This article is the second of fifteen articles inspired by the ‘Inspiration-Prayer for Deliverance from the Dangerous Pathway of the Bardo’, in which I shall be aiming to show meditators how each one of the ten deities of the Dharmadātu Mandala can be felt in the fields of the body as profound suprapersonal sources of somatic healing and wisdom. Those who read the whole series of articles – and it is intended that these articles should be read in sequence – will be able to incorporate these reflections into their meditation practice in a systematic way.
The first article in this series can be found here, and brief summaries of all the articles can be found here.
In the five central verses of the ‘Inspiration-Prayer for Deliverance from the Dangerous Pathway of the Bardo’ (read those verses here), we are shown the five ‘light-paths’ that lead us from ignorance to wisdom – from identification with the skandhas, and with the self-illusion, to a recognition of the ’emptiness’ of the skandhas and to the realisation of the five Wisdoms. In order to begin to explore each skandha / Wisdom light-path, I shall examine each of the five kleshas and five Realms; and each of the five Wisdoms, and the five ‘Buddha couples’ that correspond to them.
The Vijñāna Skandha, the Klesha of Spiritual Ignorance (avidyā), and the Deva Realms
When, through spiritual ignorance, I wander in samsara,
on the luminous light-path of the dharmadhātu wisdom,
may Blessed Vairocana go before me,
and White Tara behind me.
We need to start in the centre of the mandala, with the central skandha / Wisdom light-path, which is the white light-path of the ’empty’ vijñāna skandha, which is Consciousness. In conventional egoic perception, we identify with the vijñāna skandha and personalise it – we take Consciousness to be personal. It could be said that this ‘spiritual ignorance’ of the suprapersonal nature of Consciousness is the foundational klesha – the spiritual ignorance from which all the other kleshas inevitably follow. To release this personalisation of Consciousness, and the egoic self-view idea that springs from it, is the beginning of Wisdom. When we are truly mindful, and learn to ‘rest as Consciousness’ in meditation, we are resting in the recognition that Consciousness is in fact an objective and collective reality. By ‘seeing though’ our habitual personalisation of Consciousness we begin to recognise that personal self-hood is just an illusion that we have created – an illusion that we will inevitably continue to create, and will move in an out of, until we are fully realised.
In the Buddhist texts there are two words used for this spiritual ignorance. These are moha and avidyā, and both are sometimes used in the ‘five klesha‘ list. While the term moha is also taken to mean delusion, confusion, and dullness, or unconsciousness in general, the term avidyā is preferable, in my view, because it generally refers more specifically to the spiritual ignorance of personalising Consciousness, and to the egoic belief in a separate self.
It is clarifying to remember that the klesha of ‘spiritual ignorance’ is the deep rooted habit of egoic personalisation that is the distinguishing characteristic of the Deva Realms – and is the reason for the devas’ bondage to conditioned existence, despite their ability to dwell in ultra-refined and ‘positive’ mental states. When we are talking in the context of the five-fold mandala model of mind, which crystalised during the Mahayana period of Indian Buddhism, and became the underlying structure for the Vajrayana teachings of Tibetan Buddhism, it is also helpful to think of this klesha as the ‘spiritual ignorance’ that is the opposite of the Dharmadhātu Wisdom. In other words, avidyā is that ignorance which is our failure to recognise the ’emptiness’, or non-personal nature of Consciousness – the ’empty’ vijñāna skandha. So avidyā is the klesha that leads us, when we are in the ‘intermediate state’, which is the bardo between lives; to be drawn toward rebirth in the Deva Realms, rather than toward recognition of our true nature as the white light of the Dharmadhātu Wisdom, which shines from the figures of Vairocana and White Tara (originally Ākāshadhātvishvari).
The Dharmadhatu Wisdom – White Tara and Vairocana
I have written at some length in previous articles, about the Dharmadhātu Wisdom (here, here, here and here) and about the white figures of the male Buddha Vairocana and the female Buddha White Tara. In the earliest forms of the Dharmadhātu Mandala (such as we find in the Bardo Thodol), the white female Buddha ‘consort’ of Vairocana is Ākāshadhātvishvari – more often called Ākāshadhāteshvari. In the Trungpa / Freemantle translation of the five verses this name is rendered as ‘Queen of Vajra Space’, but over the centuries, both the name and the iconography of this figure evolved, and female Buddha counterpart of Vairocana came to be called simply, ‘White Tara’. While knowledge of the earlier names gives numerous insights into the archetypal reality that this deity personifies, I have found myself moving towards adopting this later name of ‘White Tara’ because it is so much more popular in contemporary Tibetan Buddhism. For more on Ākāshadhāteshvari / White Tara see my article on her – here.
