Empty Splendor

The tantric path teaches us how to cut through our concepts, says the late Traleg Rinpoche, so we can experience reality in its full clarity.

By Traleg Rinpoche

Photo by Manu Schwendener

Vajrayana, or tantric, Buddhism places a great deal of emphasis on the mind and how it works. On the tantric level, we ask what the mind is and how we should view it.

The first thing that is recommended is to ask where the mind is located. We might identify the mind with our neural system or we might locate it somewhere in the heart. If we are sophisticated, we might place more importance on our intellectual activities and think mind is located in the brain.

If we are presented with a puzzle that we cannot solve, we may scratch our head or get a headache. If we are emotionally shocked, we may say, “oh my goodness” and cover our chest, putting the emphasis on our heart. However, tantric logic says that mind cannot be located in both places. It cannot be in the head as well as the heart. No entity or object can be in two places at the same time. It is either here or it is there; it cannot occupy two spatial points simultaneously.

In understanding mind and what it is, tantric texts identify three aspects: mind is empty, mind is luminous, and mind is bliss.

Mind’s Empty Aspect

The tantric tradition says mind is not something that can be grasped. We cannot identify it with brain processes or with the heart. Mind is not something that can be discovered either within or outside our physical organism. This is why mind has the aspect of being empty. We cannot say mind is flat and square and brown, as we would a table. Mind is not an entity or a thing, which is why it is empty.

Mind’s Luminous Aspect

Unlike inanimate objects, the mind is luminous. Mind is able to illuminate both itself and other things. The luminosity of mind is not something that is discovered outside our ordinary experi­ence. Our immediate experiences of anger, jeal­ousy, pride, or whatever have a tremendous sense of clarity and luminosity before we put any inter­pretations on them.

The tantric literature says that we can dis­cover the luminosity of the mind in two situa­tions: when the mind is calm during meditation, like a lake with no disturbances, and when the mind is mobile or disturbed. Even in the second case, there can be a tremendous sense of clar­ity and brilliance. The tantric approach says that instead of rejecting the disturbed mind, we should continuously try to identify the mind at rest and the mind that is mobile and disturbed. We should try to see the clarity of both situations without making distinctions of any kind. Then we will be able to see just how luminous mind is.

Mind’s Blissful Aspect

The experience of bliss is associated with ceasing to make any distinctions between our ordinary experiences of mind and our meditative experi­ences of mental tranquility.

At the Mahayana level, it is taught that bud­dhanature cannot be embellished or diluted by our neuroses, so it seems as if buddhanature is one thing and neurosis another. On the tantric level, however, we see the neuroses themselves as our own sanity. We do not find sanity outside of neuroses. Sanity is found in the midst of our neurotic tendencies.

Tantrikas have an expression for mind, tha­mal gi shepa. Thamal means “ordinary” and shepa means “mind.” so the expression means “ordinary mind.”

Within this ordinary mind, the passion, aggression, and jealousy that we continuously experience is brilliance and sanity. We therefore cannot make any distinctionst all between the disturbed mind and the mind of sanity. They are identical. It is said, “trying to look for sanity outside of neuroses is like saying, ‘I don’t like sugar, but I want to taste sweetness.’ ” If we want the sweetness of sugar, we also have to acknowl­edge the existence of sugar.

These aspects of mind are indistinguishable, and the experience of bliss and a tremendous sense of freedom arise from that. We no longer have to make distinctions within our own mind, saying, “this aspect is good so I have to cultivate it, and that aspect is bad so I have to destroy it.” When that conflict is resolved, bliss begins to take place naturally. This bliss is not something additional to what already exists; it is discovered as another aspect of our own mind.

These three aspects of mind are indispensable in the tantric tradition.

The Tantric View of Phenomena

Tantric texts often talk about “the union of bliss and emptiness” or “the union of luminosity and emptiness” when they describe mind. That is the subjective side of the whole thing. On the objective side, when we talk about our percep­tion of the world, it is described as “the union of emptiness and appearance.” Relative and abso­lute truth can be defined as how things are pre­sented to us and how they are. But the union of emptiness and appearance means we can’t make that distinction between how things appear and how things are. If a tree is present in our visual sense, that is how it appears. But the essence of that tree is emptiness.

We cannot make a distinc­tion between those two.

We tend to underplay the importance of appearance and make a big deal out of essence, thinking the essence is more important than the appearance of things. But on the tantric level, we do not distinguish between the appearance of things and the essence of things at all. That is why it is called “the union of emptiness and appearance.” We do not reject the world as it appears by saying, “it is just an illusion, it is just a dream, it is nothing. There is some kind of occult phenomena behind appearances called ‘emptiness’ and we must strive to attain that.”

Things appear in the form of emptiness. Those two things cannot be distinguished at all. The moment we see that directly is the moment we begin to properly appreciate the phenomenal world as it is. We begin to experience what tant­rikas call “sacred outlook.” We see the phenom­enal world as it is rather than as we would like to see it. We begin to see the richness and the splendor of the presentation.

