The Three Yanas and Qualities of a Guru

Introduction to the Three Traditions of Buddhism (Yanas) and Qualities that a Guru should possess

(From a teaching on the three Yanas during the Dragon Yogis Retreat held in Bhutan in 2015 and teaching on Guru-Student Relationship in Vietnam in 2013)

  1. If we really want to practice dharma, we should know that the main purpose of dharma is to transform your mind through different methods of practice. While the three Yanas have different approaches and methods, the ultimate goal for all three is to tame the mind.
  2. Yana in Choekey means “Thegpa.” Thegpa is the ability to carry weight. Basically, it means that different teachings are given to different people according to their mental capacity for acceptance and understanding. First, let’s understand the essence of Buddhist philosophy. The essence of dharma are three things: (i) Do not do negative deeds (ii) Do positive deeds to accumulate merit and purify your negative deeds and (iii) Tame the mind because both happiness and suffering comes from the mind. In order to do the first two, it is same for all three schools of Buddhism - Theravada, Mahayana and Vajrayana. The difference comes for the third one - How does one tame your mind? The focus and the method to tame one’s mind is a little bit different in the difference Yanas.

1. Theravada (Hinayana)

1.1 Essence of Theravada tradition

In Theravada, mind wise - renunciation is very important, and practice wise -Vinaya (discipline) is of utmost importance, especially the discipline of body and speech. In Theravada there are no mind vows. The vows are called “Pratimoksa” which means self-liberation. These vows are focused on the discipline of the body and speech, such as how do you walk, how you talk, etc. Pratimoksa focuses on taming the mind by taming the body and speech. The goal in this tradition is to be liberated from the sea of suffering. Basically, followers of this tradition want to be free of samsara and suffering but they do not have the desire to become Buddha for the sake of all sentient beings. The highest level achievement of this tradition is called Arhat (Drachompa). ‘Dra’ means enemies, in this case our negative emotions and ‘Chompa’ means to destroy – To destroy our negative emotions. An Arhat is someone who has destroyed all negative karma and emotions, who is free from samsara but they are not Buddha. I am not saying that they don’t benefit sentient beings but the wish to become enlightened for the sake of sentient beings is not there.

Begging tradition in Theravada practice. Monks of Theravada tradition is not allowed to engage in activities that will lead to arise of negative emotions. For example, they are not allowed to look at women in the eyes, not allowed to touch gold, not allowed to wear slippers, etc. They have to walk bare feet and they have to go begging for food. A monastery of Theravada tradition cannot have kitchen because having a kitchen and the need to cook will lead to the need to buy food, store food, have money to buy food which could lead to the desire to cook delicious food and get angry if the food is not delicious. Why are they going begging for food and how does it help in enhancing their practice? We should understand that they are not doing it out of desperation but they are doing it consciously to reduce their negative emotions. When you are walking around begging for food with no assets, there is nothing to boost your ego and no reason to get angry. Even while begging, they can beg only in the first three houses and if they don’t get food in the first three houses, then they have to go back empty stomach. That is why the Theravada monks are not vegetarian. But there is no negative karma because the owner does not know that you are coming and he did not kill for you. It is meat but it was never intended for you. Even Buddha was not a vegetarian. Of course he was Buddha and he is at a totally different level and even if he ate meet, he can liberate but the reason why Buddha was not a vegetarian was because he was going around begging. When you beg, you cannot demand for what you prefer. For example, I cannot come to your house to beg and say I came to beg for food and it must be vegetarian, otherwise I will not accept it. How can you say like that- begging and at the same time demanding with conditions? If you get delicious food today, it is very good but no need to get excited because you don’t know what you will get tomorrow. If you don’t get delicious food also, it is ok, tomorrow you may get delicious food. So the desire and attachment to food slowly reduces. For us, we have so much desire for delicious food, for that we kill tons of animals.

Another example is: when you have a good hairstyle and nice long hair, deep inside, you are little bit proud of it. Now if you shave it off, there is no reason to feel proud of it anymore. If you are going in a nice car, say a Land Cruiser, actually if you think about it, 100 years ago, it was good horses, now basically you are going in a 21st century version of a horse and you care about it so much that you would feel angry or upset if someone scratched your car.

