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Is Deity Yoga Buddhist?

The Philosophical Foundations of Tantric Practice

by Brian T. Hafer
The various schools of Buddhism differ widely in their philosophical tenets and in their practices.
For example, the family of practices known as deity yoga is unique to Tantric Buddhism and is very
different from other types of Buddhist practice. Not surprisingly, other schools of Buddhism often
respond skeptically to the practices of Tantra, to say the least. In the words of one Theravada bhikkhu
the author interviewed on this topic, I dont see the purpose. Although the purpose of Tantra, as will be
discussed later, may be well-defined, viable objections remain as to the ontological status of the myriad
forms and beings that are visualized during Tantric sadhanas and as to the fruitfulness of such practices
as tools for attaining enlightenment. This paper will explore the question, Is deity yoga Buddhist? and
investigate the philosophical foundations of Tantric practices as well as the objections to them which
have been raised by other Buddhist schools.
According to the Tibetan Mahayana, the schools of Buddhism are classified according to the
Triyana, or Three Vehicles: the Hinayana or Individual Vehicle, the Mahayana or Universal Vehicle,
and the Vajrayana or Indestructible Vehicle. In some systems of classification, the Vajrayana is
considered as a subgroup of the Mahayana, and Buddhism is separated into only two main divisions: the
Hinayana and the Mahayana. However, since the current paper is concerned with the unique deity yoga
practices of the Tibetan Mahayana, the Triyana classification will be used as a basis for explanation.
Regardless of whether one considers the Vajrayana as a subgroup of the Mahayana or as a separate
division of its own, it is important to realize the close historical and philosophical affiliation of the two.
The Hinayana
The Hinayana school of Buddhism has been called the way of self-benefit and of negation.
Adherents of the Individual Vehicle of Buddhism engage themselves in trying to fix their own
shortcomings and in negative ascesis, that is, refraining from committing acts which are considered to
accrue bad karma for oneself. Hinayana practice has been likened to refusing a cup of poison, that is,
ceasing to commit acts of body and mind which cause direct or indirect harm to oneself. The goal of
Hinayana practice is to reach the stage of an arhat, one who has rid oneself of the defilements of
ignorance (avidya), attachment (raga), and aversion (dvesha) with the aid of a teacher.
The Mahasanghika, to which the rise of the Mahayana is apparently deeply indebted, and the
Sthaviravada, from which the modern Theravada school arose, both were descended from a common
form of primitive Buddhism.1 The Hinayana that is often criticized in the texts of the other two vehicles
as having fallen into the trap of reification of the dharmas is also descended from the Sthaviravada. This
criticism is specifically targeted at the Sarvastivadin school of Buddhism, which had stagnated and
petrified the Abhidharma into a list of inherently existent dharmas. It is important to realize, however,
that the modern Theravada school of Abhidhamma developed independently and did not fall victim to
this reification. The Theravada system is an open-ended, dynamic philosophy which does not reify the
teachings of the Buddha as information, but instead recognizes that the Buddha Dharma is
transformation. The Buddhas teaching of anatta (the lack of inherent self-existence) is seen by the
Theravada to apply to both the existence of the personal self and to the existence of the dharmas.
The Mahayana
The Mahayana school of Buddhism has been called the way of other-benefit and compassion. The
culmination of Mahayana practice is different from that of the Hinayana. The Mahayana claims that
becoming an arhat is only a partial achievement of the goal characterized by an excess of wisdom and a
lack of compassion. The true goal, they say, is to become a Buddha, a self-enlightened one. To do this,

Mahayana practitioners take the Bodhisattva Vows to fully utilize the three karmas (body, speech, and
mind) to help others until all sentient beings have been freed from samsara. This emphasis on
compassionate benefit of others is a key distinction between the Mahayana and the Hinayana.
Mahayanists maintain that since the distinction between pure and impure or good and bad is a
creation of dualistic thinking, and since dualistic thinking is a manifestation of ignorance of the true
nature of reality, then this type of distinction must not actually exist at the level of ultimate reality. The
consequence of this is that when the passions (kleshas) are viewed from pure perspective, no distinction
can be made between pure and impure. Thus, according to the Mahayana, the negative ascesis (avoiding
impure actions) of the Hinayana serves to strengthen dualistic thinking and further mire the mind in
samsaric misperception of reality. The followers of Mahayana strive to strengthen the modes of being
known as wisdom (mahapraja), which correctly perceives the ultimate nature of reality, and great
compassion (mahakaruna), which strives to benefit all sentient beings. Because of this, the Mahayana
has been likened to taking sips of poison, that is, being able to use the overriding principles of wisdom
and great compassion to act skillfully to benefit others, which may, at times, mean performing actions
that the Hinayanist would consider contraventions of the Vinaya rules regarding moral conduct (shila).
However, the positive rule of compassion takes precedence over the negative prohibitory rules.
The Vajrayana
The Vajrayana school of Buddhism has been characterized as stopping ordinary perception. If the
Hinayana and the Mahayana correspond to refusing a cup of poison and taking sips of poison,
respectively, then the Vajrayana corresponds to drinking poison and transforming it into nectar. The
practitioner of Vajrayana is able to use the energy generated by the passions as an aid on the path to
enlightenment. This is done by adopting a standpoint of having already achieved the goal and of ones
already being a Buddha as opposed to striving along the path towards enlightenment. Practices involving
the adopting of the goal as the path2 are called Tantrayana, or the Effect Vehicle. Obviously, the
practice of Tantra is not for everyone, as practitioners must have a solid foundation in wisdom and
compassion before attempting to use passion in the path or they may experience negative consequences
such as rebirth in the Vajra hells, which are said to be below even the Avici Hell (i.e. the Hell of
Uninterrupted Pain). The practices of Tantra are referred to as deity yoga because of the adoption of the
viewpoint of having already achieved the goal (i.e. ones already being a deity).
Bodhicitta: The Heart of the Mahayana and Vajrayana Teachings
To be able to understand the controversy regarding deity yoga, the similarities and distinctions
between Mahayana and Vajrayana must be carefully examined. The heart of the teachings of both
schools is the practice of cultivating the two levels of enlightened mind (bodhicitta), the conventional
and the ultimate. The conventional bodhicitta is the mind of great compassion (mahakaruna) that is the
desire to work for the benefit of all sentient beings. Recognizing, however, that physical means of
benefit are temporal and impermanent and that only an enlightened being can provide lasting benefit by
dispelling ignorance, the conventional bodhicitta gives rise to the altruistic desire to achieve
enlightenment as the most expedient way of exercising compassion. The ultimate bodhicitta is the
bodhisattva wisdom cognizing emptiness. The cultivation of conventional bodhicitta is requisite for the
attainment of ultimate bodhicitta. The ultimate bodhicitta operates in a non-dual mode of perception in
which good and bad, pure and impure, or extra-samsaric and intra-samsaric do not have independent
self-existence. The ultimate bodhicitta perceives the emptiness (sunyata) of inherent existence of all
The doctrine of emptiness is one of the most important teachings of Mahayana Buddhism and one of
the most difficult to understand fully. Madhyamika, the philosophy of the Middle Way, employs a
system of reductio ad absurdum which slips between all extremes of this and that in order to show
that emptiness is the ultimate nature of reality. There are two standard lines of reasoning by which one
cultivates an understanding of emptiness.3 First, nothing has independent self-existence because

