Tibetan Buddhism: Transcript of an Interview with Mishlen Linden
by Denny Sergent, 1999
The questions posed by Denny Sergent are specifically constructed to be relevant to the modern Pagan audience.
Denny's writings include
GLOBAL RITUALISM: Myth and Magic Around the World (Llewellyn's World Religion and Magic Series).
THE TAO OF BIRTH DAYS: Using the I Ching to Become Who You Were Born to Be due to be published in 2000.
Mishlen Linden gives workshops on Tibetan Buddhist topics at festivals and other events. She is the author of TYPHONIAN TERATOMAS and is presently organizing a book on Banishing. She is an artist and studies and practices Tibetan Buddhism at the Tibetan Cultural Center in Bloomington, IN.
What is the evolving relationship between the indigenous polytheistic religion Bon Po and that of later Buddhism? Could you give a 'brief' history?
The religion Bon (pronounced Burn, with a soft b), was originally based on animist shamanic tradition. I had the good fortune to attend a small lecture by one of the major Bon-Po lineage holders. He told us that the tradition was some 8,000 years old (Buddhism entered the country about 2,500 years ago). In a land of mountains, its not surprising to experience these great beings as individual entities, or else ruled by individual entities, which can be angered, placated, and honored, like the rains and the winds. But there was more to the tradition which flourished as well, for upon that base, and enlightened being, Tonpa Shenrab, built foundations of a system of enlightenment.
When Padmasambhava entered Tibet in order to teach, it is said that the mighty spirits of the land stood against him. Therefore, he went into battle with them, and won. Subjugated, they were sworn to protect the spread of Dharma in the land, giving them the name Dharmpalas (trans: Truth Protectors). Many of the wrathful and semi-wrathful deities are former Bon deities.
Time has passed, and the two systems have grown into a closely knit fusion. Different names, same gods. Different tools, the same purpose. One geshe (a Tibetan lama who has reached a high degree of learning) told me that it was no longer possible to separate the two. Nevertheless, there ARE Bon monasteries, just as there are Nyingpo, Kagyu, Sakya and Gelukpa orders. Bon is now considered the fifth Tibetan Buddhist order.
Tibetan Buddhism is more 'magickal' than other forces of Buddhism can you give me a description of the 'Tibetan world view' concerning the mundane and spiritual worlds? How do members of the faith see reality?
Oh, that is a BIG question! As my friend here says, 'give the workshop version'. The most often misunderstood phrase that all of the material realm is illusion' gave rise to misperceptions more than 30 years ago. 'Illusion' is not an accurate word. What is meant is that all things which we see, which we believe we are, consensus reality if you will, are in a constant state of change. All Buddhists fix their sights on that which is eternal and unchanging, the essence of spirit. Life takes a variety of forms, and these, as in the magickal paradigm, live on different planes of existence. Here is a short 'hierarchy' of beings:
The most unfortunate entities are the demons or hell-beings. There are 2 Tibetan hells, the hot hell and the cold hell. Depending on where you live, you are probably familiar with one of these!
The Hungry Ghosts: These spirits are trapped in the desire realm hence the world 'hungry'. Unexpected death results in the saddest beings of this realm. During the Kosovo war, a number of children were ruthlessly slaughtered. Told to hide, terrified, their spirits remained in the rubble of their homes. Intervention was necessary to free them. There are Tibetan lamas who spend their lives going from place to place doing this very thing. Quietly.
Less pure, but no less needy, are the fallen soldiers, people who cling to their possessions or loved ones, and those who cannot or will not let go, because of work left unfinished.
A step further on this spiritual evolutionary scale is ourselves. Human existence is considered precious because it is here that we are given knowledge and the choice of whether or not to act upon it. We develop merit by good action, which increases our wisdom, or we can choose the earthly pleasures over the spiritual ones. How long we stay on this plane is dependant upon factors such as our ability to focus on the eternal, dis-identifying ourselves with our daily changing egos. Also, many choose the path of the Bodhisattva, with the attendant vow to continue returning to the human realm in order to liberate the endless masses of beings.
The Short-lived Gods and the Long-lived Gods: When one has built up a tremendous amount of merit, one may take existence, if one chooses, as a short or long-lived god. This means dwelling in a Pure Land, such as Shambhala, while continuing to have an enjoyment body. Eventually, however, this merit is used up and one falls back to one of the lower realms.
