- Psychology, Physiology, and Cosmology
- Dr. Peter Della Santina
In the Vajrayana tradition, psychology, physiology, and cosmology are
closely interrelated. In this chapter I would like to show how this is the case, and also
sketch in general terms the benefits of this interrelationship.
Let us begin by referring once again to the idea of interdependence and
interpenetration. Interdependence is synonymous with relativity, or emptiness, and it is
one of the two pillars of the Vajrayana tradition. In this particular context,
interdependence has a specific meaning--namely, interpenetration. Insofar as everything
depends on everything else for its existence and nature, so everything holds within itself
the seeds, the causes and conditions, of everything else. Specifically, we can understand
this by focusing on the idea of the interdependence of the parts and the whole. The nature
of the whole depends on the nature of the parts, and the nature of the parts depends on
the nature of the whole. This is the interdependence of parts and whole.
Traditionally, we see this idea elaborated in the Mahayana in parables
such as that of the net of Indra. In this parable, each part of the net depends for its
existence and nature on the other parts, and each small part of the net in a sense
contains in miniature the characteristics of the net as a whole. This idea of
interdependence or interpenetration of parts and whole became very important in China,
too, where it is probably the single most important idea in Hua-yen philosophy, or the
philosophy of totality.
The idea of interpenetration is found in the Vajrayana tradition as
well, where we can see it expressed even in the term tantra itself. You may remember that
tantra refers primarily and literally to the idea of the weave in a piece of cloth or
fabric (see Chapter 22). Using the analogy of cloth or fabric, we can understand the
interpenetration of parts and whole when we see that a small section of fabric reveals the
pattern that extends throughout the whole.
The idea of the interpenetration of parts and whole is also expressed
in the Vajrayana in the notion of the interpenetration of individual beings (who here
represent the parts, or microcosms) and the universe (which represents the whole, or
macrocosm). This notion of man and the universe as microcosm and macrocosm is the first
idea I want to consider by way of introduction to a more specific treatment of psychology,
physiology, and cosmology in the Vajrayana.
To understand the dynamic role of psychology, physiology, and cosmology
in the Vajrayana tradition, we need also to recall the second fundamental idea of the
Vajrayana tradition--the idea of the variability of experience. This is expressed in the
experience of Asanga, who saw the Buddha Maitreya first not at all, then in the form of a
diseased dog, and finally in his celestial and transformed aspect. This idea is also
expressed in the fact that the beings who inhabit the six realms of existence view
phenomena differently: this is the variability of experience relative to the conditioned
state of one's mind. Thus reality is dependent on the conditions of one's mind: an impure
mind will perceive and experience reality in one way, whereas a transformed and purified
mind will experience it in another.
It is important to keep both interpenetration and the variability of
experience in mind if we are going to understand the relationship between the individual
and the universe in Vajrayana psychology, physiology, and cosmology, and if we are going
to understand how this relationship functions dynamically to bring about the
transformation that is the goal of Vajrayana practice.
Let us first look specifically at psychology within the Vajrayana
tradition. Thus far I have been at pains to show that the Vajrayana is a natural and
logical development of the Buddhist tradition as a whole, as we find it embodied in the
Theravada and Mahayana. Given this fact, it is not surprising that Vajrayana psychology
takes as its basic building blocks elements which belong to a system that is central to
Buddhist psychology in general.
These building blocks are the five aggregates. As in the Theravada and
Mahayana, the five aggregates of form, feeling, perception, volition, and consciousness
function as the basic components of Vajrayana psychology. In the impure condition of
mind--the condition common to all of us before we have transformed our experience--these
five aggregates are associated respectively with the five afflictions, or defilements, of
ignorance, pride, attachment, envy, and aversion. You will notice the presence of the
three basic afflictions that are causes of the experience of suffering and, in addition to
them, the afflictions of pride and envy.
We can also see the five afflictions in relation to the five realms of
existence that are not conducive to liberation. In this context, ignorance corresponds to
the realm of animals, pride to the realm of the gods, attachment to the realm of the
hungry ghosts, envy to the realm of the demigods, and aversion to the realm of the hell
beings. It is interesting to note that the five afflictions also constitute the causes of
birth in the five unfavorable realms of existence.