Basically the point is that when you discipline your body- not touching gold, walking bare feet, begging for food, shaving your head, all these physical body and speech disciplines, which lessens your desire automatically controls your mind and gradually helps to tame your mind. Naturally, what you don’t see, you don’t desire for it. How can you have ego when you are walking around begging for food. How can you have so much attachment when you are allowed to have only two sets of clothes? So you don’t need to worry about having money for clothes, thinking how to get a nice watch, etc. You are not allowed to have a kitchen so you need not worry about the taste of food. Sometimes having a lot of money, can lead to attachment, pride and anger. But when you don’t have anything, automatically the negative emotions get controlled. Of course Theravada practitioners do meditation but the body and speech discipline vows, the Vinaya is the most important. For example, if I say, don’t get angry, it is difficult to control anger but if I say don’t kill, you can stop. Keeping these vows strictly automatically helps to tame the mind and that is the key.

1.2 Qualities of a Guru for Theravada tradition

Now what kind of a Guru do you need if you follow this tradition? You need a Guru who keeps his vows very well. For example, in Theravada, you can give a Bikshu and Bikshuni vow only after 10 years. So basically your Guru needs to be a very good Bikshu or Bikshuni, who keeps his/her vows very pure and who is disciplined. Only if he/she keeps the vows, he/she can give you the vows. In Theravada, Guru is someone who gave you the vows and a very senior monk. You don’t need to see your Guru as a Buddha or a Bodhisattva but definitely you have to respect your Guru. In the Theravada tradition, older the monk, more senior he is because older means you have kept the vow for more number of years. Since discipline is the most important, you go by the age. So a Guru for the Theravada tradition should be very learned in the Vinaya, keep the vows, and very disciplined.

2. Mahayana

2.1 Essence of Mahayana tradition

In Mahayana, body and speech disciplines are important but the most important is Bodhichitta, the mind discipline. The essence of Bodhichitta vow is to stop us from being selfish. As soon as you have a selfish thought, you are breaking the Mahayana vow. Bodhichitta actually means selflessness. While trying to keep the Mahayana vow, Theravada vows are also important because Theravada vows are mostly to do with prevention of negative action - stopping ourselves from harming others and Mahayana is about benefitting sentient beings. However, among the ten non-virtues, the seven non-virtues of body and speech are acceptable in Mahayana tradition as long as total selflessness is there, which is the essence of Mahayana. The reason why Mahayana practitioners do not go around begging is because the priority is selflessness. It is said that as long as selflessness is there, other Theravada vows like not touching gold, not looking at women can be allowed.

In Mahayana, whatever we do such as think, eat, sleep, walk, laugh, talk, etc. we do it not for oneself but for the sake of all sentient beings. For example, I drink water so that I survive and can practice dharma to help sentient beings. Selflessness means to do everything for the sake of mother sentient beings and nothing for oneself. Selflessness actually works very well in taming the mind because this is key in getting rid of our negative emotions. When you have the thought that whatever I do - my chanting, meditation, may it benefit all mother sentient beings and help them reach enlightenment, even if you get angry, it is easier to forgive.

Why do we have pride and ego – it is because we make ourselves more important than others. If you are selfless and truly care for all mother sentient beings, you will not make yourself more important than others. You will not be harming other people for your own benefit because you will not be more important than others. Why are we jealous - It is not because the other person is so beautiful but it is because we love ourselves so much and we feel like we are not as good as the other person. That is why we get jealous. If you are selfless, you will not be getting jealous because how can you get jealous of someone whom you love so much equally to yourself. If your son and daughter are doing well, you will not get jealous because you love your son and daughter. Similarly, if you have such selfless Bodhichitta mind, how can you get jealous, how you can feel proud and angry when you love them so much that their happiness and joy means so much to you. Why do we get angry? Anger arises when the other people are not fulfilling our wishes, not respecting us. These negative emotions come from selfishness.