Buddhas: This of course, is the final goal for all of us. Our final escape from the suffering of Samsara. However, because the omniscience of such a state, those Buddhas already in existence hear and feel our pain. Alleviating ours alleviates their own. This inter-connectedness is called dependent-arising. Their help is not given from selfish reasons though, they are far beyond that but, like the bodhisattvas, out of compassion for us.
There are numerous ways of building merit. Many of these ways take the forms o magick. A spiritual Tibetan will carry his mala (prayer) beads everywhere with him, and spend every free moment unobtrusively chanting with them. Imagine the awesome power that these beads accumulate over a lifetime! For peaceful deities, wood or crystal malas are used. For wrathful ones, crystal or bone. The prayer wheel is a swift way to pray. These are wheels on a stick, inscribed with a mantra, and with mantra rolls inside, which is spun round and round. You will see laymen as well as young monks.
My personal favorite technique is that of circumambulating the stupa. A stupa (or Chorton) is in actuality, an astral machine. They can be very small or very, very large, large enough in fact, to have floors upon floors of meditation rooms inside. Built on specially consecrated ground, with a specific directionality, they spend their days emanating waves of peace and clarity, and their nights absorbing stellar force which they then draw down through their center pole, a single wooden tree trunk covered by copper. The energies pass deep into the earth, to help in Her healing. These incredible 'vehicles' have a sentient presence, and if one sits quietly and opens ones mind, you may hear its voice. People circumambulate stupas clockwise while chanting. In its presence, merit is vastly increased.
You are a westerner and yet have chosen the difficult path of becoming an initiate. What do you see are the responsibilities of a priest, Rimpoche or Lama in your faith? How does one become such a spiritual leader? How did you come to choose to tred this path?
Yes, I agree, the path is difficult. When I first began practicing, and this after 18 years of doing magick, my teacher asked me how I was doing. I answered, just fine, except that I'm lazy, stupid, insensitive and blind. He laughed. Evidently it was the right answer.
A teacher's first responsibility is to his student. He will create whatever environment is necessary for that student's growth. This often includes acts which appear cruel or nonsensical to those who are standing outside of that intimate circle. The first act is to make ready, to purify, the student's karmic obstacles to enlightenment. To do so includes anything from physical hardship to absolute fits of rage for no apparent reason. Sometimes the teacher may actually take the students karma upon himself. This is quite dangerous, for if the student falls away from practice, the teachers burden can become so heavy that it can destroy the body. With the proliferation of initiations going on today, spurred by the aspiration to keep Tibetan Buddhism alive, this is what you could call 'the leading cause of death' in teachers today.
So the responsibility of the teacher is much greater than that of the student, whose main goal is to put himself into the 'state of grace' necessary to receive that which the teacher has the power to transmit. A teacher must be able to directly transmit his heart wisdom into that of the student. Otherwise, he is not a teacher.
I chose to study Tibetan Buddhism because, like many good paths of knowledge, I had come to the end of my magickal studies. I was looking for a system which took one farther. Kabbalistically, I was looking for a path into the realms above Kether and into the Ains, and beyond.
As such, it has served me well. I now have lifetimes of exploration before me.
Aside from Buddha, what are the main aspects, Boddhisattvas and/or Gods, Goddesses and spirits of Tibetan Buddhism? Could you sketch out a brief rap for the most important ones?
Various godforms manifest various attributes. Therefore, it is natural that one may need or prefer one specific deity over another. There are certain forms we are particularly drawn to. And as the West is fascinated by 'new' ideas, such as the newest upgrade, or changing styles, we also tend to move from deity to deity in continual curiosity. This can be a good thing or a bad one, depending upon the depth of discovery.
Currently, popular Tibetan godforms in our country are these: Avalokiteshvara: Well-known for his mantra 'Om Mani Padme Hum (pro: hung)', he is arguably one of the most well known deities. Portrayed with a white body, two of his hands are held to his heart in the common mudra (hand position) of prayer. This represents the spirit of compassion. He is portrayed in various ways, with four arms or a thousand, with one head or many, facing all directions. Each arm holds items which represent his various powers of transformation. Each syllable of his mantra corresponds to the various realms of existence and calls forth a plea of release, that all may become buddhas.