everything is made of parts. Since all things are dependent on their parts, they cannot have independent
self-existence. Second, nothing can be said to have independent self-existence as a group of many
individual things because all of the component parts are shown not to have independent self-existence
by the first line of reasoning. If the parts of the whole are dependent upon their parts, then the whole
cannot be independently self-existent.
However, the philosophy of Madhyamika does not deny the existence of things on the relative level.
This misunderstanding of the Middle Way teachings would lead one to assert one of two wrong
positions. The first is nihilism, in which one would have found nothing left on the relative level of truth
by which to recognize things and would dismiss all conceptions or understanding of things on the
relative level as being untrue. This might lead one to conclude that emptiness, as misunderstood to assert
the lack of inherent, independent self-existence of things on the relative level, was itself incorrect.
According to the Mahasmrtyupasthanasutra, abandoning sunyata would cause one to be reborn in the
Avici Hell.4 The second wrong position would be to accept emptiness on the ultimate level of truth, but
to see all things on the relative level as mere mental conceptions which are mistaken by the mind as
being real. This could cause one to abandon Dharma teachings and practices such as meditation and
taking refuge which bring good karmic effects. Both of these positions are misunderstandings of
emptiness and would lead individuals to believe that they had attained everything when in fact they had
attained nothing at all.
A correct understanding of the teaching of emptiness is the ability to hold both truths, the relative
and the ultimate, in the mind at the same time without seeing any contradiction between them.
Ashvaghosa has said, You should never ignore the relative level of truth because of sunyata. Rather,
you should understand that the relative level of truth and sunyata on the ultimate level work in harmony
with each other.5 For this reason, the Madhyamika philosophy is said to steer a middle course between
eternalism and nihilism.
Nagarjuna, the dialectical master of the Madhyamika school, uses a cyclic strategy to discredit the
assertions of his opponents and to support the doctrine of emptiness. He begins by accepting the notion
of own-being (svabhava) and then showing the absurdities implicit in such a realistic view point. His
attack on these metaphysical propositions is that they do not provide the knowledge they claim to.
Nagarjuna shows that they cannot possibly fulfill their promise because words and expression-patterns
are simply practical tools of human life, which in themselves, do not carry intrinsic meaning and which
do not necessarily have meaning by referring to something outside the language system. 6 By disproving
all extreme views of this and that without offering a viewpoint of his own, Nagarjuna allows the
wisdom of emptiness to manifest itself. Since emptiness cannot be described due to the limitations of
language just mentioned, this method is the only way to truly share a profound understanding of
emptiness. By using this strategy, Nagarjuna consistently replaces apparently common sense notions
which are in fact highly metaphysical with apparently metaphysical notions which are in fact common
sense. For instance, Nagarjuna responds to the following objection in the Madhyamikaprajnamula:
If everything were ultimately void of any true independent self-existent nature, then there would
be no creation and no destruction, and it would follow that there would not be even the four noble
truths. How do you explain that? In answer to this objection that if everything were ultimately void of
any true, independent, self-existent nature, then there would be no distinction between those things
binding you to samsara and those liberating you from it, I would say precisely the reverse. Both
creation and destruction are dependent functions, arising from their causes according to the law of
dependent arising. Therefore it is only if everything were not ultimately void of any true, independent,
self-existent nature (in other words, it is only if things did have true, self-existence, independent of their
causes) that it would follow logically that there would be no creation and no destruction of things and
that there would not be even the four noble truths.7

Thus, it can be seen from this example that far from denying the existence of reality, emptiness
actually saves reality from the brink of extinction! For without emptiness, conventional interdependent
reality as we observe it could not exist. However, even the doctrine of emptiness has the danger of being
reified as independently self-existent. To prevent this, one must apply the doctrine of emptiness to itself
in order to remember the emptiness of emptiness. The enlightened mind holds the conventional and
the ultimate truths of reality in mind simultaneously; there is no other way that the
conventional bodhicitta (mahakaruna) and the ultimate bodhicitta (mahapraja) could coexist
simultaneously. Therefore the simultaneous cultivation of wisdom and compassion is the first step of
Mahayana practice, and the perfection of this cultivation marks the culmination of Mahayana practice.
Two Truths: The Relationship of Samsara to Nirvana in Madhyamika Philosophy
Important ontological dilemmas arise as a result of maintaining this position of reality as ultimately
non-dual. Paramount among them is the question, if reality is non-dual, how can samsara and nirvana be
ultimately different? Nagarjuna makes the following statements in his Mulamadhyamakakarika (MMK),
the Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way, regarding the ontological relationship of samsara and
Samsara is nothing essentially different from nirvana.
Nirvana is nothing essentially different from samsara.
The limits (i.e. realm) of nirvana are the limits of samsara.
Between the two also, there is not the slightest difference whatsoever.8
These eloquent couplets quickly reject the validity of any attempt to discriminate ultimately between
samsara and nirvana. In fact, it is precisely the discriminating nature of mind which creates the illusion
of ultimate difference between samsara and nirvana and hence creates conventional suffering. The basis
of discriminating mind is the tendency to attribute inherent existence to objects and phenomena. For in
order to say that two things differ, one must first establish a set of properties which each inherently
possesses and then must establish that these sets of properties differ. It is in the first step that Nagarjuna
states that perception has erred and misperceived reality.
This must be understood, however, within the context of emptiness, for as Nagarjuna states in a
previous stanza: Indeed, nirvana is not strictly in the nature of ordinary existence for, if it were, there
would wrongly follow the characteristics of old age-death. For, such an existence cannot be without
those characteristics.9 Therefore, when Nagarjuna says that there is nothing at all different between
samsara and nirvana, he is not characterizing them as sharing some sort of mystical identity, or oneness.
Instead, he is saying that they are identical in the sense that they have the same ultimate nature, that is,
emptiness, the absence of inherent self-existence. Therefore, one should not conceive of the world as
empty and of nirvana as some alternative inherently existent realm. Likewise, one should not conceive
of both as different inherently existing realms between which one attempts to change residence, for if
both were truly independent and self-existent it would be impossible to pass from one to the other.
Instead, nirvana is attainable immediately and in ones current surroundings by correctly understanding
the emptiness of ones immediate circumstances and current surroundings.
According to Madhyamika philosophy, the tendency to perceive the duality of samsara and nirvana
as ultimately meaningful reflects a lack of understanding of the two truths regarding the nature of reality

(i.e. the conventional truth and the ultimate truth). If samsara and nirvana were truly dual, then beings
would have no hope of ever reaching nirvana. However, if the two were ultimately identical, there would
also be no hope of achieving liberation from suffering. Therefore, both of these views must be
abandoned if one is to attain enlightenment (i.e. awakening to the true nature of existence). Nirvana and
samsara must differ conventionally, but they must share the same characteristics of emptiness enabling
beings to attain nirvana from samsara.
The Doctrine of Tathagatagarbha
The doctrine of tathagatagarbha (Buddha-essence) appears to have emerged independently of the
Madhyamika school of Mahayana, although its historical origins are not clearly understood. 10 It is
reasoned that the Truth Body (rupakaya) of the Buddha is transcendent and eternal, yet must also be
omnipresent and immanent in every atom of limitless existence. Therefore, when viewed from the
perspective of a Buddha, all beings are seen to be immersed in the realm of the truth body
(dharmakayadhatu). They continue to suffer, then, only because they fail to perceive their actual
situation. But because all beings are present in the dharmakayadhatu, all sentient beings have within
them the inherently pure Buddha nature, but it is present in an obscured, tainted state. Thus, the
cultivation of wisdom is, in fact, the removal of the obscurations of the Buddha essence and the
revelation of the natural luminosity of the Buddha realm. 11 The tathagatagarbha, translated tathagataembryo or tathagata-womb, is the essence within each being which makes enlightenment possible.
The tathagatagarbha writings go further than Nagarjunas Madhyamika approach in asserting the
oneness of samsara and nirvana. The Srimaladevisimhanada Sutra refers to the tathagatagarbhaas the
permanent, steadfast, and eternal substratum of samsara. 12 This ground of being is said to be
the dharmakaya when viewed from the enlightened perspective. The realization of the inherent purity of
this substratum is nirvana, while the appearance of it as defiled is samsara. The existence of
the tathagatagarbha as intrinsically pure and never defiled despite its apparent defilement being the
cause of bondage is said in the Srimala Sutra to be a mystery which can only be understood by the
Buddhas and advanced bodhisattvas. Thus, this sutra suggests that an element of faith is required from
beginning practitioners who hope to discover the nature of the tathagatagarbha.
Not all the schools of Buddhism accept the doctrine of tathagatagarbha. The Gelugpa school and
others reject it as teaching monism and will approach it only in terms of the two truths (i.e. the
conventional and ultimate levels of understanding) taught by Nagarjuna. The different interpretations of
this viewpoint have led to a division along the lines of those Buddhists believing the path to
enlightenment to be gradual versus sudden. This topic will be revisited shortly after a comparison of the
Mahayana and Vajrayana.
The Distinction Between the Mahayana and Vajrayana
The Vajrayana is often viewed as part of the Mahayana since they have so much in common. Both
share the goal of Buddhahood as the fruit of practice, and the cultivation of bodhicitta as just described
is central to the teaching of both. The Mahayana and the Vajrayana both differ from the Hinayana in
terms of view and method. In terms of view, the Hinayana can be said to teach the lack of inherent
existence (i.e. emptiness) of the self but the inherent existence of the dharmas. The Mahayana and the
Vajrayana teach the emptiness of the self and of the dharmas. In terms of method, the Mahayana and the
Vajrayana teach the necessity of positive ascesis (i.e. actively benefiting sentient beings) as opposed to
the negative ascesis taught by the Hinayana.
However, significant differences exist between the Mahayana and the Vajrayana, and it is viewed by
the Gelugpas as a third vehicle. In fact, the adherents of the Gelugpa school sometimes speak of
Buddhism as consisting of only two vehicles: Sutrayana and Mantrayana. Sutra (or sutta) refers to the
term used by all schools to refer to the basic Buddhist scriptures, while Mantra refers to the secret,
Tantric teachings which are unique to the Vajrayana. The difference between the Vajrayana and the

