Lion’s Roar editor-in-chief Melvin McLeod discusses our new online learning series, “Open Heart, Vajra Mind: Profound Practices of Tibetan Buddhism.”
Our new online learning series, “Open Heart, Vajra Mind: Profound Practices of Tibetan Buddhism,” releases on Monday, June 28. (You can enroll and get lifetime access at a discount now.) Lion’s Roar editor-in-chief Melvin McLeod designed the program and, as its host, introduces its teachers—Lama Tsultrim Allione, Willa Blythe Baker, Venerable Thubten Chodron, Andrew Holecek, Pema Khandro Rinpoche, Judy Lief, and Robert A.F. Thurman. We asked him to talk about what to expect from the program and each of the eight practices it teaches.
Melvin, what are people going to get out of Open Heart, Vajra Mind?
The Tibetan tradition is known to be esoteric, to be intense, to require great commitment — and that’s true. But in this program we have eight teachers who provide us with authentic techniques drawn from the tradition that any of us, no matter where we are in our spiritual path, can practice right now.
The practices we’ll learn are not watered down in any way. They’re the real thing, accessible yet completely authentic. All the teachers in the program are especially skillful at making these very profound practices understandable to modern practitioners of all spiritual traditions. So we can jump right in and experience them right now.
Let’s talk about the traditions and practices featured in Open Heart, Vajra Mind. We’ll go in order, starting with Dzogchen, as taught by Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche.
Dzogchen is the highest teaching of the Nyingma lineage of Tibetan Buddhism. It’s renowned for its clear description of the mind’s true nature and simple, direct meditations to experience it. Dzogechen is known for its emphasis on simplicity and ease—how we can relax into the true, enlightened nature of mind. We’ll have a rare opportunity to learn to do that with Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche, who is one of the world’s leading Dzogchen teachers..
Next is Mahamudra, taught by Willa Blythe Baker.
Mahamudra means “Great Seal” because it describes the basic nature of mind that marks, or seals, all experience. In Mahamudra, mind is said to be unborn, unceasing, and all-accommodating, meaning it can hold or accommodate any phenomena.
Because mind is unborn, because it never takes any form, it is total peace. Because it is unceasing, our awareness is continuous, ever-present, and indestructible. Because it is all-accommodating. everything is really the play or energy of awakened mind—pure, blissful, and empty. To help us experience these aspects of mind, we have Willa Blythe Baker, a teacher and lineage holder in the Kagyu tradition who completed two consecutive three-year meditation retreats.
Madhyamika, as taught by Robert Thurman.
In Mahayana Buddhism, wisdom refers to the realization of emptiness, the ways things truly exist—and the ways they don’t. Emptiness can seem like just a philosophical issue or intellectual exercise, but it is at the very heart of the path to enlightenment because it cuts through the ignorance that ultimately causes our suffering.
One way we can free ourselves from our misunderstanding of reality is through analysis—looking closely to see if things really could exist the way we think they do. Tibetan Buddhism specializes in what are called the Madhyamika, or Middle Way logics, developed by ancient Indian Buddhist philosophers such as Nagarjuna and Chandrakirti. Our presenter, Professor Robert Thurman, is one of the world’s leading authorities on Madhyamika, and he guides us through our own contemplations of emptiness.
Next is Compassion meditation, led here by Pema Khandro Rinpoche.
Compassion is life’s magic ingredient. Compassion, love, kindness—these are what makes life good for ourselves, for others, for human society. Perhaps the greatest Buddhist teacher of compassion was an eighth-century Indian scholar and monk named Shantideva. His great work is called the Bodhicharyavatara, which can be translated as Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life. It gives us step-by-step instruction on how to lead a life fully informed by compassion. Shantideva is the perfect guide as scholar and teacher Pema Khandro Rinpoche leads us through compassion meditations
How about Lojong, or training the mind, taught here by Judy Lief?
How do we tie together the profound meditations taught in Tibetan Buddhism with all the challenges of our daily lives? There is a body of teachings that brings it all together. It’s called lojong, or mind training.
The lojong teachings were brought to Tibet more than a thousand years ago by the Indian adept Atisha. These methods are summarized in 59 pithy instructions, or slogans, that show us how to develop our wisdom and compassion and put them into action in our daily lives. It’s news you can use at the profoundest level—how to be a bodhisattva in 59 steps.
The practice of tonglen is the best-known of these mind-training meditations, but the slogans also cover topics ranging from the absolute nature of reality to skillfully relating to others. The slogans can be pretty cryptic, though, and we’re fortunate to have Judy Lief, who has taught extensively on lojong, unpack them for us.
“Deity Yoga: You Are Tara,” as led by Ven. Thubten Chodron is next.
It’s said that what makes Vajrayana special is its teaching that not only do we have the mind of a buddha, we also have the body of a buddha. This truth is a powerful tool for transformation, and we experience it through the practice of deity yoga.
The unique practice of visualizing ourselves in the body of an enlightened being is the best-known of all Vajrayana meditations. There are literally hundreds of deities we can visualize, each emphasizing a different aspect of enlightenment. Most of them require long preparation and initiation by an authorized master, but there are deities you and I can meditate on right now.
One of the most popular is the female buddha Tara, who represents our compassionate aspiration to rescue all beings from suffering and fear. In this course, we will be guided through a Tara practice by the Venerable Thubten Chodron, a fully-ordained Buddhist nun and author of How to Free Your Mind: The Practice of Tara the Liberator.
We turn now to Andrew Holecek’s segment, “Illusory Body: Life Is But a Dream.”
“Life is but a dream” is not just a line from an old song. It is a fundamental teaching of Buddhism. But saying that life is like a dream doesn’t mean it’s artificial or some kind of delusion. It’s actually the opposite. It’s the heaviness and solidity created by our ignorance that is the false reality. It’s the openness, lightness, and vividness of life’s dream-like quality that are real. When we see the illusory nature of ourselves and our world, we are free, playful, and full of joy.
The practice of illusory body is one of the famed Six Yogas of Naropa. This meditation makes the philosophy of emptiness taught in the Heart Sutra a vivid and immediate experience in our lives. Andrew Holocek is best-known as a teacher of dream yoga, in which we bring awareness into the illusory dream state. Here, he’ll teach us how to bring awareness into the illusory waking state.
Lastly, Chöd, or “Feeding Your Demons,” taught by Lama Tsultrim Allione.
The practice of Chod was developed in the 11th century by a woman yogini named Machik Labdron. It is a practice to cut through our self-fixation by symbolically offering ourselves to feed demons and other negative forces. In doing so, we realize these demons and obstacles are not external to us, they’re our own projections. And like all else, their true nature is wisdom.
Lama Tsultrim Allione has developed a modern version of Chod practice she calls Feeding Your Demons. In the spirit of modern psychology as well as Buddhism, this practice involves welcoming the dark parts of ourselves with loving-kindness and generosity. Then these so-called demons become our friends and allies. No longer struggling against ourselves, we become integrated and whole.