Note: In 2018, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche became the subject of a number of allegations of sexual assault and misconduct and stepped back from the community he led, Shambhala. While Lion's Roar does not endorse him as a Buddhist teacher, we understand that some may want to access his past teachings in light of recent events, and so we are continuing to make this article from our archive of past issues available for those who wish to do so.
Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche on developing the Vajrayana motivation.
Here in the West, we have the fortunate karma to be receiving the great teachings of the highest tantra, distilled from hundreds of years of experience. We are being offered some very potent principles in terms of Vajrayana Buddhism, as well as the Shambhala teachings of windhorse, confidence in our innate enlightenment. We are being invited to prepare for a journey that will take us to the top of the highest mountain. At the same time, we are like children taking advice from grown-ups. Much of it doesn’t really make sense, and we have more seemingly interesting things to do with our time. It’s as if we are being told about an incredible amount of wealth that is ours, but we are still engaging our mind in an immature and frivolous way.
In terms of our journey up the mountain, part of our responsibility is to learn the landscape of the dharma. We’re doing this in part to see where we are and who we are, but also in order to create a new culture of practice in a time of incredible materialism, aggression and fixation. It has always been more or less like this, but I think there is more claustrophobia and busyness now. Within that landscape, what we are attempting is ultimately the most difficult thing to do – attain complete and perfect buddhahood. That’s why we are practicing meditation. Holding this view by always remembering our aspiration and inspiration is a way of seeing our motivation clearly.
The Tibetan word for motivation is künlong, meaning to rise up, just like the lotus blooms out of the mud. With motivation, the mind rises up, just like the flower turning toward the sun, with a natural sense of knowing where to awaken. When the flower begins to rise out of the mud and open up, it reveals the moon disc of compassion – of enlightenment – on which Vajrasattva and other deities of visualization practice sit. That is the symbolism of the thangkas that we see: our mind is the lotus and it needs to rise up out of samsara, the circle of suffering. Through meditation we come out of samsara and move toward enlightenment.
I am encouraging my students to ask at the beginning of any practice session, “What is my motivation right now?” Perhaps we’ve had a hard day and just want to relax. That would be a very small motivation. We are just trying to cool off, like a cow standing under a tree. There is nothing wrong with it, but with that cow’s motivation – I don’t want to suffer – can we achieve perfect realization? It might take a really long time.
Through the course of our practice career – even in the course of the day’we move through different levels of motivation. Through the yana of individual liberation to the Mahayana to the Vajrayana, our motivation expands. The motivation of the path of individual liberation is based on wanting our own suffering to cease. For example, the small motivation of the path of individual liberation – or worldly motivation – would be, “After taking a shower, I am going to do meditation. Both make me feel really good.” The cause and result of such a motivation is immediate and short-term. If after I take the shower, though, I am meditating for the benefit of all sentient beings because I personally experience the reality of their suffering, then I am practicing the larger motivation of the Mahayana. Even thinking about wanting others to be happy on a relative level makes our motivation bigger than when we do spiritual practices to help ourselves feel better.
The Mahayana motivation is aspiring that our whole life and actions be that of a buddha. This motivation has a mature quality: we’ve meditated long enough to see that suffering is based on fixating on the illusion of a solid self. We begin to see how consciousness and our perceptions try to hold it all together. At some point, we see beyond holding on to the illusion of a self. From that selflessness springs forth an attitude that begins to see that the suffering of others is based on the same fixation. This naturally gives birth to bodhichitta”the enlightened mind that always regards the welfare of others’and the great motivation. Our mind naturally extends out with the motivation to help all sentient beings.
The Vajrayana Motivation
Rising up through the nine levels of realization is almost like knocking on a series of doors. Someone opens each door and asks the practitioner, “What is your motivation?” The shravaka says, “Individual liberation.” The pratyekabuddha says, “Individual liberation – but I would also like to experience a little bit of emptiness.” The bodhisattva says, “My motivation is for all sentient beings to attain perfect enlightenment.” As we go through the Vajrayana we can say, “My motivation is to awaken the wisdom that sees everything as perfect in every possible way, with nothing excluded.” As Vajrayanists, we are being asked to take this highest motivation, which incorporates all the preceding motivations.
This motivation is demanding, because it is no longer just about attaining individual liberation, although it includes that motivation; it is not just about helping other sentient beings, although it includes that motivation as well. In the Vajrayana we are taking a fruitional approach. We are saying that perfectly endowed, complete enlightenment begins with our motivation to regard everything we experience right now – and the whole world – as perfect and pristine. We call this the motivation of great purity and great equality. As Vajrayana practitioners, we are asked to develop the motivation to wake up and see ourselves and the world as we truly are.
