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The Tree of Enlightenment: An Introduction to the Major Traditions of Buddhism - Chapter Twenty-Nine: Vajrayana Buddhism in Practice

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The Tree of Enlightenment
An Introduction to the Major Traditions of Buddhism

Peter Della Santina



Chapter Twenty-Nine
Vajrayana Buddhism in Practice

In the last of these eight chapters on the Vajrayana path, I would like to consider the special meditational practice known as the Vajrayana Sadhana. The term sadhana means 'to achieve,' 'to attain,' or 'to establish.' The Vajrayana Sadhana is the means by which one can achieve, attain, or establish the experience of the sacred universe, the experience of enlightenment. One who engages in the practice of sadhana is called a sadhaka. The attainment itself is called the siddhi, and one who has attained it is called a siddha. I mention this because in Chapter 22 I talked about the men of great attainment, or Mahasiddhas, who attained the experience of enlightenment through the practice of Vajrayana meditation, or sadhana.

In Chapter 28 we said that, in the Vajrayana initiation, the practitioner is given the keys with which to enter and experience the sacred universe. In general, the keys that are given are the vision of the tutelary deity and the special verbal formula, or mantra, associated with the tutelary deity. These constitute important elements in Vajrayana meditation, the purpose of which is the recreation and establishment of the sacred universe. But if we are to understand how the practice of Vajrayana meditation enables the practitioner to obtain this enlightenment experience, we need to consider the general form and contents of Vajrayana meditation.

In explaining the practice of Vajrayana meditation, I will use a structure that is not absolutely universal. You will encounter a number of practices that do not conform in every particular to the pattern that I will use here: they may differ in the order of their elements, or be presented in a slightly different way. In broad terms, however, the elements of this structure are present in virtually all forms of Vajrayana meditation. Moreover, the interpretation that I will elaborate on is based on authoritative expositions in the commentarial literature of the Vajrayana tradition.

One other general point I would like to stress is that Vajrayana meditation is both method (or path) and goal (or result). What I mean by method is that, by practicing Vajrayana meditation, one can attain the experience of enlightenment. In this sense Vajrayana meditation is method. But as one progresses in one's practice of the meditation, as one perfects the method, the method becomes the goal. Thus at one level Vajrayana meditation is method, but as the practitioner perfects the method, the meditation becomes the goal. It remains the method only in relation to other, less developed individuals.

Let me try to explain this by introducing the general interpretation of Vajrayana meditation that I propose to adopt--namely, that Vajrayana meditation is a paradigm, a reenactment, an imitation, or a replica of the careers of the Bodhisattvas and Buddhas. The careers of the Bodhisattvas and Buddhas are both method and goal. As the Bodhisattva progresses along the Bodhisattva path, for him that path is method. Once he achieves Buddhahood, the Bodhisattva path and the career of the Buddha become the goal for him, even though, in relation to other living beings, they are still method. For example, as we saw in Chapter 15, in the context of the Mahayana, the career of the Buddha--his birth, his renunciation of household life, his practice of austerities, and his achievement of Buddhahood--was simply a drama played out for the enlightenment of sentient beings.

As one progresses along the path, the method and the goal become indistinguishable. The practice becomes the goal for the practitioner, yet it remains the method for others, who still have to be led to Buddhahood. The Vajrayana meditation, therefore, is both method and goal--depending on one's place along the path, on the level of one's understanding and attainment.

Let us divide the Vajrayana meditation into two parts, each of which can in turn be divided into two subsections. To achieve Buddhahood, one has to perfect the accomplishments of merit and knowledge, the two prerequisites which are indispensable for achieving Buddhahood. Practice of the perfections of giving, good conduct, and patience results in the accomplishment of merit, while the perfections of meditation and wisdom result in the accomplishment of knowledge. Energy, the fourth perfection, is needed for both accomplishments.

The first half of the Vajrayana practice is an imitation--an internalized, contemplative, symbolic expression--of the Bodhisattva path through which merit and knowledge are perfected. Vajrayana meditation begins with the taking of refuge. It continues, in most cases, with awakening of the enlightenment thought and recollection of the practices of the Six Perfections and Four Immeasurables (love, compassion, appreciative joy, and equanimity). All these practices are internalized, meditative, symbolic expressions of the Bodhisattva's accumulation of merit.

As we look further into the contents of the Vajrayana Sadhana, we come next to the meditation on emptiness. This is nothing other than an internalized, symbolic expression of the Bodhisattva's accomplishment of knowledge. The Bodhisattva achieves knowledge through the perfection of meditation and the perfection of wisdom. Here, then we have the meditation on emptiness, a union of meditation and wisdom.

Thus far, we have considered the first half of the Vajrayana meditation, which corresponds to the career of the Bodhisattva up to his attainment of Buddhahood, with his two accomplishments of merit and of knowledge. These are represented symbolically by the taking of refuge, the awakening of the enlightenment thought, the practice of the Four Immeasurables, and the meditation on emptiness.

