Questions and Answers on Tantric Practice

Q.: How much verbal understanding or intellectual comprehension is necessary for tantric practice, since the nature of the mind is not within the area of intellectual comprehension? Could you talk a little about this? The Sakyapas have a tradition of practice and scholarship. Could you talk about this, too?

Sakya Trizin: I feel that the persons who are teachers should have a full understanding of it. However, the practitioner doesn't need to have all these detailed instructions except the essence of one's practices which one has to study thoroughly.

Q.: When Vajrayana teachers talk about practice, they take great care to distinguish it from other meditative practices. But since meditation is non-verbal, it would seem that a mediator from even a non-Buddhist tradition could be achieving an analogous realization from their practice. Is that possible?

Sakya Trizin: Actually, the variety of karmas and the different levels of an individual are enormous, and only fully enlightened beings can distinguish which is which. As far as relative, ordinary person's view, it is necessary to go through spiritual masters who give one specific deities to practice, and then one works on it. Without a teacher and without going through such a practice, it is not possible. However, considering the vast number of beings, it may be possible that persons with great karmic connections and great merits can get the realization instantly.

Q.: The recitation of mantra is only part of sadhana practice, but of itself, can it bring aspects of realization or accomplishment?

Sakya Trizin: Again it depends on the individuals. Some people get realization by mantra, or by mediation, or by preliminary.

Q.: Could you talk about the prerequisites for Vajrayana?

Sakya Trizin: The very first thing is that someone needs a very sincere wish to obtain enlightenment for all other beings. The Bodhisattva vow is absolutely essential because Vajrayana practices are the highest form of Buddha's teaching. One cannot practice it with impure motivation. One also needs unshakable faith in gurus and the teaching and can one keep the samayas as well?

Q.: Are there some individuals who should not take the path even though they have the aspiration of the Bodhisattva vow? - for example, instances where it might be better to not practice Tantra and avoid gathering karma of downfalls.

Sakya Trizin: The Vajrayana is such a profound teaching that even a glimpse of it will be a great benefit. Therefore even if one can't be a perfect practitioner, one reads in the texts. It is better to enroll in it than to miss this kind of chance.

Q.: Better to try and fail than not to try at all. Do you think the Vajrayana practice needs a monastic base for it to flourish. Could it occur in a context where monasticism is not as strong as Tibet?

Sakya Trizin: Not necessarily. To bring the full Buddhist teaching to a country, to a new place, the monastic tradition is very important. In fact, it is essential. As for individual practitioners, I don't think the monastery system is absolutely essential. I mean the great yogis as Milarepa who didn't have a monastery. His replied to the question where his seat would be when he passed away: he said his seat would be in the snow mountains, in the forests, in the plains, and in the enormous places.

Q.: What is the best way to serve one's guru?

Sakya Trizin: It is said that there are three kinds of offerings, and the best offering is the offering of accomplishment. So you must practice the teaching the guru gives and that is the best offering you can make. I guess that must be the best way of serving, too?

Q.: Could you talk a little about different ways of looking at the guru? For example, outer guru, inner guru.

Sakya Trizin: In the Tantra teachings, it says that one should look at the guru as one's father and mother, as the teacher, and as the most precious thing in one's life. The outer guru is the combination of all the Buddhas. The inner guru is one's own mind, the basic clear light, Buddha's nature that all possess. And the guru of ultimate reality is devoid of self-nature and all phenomena and all descriptions. It's the ultimate primordial wisdom. The ultimate or secret guru. All these gurus are different aspects, but are all in one.

Q.: Could you talk about the five root afflictions and the different ways of eradicating them, and the differences between the Mahayana's and Vajrayana's approach to eradicating them.

Sakya Trizin: The Theravadin, Hinayana approach is that we must abandon them, kind of throw them away. The Mahayana approach is that we must see their nature. The Vajrayana approach is to turn them with skillful means. Just as you can make medicines out of poisons. Similarly these defilements, with the right methods, can become nectar. So instead of being harmful, they can become very helpful. For example, hatred is in some ways the worst defilement. It makes one very agitated and very unhappy and it also makes other people unhappy and destroys the peace of everybody and destroys one's own virtuous deeds. So hatred is now transformed and one sees its own nature, one turns it into mirror-like wisdom, the wisdom of Buddha Akshobhya. That is the reason when you are angry, everything becomes black. That is why the color of Buddha Akshobhya is blue or black, and so you turn it into mirror-like wisdom and use the affliction to gain enlightenment.

Q.: Your Holiness, I'd like to ask you about ways to practice. If you've received empowerment, there are many sadhanas to perform, many vows to keep. Is it advisable to concentrate on one deity practice?

Sakya Trizin: It is better, in fact. There is a saying: Indians practice one deity and accomplish a hundred deities. Tibetans practice many deities and accomplish none. One of the great Tibetan mahasiddhas mentioned that in order to get enlightenment, it is very important to put all the deities into one, your Karmic link deity, and then practice on that exclusively.

Sources and Acknowledgements

Lama Pema Wangdak, director of the Vikramasila Foundation and the Palden Sakya Centers, has hosted His Holiness Sakya Trizin on numerous visits to the United States. Teachings given on those visits produced the texts offered here. Likewise, many students made their first personal contact with Sakya Trizin through Lama Pema, or heard public talks or teachings through his personal efforts. Lama Pema has also inspired and supported students over the years to preserve these teachings by creating transcriptions.

Many of the questions and answers, and the autobiographical information in this document originated from an interview of Sakya Trizin, conducted by Gerry Reilly, in October 1991 in New York City. Two core texts provided much of the additional material: a public talk on "The Inseparability of Samsara and Nirvana" given as part of "The Nature of Mind" Teachings, during the Kalachakra For World Peace, in October, 1991 in New York City; and a public teaching on "Parting from the Four Desires" given in New York City on July 30, 1978. The latter text was transcribed by the American Buddhist Kunga Tendzin and prepared for publication by Denchen Zangmo.

Thanks to the Ven. Constance Miller, for reading these texts, and for her invaluable suggestions regarding their presentation and order. Additional editing, as well as conversion of the text to HTML format, was completed by Richard Farris.

Thanks to Jeff Watt, of the Sakya Resource Guide for permission to use the picture of H.H. Sakya Trizin.

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