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Imagine You're Enlightened

Tradition and the Post-Modern World

This description of yidam, or deity, practice is based on notes from my teacher, Kalu Rinpoche, comments from Chšgyam Trungpa Rinpoche, the writings of Jamgon Kongtrul the Great, and my own limited experience. Traditionally, in doing yidam practice, one uses a form that symbolizes the awake ideal or the reactive emotion. These forms have been faithfully handed down from generation to generation. But once we genuinely know the principles, you could, as Kongtrul famously said, use the personality of a clay cup.

Teacher and student, in the ceremony of empowerment, create conditions for the student to have a direct experience of the deity; that is, the union of the quality of the deity and the empty awake mind. The commitment being and the awareness being are generated through a ritual practice known as a sadhana (method of practice) in which one works, as it were, from the outside in. You first imagine the form of the deity as clearly as possible, then bring in an appreciation of qualities represented in each aspect of the deity’s form, and then cultivate an unshakeable confidence that you are this expression of awake mind. As you follow the ritual of the method of practice, you die (symbolically) to your ordinary life and are reborn as the deity; you then live your life as the deity, die (as the deity), and come back to your ordinary life, which, in deity practice, is regarded as a bardo, an intermediate state between successive lives (i.e., practice sessions) as the deity. Mantra repetition transforms the energy of speech into higher levels of attention, and other techniques generate and transform emotional energy into attention and awareness. Using these energies, you progressively internalize the experience of the deity, until the experience of being the deity has replaced your fragmented habituated personality.

This form of practice plays a central role in Vajrayana practice in the Tibetan tradition. Yet many people today have experienced difficulty understanding how to approach it and place their hopes in just doing it as best they can. Yidams, in traditional societies, were living presences first and symbols second. For many Westerners, they are symbols first and living presences a distant second, if at all. We live in reason-based modern societies, not the myth-based traditional cultures where these practices were originally developed. Some Westerners try to regard yidams as a living presence, but relatively few people are able to shed the cultural conditioning of a reason-based society to the point that they can live in a mythic world in a healthy way.Instead of first visualizing the form, then incorporating the symbolism, and finally identifying with the deity, you may find it more effective to focus on the feeling or sense of being the deity and let the other aspects follow. While awake compassion is traditionally depicted as a white being with four arms (representing the four immeasurables of loving-kindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity), in deity practice one has chosen to commit to being awake compassion, not simply to having a certain form. The deity, after all, is not the form. The deity is the actual expression of compassion and emptiness in life.

Visualization of a symbolic form and precise performance of rituals are not the only way to connect deeply with awake compassion or other expressions of awake mind. By connecting first with the sense and feeling of being awake compassion or awake pride, we stop shifting from one personality shard to another. We stabilize personality and work from the inside out, letting the awake expression permeate our lives and everything we do. In this approach, the formal sadhana or method of practice is the training — the equivalent of hitting tennis balls against a wall or playing scales and studies on a piano or guitar. The actual practice is living our lives as the union of form and emptiness, feeling and emptiness, and awareness and emptiness that each deity expresses.The compassion at the heart of Buddhist practice is not just the compassion that arises from reflection on the sufferings of others, nor the more natural compassion that arises when we see someone struggling with difficulties we know through our own experience; for these are, in the end, emotions. It is the unrestricted expression of direct awareness itself, an expression that arises because emptiness frees awareness from the restrictions of self, thought, and projection, frees it to respond to the imbalances that generate struggles and suffering in this world we experience, and frees it to respond in any appropriate way.


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