Tara: There are twenty-one forms of this Goddess, in the five colors of green, white, red, black and blue. She is the principal manifestation of enlightenment and known as 'she who releases from all fears'. She is gentle or fierce by turns, having the power to stamp down any demons or obstacles in her path. At this time, there is a monastery in which the Tara mantra, 'Om Tara, Tutara, Ture So-ha' is chanted 24 hours a day, in shifts. Both living and dead monks participate in this, and many come astrally from around the world. The purpose is healing, healing the heart of man, animal and our sentient Earth.
Amitabha: His popularity is such that an entire system, called 'pure land Buddhism'. His name means 'Infinite Light'. Within this context it is believed that worship of Amitabha will bring about rebirth in his pure land, and in his company. In this simple way, it bears quite a resemblance to Christianity.
Another widely venerated deity is Amitayus, who prevents untimely death. It was shortly after an initiation by him that I had the chance to experience him even more directly.
I had been enjoying my favorite lunch of mochi when it accidentally became caught in my throat. Alone and unable to breathe, I wanted to laugh, that I had gone through so many things and now a piece of rice gluten was going to kill me. Behind me, I felt a great presence enter the room. Of its own accord, my hand reached into and down my throat and pulled the offending article out. The presence withdrew. Astonished, I tried putting my hand back down my throat. Of course, it did not fit.
These are examples of the peaceful deities. The other two categories are the semi- wrathful and the wrathful. Although some came from India, at Buddhisms inception, many were created from the indigenous Bon tradition. Mahakala is the most well-known wrathful deity. Black or dark-blue of skin, wild his eyes and hair, his mouth opened wide, teeth sharp and bathed in flame, he is fearsome indeed. At first glance, one might easily confuse him with a demon. But such is not the case.
His name means 'Great Black One'. His ferocious appearance is that of the Dharma Protector. Like a good guard dog, he cuts through ego, eats obstacles and clears paths. He is also one of the Yiddam (pro: I-dam), teachers of the Dharma who, like a shamanic animal protector, a totem, a guardian angel, helps and guides one along the path of enlightenment. One does not choose a Yiddam. The Yiddam chooses you.
There are numerous deity forms in Tibetan Buddhism; each provides a different approach, and all lead to the same goal.
The term Tantric Buddhism is often used in Tibetan Buddhism-what does this mean? How is it practiced?
Tibetan Buddhism can be loosely separated into two parts: The Sutras and the Tantras. The sutras are records of the Buddha's words. These are studied and debated by monks (who often join a monastery as early as their 8-9th years) and laymen. It is said that enlightenment can be attained by the study of the sutras alone, though slowly. Usually, when a firm grounding in the teachings are established, the study of tantra begins. Tantra is the art of ritual most are familiar with the image of the meditating monk. He appears at rest, but he is far more active than the people you see jogging down the road each morning. Meditation, though it appears passive and still on the outside, contains a countless number of techniques. The very word 'mantra' literally means 'mind protection', in the sense that tantric practice 'protects' the mind from ordinary appearances. Numerous mantras produce numerous results. That quiet body you see may be communing with a deity, contemplating its own emptiness, contacting our sentient Earth or its spirits, or simply taking refuge from our world.
'Taking refuge' is, in fact, the first vow one makes upon entering the Buddhist path: I take refuge in the Lama.
I take refuge in the Buddha.
I take refuge in the Dharma.
I take refuge in the Spiritual Community.
This summer, along with 4,700 others, I received the Kalachakra initiation. Along with its preliminary teachings, it lasted 11 days, and although I appeared, like the others, to be only physically sitting, the end of each day found me too exhausted to do more than heat a meal, record my findings and fall into deep sleep. It reminded me of the fatigue experienced when climbing a mountain, and in a very real way (just as real as this page you are reading), I WAS climbing that mountain.
Another branch of Tantra is that of deity invocation. This, like all Tibetan ritual, is carried with specific detailed methods. There has been 2000 years to perfect this process. It is beyond the scope of this interview to go into these details-see recommended reading at the end of the article-but simply, it comes in 2 stages, that of the generation stage and the completion stage.