This is the picture of reality seen from the point of view of the
untransformed mode of being, the impure vision which is typical of our experience, and
which was typical of Asanga's experience when he was unable to see Maitreya. Even in the
Perfection of Wisdom literature, we find statements to the effect that, as a Bodhisattva
progresses toward Buddhahood, his aggregates become perfectly pure. In the Vajrayana, this
general statement is given positive and specific content so that, in Vajrayana psychology,
the five aggregates are transformed and appear in the form of the five celestial Buddhas
when the mind has been purified by the cultivation of wholesome conditions. Thus, in their
transformed mode of being, the five aggregates appear as the five celestial Buddhas: the
aggregate of form, when purified, appears in the form of the Buddha Vairochana; feeling,
in the form of Ratnasambhava; perception, in the form of Amitabha; volition, in the form
of Amoghasiddhi; and consciousness, in the form of Akshobhya.
Some of you may have seen these five celestial Buddhas iconographically
portrayed in the mandala, a sacred or magical circle which is a representation of the
purified or transformed universe. What the five celestial Buddhas represent is the five
components of psycho-physical being in their transformed and purified mode of being. The
five celestial Buddhas together represent the transformation of our impure experience into
a purified, or liberated, mode of being.
Incidentally, these five celestial Buddhas are also said to be the
Buddhas of the Five Families: the Buddha, Ratna (or jewel), Padma (or lotus), Karma, and
Vajra families, respectively. These are the symbols that stand for the five aggregates in
their transformed mode of being.
Just as, on the untransformed and impure level, the five aggregates are
associated with the five afflictions, so on the transformed and purified level, the five
celestial Buddhas correspond to the five transcendental knowledges, or wisdoms. The first
of these transcendental knowledges is the knowledge of the Dharmadhatu, which corresponds
to the Buddha Vairochana. The knowledge of the Dharmadhatu is the knowledge of things as
they are in reality, the knowledge of the quintessential nature or character of things. In
other words, the Dharmadhatu is that essential nature of all phenomena which is their
emptiness, their nonduality. Thus the transformed aggregate of form is the Buddha
Vairochana, and this transformation similarly implies a transformation from the affliction
of ignorance to the transcendental knowledge of the true nature of all things, or
Second, with the Buddha Ratnasambhava, who is the transformed
appearance of the aggregate of feeling, we have a transformation of the affliction of
pride into the transcendental knowledge of equality. This is the knowledge which makes all
things equal. Here, again, we have a specific echo of something which occurs in the
Perfection of Wisdom literature. In the Heart Sutra, it is said that the perfection of
wisdom makes the unequal equal. In the case of Ratnasambhava, we have the knowledge which
makes things equal. More than anything else, the knowledge of equality sees no distinction
between samsara and nirvana. The transcendental knowledge of equality which sees no
distinction between samsara and nirvana enables the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas to operate
freely in the world.
Third, in the case of the aggregate of perception, which in its
transformed and purified dimension becomes the Buddha Amitabha, we have a corresponding
transformation of the affliction of attachment into the transcendental knowledge of
discrimination. This is the knowledge which is able to see all things according to their
individual characteristics. In a sense, this corresponds to the knowledge of the
Dharmadhatu, which is the knowledge of the quintessential and universal character of all
things--that is, emptiness. As a complement to the knowledge of the Dharmadhatu, we have
the knowledge of discrimination, which is the knowledge of the particular characteristics
of all things.
Fourth, in the case of the aggregate of volition, which on the purified
level takes the form of the Buddha Amoghasiddhi, we have a transformation of the
affliction of envy into the transcendental knowledge of accomplishment. This knowledge is
the ability to know with precision the exact situation of all sentient beings so that they
can best be helped to progress toward Buddhahood.
Finally, in the case of the aggregate of consciousness, which on the
purified level takes the form of the Buddha Akshobhya, we have a transformation of the
affliction of ill-will into the transcendental knowledge known as the mirror-like
knowledge--the ability to reflect all things in the manner of the mirror. The mirror
reflects precisely whatever is presented to it but remains itself unchanged, unaffected by
the images that it reflects.
You can see that there is here a symmetrical arrangement of basic
psycho-physical constituents, with the five aggregates on the impure level corresponding
to the five celestial Buddhas on the purified level. Similarly, there is a symmetrical
arrangement of the five afflictions on the untransformed, or impure, level corresponding
to the five knowledges on the transformed and purified level.