The word “indestructible” is associated with this level of motivation. When we look at each other, we do not just see another person with all sorts of weaknesses and strengths. We see each person as having wisdom – the wisdom of individual realization and equanimity. This is the Vajrayana attitude. We could say that in taking this attitude, we are just pretending that the world is a sacred place in which phenomena appear as gods and goddesses. And we are pretending, in the sense that we are projecting our intention to see it this way. But the Vajrayana teachings are saying that, fundamentally, this great purity and great equality – in the Shambhala teachings, “basic goodness’is the ground nature of everything. The teachings are telling us that if we see it this way, we will experience great wisdom and great bliss.
In order to experience this profound wisdom, our mind needs to be subtle. It can’t be thick with negative emotions like anger, desire and pride. These emotions are like heavy clouds that keep us from seeing the sky. Our mind needs to be stable, free from distraction and discursiveness. It is not the approach of the Vajrayana to indulge in a wild mind, saying that it’s all wisdom.
Vajrayana is said to be a quick, difficult and dangerous path to enlightenment. It can be a quick path if we rely on the appropriate teacher to introduce us to the proper attitude and to give us instruction so that we don’t waste time wandering about. The difficulty is maintaining this view day and night. The danger lies in not believing or trusting the sacredness. We see it as silly at best. Then we lose respect, and engage in anger and self-indulgence.
Vajrayana Motivation and the Notion of Mandala
The Vajrayana motivation is represented by the mandala. The world is a perfect mandala. It is center and fringe. The principle deity is in the center, surrounded by the retinue, the protectors and the landscape. Everything within that display has equal value, but it is all radiating from a center. The guru is the same as the deity, the deity is the same as the retinue, and the mandala is the same as the environment, so it is all perfect in that way. There is no separation. This implies that it never strays from its original ground of understanding – innate wisdom. In Vajrayana practice, we are learning to see the world this way.
Right now, it may seem that we live on uneven terrain; we have to walk up and we have to walk down. It is very painful – hot and cold and so forth. You may ask, “Is that perfect?” Looking at it from our usual perspective – no, it’s not perfect. In fact, it’s samsara, where beings have the dualistic view of up and down, of self and other. To someone with the Vajrayana attitude, however, this is the perfect abode of the Buddha. The consciousness that is in this abode sees no separation from its environment.
The Vajrayana is called the imperial lineage, the crown jewel. This refers to the center of the mandala radiating out like the sun. In the mandala, we have the five completely, perfectly endowed qualities’the right teacher, the right teachings, the right retinue, the right time, the right place. As such, it is the body, speech, mind, noble qualities and activity of the Buddha. From beginningless time, we have never strayed from this basic ground, the complete union of purity and equality.
Two kinds of beings, you could say, look at this self-arising mandala. One sees the qualities of the ground nature, recognizing it as the body, speech, mind and action of the Buddha – and therefore ourselves. That person is seeing the absolute inseparable from the relative. The other being looks at this situation and says, “That’s a chair, that’s a table, that’s my stuff and that’s your stuff. Here is my mother and here is my father.” Through that misunderstanding’that ignorance’the second being is not able to recognize the ground nature. That sets off the series of events that eventually leads us to have consciousnesses, to have the six senses, and to once again arise in samsara.
Great purity is being able to recognize ourselves, the basis of our consciousness, and our environment, as the completely pure mandala. This is how a buddha sees things. Great equality is the notion that we have overcome duality. We’re no longer dividing the world up in terms of “mine” and “yours.” There is no conceptualization taking place; there is an equality to everything, without fixation. It is beyond pure and impure, good and bad. It is hard to go directly to this understanding.
When we create a mandala in Vajrayana practice, we are practicing this view by using what we have – conceptual mind. We are imagining ourselves as the deity’the symbol of purity and equality. Since it is difficult to understand the absolute truth directly, we have to pretend. In visualizing ourselves as Manjushri or Vajrayogini, our mind is mimicking the truth. When we’re seeing ourselves in that way, we are visualizing ourselves and the world in accordance with our true nature.
The Relationship between Motivation and Confidence
In connecting with bodhichitta, we discover that compassion and lovingkindness are always present in our mind and heart, and we cultivate confidence in that. In a similar way, Vajrayana practice is about recognizing, understanding and having confidence in wisdom. We are cultivating confidence that wisdom already exists in our mind and body. It is always intact and always perfect, no matter what state of mind we are in. When we meditate, there is a point where it actually shines out.