I have come to regard White Tara as the most important deity in the Dharmadhātu mandala. She is our foundation and our starting point in this exploration because she is the primary personification of the Dharmadhātu Wisdom – which is the wisdom of non-dual Presence, of non-identification, and of our recognition that Consciousness is not personal. Vairocana personifies radiant Presence – the suprapersonal ‘Light of Consciousness’ within all cognitions and perceptions. This light of Consciousness is almost universally overlooked, or taken for granted, but it only thing that endures. It is always present. While everything else in our experience is impermanent, Consciousness remains – timeless and unchanging.
By resting as Consciousness and practicing Mindfulness, this overlooked light of Consciousness becomes increasingly embodied, increasingly present; but to develop this quality of embodied Consciousness that we call Presence, I believe we need to turn first to White Tara, because she best describes the modest point of entry into this process. White Tara, more than any of the other dieties, shows us the spacious attitude of ‘resting as Consciousness’. In order to develop a sense of embodied Consciousness, we need to open inwardly to the Space of Consciousness that White Tara represents.
The recognition of the ’empty’ (non-personal), spacious, and relational nature of vijñāna skandha (Consciousness), is the starting point for our practice of Mindfulness, and for the possibility of the emergence of an ethical and creative individuality out of the reactive chaos of our cluster of conditioned egoic selves. The most direct and reliable way of preventing ourselves from falling into identification with our various egoic ‘psychological parts’, and taking them to be ‘me’, or ‘I’, is though meditation. By resting as Consciousness in meditation practice, we can systematically build the paradoxically non-personal quality of Presence in the centre of our experience – and this allows us to relate to our experience rather than identifying with it.
White Tara / Akāshadhāteshvari – Shunyatā, Connection, Relatedness
This central female Buddha of the Dharmadhātu Mandala, whatever we want to call her, and whether we are aware of her of not, can be thought of as a sort of patron deity of all meditators and Mindfulness practitioners. When we meditate on the ten deities of the Dharmadhātu Mandala (which I do at least once a day), we are implicitly giving great importance to White Tara. There is a sense in which the Dharmadhātu Mandala is White Tara’s mandala – because she is at its centre – and although I like to place her fifth in the ten-fold sequence, it is appropriate to start the sequence with an acknowledgement of her.
White Tara, more than any of the other deities, invites us to rest receptively as Consciousness. She is the dakini of the Space element, who invites us to come to know the primordial ‘Vajra Space’ of the Luminosity – the infinite field of Consciousness that pervades the universe – as the ultimate nature of our own minds. She is always ‘behind us’, as the first of the five verses says, and when we allow ourselves to feel her there, there is a resonant response in the body-mind. We are called into Presence and held there; we feel an intimate affinity with her; we are taken over by her – we perhaps even recognise her as our essential nature. If I had to choose only one of the ten deities, which thankfully I am not, and was only able to familiarise myself with that one deity, I would probably have to choose White Tara. Please see my previous article on her (here).
I do not believe the central and foundational figure of White Tara / Ākāshadhātvishvari, can be identified with a single Dharmic principle, but if I had to, I would have to choose Shunyatā. By which I mean, not only shunyatā as ’emptiness of self-nature’, but shunyatā with the meaning that the Mahayana and Vajrayana brought to it – as the mysterious all-pervading Space of Consciousness that is the container of all that is; the Basic Space of Timeless Awareness in which all experience arises. If I were allowed additional words to attempt to sum up or define this archetype, I would suggest perhaps Connection, or connectedness, or relatedness. For me the central paradox of the so-called ‘non-duality’ teachings is that, to recognise Consciousness is to be in relationship with experience – no longer identified. And to be ‘in relationship’ is to be connected. For me, White Tara embodies the idea that the universe is a relational unity – and in our essential nature, we are a reflection of that relational unity.
Resting as Consciousness and the Birth of Individuality
At the core of the Dharmadhātu Wisdom there is a deep paradox, which is that our recognition that the egoic self is an illusion, and the accompanying release of the klesha of avidyā, or ‘spiritual ignorance’, initiates a transition to a new way of being. This new way of being is not – as some might imagine – vacant, passive and devoid of character or personality. Rather, paradoxically, what emerges is a sense of individuality. The great paradox is that, as we find our suprapersonal source and centre, and start to recognise that all the cognitive-perceptual components of experience (the five skandhas) are non-personal, we actually start to function as an individual for the first time. And as individuals, we find ourselves no longer compulsively conforming to the ideas and values of our families, societies, and groups, while also acting for the good in the world – discovering a keen sense of ethics, citizenship, a genuine community-mindedness.
