Zen Mind, Vajra Mind

The late Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche described Suzuki Roshi as his “accidental father” in America, and through their close friendship he gained great respect for the Zen tradition. In this talk, Chögyam Trungpa looks at the basic differences between Zen and tantra.

Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche
14 February 2017
Broken bowl photo. Zen, tantra, vajrayana.
Breaking the cup—the discovery of shunyata—is no doubt the highest cardinal truth and the highest realization that has ever been known in the realm of buddhadharma. Photo by David Gabriel Fischer.

If we begin to discuss the two approaches of Zen and tantra, we will be lost. If we take a glimpse at their conclusions, we might have something more concrete. The reason is that all of us are more or less thoroughly involved in, or at least interested in, the practice of meditation.

At this stage in the Buddhist development of America, both Zen and tantra have become extraordinarily seductive. In comparing the two, we are not talking about competition between them or which is best. Instead, we are looking at the landmarks that have developed in the Zen tradition, as well as the landmarks of the tantric tradition. Although we are mainly talking about different landmarks, we still cannot dismiss the gradual, linear process in which the teachings were presented by the Buddha. We cannot dismiss the turning of the dharma wheel of the sutra teachings of the path of individual liberation and Mahayana and of the teachings of both the lower and higher tantras. We still have to go through that linear approach.

First comes Zen. In the Zen tradition, the basis of life or the basis of discipline is accuracy. To a certain extent, it is the accuracy of black and white. In the Zen tradition there is no gray, nor is there yellow, red, green, or blue; it is black and white. That is the paramita of meditation. The very nature of black and white brings a student of Zen into a highly disciplined place, without any escape. A practitioner of Zen or Chan has been cornered by the choicelessness and also cornered by the lack of entertainment. So we could say that Zen is a practitioner’s lineage, and a Zen student is a traditional practitioner in the Mahayana school of discipline, the highest one of all.

Another branch of the Mahayana school, which developed in Tibet, can be seen in the Gelukpa tradition. In India, the Nalanda and Vikramashila universities developed a school of logic in which instead of doing pure sitting practice, you practice sharpening your intellect. This demands that the basic sophistication of intelligence is raised up to the highest point, as much as one can, to the point of limitlessness. At that point, ordinary logical conclusions and logical debates become meaningless, and one develops higher thinking, the epitome of the highest way of relating with the reasoning mind.

In the Zen tradition, it seems that the whole approach is intuitive. The student’s mind is put into situations of practice and the simplicity of discipline so that the student does not have a chance to use his or her intellect or logical mind at all. The only use of logical mind a student could develop is the choice at the beginning to go to such and such a temple and study under such and such a master. That is the student’s only intellectual choice, and that choice may be tinged with emotionalism and intuitive feelings toward Buddhism and committing oneself to it. But beyond that, once a student has entered into Zen discipline, there is no place for intellect. It is simple and direct. For example, if you are composing your own verses about the dharma, the master catches you if the slightest intellectualization comes up. Such intellectualization is cut down and swept away along with the dust on the meditation hall floor.

A dichotomy arises at this point, in that Zen logic is constantly engrossed with relative reference points. We could almost say that if a person doesn’t have any relative reference to the world, it is impossible for that person to understand Zen.

“If, as it has been said, prajna is neither big nor small, then what?”

“Since it has been said that prajna is neither big nor small, then I don’t know.”

“That’s it! You don’t know.”

Not knowing prajna, you are confronted with the choice of whether you should associate yourself with prajna as large or small. But you have lost your choice because you have no hold on either of them and you are bewildered. At that point, in the middle of bewilderment, a very refreshing glimpse of a gap begins to appear in your state of mind. You caught something—or you missed it.

The nature of prajna starts with bewilderment.

