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Highest-Yoga tantra

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Highest Yoga Tantra (Skt. Anuttarayoga/Yoganiruttara/Yogānuttara Tantra[1]; Tib. བླ་ན་མེད་པའི་རྣལ་འབྱོར་གྱི་རྒྱུད་, Wyl. rnal 'byor bla na med pa'i rgyud) is the highest of the four classes of tantra. According to the Sarma tradition, Highest Yoga Tantras are divided into Mother Tantras, Father Tantras and Non-dual Tantras.

In the Nyingma tradition, the Anuttarayoga Tantra corresponds to the three inner tantras of Mahayoga, Anuyoga and Atiyoga.

Highest Yoga Tantra for us Tibetans is like our daily diet. I have found that the practice of the Compendium of Principles and the Vairochana-abhisambodhi tantra is widespread in Japan, where there are quite a lot of practitioners of the lower tantras. But it seems that Highest Yoga Tantra is found only in the Tibetan tradition, although I cannot state this definitely.

The trainees for whom Highest Yoga Tantra was intended are human beings belonging to the desire realm whose physical structure is comprise of six constituents. These refer to the three constituents we obtain from our father and the three we obtain from our mother.

One unique feature of the profound paths of Highest Yoga Tantra is that they employ techniques which correspond not only to phenomena related to the basis of purification as they occur on the ordinary level, such as death, intermediate state and rebirth, but also to features of the resultant state of Buddhahood, the three bodies of the Buddha.

Highest Yoga Tantra explains the term tantra on three levels, causal tantra, which is the basis, method tantra which is the path and resultant tantra. All three levels of tantra arise from the fundamental innate mind of clear light.

If you understand the significance of this, you will understand the explanation of the Sakya tradition which speaks of causal tantra called the basis of all, or the fundamental basis, referring to the mandala and the deities within it, all of which actually arise from this fundamental basis.

This tradition explains that the fundamental basis is present in our basic faculties and all the phenomena on an ordinary level in the form of characteristics. All the phenomena on the path are present within this fundamental basis in the form of qualities, and all the phenomena of resultant state of Buddhahood are present within this fundamental basis in the form of potential. Similarly, we find statements such as ‘the equality of the basis and the result’ in the writings of the Nyingmapa.

Since all the phenomena of the resultant state are complete or present in this fundamental basis in the form of potential, we can also understand such statements as the body of the Buddha and his wisdom being inseparable. But it is also important to understand these statements and concepts correctly, otherwise there is a danger of mistakenly asserting something like the Enumerator’s (Samkhya) view that the sprout is present at the time of its seed.

Keeping the ultimate intent of such points in mind, we can understand that what Maitreya wrote in his Sublime Continuum, ‘all the stains of the mind are temporary and adventitious, all the qualities of the mind are present within it naturally’ doesn’t mean that all the qualities and realizations of the mind are actually present within the mind, but exist in the form of potential, because all of them are present as potential in the fundamental innate mind clear light. From this point of view we can also understand such statements as, ‘recognizing one’s true nature is equivalent to becoming totally enlightened’.

There are similar passages in other tantras such as Hevajra tantra where we read, ‘sentient beings are completely enlightened, but they are obscured by mental stains’. The Kalachakra tantra also speaks very emphatically on this point, the fundamental innate mind of clear light, but it employs different terminology, giving it the name ‘all pervasive vajra space’.

In his commentary on the fivefold completion state of Guhyasamaja tantra, Lamp Illuminating the Five Stages, Nagarjuna mentions that the practitioner abiding in an illusory meditation perceives all phenomena in the same aspect. The implication here is that at the completion stage, when the practitioner is able to arise in a very subtle body, technically known as an illusory body, which is of the nature of the very subtlest energy and mind, he extends his perception to all phenomena, perceiving them as manifestations of this fundamental mind of clear light.

Now, although we may be able to understand perceiving all living beings as manifestations of the fundamental innate mind of clear light, because ultimately this is the fundamental source from which they all arose, the question is, how logically do we justify the whole environment being a manifestation of this fundamental innate mind of clear light? I don’t think the reference here is to the environment or phenomena being of the nature of the mind, although the Mind Only School of Buddhist thought maintains that that is the nature of all external reality. Here the meaning is slightly different. We should understand the whole environment, all external phenomena, as creations, manifestations or appearances of this fundamental innate mind of clear light, rather than being of the nature of it.

So, when a person goes through the manifest experience of this fundamental innate mind of clear light, which is the subtlest level of the mind, at that point all the gross levels of energy and mental processes are withdrawn or dissolved. What then appears to the mind at such a level is only pure emptiness.

In tantra, techniques and methods are explained by which a person is able to utilize the fundamental innate mind of clear light that naturally manifests at the time of death or other occasions. Generally, in the sutra system, the last moment of a dying consciousness is said to be neutral though very subtle, but methods are explained in tantra to put that state of mind to positive use, by generating it into something virtuous.

I have read in the works of the Indian master Vasubhandu that, compare to negative states of mind, virtuous states are more powerful. The reason being, from one point of view, that virtuous states of mind have a valid basis because they are rational and unmistaken. Another reason is that it is only virtuous states of mind that can be generated at moments of generating the fundamental innate mind of clear light, such as the time of death, and even extended beyond it. Negative states of mind could never be generated once the fundamental innate mind of clear light has become manifest.