When, through the practice of ‘resting as Consciousness’, we break our habitual identification with the various aggregations of skandhas that make up our scatter of egoic selves, and instead, find a new basis for our identity in the suprapersonal Life Energies that remain; then recognisable elements of the original personality continue to function, but with a new integrity, a new empathy, a new ethical sensibility, and a concern for whole – and with a new generous engagement, and compassionate perspective on life. This is why the cleaning out of the kleshas through meditation practice is so important. Until we have progressed in this work, we cannot function as a true individual, and are crippled in our capacity to contribute.
This birth of individuality is a great mystery. It is difficult to define, and can be very difficult to achieve, because it cannot be achieved solely by an effort of will, but only by that subtle inward re-orientation, which I have been calling ‘resting as Consciousness’, and in which our overlooked experience of being aware of being aware is embraced as the core of a new identity. Potentially, if we allow ourselves to feel her presence ‘behind us’, White Tara is our guide to this awareness of that which is aware; this Mindfulness; this resting as Consciousness. The transformation that she brings will not necessarily be dramatic – at least not at first. What she wishes for us is wholeness, honesty, integrity and modest contentment – but these are great virtues, and very rare, and they mark the entrance into a far greater way of being.
Effort and Samādhi – Effort and Receptivity
Individuality cannot be falsified, though many have tried. It is tempting to imagine that it is achieved simply by a muscular and forceful form of masculine heroic effort, but this is simply not the case, because Individuality has its roots in Consciousness. To achieve it, we need first to take a step back, not a step forward – a step back that, in the visionary frame of reference of the ten mandala deities, we are initially invited to take by White Tara. Effort, commitment and perseverance may be necessary, but they need to be balanced by non-effort and receptivity – and by a recognition that the group of volitional energies that we take to be a personal will, simply are not personal. For me, one of the most important messages of the ‘Inspiration-Prayer’, is that meditation is more about receptivity to suprapersonal forces than it is about willed effort. I shall be talking about this theme a lot in the course of this series of articles, and approaching it various different ways.
In early Buddhism we find the Buddha’s teaching of the ‘Five Spiritual Faculties’. It is one of a group of four-fold and five-fold formulations (also the five skandhas, the four brahmavihāras, and the Four Foundations of Mindfulness) that can be regarded as the antecedent roots of the later Five Wisdoms mandala that we find in the Mahayana and Vajrayana. In the diagram below, I have included the associated skandhas. We gain a much deeper appreciation of the Buddha’s meaning, and we also gain new dimensions of understanding of the Five Wisdoms, when we understand the way in which the Buddha was continuously finding ways of re-frame the pre-Buddhist teachings of the brahmavihāras and skandhas in new formulations that were free of pre-Buddhist cultural associations.
When we arrange the ‘Five Spiritual Faculties’ as a mandala, using the pattern we see in the Five Wisdoms, or Dharmadhātu, Mandala, we see virya, or ‘effort’ (also will, determination, perseverance, striving, etc.), in the north balanced by samadhi, or ‘meditation’, in the the south. We do know that the Buddha used the Five Spiritual Faculties as a way of talking about balance in the spiritual life, and that samadhi was seen as the balancing factor to virya, or ‘effort’. This is very instructive, in that it invites us to see meditation, not as an activity in which effort in the ordinary egoic sense is always necessary, but rather to see it as the balancing factor through which virya, or ‘effort’ is refined, relativised, and ultimately transcended – as the samskaras skandha is recognised as ’empty’, or non-personal – and becomes the foundational insight in the group of insights that Buddhist tradition came to call the All-Accomplishing Wisdom.
Samskaras Skandha and Virya; Vedanā Skandha and Samādhi
For me samadhi, or meditation, is best seen quite explicitly as complementary opposite to virya. It is the practice, and ultimately the state, by which we initially balance, subsequently transform, and ultimately release, our egoic notions of personal effort and personal will – and come to recognise the ’empty’ and non-personal nature of the samskaras skandha (the volitional energies). Just as the emptiness of the samskaras skandha is much more easily understood when we see its connection to virya, so too, the vedanā skandha, or Sensation, is much more easily understood when we see its connection to samadhi. Our internal experience in meditation is, after all, fundamentally an experience of a ‘cloud of sensations’ (vedanā skandha), which we eventually come to recognise as empty of self.