Ironically, the Zen tradition is largely based on dichotomies and paradoxes of all kinds, but those paradoxes are more about feeling rather than purely about logic. It’s like ordering a meal in a restaurant. Most people don’t think in terms of the chemical interaction between certain foods or the combinations that would bring health, happiness, and pleasure; they order food according to what they desire. You choose based on what you intuitively desire or need; you lack something and you want to fulfill it. You may desire a particular dish that sounds tasty, but then another dish also sounds tasty. So how do you choose between the two? You don’t know. Then somebody gives you a dish. They push it onto your table and say, “Take it and eat it.” You are handed this plateful and you have no idea what it is. That was the choice: a choice was made because of your uncertainty. You were confused by the two simultaneous extremes and now you have no idea what it is. In the same way that you have no idea what it is, because of bewilderment and confusion, as well as prajna, Zen students are extraordinarily receptive and open.

From that point of view, Zen could be said to be the biggest joke that has ever been played in the spiritual realm. But it is a practical joke, very practical. However, there is a difference between a joke and a trick. One of the problems that we in America have ended up with is that when people try to be “Zennie,” they do that by being tricky. A lot of seeming charlatans have managed to get away with that. Not only do they get away with it themselves, but they also impose their egohood onto others. Their trickiness undermines others’ openness, and the whole thing feels so extremely awesome and reverent, so solid and solemn. In the name of Zen in this country, a lot of people were misled. We should pray for them—if they still survive.

One of the most important and powerful principles, the utmost essence of Zen, is the principle of prajna. Prajna is a state of mind in which we have complete clarity, complete certainty. Such an experience is very rare, but at the same time very precise and penetrating. It can only occur in our state of mind, say, once in a hundred moments. The nature of prajna starts with bewilderment. It is as if we were entering a school to study a certain discipline with great, wise, learned people. The first self-conscious awareness we would have is a sense of our own ignorance, of how we feel extraordinarily stupid, clumsy, and dumb. At the same time, we begin to get wind of the knowledge; otherwise, we would have no reference point to experience ourselves being dumb.

The first glimpse of prajna is like that. There is a sense of confusion, stupidity, and utter chaos, in that you have no systematic way of organizing your mind or your intelligence. You are all over the place, and you feel that your existence is a big heap of apology. The minute you walk into such a learned circle of great teachers—of art, or science, or whatever else—your footsteps sound louder and louder and louder, and your shadow becomes thicker and thicker, as if you had a gigantic body. You feel so clumsy entering into such a circle. You begin to smell your own perspiration, and you feel big and clumsy and in the way. Your whole being, trying to communicate with such teachers, is a gigantic attempt to apologize that you exist. Strangely enough, that is the wind of prajna. Knowing one’s own stupidity is the first glimpse of prajna, very much so.

The interesting point, however, is that we cannot consistently be stupid. Our stupidity is not all that well fortified. There are certain gaps in which we forget that we are stupid, that we are completely bewildered. Those glimpses, those gaps where we have some room, that is prajna. This is demonstrated very beautifully in the Zen tradition of monastic discipline. In Zen training periods, from morning to evening every activity has been planned and taught. In the morning you are dealing with sitting practice, at mealtimes you are dealing with oryoki—how to eat food, how to unfold your napkins. Then there are walking practices and there is also study period, cooking duty, and cleaning duty. Even when you are sleeping, you may be sleeping in the temple or in the meditation hall, on duty.

Whatever duty you are assigned, all of them are a challenge and a mockery. They are making a mockery of you, making you feel completely bored and extraordinarily inadequate. The more you become associated with learned people, the more self-conscious you become. It is extraordinary discipline, and it is an extraordinary, extraordinary joke—but it’s not a trick. Such a big joke is being played on you that you find that the environment around you, where you practice, has no room for anything else. Occasionally, you indulge in your confusion. That’s the only break you have—indulging in your confusion and bewilderment. Strangely enough, such discipline works, and prajna gradually grows.

In Zen discipline, you can sleep for only four hours a night, and the rest of the time you spend sitting, working, or doing something. Getting into such definite, real discipline in the fullest sense provides you with enormous boredom and enormous uncertainty. At a certain point, you find that you are so tired and sleepy that the boundary between the day and night begins to dissolve. You are uncertain as to whether you are awake and functioning in the daylight as a normal, ordinary human being or whether you are dreaming the whole thing. That is prajna all-pervading. When the boundaries begin to become fuzzy, that’s where prajna is taking hold of you.