Mahayana is said to reside in upaya, or skillful means.13 The Mahayana and the Vajrayana both have
practices for achieving the dharmakaya (Truth Body) of a Buddha. The dharmakaya is the culmination
of the perfection of wisdom; therefore, in order to develop the dharmakaya, one needs to follow a path
of wisdom in which one cultivates a similitude of the dharmakaya. This is done by meditating on
emptiness. According to the Vajrayana, however, meditation on emptiness only removes the conception
of inherent existence and all the afflictions that are based on it. However, other practices are needed to
achieve the rupakaya (Form Body) of a Buddha. The physical perfection of the Form Body must be
established using vast methods of meditation which cultivate a similitude of the rupakaya. These
practices, called Tantra (i.e. deity yoga), are not contained in the method of the Mahayana. They are
unique to the Vajrayana, who maintain that the complete method for achieving Buddhahood quickly
relies on the cultivation of a path of deity yoga in which the pride of being a deity is established.
Broadly, yoga means union, and therefore deity yoga refers to forms of meditation in which the
practitioner experiences a realization of union with a deity. The deity represents the goal, or effect, of
Buddhist practice, and therefore, Tantra can be said to take the goal as the path. It is therefore referred to
as the Effect Vehicle and contrasted to the Cause Vehicle in which the causes of enlightenment are
cultivated in order to reach the goal.
The importance placed upon the rupakaya by Vajrayana practitioners is two-fold: first, its cultivation
is essential for the achievement of complete Buddhahood, and second, its capacity to perform altruistic
activities is limitless. According to the Mahayana, wisdom cognizing emptiness must be joined with
conventional bodhicitta and practice of the perfections in order to achieve complete removal of the
obstructions to omniscience (i.e. the dharmakaya). The ten perfections are giving (dana), moral conduct
(shila), patience (kshanti), vigor (virya), meditation (dhyana), wisdom (praja), skillful means (upaya),
resolution (pranidhana), strength (bala), and knowledge (jana). When joined with wisdom they
produce the causal collection of wisdom. The causal collection of method is produced through the
practices of deity yoga which cultivate the rupakaya. When both causal collections are complete
the rupakaya and dharmakaya are simultaneously attained. Neither can be obtained singly since only a
Buddha can possess them and because a Buddha possesses both of them. At the attainment of
Buddhahood, the collection of wisdom formed from the practice of the perfections manifests as the
achievement of a Buddhas Form Bodies (rupakaya) which perform limitless altruistic activities.
Of course, the duality between wisdom and compassion only exists at the relative level of reality; at
the ultimate level, wisdom and compassion are inseparable. Nagarjuna made the statement, Emptiness
is the essence of compassion,14 showing the ultimate indivisibility of compassion and the wisdom
cognizing emptiness. In fact, it is the realization of this indivisibility that the Tantric sadhanas attempt to
engender in the organic symbolism of sexual union. Indeed, at the ultimate level all absolutist dualities
are seen to be false: wisdom and compassion, the Truth Body and the Form Body, and samsara and
nirvana are all seen not to be ultimately different.
The doctrine of tathagatagarbha seems to form a fundamental part of the foundation of Tantric
practice. Indeed, as shall soon be seen, the visualization of a mandala involves elements of practice
which actively cultivate a realization of the omnipresent, immanent Buddha-nature. However, due to
what will be argued to be political motivations, some schools of Tantra deny the validity of the doctrine
of tathagatagarbha. Before examining such matters, though, one should have an understanding of what
exactly is involved in the performance of a Tantric sadhana, or liturgy.
The Practice of Deity Yoga
Deity yoga in the Gelugpa and Kagyu traditions will be discussed here since these schools share
many similarities in the Tantric practices. The Nyingma school has several significant differences and
will therefore not be discussed for the sake of space. First and foremost, Tantric practice in the Gelugpa
and Kagyu traditions presupposes a firm foundation in the practices of shamatha, or mind stabilization.
Historically, the practices of Tantra have been guarded with extreme secretiveness, and all potential

practitioners must take extensive vows in which they promise, among other things, to maintain the
secrecy of the practices or face rebirth in the Vajra Hells. To Westerners this religious secrecy may seem
incomprehensible or even offensive; however, it is rooted in very sound reasoning. As has been
mentioned already, the potential for karmically harming oneself or others is very great if Tantric practice
is not performed properly. Because desire is used as an aid to the Tantric path, albeit in a specialized and
controlled way, there is always the risk that the practitioner will lack the wisdom or upaya to keep it
properly controlled. Indeed, desire is an extremely potent force; it is held to be the root force which
keeps samsara going. In order to ensure, then, that desire will be used for the purpose of bodhicitta and
not for its own ends, Tantric practitioners must complete lengthy training in meditation on emptiness and
compassion. These two elements of consciousness must be sufficiently cultivated to ensure that the pride
of being a deity which gives Tantric practice its great potency is not misunderstood or misused. For if
practitioners are lacking in an understanding of emptiness, they may perceive themselves to be
inherently a deity and others to be inherently not deities. This would lead to the arousal of a pride of
ego-grasping which would only serve to mire one further in the delusion of samsara. Likewise, a firm
grounding in the desire to benefit all sentient beings is required to make sure that the enormous power of
the deity is used for compassionate and not selfish ends.
The preliminary practices which are a prerequisite to receiving Tantric initiation are collectively
known as ndro, and consist of the Four Ordinary Foundations and the Four Special Foundations. The
Four Ordinary Foundations establish a thorough revulsion with samsara and a strong sense of urgency
for escaping it. The Four Special Foundations consist of four sets of practices to be performed 111,111
times each. The first practice is taking refuge and engendering the bodhicitta. This grounds the
practitioner solidly in the desire to benefit all sentient beings. After repeating the first practice 111,111
times, the practitioner begins the second practice, the repetition of the 100 syllable mantra of Vajrasattva
which purifies harmful deeds and removes obscurations. The third practice is the mandala-offering
which perfects the two accumulations of merit and awareness. The fourth practice is called guru-yoga
and is a six-line prayer which rapidly confers blessing. After completing thendro (which can take
years to do), one is ready to receive initiation to perform the visualization of a mandala. (In the Nyingma
school, practitioners may begin their practice with the mandala visualization.)
Kalachakra Tantra Sadhana15
There are many different Tantric sadhanas, or means of accomplishment, which can be performed,
each involving the visualization of a different mandala (i.e. the palace of a deity). In the Gelugpa
tradition, there are four categories of Tantric practice: Action Tantra, Performance Tantra, Yoga Tantra,
and Highest Yoga Tantra. These divisions differ in the way in which desire is used as an aid to the
path.16 The Highest Yoga Tantra division is the highest division, reserved for the most advanced
practitioners for whom it is appropriate to use the desire generated by the touch of union. The
Kalachakra Tantra, one of the Highest Yoga Tantras, will serve as an example to explore the structure of
a typical Tantric sadhana. Before beginning the sadhana, the practitioner must take the triple refuge,
arouse the bodhicitta, and receive the seven initiations.
The sadhana itself consists of two stages, the generation stage and the completion stage. Broadly
speaking, in the generation stage, the practitioner generates himself as the deity and makes offerings,
and in the completion stage, he performs the six yogas which culminate in complete enlightenment. The
sadhanas presuppose an understanding of the Tibetan system of anatomy. It would not be practical to
explain the system in detail here; in essence, the system consists of winds (prana) which travel through
the right, left, and center channels of the body and modulate the various physical and psychological
processes of the body and mind.
The generation stage begins with the performance of preparatory offerings and meditations and with
the creation of a protective circle. The protective circle is a purified (i.e. non-samsaric) space in which