The recognition of the ’empty’ nature of the ‘cloud of sensations’, is universally available, even for those who are new to meditation – and from the point of view of the ’empty’ vijñāna skandha of Consciousness, it is the same for everyone. When we rest receptively as Consciousness, and relate to the experience of Sensation (vedanā skandha) without identification, a group of insights arises, which is closely associated with the brahamavihāra of Appreciative Joy, and which Buddhist tradition came to call the Equalising Wisdom.
I shall be returning to reflect more deeply on this later in this series, but it needs to acknowledged as foundational that meditation requires an attitude of relational and appreciative receptivity. More subtly perhaps, it requires a paradoxical attitude of relaxation and acceptance in which we let go of the idea that we all have to achieve states of concentration by solitary and individualistic effort of a personal will. Instead, we can open to the mysterious communal solidarity that is present in the experience of meditation – noticing that which is universal and shared, and inherently equal in our human experience, including the benevolent archetypal forces of the mandala.
Samādhi as Meditative Receptivity and Somatic Integration
I am suggesting, in effect, is that we should regard samadhi, or meditation, as implicitly about Receptivity. By making this connection explicitly from the outset, we set ourselves on a trajectory in our practice – a trajectory that will take us beyond the realm of the egoic will, and into a realm of experience in which it is abundantly clear to us that the volitional Life Energies (samskaras skandha) that we experience in the fields of the body are non-personal and inherently life-serving in nature. This transcendence of the egoic will is beautifully and precisely described by the Dharmadhātu mandala – and by our process as we meditate on it. Our connection to the deities initially takes effort, as we study them and actively cultivate a familiarity with them, but once a degree of familiarity has been achieved, it is our receptivity to them, as suprapersonal forces that resonate within us, that is the key to our progress. Ultimately it this active receptivity that must support us both in the foundational stage of recognising the key volitional forces that can support us in the initial stages of meditation (which we can Integration), and also in our cultivation of the subsequent more expansive and relational stage (which we can call Positive Emotion).
Tragically, the profound Sanskrit word samādhi – a word that has a ring of profundity like few others – has been rendered by many scholars and practitioners, merely as ‘concentration’, which is perhaps understandable, but to me seems not only incorrect, but very misleading. There are various possible reasons for this sort of loss of crucial meaning, including the ‘reforms’ within Theravada Buddhism in the 18th Century, to rationalise and Christianise Buddhism, in a attempt to defend it against the inroads being made by Christian missionaries – who brought not only Christianity, but scientific materialism. There is also, always the need within monastic traditions that are dependent on a lay community, to present the life of a monk as very hard work, and to present samādhi as a very special, exulted, state, which can only be achieved through very intense effort sustained for many hours a day. These distortions have a cultural momentum, and have continued to this day – and indeed have been compounded by an apparent need to find ways to validate Buddhism by conflating it with modern cognitive-behavioural perspectives within psychology.
As I have been trying to emphasise above, samādhi is much better seen as a balancing factor, in opposition to virya and the personal will (samskaras skandha). Indeed samādhi is the cultivation of an inward openness to suprapersonal energies that transform the experience of volition (samskaras skandha) so that it is recognised as ’empty’, or non-personal. The mandala of the ten deities suggests that there are probably at least five, if not ten different ways of defining meditation, but if I was to venture one of my own – a more ambitious and aspirational definition of samādhi, that expresses our intention as we begin to engage with these archetypes, I would suggest something like: The cultivation of an appreciative and meditative receptivity to the suprapersonal forces of Consciousness, in order to achieve somatic integration and to energetically cleanse the body-mind of egoic obscurations.
Resting As Consciousness to Build Mindfulness and Presence
There is a need for Receptivity as we set our goal and our trajectory, but we also need Receptivity in order to find our starting point, our launchpad, our centre – because that centre, and that starting point, needs to be connected to that suprapersonal reality, which is represented by the centre of the mandala. Vairocana and White Tara, are our symbols, our personifications, of that centre, that foundation, that initial experience of embodied Consciousness from which we can deepen, can expand, can integrate ourselves, and can begin to be able to act with Mindfulness and with integrity. We cannot risk starting our meditation journey from a place of identification with an egoic part. Resting as Consciousness must be our starting point. If we start from anywhere else, from any sort of egoic motivation, we are in danger of setting off in the wrong direction. The egoic motivation may work for a few years, but ultimately it is not sustainable – it cannot take us all the way to our goal.
