The Journey to Where We Already Are

According to Francesca Fremantle, Buddhist tantra is based on the simple proposition that we’re already where we need to be. We simply need to allow ourselves to truly realize it.

By Francesca Fremantle

Primordial Dot, by Yeachin Tsai

I will begin with a warning: these words are lies. As it says in the Guhyasamaja Tantra, one of the earliest Buddhist tantras, you have to lie to talk about the dharma. Anything you say is a lie, because the dharma cannot be expressed in words. You can’t even think about it, let alone formulate the words and concepts in your mind. You have to trust that there is something beyond that. And the more experience you have of practice, and particularly, the more you practice formless meditation, the more you will learn to have confidence in the truth, which can’t be put into words.

Of course, the Buddha himself was faced with this quandary after his enlightenment. He wasn’t going to teach at all. It is said the representatives of gods and men came to him and begged him to teach, and he took quite a long time to be persuaded, because he knew that he wouldn’t be able to express the reality of what he had realized. He knew that it would be misunderstood. That is inevitable. It’s absolutely wonderful that the dharma does come to us, somehow or other. It comes to us from space.

Space is a fundamental principle in the whole of Buddhism, but it is particularly beautifully developed and expressed in tantra. My teacher, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, often spoke of space as the environment in which birth and death take place—the fundamental basis of everything. Like all Buddhist concepts, space is not a theory or image. It is a lived experience. It’s a feeling, an actual experience. Sometimes you can use images of physical space to try to provoke this experience. When we breathe out, our breath goes out. You can imagine going as far as you can possibly think, out into the universe, out into limitless space. And yet the space that is described in dharma is far beyond that. It is the absolute experience of complete openness, complete spaciousness. Which is as much within us as it is all around us. It has no boundaries. It has no location. It has no dimensions. And we can definitely experience this in meditation.

One of the main symbols of tantra is the sound AH. You can say AH, either out loud, or to yourself, and completely relax. First relax your body with that AH. And then AH—let go of all the tension and all the clutter in your mind. AH is the symbol of space, the origin of everything. Everything arises from space. If everything were not space, nothing could appear. Nothing could exist.

Trungpa Rinpoche also said everything exists only because it does not exist. Everything appears out of spaciousness. Another word for spaciousness is shunyata, emptiness. But emptiness might seem a bit negative. Spaciousness expresses the idea it could also be full. It’s full of potentiality. Even potentiality could be misunderstood. It simply accommodates absolutely everything. But this everything does not cause any obstruction. Another word for space is unobstructed. Transparent is another tantric word. Everything can be seen through. And yet everything is as real and vivid as a very vivid rainbow. Nothing gets in the way of anything else. Everything can appear simultaneously.

Spontaneous Experience

The whole of space exists in one bindu, one dot, which is not even a dot. It has no dimensions at all. And this contains the whole of existence, the whole of space. And it also contains the whole of time: past, present, and future—in one moment. And we can’t even call that moment the present, because the present is not a thing. It was there a second ago. Now it’s gone. You can never, ever catch the present. So, in tantra it’s called nowness, which goes beyond past, present, and future. The ever-moving moment of the present. The past which we think has happened. The future which we imagine will happen. It’s all simultaneously in nowness.

It’s possible to experience this bindu of all space and all time in meditation. It’s equally possible for it to occur spontaneously at any moment. I think it’s particularly made possible in the presence of great art. But that’s not necessary. It can just happen when you’re walking down the street. Some people think they need to go out into the countryside to experience this. But it can happen in a crowded tube train, can happen when you’re cooking, doing the washing up, anything, whatever.

The more one practices meditation, though, the more opportunity there is for these spontaneous experiences to arise. This space is called the ground of being. It is an experience that we all can have, and which is really the purpose of meditation. But you can also see it as the story of the whole universe. When we talk about how the universe came into being; how the six realms of beings developed; why we’re here at all as human beings on this earth—we’re talking about the same thing, our own minds, our own day-to-day experience.

There’s a wonderful text called the “Aspiration Prayer of Samantabhadra,” which expresses this in a very poetic way. It starts off saying the ground of being is one, but it contains two paths, leading to two results: awareness and unawareness, knowing and unknowing, in Tibetan rigpa and marigpa, in Sanskrit vidya and avidya.

The ground of being is just the same thing as our own mind. It contains every possibility of existence within it, and it is always one. The Aspiration Prayer goes on to say that even the names of samsara and nirvana do not exist within this ground. There is no distinction between samsara and nirvana. No distinction between confusion and awakening. There is simply this one ground of being and from it everything arises as a display, like fireworks against a dark sky. Or we could say like the northern lights against the sky. And this is simply things as they are—what is. This can be experienced because the state of spaciousness and emptiness, which is the ground of being, is inseparable from what is sometimes called luminosity, sometimes called knowing. It’s the quality of knowing.