After the attainment of enlightenment, once Buddhahood is achieved, the accomplishments of merit and knowledge result in two fruits. These two fruits are the two dimensions of Buddhahood--the form dimension and the transcendental dimension--which arise directly from the accomplishments of merit and knowledge. In the second half of the Vajrayana Sadhana, we have a symbolic, meditative paradigmatic expression, or replica, of the reality of Buddhahood that includes these two dimensions. This is represented in the sadhana through the use of the notion of two processes: (1) the process of creation, origination, or production, and (2) the process of completion, or perfection. These two processes correspond to the form and transcendental dimensions of Buddhahood, respectively.

In what way are these processes of creation and completion reflected symbolically--replicated in meditative experience--in the context of the Vajrayana meditation? Following the symbolic attainment of Buddhahood, we have visualization of the form of the tutelary deity, in other words, the creation of the phenomenal dimension of Buddhahood in the shape of the particular tutelary deity to which the meditation belongs. The practitioner creates a conscious imitation of the phenomenal dimension of Buddhahood in the form of the tutelary deity in question. In addition, we have the recitation of the mantra of that deity. This recitation is a symbolic, internalized, meditative imitation of the Buddha's teaching of the Dharma. These two components--the creation of the form of the tutelary deity, and the recitation of the mantra--constitute the process of creation. They correspond to the form dimension of Buddhahood, and are an imitation of the phenomenal activities of the Buddha.

These practices of the creation of the form of the deity and the recitation of the mantra are followed by a dissolution of the form of the deity into emptiness and a cessation of the recitation of the mantra. This dissolution and cessation is a symbolic, meditative replica of the transcendental dimension of Buddhahood.

In the second half of the Vajrayana meditation, therefore, we have an imitation of the activities or career of the Buddha, with its phenomenal and transcendental dimensions of Buddhahood. This imitation is achieved through use of the conceptions of the processes of creation and completion. The process of creation constitutes the visualization of the deity and the recitation of the mantra, which are paradigmatic of the Buddha's phenomenal dimension--his activities and teaching of the Dharma, respectively. The process of completion constitutes the dissolution of the deity and a cessation of the recitation of the mantra, which is paradigmatic of the Buddha's transcendental dimension.

In summary, in the Vajrayana meditation we have a complete replica or imitation of the careers of the Bodhisattvas and the Buddhas. The first part of the meditation is a replica of the Bodhisattva's accomplishment of merit and knowledge. The second part is a replica of the Buddha's phenomenal and transcendental dimensions.

I would like to return to the notion of meditation and wisdom. This point serves to emphasize the complete integrity of Buddhism, because it is absolutely characteristic of all the Buddhist traditions to insist on a fusion of concentration and insight, a union of tranquillity and penetrative vision or wisdom. In the context of the Vajrayana meditation, too, this union is essential. As the practitioner meditates on emptiness in the context of the imitation of the Bodhisattva's accomplishment of knowledge, he or she must unite meditation and wisdom. In this case, his or her ability to concentrate the mind on an object is applied to the understanding of emptiness. Whereas formerly he or she may have cultivated the ability to concentrate his or her mind with the help of an external support, such as a blue disk, here, in the context of the Vajrayana meditation, he or she focuses directly on the understanding of emptiness. In that way, through the meditation on emptiness, he or she imitates the Bodhisattva's accomplishment of knowledge through cultivation of the perfections of meditation and wisdom.

There must also be a union of meditation and wisdom in the context of visualizing the tutelary deity and reciting the mantra. Here the objects of concentration are the visualized form of the tutelary deity and the sound of the mantra, but the practitioner has to integrate his or her understanding of emptiness with his or her concentration on the form of the tutelary deity and the sound of the mantra so that, in the course of the visualization and recitation, he or she regards the visualization and the sound of the mantra as exemplary of empty phenomena--as similar to a reflection, a magical illusion, and an echo. This is the case because, just as a reflection or an echo occurs relative to causes and conditions, so the visualization of the tutelary deity and the sound of the mantra arise and exist relative to causes and conditions.

In the context of the Vajrayana meditation, the visualization and the recitation are also paradigmatic of interdependently originated phenomena and of emptiness, respectively. In the Vajrayana meditation, as in the other Buddhist traditions of mental development, the union of meditation and wisdom is absolutely necessary. This is perhaps why Nagarjuna said in his Letter to a Friend (Suhrillekha) that without meditation there is no wisdom, and without wisdom there is no meditation. But for the practitioner who puts meditation and wisdom together, the whole ocean of samsara can be dried up, just as water that gathers in a cow's hoof print in the mud is dried up by the noonday sun.

By putting meditation and wisdom together in the context of the Vajrayana meditation, one can achieve the experience of the sacred universe, the experience of Buddhahood. This is achieved gradually, through familiarization with and appropriation of the sacred universe depicted in the sadhana, which is an internalized, meditative microcosm of the careers of the Bodhisattvas and the Buddhas. In this way, one can achieve the goal of Buddhahood. Thereupon, one's experience of enlightenment becomes a means of leading other sentient beings to the same sacred universe, the same goal.


Continue Reading

Part One: The Fundamentals of Buddhism

Part Two: The Mahayana

Part Three: The Vajrayana

Part Four: The Abhidharma

Source

by Peter Della Santina
peterdellasantina.org