Mingyur Rinpoche explains how visualization practice helps us recognize our buddhanature.
Imagine this: What if you wake up one morning and when you look in the mirror, you don’t see “the usual you.”
What if you don’t see the grumpy you who hasn’t had coffee, the anxious you who’s worried about work, or the sensitive you that monitors the “likes” on your social media posts? What if you don’t identify with your shortcomings? What if you’re not concerned about who you are or are not? What if, instead, you see yourself as a perfectly awakened buddha, filled with wisdom and compassion? How would you meet the next moment? How would your day unfold?
This isn’t just some fantasy. From beginningless time, the essence of your body, speech, and mind has been enlightened body, speech, and mind. The problem is, you don’t know it. That’s why the path of Vajrayana Buddhism has three main practices, each devoted to recognizing the true, enlightened nature of these components of the self.
These practices are commonly known as, in order, the development stage, the completion stage, and the path of liberation. Following our overview of Vajrayana, or tantric, Buddhism in the last issue of Lion’s Roar, this article in our series focuses on the development stage of the path.
The development stage of Vajrayana helps us recognize our buddhanature, our perfect and pure inherent nature. How does it do this? By using concepts.
The conceptual mind is powerful. It does more than shape our thoughts, beliefs, and ideas; it also influences our feelings and perception.
In one way we can say the conceptual mind is like poison. The confusion we experience, especially our unhealthy sense of self, is constructed by the conceptual mind. The result? Our perception is restricted, and in turn, so is our experience of reality.
Anxiety, anger, panic, and other strong negative emotions are created by our conceptual mind.
At the same time, the conceptual mind has the power to liberate us from suffering; it can help us discover our true nature. It depends on how we’re using it—if we use it the right away, it becomes medicine; if we use it the wrong way, it becomes poison.
For the most part, we tend to focus on the negative within us. When we develop an unhealthy sense of self, we identify with a self-image that’s limited and false. We see ourselves as worthless, or filled with flaws and shortcomings. Fixation on our perceived flaws becomes a mental habit, and we see even more of them. This flawed self becomes entirely concrete and real for us.
What does development stage practice have to do with this? It loosens the hold of these beliefs and assumptions. It turns the table entirely on our self-image.
In development stage practice, we work with our mental images of ourselves and our world. In traditional terms, we call this practice of visualization “taking imagination as the path.” We relate to ourselves and our world in a way that’s less solid, less fixed, than the world as we experience it right now. We imagine a world that’s open, fluid, and closer to the true nature of how things are. This allows us to shift our “impure perception” of the world as solid and fixed to “pure perception,” in which we see things as they truly are.
Imagination has three aspects. I like to call them video, audio, and feeling. By “video,” I mean images. For instance, if I say “pizza,” your mind instantly furnishes you with a mental image of pizza. “Audio” refers to the verbal aspect, in this case, the label “pizza,” and all the thoughts that arise when you think of it, like “Maybe I should order pizza tonight.” And finally, feeling: “Mmm, I love pizza!” Taken together, these three aspects form imagination.
Imagination is universal and essential for survival. Without it, you would be unable to read these words. As you read, your mind sees the visual images of letters, then translates them into the sound of words, and then creates images in your mind.
You need imagination to do even the most basic things in life. In its absence, your mind would just be blank!
The importance of imagination has been increasingly recognized in recent times. Athletes routinely use visualization in their training. In the same way that as Vajrayana meditators we imagine ourselves to be perfectly awakened buddhas, athletes imagine themselves running the perfect race and executing their moves to perfection. Scientists have discovered that the physical brain behaves the same way regardless of whether someone is physically jogging or just imagining it. Researchers even find that it’s possible for their study subjects to grow muscle tissue merely by imagining exercising their muscles.
You can find similar examples in other areas. Therapists use imagination as a tool to heal patients with trauma, phobias, PTSD, and the like, and business leaders use the imagination to create vision statements and bold goals for the future.
In Vajrayana Buddhism, we use the imagination in a similar way, but instead of using it to perform better, we use it to get in touch with our true nature, to recognize and nurture our innate awareness, compassion, and wisdom. So, you can see why Vajrayana uses imagination as a path. It allows you to perceive your true nature, develop wisdom, and purify suffering, negativity, delusions, ego, etc. While it’s true that imagination is itself an expression of the conceptual mind, it’s one that eventually leads us beyond concepts to experience reality directly.
In Vajrayana Buddhism, we apply the power of imagination to what we call deity yoga. In Vajrayana there are countless buddhas, each representing some unique aspect of our buddhanature. For example, the deity Vajrasattva symbolizes our innate purity, while White Tara symbolizes our true nature being beyond birth and death.
As a meditator in this tradition, you choose a buddha as a support, such as Vajrasattva or White Tara, and you imagine this buddha in your mind. But this isn’t a theistic practice. You’re not worshipping this buddha. You imagine yourself to actually be this buddha. When you do this, there are three important elements to keep in mind.
One element is called “vajra pride,” or pure pride. Pride in this context means confidence: “I really am a buddha. Until now, I didn’t know that I’ve always been a buddha, but today, I’m going to recognize it—I am White Tara!”