The next situation to consider is connected to the concept of union or indivisibility, which is called “one-flavoredness.” We can no longer talk about samsara and nirvana as two poles, or about absolute and relative truths as two realms. No pole is superior to the other. Nirvana is no longer regarded as superior to samsara, and confusion is no longer regarded as inferior to enlightenment. Samsara and nirvana have one flavor, and confusion and enlightenment have one flavor.

The greatest hindrance on the tantric path is fear of our own incompetence. You need to have a sense of healthy ego and healthy arrogance.

In keeping with that, we no longer make a distinction between subject and object. this is not so much because the plurality of things begins to dissolve into oneness but because when we reflect on our own experiences properly, we see things are not really presented to experience as solid entities. and we are not solid entities either. What we experience as “other” and what we experience as “self” are not completely dis­tanced or separate from each other.

To think the world exists separately from our experience of it is the product of some kind of belief rather than fact. Beliefs are just something we believe; they usually have nothing to do with fact. the moment we fall into a belief system, we have fallen into the realm of fiction rather than fact.

The idea that there is an external world exist­ing as a separate thing out there totally separate from us is a belief rather than a fact. But because of our preconceived ideas, we don’t know how to distinguish fact from our own interpretation of that fact. We mistake the two and no longer recognize fact from fiction. The classic Buddhist example of this tendency is mistaking a rope for a snake. Our immediate perception of an elon­gated, striped form lying on the road is a fact, but our assumption that it is a snake is mistaken. To mistake the rope for a snake is a fiction because it has nothing to do with the actual thing that has been presented to us. It has nothing to do with our immediate perception.

When tantrikas talk about the union of the cognizer and cognized—of mind and the phe­nomenal world—they are talking about our immediate perception of the phenomenal world before any kind of subjective interpretation has taken place. Seeing that striped rope would be the immediate perception, but before we real­ize it, we have seen it as a snake and may never know that it was otherwise. We just think it’s a snake and run away as fast as we can. That kind of misperception takes place continuously in our interactions with the world. A genuine appreciation of the world—sacred outlook—is impossible unless that superimposition of subjec­tive interpretation is cut through.

These are just the basic ideas of the tantric teachings. We could regard these ideas as ground tantra because they are the starting point of the Vajrayana journey. Then there is the path tantra of how we go about the whole thing and how we relate to the qualities we already possess. Finally, there is the fruition stage of tantra. This is what we attain through utilizing our neuroses and pas­sions, which could be expressed as transmuting lead into gold.

Q & A

In the Mahayana path, neurosis is seen as giv­ing us an indication of the potential of our basic buddhanature. Here, you seem to be say­ing that neurosis is actually a manifestation of buddhanature.

On the Mahayana level, all of our dissatisfaction, despair, and emotional upheavals are some kind of guideline about what we should be doing. We are not managing the whole thing properly, so those experiences give us an indication of the discovery of buddhanature. However, the Mahayana still makes some distinction between our neurotic tendencies and the buddhanature they are trying to trigger.

On the Vajrayana level, the neuroses them­selves become sanity. Sanity is discovered in the midst of neuroses—we do not see neuroses on the surface and buddhanature as some kind of basic ground. Neuroses are neuroses because we perceive them that way. The moment we perceive them as something resourceful and wholesome, they are no longer neuroses. They become some­thing totally different. If we use the analogy of the rope again, the moment we discover it is not a snake but a piece of rope, we discover it for what it is.

According to the tantric tradition, neurosis is just mismanagement of our energy. We do not realize what that energy is and mismanage it, so that energy bounces back on us in a self-defeat­ing process.

Is emptiness an intelligent emptiness?

Definitely, because the emptiness aspect of mind is indistinguishable from luminosity, which means it is not a vacuity of some kind. People tend to think of emptiness as a vacuity, especially because both Buddhism and Hinduism talk so much about deconceptualizing your mind. However, emptiness here does not mean some kind of vacuity that renders the mind as nothing. It is more like a no-thing, because mind is not a thing. It is luminous. If it were a thing, it would be a solid mass, like a table, and there would be no intelligence whatsoever.

Emptiness provides the ground for luminos­ity to take place. Emptiness is the one flavor. It is because of emptiness that we cannot make a distinction between subject and object. There are no distinctions there.

The phenomenal world is also seen as the union of appearance, or presence, and emptiness. “Appearance” is a funny sort of word. It means some kind of surface thing, but with something else called “reality” that is behind it. “Presence” is a much better word. Something is present­ing by itself, whose essence is emptiness. What appears is the phenomenal world, but it is empty because it has no real substance.

Some kind of interaction or dance is taking place continuously between the individual and the world. The individual person is not a static thing. We are continuously evolving, spiritually and psychologically, because there is the goal of attaining enlightenment. On the objective side, the world is not a static thing either. Continuous change is always taking place. It is a dynamic process, and that dynamism is due to the fact that the phenomenal world is empty. Because it is empty, it is able to change and be in a con­stant flux. Change is not regarded as something pejorative; it has a positive connotation as far as Buddhism is concerned. Hindus talk about lalita, or “cosmic dance.” the dance between the phe­nomenal world and the individual is like that.