Play and Display

The quality of knowing goes together with the quality of the appearance of whatever is known. It’s the same as the Heart Sutra saying “Form is emptiness, and emptiness is also form.” You cannot have emptiness that does not manifest as form, and you could not have form if its essence were not emptiness. So, the emptiness here is this ground of being, the space, the living space, the dynamic space, which is continually, spontaneously manifesting as all possible appearances, including us.

The fact that there are appearances, or the display—I like the word display because we have this nice correspondence between play and display, which you don’t have in the traditional Buddhist languages—means there is knowing, but without ego. It is knowing without any kind of possessiveness involved, without making a division into what is me and what is not me, what is inside, what is outside. It is nondual knowing.

We do have these experiences in everyday life. It can happen just suddenly: you look at something, look at a blue sky, and you’re absolutely one with it. You listen to a piece of music and you are completely one with it. You have fun with someone you love very much, and you suddenly become completely at home with that person, and it is beyond thought. We all have had these experiences. We all recognize that there are moments that are beyond our normal, everyday experience. And in fact, we couldn’t live in that experience continuously. It would be impossible to go about one’s daily life: going to work, doing things around the house, eating, cooking, catching the tube, and so on.

We have to live as normal, dualistic beings most of the time. And at the same time, we can recognize that this nondual experience, this experience of total oneness with the universe around us, with other people, with everything that exists, is basic to our nature and never goes away. We are living on different levels at the same time. One of the great benefits of meditation is to help keep us in touch with that nondual aspect of our being, the awakened aspect.

Going Nowhere, Joyfully

As the Samantabhadra Aspiration goes on to say, what it means to be a buddha, to be Samantabhadra, is never to move from the awareness of that ground of being, whereas sentient beings have somehow moved away from that awareness and have entered an illusion, or a dream, or a play, of being in one of the six realms. Having inhabited a realm—in our case, the human realm—gradually we become totally convinced that that is what we are. We’ve lost touch with the ground of being, which is always our basic nature.

What is unique about tantra is that it really emphasizes this basic buddhanature. Although this is present in other Mahayana traditions, they also present many methods of trying to get back to it, which makes it seem like we’re not already there, like we have to make a journey. We have to do something. We have to change ourselves. Tantra says no, you are already that. You don’t have to go anywhere. You don’t have to do anything. But of course, we have to know how to interpret those instructions.

As Trungpa Rinpoche put it, we are always adding to confusion when we try to do something. It’s always adding to our confusion, taking us away from buddha­nature, hiding buddhanature from us. To get back to buddhanature is really to do nothing.

If we can relax into the recognition of the basic ground of oneness, duality can exist within that—without any problem.

Why do we find ourselves in this situation? One version of how that’s happened is that the one awareness, knowingness, the way the buddhanature experiences whatever arises…suddenly became aware of this vast display happening all around it, and it became frightened. A basic split occurs. As it becomes aware of itself as something separate from that fundamental fear, that begins the long journey toward the development of greed, hatred, desire, and so on. And that leads to taking birth in one of the six realms. The fundamental buddha awareness, however, simply experiences everything that happens and immediately lets it go. That’s the trick. It is to experience and immediately let go. And the display is continuous all the time. It’s a continuous experiencing and letting go.

William Blake talked about this in a lovely verse:

He who binds to himself a joy
Does the winged life destroy;
But he who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in eternity’s sunrise.

What do we usually do when we experience any sort of joy?

We grasp it and cling to it. We keep it and don’t let it go. That’s the way to destroy it. “Kisses the joy as it flies”: That may sound like you’re not going to enjoy it. But that’s not the case, in fact, because that joy is continually arising—eternity’s sunrise, it never ends. The sun of that bliss and that joy is just continually arising, with no end. As soon as we let it go, we are renewed again and again and again.

The basic split of ego arises from a fundamental twist in a tiny bit of the vast display—the urge to grasp onto our experience, to grasp onto a feeling:

“I am experiencing that.”
“I am different from that.”

And then it develops into:

“I like this experience.”
“I want more of it.”
“I don’t like that.”
“I want to push it away.”
“I want to destroy it.”

And so, the whole thing gets bigger and bigger, and we end up finding ourselves in the position we’re in now. And that is what is meant by birth. This birth of what seems like an individual mind in one of the six realms takes place constantly. At the same time that there is birth, everything is dissolving. The wonderful display all around us is arising and dissolving all the time.