Then you allow yourself to sense the enlightened qualities of White Tara within you—you try to feel her enlightened activity and her qualities of wisdom and compassion. You bring them to life in your own experience. You imagine that you’re seeing the world through her eyes, seeing everyone and everything through the lens of buddhanature. This isn’t just an intellectual understanding of White Tara, not just an idea. You feel her enlightened qualities alive within you, confident that you are and always have been a buddha.
The second element to bring into deity practice is symbolic meaning. In any image of a buddha, whichever one you’re choosing to use as a support, there are symbolic details. For example, imagining a buddha with two eyes represents the ability to see the nature of absolute and relative reality. Two arms represent wisdom and compassion. One head implies the oneness of samsara and nirvana. Two crossed legs connote the union of relative and absolute reality.
Often a deity is adorned with ornaments, typically six of them symbolizing the six transcendent perfections (paramitas). At times male and female deities are shown in sexual union. This isn’t meant to suggest two separate beings in a samsaric sexual act. Rather, it symbolizes one deity manifesting as two—the unity of emptiness, manifesting as the female deity, and clarity or awareness, manifesting as the male deity.
Deities can represent different energies and activities. Some are tranquil, others are gloriously vibrant and enriching. Some embody magnetizing activity, whereas others are powerful and wrathful.
The reason Vajrayana Buddhism has so many deities is that a vast array of skills and means is needed to benefit the countless sentient beings. Just as one medicine cannot cure all diseases, one deity cannot heal all the diseases of pain, suffering, and samsaric problems of infinite beings.
The third element of deity practice is clear appearance. “Clear” means that you’re trying to picture—clearly and in detail—all those heads, arms, legs, and so on. At the same time, it’s important to remember that the deity isn’t real. It’s empty, like the moon’s reflection in a lake.
Finally, remember that visualization is your creation. It’s your imagination! For the “video” part of our imagination, we have images of deities, like the mental picture that came to mind when I used the word “pizza.” For the “audio,” or verbal aspect, we have the symbolic meanings behind the representation, such as the three eyes and six ornaments. For the “feeling” aspect of imagination, we feel the living presence of enlightenment.
Combining video, audio, and feeling is a very good way to practice, but feeling is the most crucial aspect. Don’t worry if, in the beginning, you aren’t able to readily visualize the deities or buddha. The real key is feeling the presence and qualities of enlightenment.
To recap, the development stage has three main elements. Clear appearance means trying to clearly imagine yourself in the form of the deity. The symbolic meaning gets at the significance of the imagery: What are the enlightened qualities these symbols are meant to represent? Most importantly, vajra pride, or pure pride, involves feeling the immediate presence of enlightenment. The movement here is from the intellectual level, to the feeling level, and then to the perception level in which you experience yourself as a buddha and the world as enlightened. At that point you’re beginning to free yourself from the suffering of samsara.
I’ll give you an example of how this can play out. Let’s say you’re going to use the buddha of compassion, Four-Armed Chenrezig (Avalokiteshvara in Sanskrit), as a support. Picture yourself as Chenrezig. Imagine yourself clearly with four arms, each representing one of the four immeasurables—love, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity. Then think, “This enlightened buddha and I are the same. We are equal, but I haven’t known that from beginningless time. But today, finally, I know. I’m a buddha. I have these enlightened qualities. How wonderful!”
We can practice in formal meditation, but also during our day. Perhaps you find yourself on the verge of a conflict with your partner or colleague. In those moments you can remind yourself, “I am a buddha. The true nature of this anger is mirror-like wisdom, and my partner is also a buddha. All is open and radiant, like a dream or the moon’s reflection in a lake.” If you see yourself, the other person, and your own emotions through the lens of buddhanature, the anger will transform into wisdom and lose its destructive power. That can also happen with other strong emotions you experience in the course of your day.
In the beginning it may feel awkward to imagine yourself as a buddha. Yes, it’s unfamiliar, but imagining ourselves in this way is actually closer to the way things truly are than the way we normally see ourselves. You might recall that the visualization is based on the fact that we’re naturally pure, so what we imagine isn’t fake. It’s just unfamiliar to us. There’s truth to what we’re imagining! And deep down we know it.
We’re like a diamond covered with mud. In our normal state, all we can see is the dirt. This can become such a deeply ingrained habit that we may completely forget that there’s a diamond there at all. All we see, and all we know, is the mud. But the mud isn’t part of the diamond; it can be washed away. Regardless of the mud, the true nature of the diamond is brilliant purity, just as the brilliant clarity of our awareness and the radiant warmth of our innate compassion is who we truly are, whether we realize it or not.
By envisioning yourself as a buddha, you’re fundamentally shifting your image of who you are. You’re seeing what is already pure within you. You’re not the small, imperfect being you thought you were. You’re a buddha with enlightened body, speech, and mind,
With this new vision of yourself, how will you relate to others? How will you speak to them? How will you view them? Can you see their basic goodness amidst conflict? When you develop a new habit of seeing yourself in this way, you purify your negativities. You’re not doing this by getting rid of the parts of yourself you don’t like. You’re doing this by seeing the purity of every aspect of yourself, warts and all. You’ll get in touch with your innate awareness, compassion, and wisdom and learn to see these qualities in everyone you meet. What a gift, to yourself and to the world!