In the generation stage, one positions oneself properly and carefully builds up a very exact image of the deity an extremely complex process in the case of a deity who has, say, 6 differently colored heads and 1,000 arms in glowing luminous light. The seed-syllable, which could be considered comparable to a personal sigil, radiates from its heart. This draws the deity into the form that has been built up. The completion stage then arises. With the image thus empowered, the light from his/her heart shines into your own, whereupon you BECOME that deity. One may dissolve into its form and remain in the state called 'divine pride'. This is, of course, not pride in its ordinary sense, but rather, a certain state of exaltation.
To successfully invoke a deity, one must be fully familiar with the bodies subtle energies. This is the self-knowledge of Tantra we most commonly hear about. The exploration of the chakras, nadis, subtle drops, the winds and their channels, are vital.. Although sexual Tantra has the medias closest attentions, it may be used successfully ONLY by those who no longer desire it. It is NOT a vehicle to improve one's sex life.
The chakras (trans: wheel, or machine), are seven: at the base of the spine is the Muladhara; at the sexual organs, the Svadhisthana; at the navel, the Manipura; at the heart, the Anahata; the throat, the Vishuddha; the third eye, the Ajna; and at the crown of the head, the Sahasrara. Each has its own color, syllable, image; each must be in balance for the health of the body, and for the flow of prana, or life force, to create the clarity necessary for such meditations as those above. This system originated in India as well, and is an integral part of Hindu practice.
The 'nadi' are psychic nerve channels which permeate our body. The energies which course through the channels are the 'winds'. Within these winds are carried the 'precious drops' the essence of consciousness. "Know Thyself" could be considered the axiom of Tantra.
Tibetans have a very explicit and unique view of death and rebirth that is often misunderstood. Could you explain this in simple terms? What of an afterlife?
The bardos are realms of consciousness. Life is a phase in the bardo. Death takes one into others.
The position recommended for dieing is laying down upon the right side of your body with the left hand resting on the left thigh. This is the position in which Buddha died.
During the process, the channels and their winds, which are on the right and left side of the body, enter the central channel. As this happens, direct realization of luminosity or clear light mind is experienced.
One by one the senses shut down. Earth is first: our body loses its strength. Then water we lose control of our bodily fluids. Next, fire leaves as our moth dries up and we are unable to take in sustenance. Finally, air leaves, and we cease to breathe. The winds all enter the 'life supporting wind' in the heart. We would now be considered clinically dead.
Gross and subtle thoughts dissolve next. More and more subtle thoughts and emotions fade until luminosity remains. The next bardo has begun. We begin seeing beautiful visions, peaceful deities, but these must be recognized as having no separate distinction from the nature of the mind. If we are able to do this, we are freed. If not, the wrathful deities begin to appear. These too must be recognized as part of yourself. If one does this, one is freed. Finally, all are gathered up and dissolved into oneself.
If one cannot do this, next is seen a beautiful light. One is drawn to it, and it leads us into the next incarnation.
Tibetan Buddhism is rapidly spreading in the West, much to the amazement of just about everyone. Why do you think this is? Why is it more popular than other more austere forms of Buddhism? Why do you think so many Pagans and Magickans are drawn to Tibetan Buddhism?
Our Western culture is used to the externalization of the Sacred. We are comfortable with our sacred statues, our altars and our gods. Tibetan Buddhism carries such a diversity of forms that one can always find a path or deity appropriate to temperament and inclination.
And we are also most comfortable within detailed, structured programs. These give us something for our intellects to do while our spirits are doing the real work. Finally, the path that looks outward becomes the path which looks inward. One begins to realize that what is seen outside is actually also within. When such realization is reached, one is living in Wisdom.
What message do you or does your faith have for the readers of Pangaia?
Be sure to take the time to fully enjoy your path as you travel it, for all our paths are long ones-even the 'short path'!
What are the rituals of Tibetan Buddhism? Could you describe some of the main ones?
To understand the rituals, one must first be familiar with the tools. The Vajra (or Dorje), is a double ended, five pronged instrument which bears a similarity to the magical wand. It is considered 'male', and held in the right hand. The left hand holds a bell, considered 'female', or sometimes a drum. These drums are double -headed with wooden balls on the end of strings, and twirled back and forth to sustain their rhythm. Both bell and drum are voices which call forth the dakinis, messengers of knowledge in the spirit realms.