This symmetrical arrangement between an impure and a pure experience is
carried over into the building blocks of matter as well. On the purified level, the five
elements of the world--earth, water, fire, air, and space--take the forms of the five
celestial female deities who are consorts of the five celestial Buddhas. The element of
space, which corresponds to the aggregate of form, is transformed on the purified level
into a female deity who is the consort of the Buddha Vairochana. The elements of earth,
fire, air, and water, which correspond to the aggregates of feeling, perception, volition,
and consciousness, respectively, are transformed at the purified level into the female
deities who are the consorts of Ratnasambhava, Amitabha, Amoghasiddhi, and Akshobhya,
In Vajrayana psychology, therefore, we have aggregates, afflictions,
and elements on the ordinary, impure level which are transformed on the purified level
into the five celestial Buddhas, the five transcendental knowledges, and the five female
deities who are consorts of the five celestial Buddhas. We have two levels of experience
that are symmetrical, one level of experience being typical of an impure form of
existence, the other of a purified form of existence. This is the basic scheme of
In the system of Vajrayana physiology, these five celestial Buddhas,
along with their five consorts, are found within the body of each individual person. They
are situated at five centers of psychic energy, called chakras, which are found within the
body of every person. The five centers of psychic energy are situated at the top of the
head, the throat, the heart, the navel, and the genitals. At each place, there is one of
the five celestial Buddhas with his consort seated on a lotus throne: the Buddha
Vairochana, who is the purified dimension of the aggregate of form, is at the top of the
head; Amitabha, who is the purified dimension of perception, is at the throat; Akshobhya,
who is the purified dimension of consciousness, is at the heart; Ratnasambhava, who is the
purified dimension of feeling, is at the navel; and Amoghasiddhi, who is the purified
dimension of volition, is situated at the genitals.
There are a number of channels of psychic energy, called nadis,
connecting these centers of psychic energy. Although there are a great number of these
channels, there are three which are very important: the central psychic channel
(avadhuti), which runs directly from the top of the head to the genitals and which
connects the five cakras; and the two psychic channels on the right and left of the
central channel (the rasana and lalana, respectively). On the level of advanced Vajrayana
practice, the practitioner is able to manipulate and direct the flow of psychic
energy--which is none other than the energy of mind alone--through these psychic channels.
This enables him or her to unite the opposites which are reflected in the psycho-physical
experience of the individual person and in the universe as a whole, in order to realize
within him- or herself in meditation the absolute union of all opposites, the annihilation
of all dualities, which is the goal of tantric practice.
Through this very brief portrayal of Vajrayana physiology, you can see
how the basic building blocks of psycho-physical experience, be they viewed from the
impure level or from the purified level, are reflected in the physiological makeup of the
Through achieving the union of opposites within his psycho-physical
experience as an individual person, the Vajrayana adept is able to bring about the
transformation of his vision of the universe as a whole. He is able to do this because his
body is a microcosm of the universe. In Vajrayana cosmology, the features of the universe
as a whole are present within the psycho-physical experience of each person. Mount Sumeru,
the central mountain of the universe according to Buddhist cosmology, is situated within
the body of the practitioner, just as the sun and moon, the sacred rivers of India, and
pilgrimage places are found within the body in a microcosmic way.
Not only are these features of the universe situated within the body
but so, too, are the primary features of the transformed or purified experience. We have
already seen that the five celestial Buddhas are found within the body at the five centers
of psychic energy. In the same way, we find that the experience of the individual person
is in fact none other than the experience of the celestial or purified universe, so that
the body is in fact the celestial mansion of the divine Buddhas. In Vajrayana psychology,
physiology, and cosmology, therefore, we find the real meaning of the expression that 'The
body is a temple.' It is a temple that contains the celestial Buddhas, who are none other
than the transformed mode of being of the ordinary mode of being of the psycho-physical
components, or aggregates.
You can see how, in the Vajrayana tradition, a close correspondence is
drawn between the ordinary level of experience and the purified level of experience. This
correspondence is established through the idea of microcosm and macrocosm. Specifically,
the Vajrayana supplies a special psychological and physiological scheme of the elements of
experience precisely so that they can be subjected to the direct and efficient
manipulation of the mind. This scheme employs the centers of psychic energy and the
channels through which psychic energy flows.
What I have tried to do in this chapter is show that, in the Vajrayana
system of psychology, physiology, and cosmology, as in Vajrayana myth and symbol, we do
not have an arcane and exotic portrayal of haphazard or arbitrary forms. Rather, we have a
very carefully designed system which accords with the fundamental principles of the
Buddhist path to liberation. What we have is really just a particularly rich and colorful
development of the suggestions we have seen in the earlier Buddhist traditions, in the
psychology of the Abhidharma and in the Perfection of Wisdom literature. In the Vajrayana
tradition, all these suggestions receive a very definite content. The Vajrayana supplies
colorful, bright, and attractive representations of the various components of
psycho-physical experience, and a description of how their transformation can be achieved
through the gradual purification of one's mode of being.
[Taken from Peter Della Santina., The Tree of Enlightenment. (Taiwan:
The Corporate Body of the Buddha Educational Foundation, 1997), pp. 234-242].
Sincere thanks to Ti.nh Tue^. for typing