The view of the Great Seal, the Mahamudra of the Kagyu tradition, and the view of the Great Perfection, Dzogchen, all come down to the same point – understanding the fundamental innate mind of clear light.

You might want to question that, because normally the Great Perfection is presented as the peak of the nine vehicles for the reason that in practicing it we utilize our basic awareness, while in the preceding vehicles, we used our minds. If that is the case, how can we say that the view of the Great Perfection comes to the same thing, that is an understanding of the fundamental innate mind of clear light, which is also referred to in Highest Yoga Tantra?

The answer to this question has been given by the Dzogchen master Tenpai Nyima. He says that, while it is true that in Highest Yoga Tantra much emphasis is given to exploring and developing the fundamental innate mind of clear light, this is also a feature of Great Perfection practice. The difference lies in their methods.

In Highest Yoga Tantra practice, techniques for exploring and developing the fundamental innate mind of clear light are explained as a very gradual process leading from the generation stage on to the subsequent stages of completion, and eventually to actualization of the clear light. In the practice of Great Perfection the development and enhancement of the fundamental innate mind of clear light has been explained, not as a gradual process, but as directly grasping the mind of clear light itself, right from the beginning, by using our basic awareness.

When studying Highest Yoga Tantra, we must keep in mind that in tantric treatises, a single word can have many different levels of interpretation, just as in the case of the Perfection of Wisdom sutras that we discussed earlier, which had two levels of interpretation, a literal meaning and a hidden meaning. In the tantric case, the interpretation is much deeper, one word can have many different levels of meaning and interpretation.

It is said that one word of the tantra can have four interpretations, four modes of explanation: the literal meaning; the explanation common to the sutra system and the lower tantras; the hidden or concealed meaning which is of three types:- that which conceals the method for taking desire into the path, that which conceals appearance, and that which conceals conventional truth – the illusory body; and finally, the ultimate meaning, which refers here to the ultimate clear light and union.

There is also a mode of interpretation called the six boundaries: the interpretive and definitive, the intentional and non-intentional, the literal and non-literal meaning.

In this complex approach tantra, there are two ways of actually explaining it to the disciples. One refers to the presentation given at a public teaching or gathering and the other refers to the manner of the teacher-disciple relationship.

In order to validate the practice of tantra as a Buddhist practice that will eventually lead to the achievement of Buddhahood, reference is always made in tantric treatises to the mode of procedure on the sutra path. The complexity and subtle differences in the various tantras are due to the differences in the practitioners’ mental disposition, physical structure and so on. Therefore, tantras begin with a preface in which the qualifications of the appropriate trainees are identified. There are four types of practitioners of tantra, the chief being called the jewel-like practitioners.

The purpose of explaining the tantras to an appropriate trainee in such a complex way is to enable the trainee to realize the two truths. The two truths here do not refer to the two truths explained in the sutra system, which are ultimate and conventional truths. These are the two truths in the context of Highest Yoga Tantra.

According to the sutra explanation, both ultimate and conventional truths in the context of the Highest Yoga Tantra would both be conventional truths. This mode of interpreting a tantric treatise is explained in a tantra called Compendium of Wisdom Vajras, which is an explanatory sutra. One feature of tantra is that almost all the tantras began with two words E wam. These two letters encompass the entire meaning of tantra, not only the literal, but also the definitive meaning of tantras. All tantras, because they are treatises, are composed of many letters, which ultimately are all derived from vowels and consonants, therefore all of them are contained in these two letter E wam and since the entire meaning of tantra is encompassed in the three factors, base, path and result, all of them are also included in the meaning of E wam.

E wam actually encompasses the entire subject matter of tantra, as Chandakirti explained when he summarized the whole content of tantra in one verse in his renowned commentary the Brilliant Lamp. It was so famous that at one time it was said that just as the sun and the moon are the two sources of light in the sky, on earth there are two sources of clarity, referring to Clear Words, which is Chandakirti’s commentary to Nagajurn’s Treatise on the Middle Way and his Brilliant Lamp, which is his extensive commentary to the Guhyasamaja Tantra.

The verse says,

The generation state actualizing the deity’s body is first,

Meditation on the nature of the mind is second,

Attaining a stable conventional truth is third,

Purification of conventional truth is fourth,

Conjoining the two truths in union is fifth.

In essence this is the entire subject matter of Highest Yoga Tantra. Chandakirti’s treatise divides the entire tantric path into five stages; the generation stage and the four stages of completion stage.

Just as there are different stages on the path, so there are different initiations which are ripening factors for these paths. The initiation that empowers the practitioner to undertake the generation stage is called the vase initiation. The factor that empowers the practitioner to undertake the practice of the illusory body, which includes the three isolations; isolated body, isolated speech and isolated mind that are actually preliminaries to the illusory body and make up the three first stage of the completion stage, is the second or secret initiation. With the wisdom knowledge initiation, the practitioner is empowered to undertake meditation on clear light. And with the fourth initiation, the practitioner is empowered to undertake meditation on union.


  1. Despite the popularity of Anuttarayoga as a so-called 'back translation' from Tibetan into Sanskrit, this is not attested to in any original Indian text, and scholarsTemplate:Who generally believe the correct form to be yoganiruttara or yogānuttara.Template:Source