the mandala can appear. It is during the generation stage that one visualizes the mandala based upon the
description given by the teacher or based upon a painted depiction. A common error committed by those
not familiar with Tantra is to confuse the painted mandala with the actual mandala. The painted mandala
is a two-dimensional schematic figure representing a three-dimensional visualization of the actual
mandala. When the visualization has been successfully performed, the actual mandala appears of its own
power. It is the antithesis of anything samsaric and is thus non-referential; that is, it cannot be referred to
in terms of having a size or location. It is unconditioned reality.
After the mandala has been generated, the practitioner generates himself as Kalachakra and his
consort, Vishvamata, in union representing the oneness of wisdom and compassion. These visualized
deities are called samayasattvas (pledge beings) and are not yet real. The practitioner makes inner (i.e.
imagined) and outer (i.e. actual) offerings to the self-generation. This is accompanied by the repetition
of the 100-syllable mantra of Vajrasattva and certain verses to increase the stores of merit and gnosis.
The next step is called the supreme victorious mandala in which Kalachakra/Vishvamata and eight
protective shakti deities are generated from the root syllable HAM that is the mingling of the winds,
the mind, and the white and red bodhicitta drops. Then the remaining mandala deities are generated
from the womb of Kalachakra/Vishvamata. This is followed by the supreme victorious activity in
which occurs the dissolution of the janasattvas (gnosis beings) into the samayasattvas, making the
generation real (i.e. non-samsaric).17 This is accompanied by the five wrathful protectors being drawn
down to grant all of the deities the seven initiations.
This concludes the generation of the visualization, and the practitioner now begins the yoga of the
drops. In the first step, the practitioner experiences the four joys as the white (male) drop is melted by
the heat of Kalachakra/Vishvamatas union, and passes from Kalachakras crown, down the central
channel, to the tip of his vajra (i.e. in organic symbolism, penis). The subtle yoga follows this in which
the practitioner has an even deeper experience of the four joys as the white drop is drawn back up the
central channel to Kalachakras crown. This concludes the generation stage. However, the divine identity
and destruction of the defilements which one has undertaken at this stage are still held to be preparatory
and symbolic.
A true, final, and nonimaginary transformation of oneself into Kalachakra can only be brought about
following a manipulation of the subtlest winds found at the heart chakra. This manipulation is only
possible through the psycho-physical procedures that are mastered in the completion stage, consisting of
the six yogas which culminate in enlightenment as an empty shell. The first step is the yoga of
withdrawal in which the practitioner dissolves the winds into the central channel and generates a small
semblance of the empty shell of Kalachakra/Vishvamata at the forehead chakra. In the yoga of
stabilization, the practitioner concentrates on the empty shell with the divine pride of ones being that
empty shell. The yoga of breath control follows, in which the practitioner moves the empty shell to the
navel chakra. Through the use of vajra-recitation and vase breathing, the vitalizing and downwardvoicing winds are brought together there. The winds ignite the inner fire (gtum mo) which melts the
white drop at the forehead. The melted drop moves down the central channel, creating the experience of
the four joys. During the yoga of retention, the drop moves back up the central channel, and the four
joys are experienced as a basis for the realization of the inseparability of bliss and gnosis. In the yoga
of mindfulness, an actual empty shell is generated at the navel. A real or visualized consort is used to
generate great bliss through the stabilization of the white drop at the tip of the vajra and the red drop at
the crown. In the final yoga of samadhi, the 21,600 white (male) drops and the 21,600 red (female)
drops are stacked in the central channel. The stacking of each drop entails the experience of bliss and the
cutting off of one of the winds that form the basis of cyclic existence. When all the drops have been
stacked, one is enlightened; that is, one is a Buddha in the empty shell aspect of Kalachakra/Vishvamata.

Objections of the Theravada

Reading this description of a Tantric sadhana, it is not surprising that the Theravadins would respond
in disbelief to these Buddhist practices. First, it is recorded in the Theravada scriptures that the
Buddha, while preparing to enter parinibbana, stated, I have not taught you with a closed fist,
meaning that there were no teachings or practices which the Buddha had kept a secret from his
followers. Clearly, the secrecy associated with Tantric practices would cast doubt on their status as
legitimate teachings of the Buddha in the eyes of Theravadins. More importantly, though, the practices
and beings described in Tantric texts cannot be found anywhere in the Theravada scriptures. Since the
Buddha did not teach with a closed fist, the Theravadins assert that the Tantric practices are a
fabrication created by others to look like teachings of the Buddha. They point to the deities involved in
the visualization as proof that these teachings are not authentically Buddhist. According to the
Theravada view, if these beings were liberated they would not still be visible by beings in samsara. The
fact that they are still around in samsara is evidence that they are not Buddhas. Therefore, the benefit to
be derived from practices centered around such deities is dubious at best; clearly it would be more
beneficial for beings to devote their energies to the genuine teachings of Buddha Shakyamuni himself.
This explanation is obviously an oversimplification, as not all Theravadins would subscribe to the
beliefs just enumerated. In fact, when the Theravada tradition is examined, one discovers that it contains
some esoteric practices which bear many similarities to the key features of deity yoga as just described.
Obviously, the imagery found in the Theravada scriptures is very different from that of the forms and
deities found in the Tibetan Tantric tradition. However, there exist allusions in the Theravada scriptures
to seeing the transformation of reality as being full of light and color. For example, at the Buddhas birth
and following his enlightenment, it is recorded that vibrant lotuses sprang from the ground beneath his
feet as he walked. These events were referred to as lokutara,meaning outside of this world, which
seems similar to the notion of their being extra-samsaric. In addition, some of the physical marks of the
Buddha clearly do not belong to ordinary samsaric reality. In the Theravada tradition it is believed that
people can see the marks of a Buddha only if they know what they mean. Therefore, only those people
with sufficient development of consciousness can see these marks, seen as though peeking through a
mystical window to non-samsaric reality. An example of such a physical mark is the urna, or eye of
Dharma that sees what is invisible to physical eyes and which is depicted as an eye placed vertically in
the middle of the forehead. These references and others in the Theravada scriptures show that the seed of
an idea of there being something present in samsara other than desire, suffering, and decay can be found
in the Theravada tradition as well. However, these ideas were not developed into a formal liturgy by the
Theravadins as they were by the Tantrikas (practitioners of Tantra). The Theravada also does not usually
take the philosophical next step and assert the ultimate non-duality of samsara and nirvana as the
Mahayana and the Vajrayana do.
Gradual Versus Sudden Enlightenment
The early forms of Buddhism taught the attainment of enlightenment as a gradual process by which
individuals slowly ripen their mental continuums and overcome ignorance and the hindrances bit by bit.
Samsara was taught as here, the realm of suffering, and nirvana was there, the goal which one
strived to reach. The early scriptures are replete with extensive hierarchical descriptions of the
meditative states of janic absorption and of the levels of attainment through which one passes on the
way to achieving the final attainment. This understanding of the Buddhist path of spiritual practices was
primarily influenced by the law of cause and effect. Certain practices were thought to be causes that
were beneficial to the attainment of enlightenment, while other practices were thought to be not
beneficial or to have harmful effects for the practitioners development. The concept of the early
Buddhist practitioner can be likened to that of an artist or tradesman who works toward mastering a
skill. The Buddhist practitioner worked to master the skills of meditation and restraint and to use this
mastery to conquer ignorance and desire and to realize the truth of anatta, or absence of the existence of