In Mahayana practice, eating meat is not allowed. When we believe that all sentient beings are parents of our past lives, how can we eat them and say I want to benefit mother sentient beings. How can we take the life of another being, harm them for our enjoyment of ten minutes with tasty food and say I am practicing loving kindness? If we cannot stop ourselves from harming others, how can you say I will kill but I will liberate them and do life release. How can you selflessly benefit other beings like this? It is not really a true practice. Normally, for strict Mahayana practitioners, not only do they don’t eat meat, they also do not wear leather made products. This is because Bodhichitta, loving-kindness is the main essence of this tradition. That’s why I say we are so selfish. When it comes to ourselves, even if our nail is broken, we cannot bear the pain. However, when it comes to others, we can take their life. Why is it like this? It is because of our selfishness.

It is said that when Jangchub-sempas (Bodhisattvas) look at people who upset them, they look at these people like how a mother looks at her crazy child. When a mother looks at her crazy child, the mother knows that the child has no control over his/her behavior. Similarly, we are also out of control because of desire. For example, when we talk so much, we have no control over our mouth; when are getting angry, you can’t sleep, you want to kill someone, this means you have no control over your anger. With strong desire, insecurity and fear also comes. So Jangchub-sempas look at the people who try to harm them like their sons and daughters who have gone crazy and in return love them even more. A Jangchub-sempa thinks like this – “All sentient beings are my parents of past lives, but they don’t recognize me. It is out of ignorance that these people are trying to harm me. May they never go through suffering because this act of theirs. May they be liberated.” The Mahayana practice will focus very much on selflessness. Once you have selflessness, it is so strong that physically touching things does not give rise to desire. For example, generally speaking, Mahayana monks are not supposed to touch gold but if it is for the benefit of others, you are allowed to touch gold. This is because you cannot get attached to gold when you can only think of how you can benefit other sentient beings with this gold. Another example is that, when you have money, you don’t mind giving all you have to your children whom you love so much. You have no attachment when spending on them. This is because you love them so much. Similarly, Bodhisattvas love all sentient beings so much like a mother loves her child. For Mahayana practitioners, wealth does not make them egoistic and corrupted but for them it is to use the wealth for the benefit of others. Bodhisattvas can be born as a master, a teacher, a cleaner, even as a bee, they can be born as anything. Since bodhichitta is the key practice of a Mahayana practitioner, a lot of things that are not allowed for Theravada is allowed for Mahayana provided total selflessness is the basis for the action and speech.

2.2 Qualities of a Guru for Mahayana tradition

A Mahayana Guru has to have two qualities. Firstly, the Guru should be highly learned in the Mahayana sutras and teachings and; secondly, the Guru should not give up Bodhichitta even at the cost of his own life. What it means is that even at the cost of his life, he will never be selfish. Selflessness and loving kindness is the most important quality. He must keep the bodhichitta vow.

In Mahayana, sometimes we talk about Guru as a Bodhisattva but never as a Buddha. Bodhichitta is the wish to get enlightened for the sake of all mother sentient beings. Now within Bodhisattvas also, depending on the strengths of their bodhichitta, we say (i) Bodhichitta like a king - I want to first become king and then I will take care of my subjects. This means that I want to first become Buddha and then I will benefit the sentient beings like Manjushiri; (ii) Bodhichitta like an oarsman – Like an oarsman, I will cross the water body together with the passengers in the boat. This means that I want to benefit myself and all sentient beings together like Chana Dorji (Vajrapani); (iii) Bodhichitta like a shepherd – meaning who first goes and makes sure there is no wolf and then makes sure all the sheep are fine and goes after the herd protecting them. This means that first I will benefit all sentient beings and only after all beings are liberated, I will get enlightened like Chenrigzig (Avalokiteshvara). That is why Chenrigzig is called Jangchub-sempa Phagpa Chenrigzig because he promised that till every sentient being is enlightened and the world is empty of samsara, he will not become Buddha. That is why Chenrigzig is the example of the great Bodhisattva. This does not mean that Avalokiteshvara is not a Buddha (Sangay) but it just shows his commitment when they were beginning on this path. It is like if you fall from a cliff, you will die even if you say I don’t want to die. Similarly, even though Chenrigzig said he does not want to become Buddha but if he is doing all the practices and creating the condition to get enlightened, then he will become Buddha and he has become Buddha in terms of qualities of accomplishment of wisdom and compassion.