Birth, death, and the gap in between—which is called bardo in Tibetan—are continually happening within our stream of awareness. That isn’t happening outside somewhere. It isn’t something that happened long ago. It’s something that is happening within our minds, right now. Or we could say within mind itself, right now.

If we can relax into the recognition of the basic ground of oneness, duality can exist within that—without any problem.

What does it mean to say “my mind”?

We all think we have our own individual minds. In meditation, you can begin to question this. First you can begin to wonder, where is mind? Is it something inside my brain? Is it throughout my body? Then you can begin to feel, it’s outside of me as well. You breathe out and you feel your whole awareness going out into space all around you. There’s no end to it. And slowly you begin to get a feeling of mind itself, which is not necessarily “my mind.”

Nondual Duality

The dissolution that is constantly happening within us, in certain circumstances becomes much more visible. If we receive a shock of some kind—some bad news, if we feel ill and we’re suddenly really worried, all kinds of things—we become aware of this sense of impending dissolution, of everything that we know, that actually our life is not firm and secure as we normally think it is. Anything could happen at any moment. We might go mad at any moment. We might lose our mind. We might lose our physical faculties. We might actually die. All sorts of unexpected things might happen to us. Waking up from a dream sometimes, you can feel a sense of complete disorientation, perhaps not knowing where you are. Sometimes it can be really frightening—just for a moment. And then suddenly the ordinary world reasserts itself.

These death experiences are actually happening to us all the time. As Trungpa Rinpoche writes in his commentary on The Tibetan Book of the Dead:

…the experience of uncertainty about whether one is actually going to die, in the sense of losing contact with the solid world…. This uncertainty is not necessarily seen in terms of leaving the body, but purely in terms of losing one’s ground; the possibility of losing touch with the real world, into an unreal world. We could say that the real world is that in which we experience pleasure and pain, good and bad. There is some act of intelligence that provides the criteria of things as they are, a basic dualistic notion.

In some sense, ego is really intelligent. We can see this in how much effort and creativity we put into continually keeping our sense of separateness going, whereas relaxing is the most natural thing. But to us it’s a huge effort to relax into meditation, to relax into nonduality. Our intelligence is really working overtime to keep us feeling we are individual sentient beings.

However, as Trungpa Rinpoche goes on to say:

…if we are completely in touch with these dualistic feelings, that absolute experience of duality is itself the experience of nonduality. Then there is no problem at all, because duality is seen from a perfectly open and clear point of view in which there is no conflict. Conflict arises because duality is not seen as it is at all. It is seen only in a biased way, a very clumsy way.

This is the situation where we’ve lost touch with the nondual aspect of things. So, very clumsily, we only believe in this and that, “I” and “not I,” subject and object, in a very crude and clumsy way. If we can relax into the recognition of the basic ground of oneness, duality can exist within that without any problem.

These experiences of birth and death are descriptions of a lot of our daily life experiences, an uncertain, confused state in which there is a lot of fear. We’ve forgotten our connection with our true nature. Two big themes in tantra are these two contrasting ways of being: the dualistic way, which is the six realms of existence, which we circle through all the time; and on the other hand, the awakened way of being, which is the realm of the five buddhas, the five tathagatas.

What does it mean to talk about five tathagatas? The awakened way of being is beyond concepts, as we know. We really can’t get our minds, our ordinary conceptual minds around this picture of vast, open wakefulness that contains all qualities. So simply in order to be able to think about it, or talk about it, or have any idea of it at all, we have to divide things up, rather like splitting white light with a prism, which gives us the separate colors of the rainbow. These divisions are not ultimately real.

They’re all simply different aspects of the white light. The qualities of open wakefulness never move from the ground of our being. In order to describe what the awakened nature could be, we focus on qualities that we can relate to, such as wisdom, compassion, power, effective action, and so on.

So, the texts use the idea of one all-knowing buddha awareness, split into five different qualities of awareness, which we can look at and think about, and identify in ourselves and other people. That’s the most important thing. It sounds like these buddhas are beings that are superior to us, but they are really our own qualities.

Our own innate buddhanature is in no way separate from the image of Samantabhadra, whose name means “all good,” “complete goodness,” which represents the complete buddhanature. Samantabhadra is simply a name that we give to everything that we could possibly imagine as ultimately good. And Samantabhadra manifests all around us and in our own lives continuously.

Francesca Fremantle

Francesca Fremantle received her doctorate from the School of Oriental and African Studies at London University. She is a Buddhist teacher, scholar, and translator of Sanskrit and Tibetan works and was a student of Chögyam Trungpa starting in the late 1960s. Together with Trungpa Rinpoche, she translated The Tibetan Book of the Dead. She is also the author of Luminous Emptiness: Understanding the Tibetan Book of the Dead. She lives in London, England.