an inherent self. Once one had become sufficiently proficient at this practice, the individual was said to
become an arahat (Sanskrit: arhat), or Worthy One. This was viewed as the final endpoint at which it
could be said that one had achieved the goal.
With the development of Mahayana thought came the criticism of early Buddhism for not
emphasizing the compassionate helping of others. Philosophically, it was claimed that the Hinayana
notion of Buddhist practice reified samsara and nirvana. The Buddha had taught anatta (lack of inherent,
independent existence) as being the true nature of the self. If the personal self is not self-existent
independent of the dharmas, then it stands to reason that the dharmas are not independently self-existing
either. The Mahayana doctrine extended this personal absence of inherent self to include all phenomena,
renaming it sunyata in the process. Thus the interdependence of all phenomena became a key feature of
a true understanding of reality. From this arose the importance of striving to alleviate the suffering of
others as if they were ones own, for indeed, in some sense ones own suffering and the suffering of
others are interrelated. Thus, the arhats came to be viewed as selfish for being content to merely
alleviate their own suffering and to vanish from samsara leaving the rest of all sentient beings behind to
suffer. Furthermore, the claim of an arhat to be enlightened was seen as fraudulent as no true
understanding of reality could allow one to be untroubled by the suffering of others. Thus, the Mahayana
came to view the enlightenment of the arhat as a partial one resulting from a surfeit of intellect
(praja) and a paucity of compassion (mahakaruna).
This radical reinterpretation of enlightenment and the path to attaining it was a foreshadowing of the
body of teachings that would later develop into the Madhyamika school and the doctrine of the two
truths. Over time, the Mahayana supplanted all the Buddhist schools except the Theravada, which had
also extended the doctrine of anatta to include the lack of inherent existence of the dharmas. Sometime
during this period, the doctrine of tathagatagarbha emerged in the Mahayana tradition. Some schools,
especially those developing in the Indian subcontinent, rejected it as being monistic and turned instead
to the Madhyamika or Chittamatra (mind-only) explanations of samsara and nirvana. Other schools,
primarily those developing in China, absorbed it, and as a result their teachings on the relationship of
samsara and nirvana developed a radical new approach known as Subitism, or sudden enlightenment.
The Subitist schools maintain that if the dharmakaya pervades samsara, then all beings in samsara
are immersed in the Buddha-essence already. It is ultimately nonsensical, then, for one to conceive of
the path to enlightenment as a gradual process by which practitioners attain a novel mode of
consciousness or of being. Instead, the attainment of nirvana is viewed ultimately as an awakening to the
true nature of ones existence, which is characterized by the Buddha-essence. In this sense, then,
enlightenment can be viewed as a sudden awakening to ones true reality instead of a gradual
transformation of it.
The Buddhist traditions of Mo-ho-yen and early Dzogchen are characterized by this Subitist teaching
of sudden awakening. An examination of the similarities between these traditions and of the apparent
reversal of the later Dzogchen position on enlightenment will be helpful in understanding the debate
regarding the ontological status of the Tantric mandala visualizations.
The Teaching of Mo-ho-yen
One of the most radical positions on the side of sudden enlightenment in the sudden versus gradual
enlightenment controversy was that of the eighth century Chan Master Ho-shang Mo-ho-yen, whose
name means Mahayana Teacher. When a council was called in Tibet to settle the debate over sudden
versus gradual enlightenment, Master Mo-ho-yen was called as the representative of the Subitist
Mahayana schools. This topic will be revisited later after the teachings of Master Mo-ho-yen have been
According to Master Mo-ho-yen, good and bad acts lead to rebirth in the heavens and hells,
respectively, and therefore, as long as one carries out good or evil acts one is not free from

transmigration. He likened acts to clouds which obscure the blueness of the sky regardless of whether
they are white or black themselves.18 Master Mo-ho-yen identified the root cause of samsara as the
mental construction of false distinction (vikalpa-citta). This type of thought is moved by beginningless
habits, and its movements affect our perceptions of the world and our actions in it. In this sense, all
sentient beings plus the Buddhas are generated from vikalpa. According to Master Mo-ho-yen, the way
to stop samsara is to stop discriminating mind. He taught that not thinking, not pondering, nonexamination, and non-apprehension of objects is the immediate access to liberation and is identical to
the tenth bodhisattva stage (bhumi).19
The path according to Master Mo-ho-yen is understood to exist solely in the elimination
of vikalpa. However, according to the teaching of Mo-ho-yen, the abandonment of vikalpa is not
achieved by actively suppressing it, but rather by acknowledging its presence. 20 This practice is referred
to simultaneously as looking into ones mind and not thinking. Mo-ho-yen defines the state of
Buddhahood as the abandoning of the conceptions and shows that the three poisons are perceptual
modifications which all arise from the root cause of conceptualizing. Therefore, Mo-ho-yen taught a
method of contemplating the mind which consists of turning the light of the mind toward the minds
source.21 It does not involve reflection on thoughts, impermanence, emptiness, etc.
However, Mo-ho-yens position is so radically non-dual that it would be impossible for him to not
make concessions for the realities of human psychology at some point. Therefore, he taught that the
gradual approach (of right conduct and right action) is appropriate for those who cannot enter directly
into this practice of not thinking. He taught that those who are not able to practice not thinking
should dedicate their merit to living beings, so that all may attain Buddhahood. Thus, in Mo-ho-yens
system, the gradual schools were delegated to the status of inferior disciples not capable of practicing
the superior sudden approach.
Early Dzogchen
The Tibetan tradition of Dzogchen can be linked to the Chan tradition of China. 22 However, it also
has several important conflicts with the Chan tradition as shall soon be seen. One early Tibetan
Dzogchen text of the Atiyoga tradition is the Kyun byed rgyal poi mdo, the history of which cannot
presently be traced back beyond the eighth century at the earliest. This text presents itself as a dialogue
between Reality-As-It/He/She-Is and Vajrasattva. Reality-As-It/He/She-Is is called The All-Creating
Sovereign, Mind of Perfect Purity, and the Consummation of All (Tibetan: chos thams cad rdzogs po
chen po byang chub kyi sems kun byed rgyal po).23 In general, the Tibetan term byang chub
sems corresponds to the Sanskrit word bodhicitta, which is associated with the practice of compassion
and the understanding of emptiness. However, in the Kyun byed rgyal poi mdo, this term differs
significantly. The mind of enlightenment is something that beings are implied to generate as they
begin the bodhisattva path. However, the All-Creating Sovereign says in the Kyun byed rgyal poi
mdo, My own being is the bodhicitta, and, Everything is made, all is generated in the bodhicitta.
Therefore, in the Kyun byed rgyal poi mdo, bodhicitta is reality, and it could not be generated by
sentient beings. It is not dependent on anything and is immutable and timeless. 24 It is referred to as the
mind of perfect purity and is repeatedly said to possess ten characteristics:
The mind of perfect purity is like the sky. This mind itself, i.e. the Reality, is like the sky
and therefore [it is said]:
(1) No doctrine is to be contemplated.
(2) nor vows to be observed.
(3) The salutary acts (phrin las)25 are without effort and

(4) pristine awareness is without obscuration.