Zen discipline is fantastic and extraordinary. Such an approach is obviously not the dream of one person, or one person’s idea; it has been developed throughout generations. The drowsiness and sleepiness and confusion and extreme heavy-handed disciplines you go through bring out the underlying light and clarity within your being. It’s not particularly exciting or beautiful at all; it’s a big drag. Your clumsiness and your laziness and every worst thing you could ever think of is being brought up. A big joke is being played on you, and at the same time, there is constantly room for prajna.

The only thing that keeps you in such a setup is your romantic notion toward the practice and discipline—your heroic approach to the path. Then there is the secret that only you know, or maybe only you and your teacher know, which is that a very secret and subtle love affair is taking place. You want to go on, and you are getting something out of this. That is prajna, that you are getting something out of this. It is very smart and very businesslike. Halfway through, you wake up in the morning and you see the morning star. You say, “Ah, it’s morning; that’s the morning star,” then you fall back to sleep. Seeing the morning star is a glimpse of prajna. But you’re still too lazy to write down, “I saw the morning star when I woke up in the morning.” You think, “Never mind about that.”

The prajna that the Zen people talk about is trying to catch yourself halfway through. It’s almost a kind of subtle double take. You are just about to be confused, then you—Ahhhh! [Trungpa Rinpoche draws in a breath] Something happens! Then you go on confusing. But then, something else comes up. There is a little jerk taking place constantly. There are little glimpses, little crumbs of light-handedness in the midst of the enormous black robes, black zafus, and the black heavy-handed environment that goes on in Zen.

It’s very interesting to see that the way in which Zen people seek prajna is extraordinarily precise. We could say that it is much more accurate than those logicians in Nalanda or Vikramashila. Zen has a more organic, more definite, more direct way of approaching the underlying glimpse of prajna. In Zen, prajna is only a gap; there is no chance to redefine prajna in any way at all. Prajna simply means, “transcendental knowledge.” Pra is “transcendent,” or “supreme”; jna means “knowledge.” So prajna is the wisdom of knowing; it is to know who you are and what you are.

One of the problems with such an approach and experience is that however much you talk about the sameness between samsara and nirvana, between that and this, between prajna and non-prajna, still you are subject to choice. Although you say, “Not here, not there, it’s everywhere,” you are still going from here to there. There is the awareness that you are making a particular journey, and that journey is going to lead you through a certain process. You have no chance to speculate more than that, because you are hassled by your schedule, your practices, and your mindfulness of details, which cuts down unnecessary bullshit, you might call it.

We could say that the Zen approach is a beginner’s point of view—like a Heath Robinson illustration of a pancake machine—of how to produce prajna in an ordinary person who is confused but still inspired. Latching onto that process is based on a combination of a Mahayana spirit and the discipline of the yana of individual liberation. That seems to be one of the basic points of the Zen tradition of Japan, as much as we know. There also seems to be a faint emphasis on goodness, being good. A notion of being morally pure and kind and precise goes along with it always. Processes such as recycling your food or eating your meal completely and cleaning your plate are very general examples of the Mahayanist attitude of not polluting the universe. Bodhisattvas should not become a nuisance to other sentient beings; moreover, you should save them.

Precision and Vastness

Tantra is generally referred to as the vehicle that provides instant enlightenment. Its means and its method are the various meditative practices and techniques. Here again, we can only see or relate to these techniques and methods as landmarks. We are discussing tantric experience rather than tricks, such as the notion that merely by applying certain applications we are going to attain enlightenment.

The idea of “not two” is an important principle in tantric Buddhism. It is “not two,” but “not two” does not only mean “be one.” If you do not have two, you also do not have one. It is just “no,” rather than even “not.”