There is a direct relationship between motivation and confidence. Our motivation is to see that wisdom itself is in every single situation’that the causes and conditions for total enlightenment are already here. Whether it’s physical appearances like the four elements, or mental events like thoughts and emotions, if we have confidence that the true nature of our mind is wisdom, that awareness will be reflected in all phenomena. That’s the notion of great bliss.
The Vajrayana view is not a mental trick. It is self-knowing. We are talking about sacredness — how the world actually is. From the perspective of practice, this is the most direct way to enlightenment — the perfect way — because we are seeing things just as they are. There’s no intermediate step.
Before we can see wisdom directly in whatever appearances arise, however, we must know what wisdom is. That’s why we train in the path of individual liberation and the Mahayana. The more we have worked with our mind, the more motivated we are, the easier it is for us to recognize wisdom. That’s how we gain confidence in this view. Otherwise, we are always thinking that wisdom has to be stuck on us like a sticker. We think we have to get it from somewhere else, or that it is short-lived – Yes, I believe that I have wisdom, but it only comes in half-seconds.”
The directness of the Vajrayana is also its danger. If we do not understand the meaning of wisdom, and we start thinking that it’s fine to indulge kleshas”negative emotions – because it’s all wisdom, then, out of ignorance, we are just digging ourselves more deeply into samsara. We’ve taken the dharma and turned it into poison. When we’re sitting here with our own particular emotions coming up, what is the instruction of the Vajrayana teachings? It is not to abandon the true nature of our mind. It is to dwell in basic goodness, beyond concept. The instruction is to relax. Don’t tamper. Don’t manipulate. Don’t create.
We hold this view by knowing what the essence of phenomena really is’the union of appearance and emptiness, great purity and great equality. If we can hold that view, we are free from the flow of the whole situation and we will not fall into the lower realms.
As we begin to work with our mind in the Vajrayana practices, we are learning a very important skill – how to mix the flour of our mind with the water of our attitude and create the dough of enlightenment. The recipe won’t work with only the flour or only the water; the two of them have to work together. Our motivation has to permeate the whole situation. It’s a simple point that we often overlook. Then, when we are a few steps down the path, we notice that our practice isn’t working. That happens for one very simple reason – it didn’t start out the right way. We did not take the right approach. In tantra it is said that the right motivation regarding who you are, what the practice is, and what the point of doing it is, guarantees that the practice will work. With this attitude, the practice has never not worked for anybody. If it doesn’t work for us, it’s because we haven’t fulfilled one of these requirements.
When people tell me that their practice isn’t working, I find what they are saying very strange, because’working or not working’there is no practice, really. It is all created. It is all in your mind. In fact, it is all your mind. Working with ourselves – engaging with our mind – is not about depending on a situation, it is about depending on our ability to wake up. We have to want to wake up. This point is key.
As Vajrayana practitioners, we enter a different way of thinking. We try to break up our conventional view of the world and see it as it is’sacred. When we go through a period of trying to understand this practice, it’s good to ask for blessings. In supplicating Padmasambhava – who brought this tradition to Tibet in the eighth century’we aren’t praying because of a conviction of original sin, but because of the knowledge that we have purity, and that we need help to understand our nature. We need blessing and support to give us confidence to recognize it’to sit here and rest in basic goodness. Blessings are somebody telling us that we can do it.
Vajrayana is celebrating life because it is worth celebrating. We are realizing that every moment, every day, is special. Regarding life as simply something to get through obstructs this view. If things become ordinary or dull, it’s because we have forgotten who we are. We have been seduced into laziness. We’ve lost confidence in the sacredness.
Holding the Vajrayana attitude is not being manic – it is being awake. It is knowing the potential of every moment. We are buddhas with a mind of equality, which is understanding that one moment is no more sacred than the next. There are no good days or bad days in Vajrayana. It is beyond that; it is perfect. That’s why it is called great perfection.
Padmasambhava gave us vital instructions as to how Vajrayana practitioners should conduct themselves. Our mind should be as vast and open as the sky, and our actions like sesame seeds. This means that we should respect karma – accomplishing virtue and abandoning nonvirtue. In short, we should be kind to ourselves and loving towards others. This comes from the motivation of appreciating the complete sacredness of the world.
Although Padmasambhava is no longer with us in flesh and blood, he is still very much in the presence of our mindstream, because he has never departed from the ground nature. He is available to give us the best kind of help – the help of direct wisdom. He can give us the insight to recognize and penetrate thought, to understand what’s happening, to understand klesha and karma. The notion of this kind of transmission is that it helps us bridge the gap between relative and absolute, between appearances and the ground nature, which is wisdom. Wisdom comes down to knowing what’s going on. When we can see ordinary appearances as the ground nature, just like the Buddha, we wake up.