(5) There is no practising of the [ten] bodhisattva stages (bhumi) and
(6) no path to proceed on.
(7) Things are neither subtle (phra ba chos med),
(8) nor dual, nor dependent.
(9) There is no sacred institution firmly established except for that about the mind.
(10) There is no definition of the instructions except that they are beyond praise and
dispraise. This is the [right] view of the great perfected mind of perfect purity.26
The expression All-Creating Sovereign is a metaphor to describe what is held to be the ground of
the universe, i.e. an intelligent and intelligible potency.27 It is described as immutably one yet
omnipresent in the many in the following passage:
This intelligent ground is called the one. It is one, yet manifest in all. This, however, does not mean
that its nature is divided into many individual entities. Wherever it is (and there is nowhere it is not) it is
there in its totality. Like the sky in its endless reach it encompasses all and permeates everything but
remains the immutable one. The intelligent ground is self-originated pristine awareness (rang byung ye
shes) which abides in its own lucid nature. It is not dependent on anything. The grounds oneness is its
decisive characteristic but it presents itself in a threefold way. These two statements are not mutually
exclusive but complementary. The intelligent ground is one, immutable and timeless, but it is present in
all that exists in such a way that we humans can speak of its three aspects or three natures. Both
statements are equally true and valid.28
The three natures or aspects are:
(1) The own being (rang bzhin) of the intelligent ground as pristine awareness;
(2) the actuating force or essence (ngo bo) inherent in the intelligent ground and which is the
(3) compassion (snying rje) which is the sole force determining the interaction among the
different components of the world.29
The first nature of own being leads to the absence of a path or practice leading to nirvana. The AllCreating Sovereign is non-spatial and non-temporal; it is present everywhere at all times. Therefore, the
notion of a practice leading to its attainment is nonsensical. This is repeatedly stated throughout
the Kyun byed rgyal poi mdo. For instance:
The true nature which is non-intelligible and transcends intelligibility. . . . . abides in [a state of]
as-it-is, free of intelligibility. This leads to buddhahood via a path which cannot be walked on.30
Beside [this mind of perfect purity] there is neither a path to make progress on nor a place to
exist in. No one ever walked the path of the sky by progressing.31
However, in addition to the own-being of the mind of perfect purity (which alone would make it
imperceptible), it also has the nature of an activating potency. This potency is a force which arouses
pristine awareness to become manifest, tangible, perceptible, and thinkable and, thus, creates the

manifest universe. In a parallel manner, the no-practice used for coming to know the mind of perfect
purity is not an absence of practice. Instead, it is a specialized practice of no-practice much as in the
teaching of Mo-ho-yen. The following passages in the Kyun byed rgyal poi mdo explain the nature of
such a no-practice:
The non-existence of wishing to seize anything is the best [way of] seizing meditation.32
The main point of not thinking (bsam du med pa) is to abide from the primordial in a sky-like
The practice of this no-practice is what allows one to directly perceive the mind of pristine purity.
This practice does not teach a regimented set of prescribed morals such as that encountered in the
practice of the perfections because all attempts to enumerate a system of ethics based upon the mind of
pristine purity merely obscure its third nature, that of a natural ethics of compassion. TheKyun byed
rgyal poi mdo states, Those who attempt to alter this suchness will try to alter the mind of perfect
purity. Those who try to alter the mind of perfect purity will actually only achieve the samsara. 34 This
natural ethics is not a lack of ethics, but it cannot be described by a system of precepts; it must be
experienced by perceiving the mind of perfect purity. Only then can one know its natural ethics of
The world view arising from an understanding of the Kyun byed rgyal poi mdo is very different
from the ordinary Buddhist world view of suffering and impermanence. The mind of perfect purity as
the intelligent ground of existence leads one to view creation as a wonder and a cause for joy. Thus, the
enlightenment described by the early Dzogchen is a sudden awakening to the ultimate immanence or
nirvana in the midst of what is ordinarily misperceived as samsara.
The two methods of reconciling samsara and nirvana have been described: the two truths of
Madhyamika philosophy and the tathagatagarbha doctrine of the Subitist schools. The divergence of
view ensuing based on the adoption of one or the other of these doctrines has been shown to be
extremely wide. During the reign of Khri-srong lde-btsan in Tibet, Tibets contact with the Buddhist
nations from the Indian subcontinent and China intensified. The schools of Buddhism on the Indian
subcontinent had primarily developed along the lines of Nagarjunas Madhyamika school and advocated
a gradual path (lam rim) towards enlightenment while those of China had developed along the lines of
the Subitist approach and advocated a sudden view of enlightenment. The wide disparity between the
two views resulted in the development of tensions between the masters of the Indian subcontinent and
their followers and the Chinese masters and their followers. The tensions reached a climax in
approximately 775 C.E. when a debate was held between representatives of both camps at the first
Tibetan monastery at bSam-yas. Henceforth, the debate would be referred to as the bSam-yas debate,
and its impact on the development of Tibetan Buddhism would be profound.
The Subitist representative to the debate was the Chinese Chan Master Mo-ho-yen. Mo-ho-yen
offered his first thesis that as long as one carries out good or evil acts, one will not be free from
transmigration. Mo-ho-yens second thesis offered was his alternative to the path of action: the nopractice of non-thinking leading to immediate access to liberation. The Indian masters Kamalasila,
Srighosa, and Janendra, the spokesmen for gradual enlightenment, took issue with both theses. For
them, there could be no direct access to liberation; to leap into a practice of no-thought was to become
indifferent and insensitive. They maintained that non-conceptualization (avikalpa) was the result of
specific causes which had to be cultivated gradually. Further, they maintained that these causes must be
able to be discerned and rationally defined and must have distinct moral and practical implications. 35
The masters of the Indian subcontinent were declared victorious in the debate, and the Subitist
teachings were banned throughout Tibet. It is said that Mo-ho-yen walked out of Tibet barefoot, leaving
his sandals behind as a symbol of the effect his teachings had already had and would continue to have on
Buddhism in Tibet despite his banishment. For the school of Dzogchen, the outcome of the bSam-yas

debate resulted in the immediate need to either adopt the gradual viewpoint or to face persecution. The
teaching of Dzogchen following the bSam-yas debate took on a markedly different character than the
early teaching. This matter will be examined shortly, but first it will be helpful to look at two Subitist
schools from later Japanese thought in order to see how their teachings are similar to and different from
The Buddhist traditions of Shin and Soto Zen are descended from the Tendai tradition, which is the
Japanese transmission of the Chinese Tien-tai tradition. The Tendai and Tien-tai traditions are
compendiums of a large variety of Buddhist practices. The Shin and Soto Zen schools are different
responses to the overwhelming diversity of doctrine and method contained in the Tendai tradition. These
schools selected the elements of Tendai Buddhism which they thought were the key or essential
practices or teachings of Buddhism and discarded the rest.
The element of faith in the tathagatagarbha doctrine was reinterpreted by Shinran (1173-1262 C.E.)
who decided that it was this element that was central to achieving enlightenment. For, if sentient beings
are mired in samsara, they really can have no hope of attaining nirvana, the complete removal of all of
their defilements. Samsara is characterized by defilements through and through, and it would be
impossible to remove these defilements using ones own efforts alone. This vicious circle would be like
trying to clean a glass with muddy water; no matter how much the glass is washed with the muddy
water, it can never be made clean. Therefore, sentient beings must rely on aid from the Buddhas who are
already purified of all defilements to purify them of the defilements. The Buddha Amitabha has the
power to liberate beings because of his taking of the Primal Vow (Japanese: Hongan) or Bodhisattva
Resolve when he was a brahmin named Dharmakara. The power of theHongan was established
gradually through the long accumulation of merit performed by Dharmakara Bodhisattva.
The Hongan, then, is viewed by Shinran as the grace of Amitabha Buddha itself by which beings are
liberated. According to Shinran, only this reliance on the other-power (Japanese: tariki) of Amitabha
Nembutsu practice in accordance with the Hongan was understood in a new way by Shinran. Prior to
Shinran, liberation was seen to occur as a result of the performance of the practice of the recitation of the
Nembutsu; however, this understanding of the Nembutsu practice causes it to rely on self-power
(Japanese: jiriki), and thus Shinran saw that it could not be effective. Shinran realized that the Nembutsu
was identical with the Hongan itself so that, in fact, all practice is actually performed by Amitabha.
Therefore, the Nembutsu symbolizes the non-duality of ones desire for enlightenment and Amitabha
Buddhas ability to liberate ones defiled mind. Since the teachings of Shinran rely completely on otherpower for achieving liberation, there is said to be no attainment and no path. The moment of
enlightenment is described as:
Leaping across, in contrast to fording.36