So the highlights, and what are related to the highlights, provide the most important understanding of tantra. As a typical example, there is a tantric expression: one taste, or one value. The notion of one taste has the sense of being here now and relating with what is there. In other words, being more aware of the landmarks of your life, rather than regarding all things as schooling, purely an educational system you are going through.

We could compare tantra with what we discussed previously about the Zen tradition—that Zen deliberately tries to provide chances to understand prajna, to realize prajna, and to develop the prajna principle within you through the application of certain physical disciplines. The Zen approach of trying to be here now seems to be slightly different from the tantric approach. In the Zen tradition, being here now is still relating with a journey or a process. Keeping to a certain schedule provides a fixed attitude to life—almost to the point of acknowledging yesterday, today, and tomorrow, rather than purely acknowledging today, or being in today. As another example, you clean your house or you clean your kitchen in a Zen way. Obviously, there is a sense of intelligence that tells the cleaner, or student, that it is going to be clean at the end, that you are going to produce an immaculate Zen kitchen. That is already understood. But still, the notion of journey and perfection provide less sense of one-valueness.

In the tantric tradition, the experience of life is regarded as an endless ocean, a limitless sky, or it is regarded as just one dot, one situation. Therefore, the idea of “not two,” or the advaita principle, is an important principle in tantric Buddhism. It is “not two,” but “not two” does not only mean “be one.” If you do not have two, you also do not have one. It is just “no,” rather than even “not.” So nothing is left behind to provide a source of reference point, or a source of meditative indulgence, or for that matter, a source of disappointment, at all. It is one value, which means no value.

The epitome of shunyata is only expressed in the Vajrayana teachings, we could quite safely say. In the teachings of the path of individual liberation or the Mahayana, we have seen only a partial glimpse of the shunyata principle. The reason this is so is because here there is the acquisition of a hammer to break the cup. Breaking the cup—the discovery of shunyata—is no doubt the highest cardinal truth and the highest realization that has ever been known in the realm of buddhadharma. But in order to realize this, one has to acquire a hammer, which has been sold in the form of intellect, or in the form of books, or in the form of practices. However, the hammer itself begins to be regarded as more valuable than its function of breaking the cup: it has been decorated with sacred symbols and with sutras written all over it. That is what is called the realization of shunyata as “not” rather than “no,” because the hammer has to demonstrate the mortality of the cup by hitting it and breaking it to pieces.

There seem to be differences in the landmarks of tantra and Zen. Nowness is the landmark in the tantric tradition; in the Zen tradition, basic form or formlessness is the landmark.

Although it seems to be the same, in the tantric tradition, which is the tradition of a warrior without a sword, one does not need a hammer. One does not have to acquire a pair of eyeglasses or a powerful microscope to examine the dharmas. One uses one-value eyes, one-value mind, one-value bare hands to show the mortality of the cup. It is a very brutal approach, I suppose you could say, a very direct approach.

Vajrayana has often been regarded as the yana, or vehicle, of means, and people have taken that as literal; but that’s not quite right. In Vajrayana terms, the idea of upaya as “means,” or “skillful means,” is entirely different from how means and methods traditionally are described. Here, the method or means is itself Vajrayana. They are not a way, even, or a particular style; the method and means are the same as the actual realization itself! In other words, generally there is a feeling or attitude that when we talk about method, it refers to the way that one travels from A to B, which is quite different from the tantric approach. And because of perceiving skillful means in that way, as a way to take a journey from A to B, the journey ceases to become the goal.

Of course, we could say that in the Mahayana and the path of individual liberation there is also the notion of path as goal and goal as path: cutting down ambition, speed, aggression, passion, and so forth. But there is a certain faint attitude in reference toward the path you trod on, an attitude that it should show a definite footprint after you have left, so that you could look back and appreciate how you trod on the path. That creates an inspiring example for your fellow students. It is like going on vacation and taking snapshots so we could bring them back home and show them around and say we actually did go, and we did enjoy ourselves.