3. Vajrayana

3.1 Essence of Vajrayana tradition

The main focus of Vajrayana practice is to stop or transform our ordinary conceptual mind by skillful method of visualization (keyrim) and realizing the non-fabricated nature of the phenomenon (zogrim), through the practice of realizing the calm and abiding nature of the mind.

To be a practitioner of Vajrayana, to some extent you have to be a practitioner of all three Yanas. Especially for beginners like us especially, on the outside we have to keep the body and speech discipline and have bodhichitta. Philosophy wise, Mahayana and Vajrayana, are same but there is a difference in the method. Actually you can say Vajrayana is a part of Mahayana. You have to have bodhichitta - selflessness is very much required. On top of that, the main practice in Vajrayana is the transformation of mind through visualization and remaining in the calm and abiding meditation which is to remain in the unfabricated nature of the mind.

The reason why Mahayana practitioners practice Vajrayana is because it is said that Mahayana is a great practice but to become a complete Buddha it takes about 3 countless aeons. Vajrayana is recommended for those people who have a very strong Bodhichitta, and they want to become enlightened immediately to benefit sentient beings within one to sixteen lifetimes. In Vajrayana, it is said that you can get enlightened within 16 lifetimes if you don’t break samaya[1]. In Vajrayana, it is about blessings and skillful method. If we do not have a good understanding of Mahayana, it is very complicated and confusing. Vajrayana is a practice that gives you the ability to get enlightened much faster through skillful method. However, Vajrayana is said to be very complicated. It is a practice in which either you go up or you go down. There is no middle way. It is like a parachute, you reach very fast but you either go down or you go up.

What is ordinary conceptual mind that creates our visualizations in this samsara?

Ordinary conceptual mind is the mind that makes us understand things as per the samsaric visualization. This means right now you see this temple as a temple, beautiful watch as beautiful, men as men and women as women, feel cold as cold and hot as hot. Why do you want to stop the conceptual mind? This is because the main source of disturbance to the clear and empty nature of mind is the conceptual mind. For example, let’s say a watch, right now you don’t desire for it. Suddenly, someone says that it cost Ngultrum One Hundred Thousands. Then, you start thinking and suddenly you have this desire to get it. When something is worn by famous beautiful people, you also feel it is very beautiful. So after this concept, desire, anger, jealousy comes. We are not realizing it, but we are living in a conceptual world.

Living in the samsaric visualization all the time. We are living our life visualizing everything. If you say, we are not visualizing, then what is an enemy? Does any enemy inherently exist? No, it is our hatred that makes an enemy exist. So when we see him, we feel upset. Another person sees this same person as his friend so he feels happy when he sees him. The difference in this person is how we see him. Even husband and wife relationship is a very strong visualization. Before marriage, you don’t care what he is doing but from the moment you say he is my husband, visualization starts after that….then you start asking, where are you going, what are you doing, very painful, angry. Before you didn’t care, now you care so much - this is samsaric visualization. My husband, my house, my car, my enemy - very strong visualizations and attachment is very strong, emotions, then karma. So we are visualizing all the time. Right now with 100 people in the room, I am seeing a lot of people in this teaching hall this is also visualization. Maybe tomorrow, I go and give teaching to 10000 people and feel this is a small crowd. We are visualizing all the time, good, bad, happy, beautiful, and ugly. Even the self, if you really check, it is not there but you have visualized it so well such as our identity, ego, etc.. When you say Mr. X. oh yes yes why? Because we have visualized him so well. You are not born as a director, army, wife, so now why are you tagged that way? It is because our visualization is so good. We have to know that we are visualizing all the time. And depending on one’s concept of what is wrong and what is right, emotions follow. This shows that different people have different visualizations.

Another example of ordinary concept is how we label things. We label what is fashion nowadays. If we look at the fashion of dressing from the olden days, now it looks funny. This is because concepts have changed. Right now your hairstyle may look very fashionable but 15 years down the line, it will look old fashioned. Because the concept has changed. Fashion does not have reality. A Vajrayana practitioner can become the President or the Prime Minister of a country and it is not a problem but the moment he believes that I am the President that is ultimately existing, he has broken his Vajrayana vow. Basically what is a President? A President is made when many people vote for him and decide that he is the president. If tomorrow they decide, he is not then he is no longer the President. Where has the President disappeared? He was never there, it was a conceptual conditional thing.