This does not mean that nothing needs to be done, however, for the reality of sentient beings
experience of suffering is not denied. What is denied is the efficacy of striving for a goal. Instead, what
needs to be done is the no-practice which aims for no-goal, that is, an abiding in the mind of
According to Shinran, the practices of striving towards a goal (i.e. the practices of the gradual
enlightenment schools which rely on self-power) are an upaya for those whose karma is not properly
prepared for the practice of Nembutsu. Thus Shinran speaks of the One-Vehicle, the Buddhayana, the
Hongan. All other practices are said to prepare one karmically to engage in the Nembutsu, at which
In the Shin tradition, the element of faith mentioned earlier in relation to the doctrine
of tathagatagarbha is reinterpreted as the total non-duality of Amitabha Buddhas pure mind and the

defiled mind of sentient beings. A notable feature of the Shin Buddhist enlightenment is its depiction as
a sideways leap as opposed to a gradual progression forward. In the moment this leap occurs, the
practitioner does nothing, in the sense that the karmic preparations have been made by the grace of
Amitabha Buddha for the omnipresent Buddha-essence reality to self-manifest of its own power to the
practitioner. The practitioner has not attained a goal; indeed, nothing at all has changed from the
perspective of Buddha-nature.
The Tendai school of Buddhism taught the notion of original awakening (hongaku) as opposed to
acquired awakening (shikaku). Original awakening is the doctrine stating that everyone is originally
enlightened. Tendai Buddhism rejects the doctrine of acquired awakening at the level of the perfect or
round teaching, which is said to be taught in the Nirvana and Lotus Sutras, because this doctrine
necessarily implies that enlightenment can only be acquired as a result of a sustained practice.
The young Dogen (1200-1253 C.E.), an important Zen Master in the Soto lineage, doubted the
validity of the Tendai doctrine of original awakening. If all beings are endowed with Buddha nature and
are originally awakened to their nature, then why should the longing for awakening arise in people,
causing them to engage in religious practice and discipline? Indeed, why did the Buddhas engage in
ascetic practice? However, as Dogen later realized, this line of questioning presupposes a
conceptualization of Buddha nature as inherently existent and beyond the limitations of time and space.
This is a different understanding of Buddha nature than that of Buddha nature as the ground of
awakening for all sentient beings with resolve/practice being the indispensable condition or cause for
awakening.37 However, the latter understanding of Buddha nature generates another question, that of
how Buddha nature can be fundamental if it requires resolution/practice as a condition.
With this dilemma seated squarely in his mind, Dogen set out to China where he studied under many
teachers and practiced for many years before he overcame all idealization and conceptualization of the
Buddha nature. It was at this time that Dogen made the famous statement, The practice of Zen is body
and mind casting off. He realized that the Buddha nature is omnipresent in every being, but without
practice it is not manifested, and without realization it is not attained. 38 Thus, it can be said, that there is
not the slightest gap between resolution, practice, enlightenment, and nirvana (i.e. practice and
attainment are one). The relationship between practice and attainment is a dynamic one because the
Buddha nature is not realized as the Buddha nature unless one becomes a Buddha, but at the same time
only because one is already endowed with the Buddha nature can one become a Buddha. Therefore the
realization of the Buddha nature and its attainment must occur simultaneously. Hence Dogens statement
to become Buddha
one is Buddha
Both attainment (i.e. enlightenment or the Buddha nature) and practice (i.e. discipline or becoming a
Buddha) are indispensable. However, the former is the indispensable ground or basis whereas the latter
is the indispensable cause or condition. In this sense, the irreversible distinction between them can be
seen: attainment is more fundamental than practice but not the other way around. However, attainment is
not something substantial or objectifiable. Therefore, by realizing the insubstantiality of its ground,
practice as a condition is realized as something real in terms of the ground.39By going beyond the
irreversible relationship between attainment (Buddha nature) and practice (becoming a Buddha), these
As can be seen here, in the Soto Zen tradition, the doctrine of tathagatagarbha is incorporated in a
different way than in Shin. Grace is not central to the practice of Soto Zen as it is for the Shin tradition.
Instead, the central practice which Soto Zen distilled from the Tendai tradition was that of zazen (i.e.
sitting meditation). Through this practice, one potentiates the Buddha nature; thus, one does not actually
attain anything, and Soto Zen can be said to share the goal of no-goal with Shin Buddhism. Soto Zen
can also be said to share a practice of no-practice with Shin, for the practice of zazen is the dynamic
abiding in the Buddha nature which is already present; nothing is cultivated or pursued in this practice.

Having seen the different ways in which the Subitist schools incorporate the doctrine

of tathagatagarbha, one is ready to return to the dilemma facing the Dzogchen school following the
bSam-yas debate. Faced with the choice of adopting the gradual viewpoint or facing persecution,
Dzogchen began to change the way in which it spoke of enlightenment. Later teachings taught that the
Great Perfection was divided into three aspects: the base, the path, and the fruit. Although the Great
Perfection is said, in fact, to be the single great sphere, the three aspects are spoken of for
convenience.40 It seems quite possible that this adaptation developed to allow the Dzogchen school to
clothe their Subitist teaching in a protective shell that appears to proclaim a gradual path. The path is
spoken of as being a gradual one involving the development of the skills of meditation; however, it is
also asserted that when the final stage is reached, the stages must be given up. Thus, the gradual path is
taught as an upaya for the realization of an enlightenment which is ultimately sudden.
If it is true that the Dzogchen school developed a form of gradual teaching as an upaya for their
ultimate doctrine of sudden enlightenment because their sudden teaching had been misunderstood by the
arbiters of the bSam-yas debate, then this creates interesting implications for the interpretation of the
gradual teaching of the other Tibetan Buddhist schools. Is the situation faced by Dzogchen following the
bSam-yas debate not fundamentally the same as that encountered by a Buddha who must explain
enlightenment to beings who are not enlightened and who will not be able to understand what he knows?
Is it possible that the gradual teaching as found in the other schools of Tantric Buddhism is also
an upaya for
To examine this possibility, it will be helpful to limit ones analysis to one Tantric school and then to
attempt to extrapolate any conclusions drawn to the other schools. The logical choice for this focus
would be the Gelugpa school because it adheres most staunchly to the view of enlightenment as gradual.
If it could be shown that the gradual teaching of the Gelugpa has elements of upaya in it, then it would
It must be remembered that upaya refers to skillful means in teaching and to the need to tailor the
teachings one offers in order to make them suitable for the particular inclinations and potentials of each
individual. The notion of upaya arises from the view that the primary objective of Buddhist teaching is
the transformation of consciousness as opposed to the transfer of information. Since reality is ultimately
indescribable, attempts to convey it by transmitting information about it do not help the individual to
directly grasp ultimate reality. In fact, the transmission of information without the intention of producing
a transformation of consciousness which allows one to directly perceive ultimate reality for oneself can
even be detrimental since it may cause the person to hold reified conceptual views. The most effective
method of achieving a transformation, then, is to force the individual to abandon concepts and to reject
The Vajrayana claims to do this as shown by how it characterizes itself as stopping ordinary
perception. The Vajrayana path claims to enable practitioners to view reality from pure perspective.
At this level of perception, dualities are seen to be ultimately meaningless. Thus, although the Gelugpa
proclaims the Vajrayana to be the supreme vehicle for realizing Buddhahood, at the highest levels of
practice one is required not to discriminate between it and the other vehicles. Among the Root Tantric
Vows taken by potential practitioners is the vow against despising Sutrayana or making discriminations
between Sutrayana teachings and Tantrayana teachings.41 Violation of the Root Tantric Vows is said to
The fact that at the higher levels of practice one must not discriminate between the vehicles suggests
that the Gelugpa teaching of the Vajrayanas superiority must be taken as an upaya intended for those
with lesser ability to grasp the true relation of the vehicles. Thus, when it is said by the Gelugpa school
that the Hinayana, the Mahayana, and the Vajrayana correspond to increasingly advanced levels of
practice through which practitioners progress as their understanding becomes more developed, this
gradual teaching cannot be said to be true from the pure perspective. Therefore, one could argue that
elements of Subitist thought are embedded in the upayic structure of the lam rim tradition.
This creates an interesting parallel between the gradual and sudden traditions. It will be recalled that
the Subitist schools assert the usefulness of the gradual path as an upaya for those who are not yet ready
to enter upon the no-practice of direct perception of the ground of reality. This leads to the conclusion