Critical analysis of all this is done on the Mahayana level. On the Vajrayana level, we do not need to analyze the phenomenal world at all, in some sense. We just look at the world as it is presented rather than analyzing it so much. In many ways, the tantric approach is very anti-intellectual. In fact, it is totally experiential. If we intellectualize about it too much, we will go into the world of fiction again. We might be able to construct a theory out of that, but we will not see the whole thing as it is.

There is no substance at all as far as the phe­nomenal world is concerned. We can look at a thing and see that it is changing all the time and has no substance to it. At the same time, the insubstantiality of the phenomenal world is not regarded as something bad. It is just the real nature of the world. It is how the world is. It does not take much of an intellectual exercise to discover that. Even physicists have discovered that a table is not the way it appears. The tantric notion about indivisibility of subject and object is that the world and the subject are not presented to us as subject and object at all. We’re the ones who decide where subject ends and object begins. It is a conceptual construction.

How real is the rope in the analogy of the rope and the snake?

We might argue that emptiness is more real than appearance. We might say the table is not real because it changes its form and disintegrates, while the emptiness of that table is more real. But we cannot make that distinction. This is what the tantrikas are saying. The emptiness of the table and the table are indivisible, and if we do not see it that way, it is due to our own ingrained hab­its. It is merely the compulsive tendency to see a rope as a snake. Normally, if we see the object as something separate from us, we are just creating more fiction. It is very hard to come to any kind of certainty unless we have worked through our conceptual processes completely.

Why does emptiness determine luminosity?

Western philosophy has always discussed mind as a substance. Most of the time, they see two types of substance: matter and mind. This has created many problems. If you conceive of the mind as a substance, you must be able to locate it somewhere. Buddhism has always rejected any notion of substance, and the mind has never been seen as a substance. Luminosity and emptiness cannot be separated, but nor are they identical. They are identical to the extent that luminosity is not a substance, but they are not identical to the extent that the very ground for luminosity to take place is the existence of emptiness.

You said the mind becomes luminous like the sun, but it doesn’t necessarily mean you experi­ence it in that sense?

That is really an interesting question. Sometimes people call luminosity “clear light.” if you read The Tibetan Book of the Dead, you will find the term “clear light,” but that is only a symbolic expression. It refers to a tremendous sense of clarity where you see things precisely instead of having some kind of foggy mind. It is a tre­mendous sense of clarity as opposed to dullness and depression. From that point of view, it is luminous.

Luminosity is not something that exists in any dimensional sense, which is why we cannot say that mind is located anywhere. Mind is not confined to any particular spatial or temporal point. It has nothing to do with time and space. Experiences of clairvoyance, telepathy, and so on all take place because mind is not confined to a particular physical organism.

Why do you equate luminosity with intelligence?

Intelligence here has nothing to do with the con­cept of literacy, or with how good you are at mathematics or anything like that. It is intelli­gence due to the fact that you no longer get so caught up in conceptual processes. The more you go beyond conceptual processes, the more you appreciate the luminosity of mind.

A nonconceptual process, as far as I under­stand it, does not mean a complete absence of thinking. There would still be thought processes of some kind, but they would not be chaotic. They would have some kind of orderliness. Psychotics suffer from disassociation because their thoughts are all over the place. Normal people have some kind of orderliness as far as their thinking goes. And if you become a little bit more sane and enlightened—beyond the average kind of san­ity—there would be proper management of your thought processes. You would have a lot more control over the whole situation. There would be no problem as far as cognizing your experiences.

If you recognized the emptiness of mind that expe­riences luminosity, how would you see objects?

You would still see objects as solid but you would not believe in their solidity. You would not suffer from any kind of belief system, and you would no longer carry the normal kind of naive assumptions that make you see objects as solid and obtrusive. You would no longer make any distinction between how things are and how things appear. Things appear in a contradic­tory manner, but you would not disparage that because their very contradiction implies they are empty by nature. You would just see the nature of the things themselves and no longer make a distinction between essence and appearance.

Do hindrances to following the tantric path come from fear because you have not actually applied the teachings?

The greatest hindrance on the tantric path is fear of our own incompetence. You need to have ultimate conviction, and heroism of some kind. There is no danger other than that. On the tan­tric level, some kind of healthy ego and healthy arrogance is even encouraged. You need to have a sense of healthy ego and healthy arrogance, as well as some dignity and elegance in your practice and approach to life. To get cold feet when you are doing tantric practice is the great­est obstacle toward progress.

This article is from a new book of Traleg Kyabgon Rinpoche’s teachings, The Four Dharmas of Gampopa, published by KTD, 2013. Reprinted with permission.

Traleg Rinpoche

Traleg Rinpoche

The Venerable Traleg Kyabgon Rinpoche (1955–2012) was president and director of the Kagyu E-Vam Buddhist Institute in Melbourne, Australia and established the E-Vam Institute in upstate New York. He is the author of The Essence of Buddhism: An Introduction to Its Philosophy and Practice.