A story of how different people have different concepts and different visualizations. Once a British leader led an expedition to Tibet in the olden days. There was a prophecy in Tibet that some foreigners will come to the country and bring lots of changes to the culture and so on in a negative way. So when they saw the British for the first time, they were very scared because they always thought that everybody has black hair and black eye like us. So when they saw yellow hair and green eyes, the Tibetans got culture shock and were very upset. In Tibetan tradition, there is a culture that whenever we want to chase away something, we clap to drive away the evil forces. It is said that all the Tibetans in the community stood up and lined up and started clapping to drive away the British team. And the British soldiers felt so happy saying we are being welcomed. They felt that Tibetans are so welcoming to the expedition force. So depending on the culturally created concept, one way clapping is to chase away but for another, it is welcoming.

A spiritual journey for you, a circus parade for another. Nowadays, when we are travelling to give teachings, we are going by so many cars, with lots of people in a group. If you are a practitioner, you should understand that this is also a visualization. Maybe for us it may seem like a very good way of respecting the dharma, respecting the Master and accumulating merit. Very good, if you respect the dharma why not, tremendous merit will be accumulated. During Buddha Shakyamuni’s time, when a Master was invited, there were no cars so they used elephants and chariots. But you should not get excited about these things. This time when we were going around, I could see that many tourist were taking photographs of our parade. Maybe from their point of view, we are like a circus parade you know. For them it is fun, interesting. That is their visualization. Different people have different visualizations. So what have you understood today from this? The emptiness of what we consider great. We consider such a parade as great and tourist consider it as fun. Then what is the truth? The truth is that, it is neither the one that we think nor the one they think. It is beyond good and bad.

Marketing is another good example of visualization. When people do marketing, what they are actually doing is teaching us how to visualize very well. That is why when a famous star advertises a car and walks very nicely showcasing it, we do not mind paying one million dollars for that car because we are trained to visualize it as a car worth that much.

Vajrayana vow. Vajrayana is like going to the heart of the matter. It is like rather than saying I don’t want the pain, it is saying let’s look at the pain and understand the true nature of pain. Pain, beauty, etc. is a concept and we should understand its true nature. The problem is never with the things but it is with our concept of how we project. Let’s say gold or diamond. From the Theravada point of view, don’t touch the gold or diamond because when you are allowed to touch, then you get the desire. From the Mahayana point of view, with Bodhichitta, it is how I can use the diamond to help the sentient beings and not feeling proud that I have a diamond. For a Vajrayana practitioner, if you see diamond as a diamond, you have broken the Vajrayana vow. A Vajrayana practitioner is not allowed to see diamond as diamond. Basically, this is to say that the diamond does not say that it is expensive but we say diamond is expensive. The society collectively with its concept label diamond as very expensive and nice and after we label it, we believe in it and then desire for it. From the Mahayana point of view, we have to check whether we are attached to something or not, and from Vajrayana point of view, we have to check whether we conceptually think that diamond exist as it appears to be. The concept of 100% existence, the dualistic concept – this is the killer in Vajrayana.

How can one understand the true nature of things through Vajrayana practice?

Vajrayana involves two methods – (i) visualization and (ii) dissolution. Visualization is to visualize everything as pure and dissolution is to remain in your unfabricated nature of mind.

Samsaric and pure visualization. Samsaric visualizations make us drown deeper and deeper in samsara, which makes us angry, jealous, sad, etc. In order to change the samsaric visualization, we need another visualization. Pure visualization is visualizing everybody as Buddhas and Bodhisattvas instead of ordinary people and visualizing all our surroundings as pure land. Pure visualization is an antidote to the samsaric visualization that is so strong in us. Instead of visualizing that I am staying in a very nice hotel and being proud of it, visualize that it is a pure land. Tomorrow even if you sleep on the road, you visualize that also as pure land. So whether it is your house or a nice hotel or on the road, it doesn’t make any difference to you. The difference between samsaric visualization and Vajrayana visualization is that samsaric visualization creates problems- beauty gives rise to desire, hatred gives rise to anger, and that makes us accumulate karma and samsara. Vajrayana visualization is called the pure vision because instead of having a strong concept of what is clean and what is dirty, entire place is pure land and everyone is visualized as Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. This visualization has no reason to create negative emotions. If you don’t do the pure visualization very well, it is difficult for you to understand the samsaric visualization.