that the Triyana or other Buddhist divisions are not ultimately meaningful. In the Shin tradition, it is
In the great vehicle, there are no two vehicles or three vehicles. The two vehicles and three
vehicles lead one to enter the One Vehicle. The One Vehicle is the vehicle of the highest truth.
There is no One Vehicle other than the Buddha-Vehicle, the Vow.42
This is very much like the Root Tantric Vow taken in the Vajrayana tradition in which making
distinctions between the vehicles of Buddhism is repudiated at the level of pure perspective. Thus, the
Subitist and the Gradualist schools are seen to share two common traits. Both utilize the teaching of the
path as upaya which must finally be given up, and both teach that the many vehicles to lead to a state in
which there is seen to be ultimately only the One Vehicle.
The discovery of this partial philosophical congruence of the Gelugpa and Subitist schools leads one
to wonder why the Subitist teachings were banished following the bSam-yas debate. Could there have
been other political elements at work in Tibet during the time of increasing conflict between the Indian
and Chinese masters? Is it possible that the bSam-yas debate represented a political victory for the lam
rim schools more so than a philosophical one? Some credence is lent to this possibility when one
Certain objections have been raised against the Gelugpa school by Stephen Batchelor following his
eight-year training as a monk in that tradition suggesting that political forces may be deeply entrenched
in the doctrines of the Gelugpa, preventing an honest and open exploration of the Dharma. 43 According
to Batchelor, reason is subordinate to faith in the Gelugpa tradition, and the tradition of debate, far from
being an analysis of the truth or falsity of Buddhist and non-Buddhist propositions, is in fact merely a
setting out to prove what one has already decided to believe.44 The correct conclusion to arrive at in
any Gelugpa debate is inevitably the Prasangika-Madhyamika position; the weakness of the logic used
It appears that once the Gelugpa tradition had decided upon the truth of Prasangika-Madhyamika
philosophy, it thenceforth forthrightly rejected all other doctrines or assertions not belonging to that
tradition. The doctrine of tathagatagarbha is a notable example of this tendency. In rejecting
the tathagatagarbha doctrine, the Gelugpas may have believed it was aligned with the Subitists;
however, it seems to be implied in the Tantric mandala visualizations of the Gelugpas themselves. The
Tantric scriptures instruct the practitioner to cultivate an awareness of all aspects of reality as
manifestations of the bodhisattvas. Thus, all sounds heard are to be perceived as emanations of the
mantra of the deity, all physical objects are to be seen as manifestations of the mandala space, and all
beings encountered are to be thought of as form bodies of the deity. This practice could clearly be
interpreted in terms of the doctrine of tathagatagarbha as an awakening of ones consciousness to
perceive the Buddha nature which is present in every aspect of reality or to perceive the omnipresent and
However, the Gelugpa tradition refutes any interpretation such as this which would suggest an
affiliation with Subitist teachings. In addition, the Gelugpa sadhanas lack formless meditations, which
are thought to be extremely important by other traditions in order for one to gain a solid understanding
of emptiness. Such an understanding is crucial when performing deity yoga so that one intuitively bears
in mind the emptiness of the visualized forms. Thus, formless shamatha (stabilization) meditation
practice is an important prerequisite to Tantric practice in the Dzogchen and Kagyu traditions. However,
since formless meditations were the methods employed by Subitist schools, the Gelugpas interpreted
them to be highly suspect following the bSam-yas debate. Thus, the Gelugpas came to rely on debate
instead of formless meditation to develop an understanding of emptiness. According to the Gelugpas,
debate teaches the mind an intuitive insight into the emptiness of the forms visualized during the Tantric
The Gelugpa school has been dominant in Tibetan Buddhism since the time of the Mongols and the

third Dalai Lama, and its viewpoints have thus affected the other Tantric disciplines as well. However,
the Kagyu tradition managed to preserve a relic of formless shamatha meditation. Following the mantra
repetition section of its Tantric sadhanas, the Kagyu practitioner is instructed to let the mind rest in the
mind. Although this practice appears to be influenced by the Subitist schools, it is possible that it
escaped attention because it is located in the middle of the Kagyu sadhana. Based on this fact, the
argument for the upayic nature of the gradual path teaching is even stronger in the Kagyu tradition than
it is in the Gelugpa. In addition, the Kagyu tradition preserved the shamathapractice of breath counting
as an important meditative training to be practiced before entering upon the Tantric path. For the
Gelugpa, however, shamatha was reinterpreted not as the formless practice of stabilizing the mind on no
object, but as the ability to stabilize the mind on the pure form of the mandala visualization. Thus,
formless shamatha meditation has been lost from the Gelugpa tradition.
This paper has explored the tensions between the deity yoga practices of the Vajrayana and the other
schools of Buddhism. In responding to the objections of the Theravada school, it was seen that the
presence of extra-samsaric elements within samsara is a concept that dates back to the earliest forms of
primitive Buddhism which recorded the miraculous events of the Buddhas lifetime and the mystical
physical marks of the Buddha. In the end, many compatibilities can be seen between the Theravada and
the Vajrayana traditions (e.g. between anatta and sunyata, between cittaprabhasa(shining mind) and
clear mind, and between the dharmakaya and the notion of nirvana as omnipresent). However, the
Theravada school might still maintain that the Tibetans have distorted these ideas too much.
The later development of the doctrine of tathagatagarbha created an organized framework
explaining how the extra-samsaric Buddha nature could be omnipresent and immanent within samsara.
This doctrine led to the development of a variety of schools of Buddhism characterized by a teaching of
enlightenment as a sudden awakening to this true nature. The attainment of this enlightenment is, in fact,
no-attainment and the practice conditioning it is a no-practice. However, for those who are not
karmically suited for this no-practice, the Subitists taught that the lam rim, or gradual path, practices
involving the development of the compassionate bodhicitta and the practice of the perfections were
helpful methods. The various vehicles, though, were all seen to feed into the One Vehicle, the
The Subitist schools which held these beliefs, such as those of Mo-ho-yen and early Dzogchen,
began to experience tensions with the Gradualists who subscribed to the two truths of Madhyamika
philosophy. The Gradualists held that the relationship between samsara and nirvana was not a monistic
unity but a oneness of characteristics at the ultimate level only. The consequence of this viewpoint was
the teaching of the path to be a gradual progression corresponding to the conventional nature of reality.
However, at the level of ultimate reality, the Gradualists say that the stages have to be given up and
Despite the many similarities between these viewpoints, tensions developed between the Subitists
and the Gradualists, perhaps due to external political concerns. The bSam-yas debate was called to settle
the dispute and resulted in the Subitist teaching being banned from Tibet. This appears to have resulted
in the development of a Gelugpa tendency to compulsively adhere to the Prasangika-Madhyamika
viewpoint and to deny any foundation of the Tantric practices in Subitist thought.
The Dzogchen tradition, on the other hand, adopted an upayic shroud of lam rim teaching to conceal
its Subitist teaching of the mind of perfect purity. It appears that the adaptation of the Dzogchen
teachings can serve as a model by which to examine the other Mahayana and Vajrayana traditions. When
this is done, it is seen that the other traditions fit within a similar framework comprised of all these
elements. The practices of deity yoga share elements of Subitism and Gradualism with the Mahayana
schools. Underlying the Tantric sadhanas, there appears to be a presupposition of the doctrine
of tathagatagarbha, but at the same time, the sadhanas are rooted in the Madhyamika doctrine of the
two truths which can also be seen in various teachings of the Mahayana schools. Finally, the practices of
deity yoga and the teachings of the Mahayana schools reflect a non-dual view of the division of vehicles
as being simultaneously a meaningful division and one which ultimately collapses into the One Vehicle.