Tantric upaya, or skillful means, has the distinctive characteristic of approaching things very directly, very precisely and thoroughly, without even recording them in our memory bank. Such recording has been the problem. When we record things in our memory bank, we try to remember them again. We dig them out of our treasury or attic, where we store our junk, and we find them currently valuable, useful, and informative. But this usefulness and these skills we apply create what are called “habit-forming thoughts,” and these habitual thoughts tend to create a clouding-over effect to clarity.

In contrast, tantric methods or means do not develop habit patterns at all. Patience and diligence in the tantric tradition mean simply patience and diligence on the spot, rather than trying to train our memory bank and our habitual patterns, as if we were training an animal or toilet training a baby. In fact, a major difference between the teachings of the path of individual liberation and the Mahayana and tantra is this: that the principle of the Mahamudra experience—seeing clearly and precisely the function and energies of the universe as it is—has nothing to do with memorizing or recapturing anything.

If you have read The Life and Teachings of Naropa, you probably remember the story of the prajna principle of intelligence in the form of an ugly woman who approached Naropa and asked him to admit that he did not know the sense but only the words. Well, he obviously did know the sense behind the words; otherwise, he couldn’t know the words. Unless you are magnetic tape or something, as long as you have a brain, you would know the meaning behind the words. But in that story, the sense being referred to is the direct sense. That direct sense does not need and is not dependent upon any causal characteristics that provide memory, on any mental habit, on anything at all! It is the direct sense, the fresh one, the straight one. So it seems that the purpose of tantra is to destroy the habitual memory bank, so you could see precisely and clearly, without any distortion.

The spontaneity that develops from the tantric tradition and the sense of respect for the guru are immediate experience, rather than parental memory or habit-formed memory. Although spontaneity and frivolousness may seem to be quite close, they are entirely different. Frivolousness is a panicked form of spontaneity, in which you look for some immediate occupation in order to save yourself from egohood and the neurotic pains that you experience. In other words, it is saving face. In order to maintain yourself in a certain way and still survive, you keep latching on to occupation after occupation and responsibility after responsibility. Although you may not actually have that responsibility, having the title of responsibility creates enormous security. You make yourself available, useful and efficient, compulsive.

Vajrayana sounds much closer to the confused mind of egohood, if you haven’t gone through the journey. That is why it is regarded as very dangerous.

The spontaneity of the true nature is based on having a notion of being and a notion of nowness. There’s no need for panic. Everything is clear and precise, and you are acting upon it, depending on what the situation demands. In doing so, one may take different approaches; sometimes one has to be tough and sometimes one has to be gentle, but that is dictated by the situation, which is seen very clearly. Again, there is no goal orientation at all, other than what is required at that very moment. Whenever there is goal orientation, there are possibilities that spontaneity could turn into frivolity.

Such spontaneity seems to be the style of Vajrayana practitioners’ approach to life. Sometimes you might think that Vajrayana practitioners are extremely accurate and intuitive, and sometimes their style may be dangerous and explosive, or potentially explosive.

There seem to be differences in the landmarks of tantra and Zen. Nowness is the landmark in the tantric tradition; in the Zen tradition, basic form or formlessness is the landmark. That does not mean that the fundamental tradition of Zen depends purely on an external shell or color or mask. But still, as much as we might say there’s no Buddha, there’s no Zen, there’s no zazen, there’s no gong, and there’s no zafu—we are still talking the language of form. That is not regarded as undesirable or desirable, particularly, but that’s how it goes, so to speak; that is how it is presented.

In the Vajrayana teachings, the question of “Is there something or isn’t there something?” is not particularly the big issue. If there is something, okay, let it be; if there isn’t, okay, fine—but it is this. That is why the tantric tradition is regarded as most dangerous of all; those who still have some sense of existence and who are searching could come to Vajrayana teachings without first going through the Mahayana shunyata principle and the footing of the path of individual liberation. Vajrayana sounds much closer to the confused mind of egohood, if you haven’t gone through the journey. That is why it is regarded as very dangerous.