Progress on the path of pure visualization – the first step in Vajrayana practice. It is said that as your visualization becomes better and better, it becomes true. However, it is difficult to immediately visualize everyone as Buddha and Bodhisattva. So we should try, and try as we chant and practice, then improve over time and one day we will be able to do it. The first sign of progress in visualization is when you will be truly able to see what you visualize. That is what you start to experience because the world is what you are visualizing. It is said that people who practice Buddha Amitabha a lot, after sometime time they see everybody as Buddha Amitabha and every sound is heard as Om Ami Dewa Hri. After a long time, even others see that person as Buddha Amitabha (this is a high level practice). This is the short term goal. If you visualize all sounds as Om Mani Pedme Hung, after some it becomes like that. Mother of His Holiness does Om Ami Dewa Hri so much that she says that when she hears a language that she does not understand, she hears it as Om Ami Dewa Hri. After you practice a lot, as you progress, you will not only see yourself but all others as the Buddha that you practice.

A story of how visualization became real. There is a story that in the past there was one Indian Master. He didn’t know how to do visualization very well. He did not know how to visualize Guru Rimpoche, the mantras. He was a buffalo herder before he started practicing. So the Guru said, if you cannot visualize Guru or Chakrasamvara, you can visualize a buffalo horn on your head. With so much respect for his Guru, he visualized a buffalo horn on his head very nicely respecting his Guru as pure vision. For a few years, he visualized the horn and after a few years he could feel the horn on his head. When he went around, he had to bend down to pass through and he could feel it, not sure if others could see but he felt it. Then the Guru told him that you didn’t have horn but now because of visualization you have horn. What is the truth? The truth is beyond having or not having. That is the middle path- Madhyamika. By nature, everything is in the Madhyamika - in the middle path, non-fabricated nature, but by concept of fabrication, it becomes either of the two sides - yes it exist or no it does not exist, good or bad, beautiful or ugly.

Why start with the visualization of your Guru as a Buddha?

Trying to visualize everyone as Buddhas and Bodhisattvas and everything as pure land is difficult in the beginning. That is why, we say first start with the Guru. See the Guru as the Buddha. As a Vajrayana practitioner, whatever activity the Guru does, even if the Guru jumps up and down or the Guru may be very decent, however the Guru may appear and behave, you have to visualize as a pure Buddha’s activity. If you are Mahayana practitioner, you can ask the Guru about why he or she is doing this and that. If you are a Vajrayana practitioner you cannot say that. You can check your Guru before accepting as Guru. However, if your Guru asks you to do something that is not possible for you to do at all, then it is said that you can do three prostrations for purification and there will be no negative karma for being not able to follow that command of your Guru. However, this is applicable only for situations that are beyond your control and when not in line with the essence of the tradition. You have to be mindful that this cannot be used as an excuse such as for example, to not do your daily practices out of laziness. And when you visualize like that, you do get the merit of praying to the Buddha. Even relatively speaking also, it is said that in the degenerate time, enlightened beings will manifest in the form of human beings. After Tsangpa Gyare, the founder of Drukpa lineage passed away, relics of Avalokiteshvara were found on his back bone. So not only visualization wise but even in relative truth, we are fortunate to meet Avalokiteshvara in human form.

Pure visualization is a process to realize the ultimate non-dualistic nature of the mind. We start with the Guru, but it should not stop with the Guru. Slowly, the pure visualization should extend to our dharma brothers and sisters, then all sentient beings and after sometime whatever they do, whether good or bad, you have to understand that good and bad is my own concept, my samsaric visualization. Then we should have a pure vision to all sentient beings. The long term goal of pure visualization is to understand that, earlier on it was samsaric visualization, now it is Vajrayana visualization. But both are equally conceptual and equally not real. This step will lead us towards the next step which is emptiness, shunyata- realizing that ultimate reality is beyond all concepts and beyond all duality. That is the ultimate goal. Pure visualization is not the ultimate goal but a step and a process to realize the ultimate non-dualistic nature of the mind.

