About a month ago, I was having a conversation with a friend about being new to Buddhism and practicing Vajrayana. “A teacher,” my friend said, “will tell you, ‘You’re filthy! Go study Mahayana! And by the way, the drubchen’s starting tomorrow morning so be on time.’”
Successfully practicing the Vajrayana depends on proper motivation—this being the Mahayana motivation, or the desire to bring all sentient beings to a state of perfect buddhahood. What does it mean if Vajrayana is the first Buddhist tradition we encounter, before we’ve had a chance to really tame our minds and cultivate a Mahayana outlook?
I currently study at the Rangjung Yeshe Institute, an international shedra within the walls of Ka-Nying Shedrub Ling Monastery in Kathmandu. Here, I found myself immersed in tantric ritual before I knew what Mahayana or bodhisattva or Middle Way even meant. Chökyi Nyima Rinpoche, the abbot of Ka-Nying Shedrub Ling, invites all the shedra students to attend teachings, retreats, empowerments and drubchens, free of entrance requirements and often free of charge. The first ritual I worked up the courage to attend was the Green Tara outer empowerment. It was transformative—uncannily so—but also left me disoriented and mildly terrified. I took samayas because I was copying what everyone else was doing; though at the time, I didn’t know what a samaya was, let alone the consequences of breaking one. Moreover, I can’t say I gave a single thought to benefiting others.
There are times when I can’t even summon a sense of renunciation; forget appearing as Padmasambhava. What is someone like me doing trying to practice tantra?Monica Thunder
A few years later, I’m less freaked out, though I’m as much a beginner as ever. Puja rituals find me surreptitiously glancing at more experienced friends and copying what they’re doing. During morning and evening sessions, I often get stuck on refuge and bodhichitta recitations. I stare dismally at my mind’s dull selfishness, feeling unworthy of the chants I’ve come to know by heart. There are times when I can’t even summon a sense of renunciation; forget appearing as Padmasambhava. What is someone like me doing trying to practice tantra?
It’s hard to try when you have no idea what you’re doing. It’s even more discomforting to have no idea what you’re doing in a practice that, according to some, has such high stakes. They say tantra is like a snake in a bamboo shoot—either you go straight up to buddhahood and omniscience or straight down to vajra hell. So far, I seem to be headed straight down. As a beginner, my tantric commitments seem impossible to keep. I look at a friend and see a human, not the yidam. I hear “hello,” not mantra. I experience thoughts and emotions, not the play of wakefulness. I get irritated with flies, poison oak and bad drivers, and long for good food, time with lovers and friends, and sunny beaches. With my samayas in a crumpled heap on the floor, my only hope is to recite the hundred syllable mantra with whatever feeble intention I can muster.
Chökyi Nyima Rinpoche is my primary source of comfort in this mess. I can’t imagine he would open the door to clueless beginners if it meant condemning us to vajra hell. The longer I know him, however, the more I see that he expects his students to take personal responsibility for cultivating the proper basis for tantric practice. He can’t do it for us. Between the Tara Triple Excellence program, Rangjung Yeshe Institute, and the annual seminars he gives worldwide, Rinpoche has been extremely generous in providing us with everything we need to study, reflect on, and cultivate the Mahayana motivation. But we have to do the studying, reflecting, and cultivating. Do I have the patience to start at the beginning when I’ve been exposed to the magic of more advanced sadhana practices and meditation techniques? After receiving inner empowerments, am I humble enough to sit through slow teachings on the four mind turnings before starting the ngondro?
This obstacle of impatience for advanced practices, strangely enough, pulls me back to the third paramita, patience—a Mahayana practice. The more advanced sadhanas I’ve been exposed to are similar: through being inaccessible, they kindly redirect me to foundational contemplations and practices. Right now, these sadhanas teach me about refuge and bodhichitta. In the future, if I practice well, the same words may be a conduit for accomplishment.
I suspect I’m not the only who has no idea what they’re doing. In fact, most of my older, more experienced friends also claim to have no idea what they’re doing. I don’t always believe them, but who knows? Maybe we never fully get it, until we’re at the end. In the meantime, I’ll keep pretending.