Introduction to Preparing for Tantra
When we first meet Tibetan Buddhism, we inevitably come across the path of tantra, or Vajrayana, around the same time because the two have become inextricably interwoven. The presence of tantric Buddhism has blended into Tibet’s highly elaborate ritualized culture, with its haunting ceremonial music and chanting and its extraordinary mystical art. However, discriminating between what belongs essentially to Vajrayana Buddhism and what is actually Tibetan culture is very difficult. The first encounter that many of us in the West have with the world of Tibet is when a highly revered Tibetan lama gives some form of tantric transmission to an audience of many people. Such an experience creates the opportunity to receive a glimpse of something extraordinary that can have a profound effect on our view of ourselves and our life. The task then becomes to try to make sense of and integrate these experiences into our life. However, we may not be fully aware of the implications of this initial encounter with Tibetan Buddhism, or, indeed, be totally prepared for it.
As Tibetan Buddhism becomes established here in the West, we have the opportunity to receive profound teachings and glimpses into the extraordinary potential of this path. What we then start to see is that this path is challenging and requires that we truly begin to do the work necessary to awaken our potential. In the tantric and dzogchen traditions particularly, we may be introduced to the innate potential of our mind, but to make it truly manifest, we first have to clear what obscures it.
In the text by Asanga called Changeless Nature, or Uttara Tantra Shastra, several metaphors describe what we know as buddha nature: it is like a golden statue wrapped in filthy rags, a jewel buried beneath the house of a pauper, a seed hidden within a rotting fruit, or honey deep within a swarm of bees. What these metaphors all suggest is that although we may be given an insight into the presence of our innate buddha nature, we must then go through the process of removing the obscuring veils of our emotional habits and karmic imprints before we can reveal its natural quality. While our innate nature may be primordially pure, our task is to free this pure nature of its gross and subtle psychological obscurations.
For a rare few this process may happen spontaneously, and the mind then awakens with little effort. This quick result suggests that these people have had a deep experience from previous lives so that their obscuring veils are thin. For the majority of us, however, there is no such sudden awakening, we must instead do the spadework and clear our mind of the accumulated debris of our troubled psychological or karmic history. Then the question inevitably arises; are we ready and willing to engage in a process of dedicated and consistent practice to clear the ground for any “realizations” to grow?
Bearing this question in mind, many people involved in Tibetan Buddhism, from all the different schools, embark on the process of groundwork (Tib. ngondro) or preliminary practices. The four primary schools of Tibetan Buddhism all present a path of practice that evolves and deepens as the meditator is guided forward. There are stages in this process that require preparation before a practitioner is ready to move forward. This is particularly the case with the practices of highest yoga tantra, or maha-anuttarayoga tantra, as it is often called, and dzogchen, so that teachers usually require someone who wishes to enter these advanced practices to go through the preliminary practices as a preparation. All the Tibetan schools have some form of preliminary practice, although they vary in subtly different ways.
It is now very common for people in the West to receive empowerments into extraordinary and complex tantric practices. However, to embark upon them without having first prepared the ground may have a number of negative consequences. Our psychological and energetic maturity simply may not have been developed sufficiently to bring out the real potential of the practice. We may try to engage in a particular deity practice only to become disillusioned when it does not really come alive. There is also the very real hazard that these practices may become polluted with our psychological and emotional confusion, in which case tantric practice does not clear this confusion but instead actually exacerbates it. In extreme cases this can lead to the kind of disturbance where there is no stable psychological vessel to hold the process that is unfolding. Finally, we may begin to develop our practice only to discover after some time that we are held back by inner hindrances we have not yet dealt with.
To embark upon the tantric path safely and well, we need to be prepared psychologically, emotionally, and energetically. To do this we need guidance from skillful experienced teachers, together with the willingness to go through the required preparations. It is inevitable that at some point we will be advised to embark upon the series of meditations and ritual processesthat make up the preliminary practices. Unfortunately, when we are so advised, we can sometimes see the preliminaries as a kind of ordeal or task we have to go through in order to do what we really want, which is to perform high tantric practices, or receive dzogchen teachings. It is all too easy to view the preliminaries as a kind of hurdle we have to leap over to get somewhere else, rather than actually seeing that they are something we could benefit from in their own right and even enjoy. As a result we may try to get through them as quickly as possible, sometimes even with a sense of competitiveness with fellow practitioners who may have done more, or less, of some of the preliminary practices. Also, because there is a tradition of repeating hundreds of thousands of mantra recitations, prostrations, offerings, and so forth to complete the preliminaries, there is always the danger of becoming caught up in a culture that is focused on completing a certain number of repetitions rather than genuinely deepening the experience of practice. This potential spiritual materialism can lessen the value of the preliminaries. They are not just prescriptive rituals that we have to get through as some kind of duty. The preliminaries are an extraordinarily rich collection of practices, which have much to offer as a means of cultivating and maturing our psychological ground. They can enable experiences to unfold, and they can clear the way when there seem to be problems or hindrances we are struggling with.