Dissolution - the second step in Vajrayana practice. The dissolution practice comes after the pure visualization practice. During this stage, you dissolve the Guru into yourself because ultimately, the Guru is non-other than your own non- fabricated nature of your mind. Then you remain in the present moment without fabricating. And when you remain in that state, you realize that good and bad is inherently not there in the nature of your mind, but we have fabricated it. We can see the true nature of things only by remaining in the un-fabricated nature of mind. At this stage, everything is understood as the middle path, the union of yes and no; existing and non-existing. When we try to remain in the non-fabricated nature of mind, we are trying to understand the true nature of phenomenon. Once you understand the true nature, then definitely there is no dualistic concept which gives rise to desire, anger, jealousy. When these negative emotions are not there, samsara will not be there. That is the focus of Vajrayana practice.

Why does Vajrayana Buddhas wear ornaments? The reason why Theravada and Mahayana Buddhas usually don’t wear ornaments and Vajrayana usually wears ornaments like earrings, necklace, etc. is because the path is different. Vajrayana is not about giving up things, rather it is about understanding the true nature of the things. It is about understanding the non-dualistic nature of all phenomenons beyond both attachment and detachment. Rather than saying and believing that diamond is good, it is to understand the true nature of diamond, which is beyond good and bad. That is more important for Vajrayana practitioners. It does not mean that one tradition is wrong. According to different tradition, the essence is also different. For Vajrayana practitioner, instead of rejecting desire and anger, you try to realize the nature of desire which is clear and empty. For example it can be bumpa (ritual vase) or vajra made of gold. These two have different makes but the nature of both is gold. Even though anger and jealousy look like different negative emotions, if you understand the nature of these emotions, it is clear and empty. Nature of compassion is also clear and empty. When the five negative emotions (anger, jealousy, desire, pride and ignorance) are recognized, these are the five wisdoms and called the five Buddhas (yeshey nga). That is why true Vajrayana practitioners are very hard to judge from outside. Vajrayana practitioners can be monks, nuns, yogis, yoginis, lay people, anyone as long as they are able to control or prevent, the ordinary conceptual mind.

It is important to understand our own level of realization. Among the three Yanas, Vajrayana is the most difficult. However, when people do not understand the three Yanas properly, there is a misconception of Vajrayana being easy to practice - I can drink alcohol, do whatnot things, do whatever I want and no need of discipline. But that is not true. Yes, if you reach the level of Lam Drukpa Kuenley, then you can do what you like because you have reached a level, which is beyond the concept of life and death. But we are not at that level. That is why when we criticize, we say “I don’t know whether your realization is like Guru Rinpoche but your behaviour is like Guru Rinpoche”. That means behavior is like eating meat, drinking alcohol, acting like you are highly realized when you are not. The great Master Jo Atisha said that - he never broke the Hinayana (Pratimoksha) vow; he broke the Mahayana vow few times a day because the moment you get angry on somebody, the moment you give up on somebody, the moment selfish thoughts arise, Bodhisattva vow is broken; Vajrayana vows are broken many times a day- the moment you see beauty as beauty, diamond as diamond, house as house, the vow is broken. That is why Vajrayana vow is very difficult to keep. That is why even though we are Vajrayana followers, as beginners, it is better to start with the Pratimoksha practice with some discipline. Before you become a good practitioner, you should at least be a good person first. That is why it is important to first develop body and speech discipline not to harm others and then develop bodhichitta. Then progress on to Vajrayana practice to understand the non-dualistic nature of things, which is nothing to do with the outside but with the mind.

Why is it recommended to have one Guru and follow one lineage?

In Vajrayana we say, devotion to my Guru with pure vision and respect towards every master and every lineage. It is recommended to follow one lineage because each lineage has so many profound teachings for all levels (beginners, middle, until enlightenment) if you really want to practice. If you receive a lot of teachings here and there but not practice any properly, then it is like dogs which go everywhere but don’t practice. You can say I belong to everybody but belong to nobody. How can you even have the time to go around like that? Then, after you receive a Vajrayana teaching from a Guru, you have to have a Buddha like vision for that Guru. So how can you have Buddha like visions to so many Gurus? How can you follow the command of so many Gurus? That is why it is recommended to have one Guru first (not forbidden to have more than one).