The tantric tradition is the tradition of sudden enlightenment, the school of sudden enlightenment. But in order to achieve a sudden glimpse of enlightenment, one has to develop in a gradual way. So we could say that in either Zen or Vajrayana—whichever we are talking about—there is no power that is truly sudden, truly instamatic and automatic. Instant enlightenment is impossible.

The tantric approach to life is a straightforward view of reality, so straightforward we can’t even think of it. At the same time, that view is indestructible; that understanding is imperturbable. For ordinary people, that view is frightening—it has such precision and such conviction, because there is no need for compliments or acknowledgment. That is why the term “crazy wisdom,” yeshe cholwa, has been used. Crazy wisdom ceases to look at limitations and is completely penetrating; it does not know curves or bends of this or that, beliefs and ideas, habits. It is like a laser beam. That is why it is called vajra, which is an “adamantine, indestructible essence.” In the tantric language, vajra pride, vajra anger, vajra passion—all of those are transcendental and indestructible, in the fully enlightened sense.

In the tantric tradition, the question of poverty and richness has never been raised, because that wasn’t the issue. For that matter, there is even less emphasis on saving all sentient beings—it is automatic, so there’s no need to talk about it. It is useless to say, “I have a heart, I have a brain, I have a head, I have arms,” since if you are in a situation to say “I am,” one presumes you automatically have those things in order to function or to say “I am.”

So if you have some kind of mahamudra penetration of vajra awareness, there is no need to count up the details of your need to be practical. You are not particularly trying to be practical, but you already are. You live a very worldly life in a vajra world. That world does not take possession of you, but you become part of the world and all mankind—and all sentient beings are part of you. So the work of the adept of Vajrayana is compassionate action, in any case.

The vastness of the Vajrayana approach and the bigger style makes Vajrayana unique. The precision and the definitive accuracy makes the Zen tradition prominent. It seems that you need both of those.

The practitioner’s work is communication, relating with energy and so forth, and that brings the notion of visualizations and mantra practices. Visualizations are not regarded as developing magical powers, nor is visualizing regarded as imagining. But you begin to associate with such basic truth that you automatically have a sense of the visualization you are practicing. The visualization becomes a natural situation rather than something specially imposed on you, as if you were trying to imagine another culture’s view of God. Everything has to do with seeing the nature of reality as it is. Mantra, for example, is just the sound or utterance of the universe, which has been developed in a certain formula. But that formula has nothing to do with your repeating the divine and sacred names of God, particularly. The sacredness of the Vajrayana tradition is being there, being true, rather than something other than what you have and what you are.

In the case of Vajrayana, you are not awe-inspired by the truth, but you are struck by the truth. It is so brilliant, so bright, so obvious, so clear. We are talking about a different kind of sacredness here. In this case, the experiencers can perceive the sacredness or truth; they can see it and they can function in it. It is no longer a mystery. It is very real. At the same time, it is questionable; nevertheless, it is so.

What has been said about the Vajrayana approach to sacredness is that it is the ordinary mind. Because it is so ordinary, it is super ordinary; therefore, it is sacred. It is sacred in the sense that it could be perceived: we could see it and get a glimpse of it. That particular wisdom is called “wisdom born within.” It is called coemergent wisdom. Whenever there is energy, there is wisdom; they emerge together. One cannot separate the two at all; they are coemergent.

So the world is the vajra world. From that point of view, the world is the divine world, or the world of God, if you want to call it that. The world contains that; that contains the world. It is the vastness of the Vajrayana approach and the bigger style that makes Vajrayana unique. It is the precision and the definitive accuracy that makes the Zen tradition prominent. It seems that you need both of those; they both seem to be necessary.

Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche

Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche

Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche (1940-1987) is recognized for playing a pivotal role in the transmission of genuine Buddhadharma to the West. One of the first Tibetan Buddhist teachers to come to America, he established Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado and an organization of some 200 meditation centers worldwide known as Shambhala International. In addition to his best selling books on the Buddhist teachings, including Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism and The Myth of Freedom, he is the author of two books on the Shambhala warrior tradition: Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior, and Great Eastern Sun: The Wisdom of Shambhala.