The phurba is another often used tool. It is a three-sided knife, with either one or three wrathful deity heads on the hilt. It is most often used in pinning down spirits which may obstruct an upcoming ritual, such as interfering elementals or hungry ghosts, before a ritual begins.
Tibetan ritual takes many diverse forms according to need, such as destroying obstacles (internal or external), fire purification, or increasing bodichitta, the inner wisdom, an altruistic aspiration to free all beings from pain which is essential to free OURSELVES from pain!
A deity initiation is a deity Introduction. What you do after it is up to you. Daily prayer or chants keeps one in contact, and strengthens the connection. If the initiation is taken simply as a 'blessing', then there is no follow up, and slowly the connection fades away.
Tibetan initiations are bestowed by lamas only, but any Buddhist may take an initiation, such as the White Tara.
Initiations in general begin with the practice of 'taking refuge', spoken in unison in either English, Tibetan or Sanskrit. This basically confirms you as a Buddhist. The second preparation is to take the vow of the Bodhisattva, the promise to help all to achieve enlightenment. This is not to be taken lightly. You will be held to your promise for lifetimes to come.
The altar contains offerings of many sorts, the tantric tools include saffron water bowls, and the Tormas. A Torma is a ritual cake representing the deity, in this case, White Tara. It is made of barley flour and ghee or yak butter. It is shaped like a tapering cone. Standing about 6-8 inches high, the barley flour is moistened and rolled into its form, and the butter is immersed in cold water to stiffen it, then formed into petals which decorate it. Surrounding her Torma are several slightly less ornate others, which represent part of her retinue of surrounding spirits. For the duration of the ritual, the Torma is considered to actually be the goddess, incarnate. They are often also colored.
Tara is evoked by the head lama present in a long sonorous Tibetan chant, accompanied by his monks. He sits upon a four step high platform covered by embroidered silks known as the Lion's throne. The monks by his side, like the other participants, sit on meditation pillows on the floor. Although the well-known 'lotus posture' is favored, it is not necessary.
The Head Lama takes the Torma from the altar, and one by one, each approach, bow and the Torma is placed on the top of the head, as he chants her mantra "OM TARE TUTARE TURE AH HUM, or a variation thereof.
The syllables om, ah and hum are to be noted here. These syllables refer to the third eye, the throat and the heart, respectively. Their colors are white, red and blue. Most importantly, they are the keys to the ritual: om represents the secret practice, ah represents the inner and hum, the outer practice.
The power of Tara, through the Torma, enters the body from the crown chakra, and comes to rest in one's heart, where she will remain. This of course, is the physical locus of our communion with the deities. This can be considered the Outer practice. The Inner practice consists of drinking Amrita, the nectar of life. It tastes rather like cream and honey, with something indefinable. In addition to tasting it only with the tongue, its essence permeates the upper palate as well. This drink has been prepared in such a way as to strengthen the 'Vajra body', which we know as our astral body. It is said that severe physical or emotional trauma can damage ones aura. Amrita makes it whole again.
In the Secret practice, one is given a ritual 'pill'. Tibetan medicine is nothing like our own, as it focuses on adjusting: balancing the inner problems that are the innate roots of illnesses, be they physical or spiritual. It speaks to the Source.
These pills are large, maybe an inch in diameter, soft, doughy with many strange tastes within. They are prepared in order to heal the nervous system, (or winds and channels). There are said to be 64,000 of these.
With the conclusion of the Secret practice, the ritual is over. I recount my own experience here to the best of my ability and apologize for any inadvertent memory lapses.
There is one final thing I must add to this short example, and that is concerning the chants. Although many people have now heard multiphonic tonal singing, due to the interest of popular musicians such as Phillip Glass, the chants used in ritual not only contain many simultaneous overtones, but are also polyrythmic. The combination produces a psychic state of mind which enables one to actually hear the voices of the chanting dakinis who attend the rituals.
During one of my first experiences, I found myself extremely bothered by a woman behind me who just wouldn't quiet down. She chanted louder and louder, disturbing what I thought was my concentration on the rite. Finally I turned around to "ssh" her. There was no woman there, but there WAS a previously unnoticed altar in here place.
Since then, I've observed this phenomenon often.