The importance to keep the samaya. At our level, it is difficult to have pure visions and therefore, it is recommended to have one Root Guru and follow one lineage to avoid breaking Vajrayana samaya. If you break the samaya, even if you receive 1000 initiations, you will never receive any blessings. Rather you might even go in the negative direction with the karma of breaking of samaya. If you receive teachings from so many masters and don’t practice, you are breaking the samaya. Then there is no enlightenment for you at all. When His Holiness comes to Vietnam and gives teachings, so many auspicious signs appear. It is because - you have devotion; of course His Holiness’s blessing is always there; and because Vajrayana is very new here so no samaya are broken yet, it is very pure right now. His Holiness comes here only once a year and whatever His Holiness instructs, you all practice. That’s why right now the blessing is answered really fast and signs are very clear. Slowly it will disappear if samaya are broken. That is why as a beginner, it is recommended to follow one lineage and one Guru because of our lack of capability of pure vision.

Guru is the best person to crush our Ego. From my experience, I can say that for example, if someone says to do something, you will always ask why do I have to do this work? I don’t want to do the work and so on. In a way this Guru-student relationship is very good. If you cannot respect and be humble to one person who is your Guru, then how can you be humble to other sentient beings? How can you respect all sentient beings? How can your ego go down? Right now, in many cases, our ego goes down only for our Guru – that is good. Gradually, you will also do the same with other people and do things to benefit others and say I don’t mind. Why, because Guru trained you. Some Gurus say that Mahayana Gurus are always on time but Vajrayana Gurus are always late. Actually in a way it is a technique because when you go and see a Guru, if the Guru immediately says welcome and extends a lot of courtesy, you feel a little proud thinking I am quite a special disciple. You feel like you have a special connection. On the other hand, if the Guru makes you wait for one or two hours, your feeling of ego goes down and that is good. Guru’s job is not to boost your ego, but to reduce the ego, which you already have so much. When my Guru made me wait for long hours, I feel it is a great teaching. Because if I can wait for a few hours for my Guru, then I can wait 15 minutes for others without a problem. If I cannot wait ten minutes for my Guru, other people forget it.

3.2 Qualities of a Guru for Vajrayana tradition

Generally speaking, a Vajrayana Guru should have both Vinaya vows and bodhichitta. A guru can be a lay person also and not necessarily have to be a famous Guru provided the Guru possesses the following qualities:

Must have a very good relationship or samaya with his own Guru; this means to have pure vision towards one’s own Guru. If he does not have a pure vision towards one’s own Guru how can he teach us? That is why we say the lineage has to be very pure and unbroken. Through the lineage, the blessing is there; the teaching is there.

Should be skilled in the Vajrayana practices of visualization, chanting, and teaching.

If possible, he should have fully realized the Mahamudra – the nature of the mind. Even if he has not realized the true nature of the mind himself, he should at least be able to introduce you to it and recognize it which means he should be someone who has been introduced to the nature of his mind by his teacher.[2] When one reaches the first level of Bodhisattva, the first Bhumi, that time one truly see the shunyata. After every bhumi, one sees it more and more clearly- the clarity increases till one become enlightened.

A recap of the Three Traditions:

  1. Theravada: Disciplining the body and speech is the key to tame the mind.
  2. Mahayana: Selflessness, Loving-kindness is the essence to tame the mind.
  3. Vajrayana is supposed to have both discipline, Bodhichitta, and be free of all ordinary concepts with the support of visualization and dissolution practice, which is enhanced with wisdom and compassion. And living one’s life with the understanding of relative truth and ultimate truth.

[1] Ref: Wikipedia- Samaya is a set of vows or precepts given to initiates of an esoteric Vajrayana Buddhist order as part of the abhiá¹£eka (empowerment or initiation) ceremony that creates a bond between the guru and disciple.

[2] An example of realized nature of mind and able to recognize and introduce is as follows:

  • Someone who knows every details of the ocean because he has been near the ocean, felt it and knows everything about it – is an example of a realized mind. A realized person is someone who can practice it (Gompa)
  • Someone who has seen an ocean from a far distance and has been told that is the ocean by someone else- is an example of someone who can introduce you to it and recognize it. A person who can recognize it is someone who has seen it (Tawa).