may be a point at which your mind becomes tired of trying to concentrate
only on the breath and begins to wander. If you are chanting, your mind may become tired
of the words of the chant. If you are doing insight meditation, your mind may become tired
of the penetrative analysis of phenomena. Because of the multifaceted character of
Vajrayana meditation practice, when the mind becomes tired and irritated and is no longer
able to concentrate on the visualized form of the deity, it can concentrate on the mantra;
when it becomes tired of concentrating on the mantra, it can concentrate on emptiness; and
when it becomes tired of that, it can go back to the visualized form of the deity.
Indeed, Vajrayana ritual is more effective as a means of meditation
precisely because of its multidimensional character: rather than setting up a
confrontation with the tendency of the mind to become distracted, it utilizes that
tendency. Thus Vajrayana meditation actually lets the mind wander, although it is only
allowed to wander within a particular compass of religious or spiritual meaning, so that
no matter what the mind rests on--whether the visualized form of the deity, the mantra,
the identification of the meditator with the form of the deity, or even the emptiness of
that form--it is resting on something that has spiritual power.
The Vajrayana ritual is also like a raft in the sense that it is not
anything to be grasped. It is a means, or method, and nothing more. This ritual is also
not supposed to be confined to sessions of formal meditation but to be extended to all our
activities, both within and outside of meditation sessions. While in the meditation
session, we visualize the form of the deity, recite the mantra, and cultivate both an
understanding of identity with the form of the deity and an understanding of the emptiness
of that form. Thereafter, this view is extended beyond the limits of the meditation
session to encompass all our activities.
Wherever we are and whatever we do, the totality of our experience is
made a part of this 'raft of meditation practice,' so that we can incorporate and utilize
all this energy and experience in our practice. As we go about our daily activities, we
perceive sights, sounds, and mental states in this special, transformed way. In other
words, we grasp the elements of our entire experience by the handle, not by the blade.
Through the techniques of Vajrayana meditation, we learn to handle these sights, sounds,
and mental states skillfully, so that we do not come to grief. We learn to handle sights
that we see, sounds that we hear, and mental states that we experience so that, instead of
being ensnared by these experiences, we can use them for our mental development and
progress toward enlightenment.
[Taken from Peter Della Santina., The Tree of Enlightenment. (Taiwan:
The Corporate Body of the Buddha Educational Foundation, 1997), pp. 215-223].
Sincere thanks to Ti.nh Tue^. for typing