For many of us there is also the hazard of thinking that because we are doing the preliminaries this is all we need to do to prepare ourselves psychologically for the practice of tantra. From my own experience, this is not so. The preliminary practices may fulfill what is traditionally required as a preparation for tantric practice, but this alone is not enough. For example, there are those who have gone through this process, and even done three-year retreats, who still have unaddressed psychological problems.
When I first began to embark upon the preliminaries in the late 1970s, the practices gave me a strong feeling that I was engaged in a process similar to an apprenticeship. Having gone through an apprenticeship in electrical engineering when I first left school, this was a very familiar feeling. I felt I was beginning a journey that was clearly under the guidance of my teachers, and I was aware there were some specific tasks to perform. What unfolded over the next five years or so was a journey that involved the gradual completion of a series of nine preliminary practices, several of them more than once. There were times when I wondered why I was embarking on such a challenging process, yet at other times I felt exhilarated and inspired to go on. With every practice I undertook, I felt an extraordinary process unfolding and a richness that was both deeply satisfying and yet also sometimes very painful.
It was on my return to the West and when I began to train as a psychotherapist that I began to realize there were still aspects of my own psychological wounding that had not been resolved, despite going through this process of the preliminaries. I also came to see that my relationship to my body and its energetic processes needed to be developed further. This led me to understand that the preparation for tantric practice may require more than just the traditional preliminaries if we are to address all aspects of our psychological wounding. It also brought me to see that, without a deeper relationship to the body and our emotional and energetic life, our tantric practice can remain disembodied and thus won’t engage with and transform our energy.
As I continued my own practice and eventually began to teach the preliminaries, their value became even more apparent to me. I now realize, however, that in my own practice all those years ago, I would have benefited from a more psychologicalunderstanding of what I was doing and how the different preliminary practices worked. Collectively, they constitute a profound preparation for more advanced practice, and, as such, they challenge many aspects of who we are emotionally, psychologically, and physically. Each preliminary has a distinct quality, which will have an effect on our psychological and emotional makeup, and this effect, if understood clearly, can be significant.
In my own life, I have found that these practices are an incredible resource that I can draw upon whenever needed. As the foundation of our spiritual life, the preliminaries are the base from which our psychological and spiritual path can unfold and mature. Just as the foundations of a house are not removed once the house is built, so too these practices are not discarded once we begin to practice tantra—they remain as a base upon which we build our experience of tantra. This book is partly a reflection of my own journey through the preliminaries and beyond, thereby demonstrating the breadth of preparation needed for tantric practice to be integrated and beneficial.I look deeply at the factors involved in the preparation for tantric practice, from both traditional and psychological perspectives. The psychological view suits our Western mind and can provide a contemporary base of understanding that complements traditional understanding. This view can address some of the hazards we may encounter in becoming involved with tantric practice before we are adequately prepared. It may also provide a context in which the practice of the preliminaries may become more meaningful and psychologically transformational. I also want to broaden our view of preliminary practice, describe some of the difficulties we might encounter along the way, and offer ideas on how best to resolve them. Using my background in psychology, I have tried to illuminate some of the ways in which the preliminary practices can be of immense psychological benefit, if engaged with creatively to bring out their essential qualities. In particular, I want to counter the tendency to see these preparations as something we should try to get out of the way as quickly as possible so we can get on with the “real business” of the tantric path.
In part 1, I will explore some of the psychological ground upon which tantra in general, and the preliminary practices in particular, is based. This will help broaden the scope of the foundation for tantric practice for practitioners in the West and will clarify the intention and explain the effectiveness of many of the practices that follow. In part 2, I will examine the nine preliminaries themselves. Although not every school of Tibetan Buddhism designates the last four preliminaries as necessary, they are nevertheless useful to know. In part 3, I will look at the implications of having completed some, or all, of the preliminaries. I will also clarify some of the possible effects of practice, which can manifest in a host of signs or symptoms that may be disturbing and confusing unless we understand what is happening. Finally, I will discuss the journey into highest yoga tantra that can unfold once the ground is prepared.
If we are skillful in how we prepare for tantric practice and apply the methods with dedication and understanding, it will bring us great benefit. With the right conditions to support the process of practice and the psychological understanding that makes it relevant to our own psychological issues, the preliminaries can act as a kind of therapeutic process. When guided by a teacher who has this understanding, the effect can be extremely beneficial. We can then begin to genuinely prepare the ground for the practices that follow, on many different levels: emotionally, psychologically, physically, and energetically. But without this depth of preparation, we may suddenly wonder why after years of practice we still have psychological issues and emotional problems that have not been addressed.