The ultimate goal of Mindfulness practice is to be able to live from that suprapersonal centre, to live from a sense of embodied Consciousness from which we cannot shaken – not pulled back into egoic identification. We build that balanced state of Mindfulness, that centred state of embodied Consciousness, of Presence, over many years – it is a life-long process, and one which involves the shedding of our accumulations of kleshas, the obscuring egoic patterning that scatters our energy, pulls us back into egoic identification. The healing process does not have be difficult – we have lots of help. Our help on the meditative journey of returning to our true nature, is in the form of the ten archetypal deities of the Dharmadhātu Mandala. They personify ten aspects of Mindfulness, or Presence, or embodied Consciousness, and by giving us a glimpse of the healed, klesha-free state, they either propel us, or draw us forward on our spiritual journey.
Vairocana and White Tara are the Light and Space of the ’empty’ Consciousness (vijñāna skandha) that pervades the universe. While, Vairocana, personification of the Light of Consciousness, of complete and perfect awareness, of full realisation – and of the capacity to communicate it – is our ultimate goal. But we first need to step back, to rest back, and to acknowledge the receptivity of White Tara, the Basic Space of Timeless Awareness in which we rest, and which is the source of our capacity for Individuality, and our capacity to develop Mindfulness.
The Foundational Importance of Receptivity
While early Buddhism is usually characterised, incorrectly in my view, as presenting a very strong bias towards personal effort, the Mahayana very clearly puts a great emphasis on the principle of receptivity. In the Perfections (paramitās) or the Bodhisattva, virya, or ‘effort’, is paired with the balancing factor of kshanti, which is usually translated as ‘patience’, but can also be taken to mean ‘receptivity’, and surrender to the forces of spiritual evolution. This attitude of spiritual receptivity to healing forces beyond ourselves, brings enormous transformational power to our meditation practice. The Bodhisattva progresses in his or her release of the kleshas, the energetic residue of the egoic mind, by a subtle balance of effort (virya) and deep meditative receptivity (samādhi and kshanti) to the healing power of the Unconditioned – which is recognised as imminent and available in every moment of Consciousness. White Tara is our first guide to the felt-experience of the principle of receptivity. Energetically she is quintessentially yin, which means that she is a figure of enormous power because she connects us with the profoundly supportive suprapersonal energies of Consciousness. Vairocana on the other hand is an expansive, outgoing, and ‘extraverted’ figure – quintessentially yang – the archetypal teacher of the Dharma.
A figure of radiant Presence, Vairocana represents the integration of all the suprapersonal energies of the Five Wisdoms with all the skills of a human Dharma teacher, and he is what he is, and is our model for the non-dual state of Presence precisely because his inner experience is that of White Tara. For me, he represents the active, compassionate activity of teaching the Dharma, in a being who has integrated all the qualities that that task requires, while White Tara represents that profound inner recognition which initiates our spiritual journey of resting as Consciousness, and ultimately makes that teaching possible. I have described Vairocana in more detail in a previous article (here).
‘Receptive’ and ‘Expansive’ Embodiment of Consciousness
It is helpful to contrast the receptive quality of White Tara with the expansive quality of Vairocana. White Tara represents that more meditative aspect of the ‘resting as Consciousness’ experience in which we open ourselves receptively to the benevolent suprapersonal energies of the Space of Consciousness in which we all rest. Vairocana, on the other hand, can be characterised as ‘expansive’ because he represents that more complex, demanding, and active aspect of the ‘resting as Consciousness’ experience, in which we allow the suprapersonal energies of Consciousness to flow through us and out of us – either in the midst of life activities; or in meditation practice in which our intention is explicitly to bring about the arising of the Bodhicitta; or when meditating to heal the body-mind in preparation for compassionate action.
When I meditate on the ten deities of the Dharmadhātu Mandala as a series, I like to place Vairocana as the last in the series – for me he represents the integration and culmination of the ten-fold process. To embody Vairocana is to express the truth of the Dharmadhātu Wisdom in its essence and its fullness, without allowing our personal history and cultural preoccupations to contaminate that expression.
Ultimately our goal is an embodiment of Consciousness is both receptive and expansive, and in which these two dimensions are balanced, but our process is likely to begin with an emphasis on the receptive attitude, before progressing to the expansive attitude. The receptive attitude supports us in the development of foundational insights; psychological and ethical integrity; and mental and emotional stability. The expansive attitude takes our transformation much further, and has an even greater impact on our personality and our relationships and our capacity to respond and collaborate for the benefit of all. I shall be talking more about these two foundational stages in my next article.
To read the next article in this series please click here.