An Excerpt from Journey Without Goal The Tantric Wisdom of the Buddha by Chögyam Trungpa Chapter 6: The Vajra Master
Many people have heard fascinating facts and figures about tantra, exciting stories about the “sudden path.” Tantra may seem seductive and appealing, particularly when it seems to coincide with modern notions of efficiency and automation. If we ask people whether they prefer to walk up the stairs or ride in an elevator, most people, if they are not used to working hard, will say they prefer to ride in the elevator. But that attitude is a problem in relating to tantra. If students believe that tantra is supposed to be the quick path, then they think they should get quick results. They do not want to waste their time. Instead they want to get their money’s worth, so to speak, and quickly become buddhas. They become impatient, and not only that, they become cowardly. They do not want to face to face pain or problems, because they they won’t get quick results. With that attitude, students have very little willingness to expose themselves and to face the state of panic of the tantric practitioner. The student of tantra should be in a constant state of panic. That panic is electric and should be regarded as worthwhile. Panic serves two purposes: it overcomes our sense of smugness and self-satisfaction, and it sharpens our clarity enormously. It has been said by Padma Karpo and other great tantric teachers that studying tantra is like riding on a razor blade. Should we try to slide down the razor blade or should we just try to sit still? If we know how to slide down the razor blade, we might do it as easily as a child slides down a banister; whereas if we do not know the nature of the blade and we are just trying to prove our chauvinism, we might find ourselves cut in two. So the more warnings that are given about tantra, the more the student of tantra benefits. If the tantric master does not give enough warnings, the student cannot develop any real understanding of tantra at all, because she is not riding on the razor’s edge.
Panic is the source of openness and the source of questions, Panic is the source of open heart and open ground. Sudden panic creates an enormous sense of fresh air, and that quality of openness is exactly what tantra should create. If we are good tantra students, we open ourselves each moment. We panic a thousand times a day, 108 times and hour. We open constantly and we panic constantly. That ongoing panic points to the seriousness of the tantric path, which is so overwhelmingly powerful and demanding that it is better not to commit ourselves to it. But if we must get into it, we should take it seriously – absolutely seriously..
It is possible that by following the tantric path we could develop vajra indestructibility and a sudden realization of enlightenment. But it is equally possible that we could develop an indestructible ego and find ourselves burnt up, as if we were an overcooked steak. We might find that we have become a little piece of charcoal. So there are two different possibilities: we could discover our inherent vajra nature, or we could become a piece of charcoal.
There is also a price on the head of the teacher. Those masters and teachers of tantra who teach students at the wrong time, who choose the wrong moment or say the wrong thing, or who are not able to experience accurately what is taking place may be condemned. They too may be reduced into pieces of charcoal. Such mistakes in teaching are called the offense of sang drok (gsang-sgrogs), which means declaring the secret at the wrong time. So there is a type of security system that has been set up in the vajrayana world.
If teachers feel that they can go outside the law, so to speak, outside the boundaries, or if they feel they no longer need to commit themselves to the practice, they can be punished along with their students. It is because of this security system that the lineage of great tantric teachers has continued without interruption up to the present day. Everyone in the tantric lineage has panicked: the teachers have panicked and the students have panicked. Because of that healthy situation of panic, the tantric lineage has developed beautifully, smoothly, and healthily. Nobody has made mistakes. If anybody did make a mistake, he just vanished and became a piece of charcoal. Those who survived, both students and teachers, are those who developed vajra nature. Because of that they survived.
We might wonder why the vajrayana is kept secret at all. What is this famous tantric secret? The secret is not particularly exotic. It is not anything special. It simply refers to what we discover when we begin to play with the cosmos, the energy of the universe. As children we know that if we touch a naked wire we get a shock; we learn that by playing with our world. If we speed in our motor car we will crash. We know that much. Here we are talking about the spiritual equivalent of that knowledge, which is a hundred times worse or a hundred times more powerful, depending upon how we would like to put it. We are talking about the energy that exists in the world. We first have a glimpse of that energy, we get completely fascinated by it, and then we begin to play with it. We are asking for trouble, as any sensible person would tell us.
This warning has been given hundreds of times. “Don’t get into tantra just like that. Start with hinayana, graduate to Mahayana, and then you can become a tantric practitioner. If you have already done your homework and finished your basic training, then you can become a tantric practitioner. But even then, it is still dangerous.” That has been said many hundreds of times. Every book written on tantra, every commentary, every tantric text that has been recorded in the history of the cosmos, begins with that warning: “Be careful; think twice; pay respect; don’t just take this carelessly – be careful.” But interestingly enough, the more you put students off, the more interested they become.
The energy and power that exist in the tantric world are not different from what exists in the ordinary world. It is rather that developing a certain sensitivity exposes us to a different state of being. Often people who have taken hallucinogenic drugs claim that they have had a tantric experience, or people who have experienced extreme psychological depression or excitement claim that they have seen the tantric world. Those claims are somewhat suspicious.
When we talk about the tantric world, we are talking about this visual, auditory, sensory world, which has not been explored or looked at properly. Nobody has bothered to actually experience it. People just take it for granted. We may have been interested in our world when we were little children, but then we were taught how to handle it by our parents. Our parents already had developed a system to deal with the world and to shield themselves from it at the same time. As we accepted that system, we lost contact with the world. We lost the freshness and curiosity of our infancy a long time ago. And now, although the world is full of all kinds of things, we find that in communicating with the world we are somewhat numb. There is numbness in our sight, numbness in our hearing, numbness in our senses. It is as though we had been drugged. The reality of the world – the brilliance of red, the brightness of turquoise, the majesty of yellow, and the fantastic
quality of green – has not been seen properly. We have been indoctrinated, or we have indoctrinated ourselves. A state of numbness has developed, and we are not seeing our world properly.
The point of tantra is to reintroduce the world to us. Having developed a calmness of mind already in our practice of meditation, we can begin to re-view the world. We rediscover the world that exists around us, and we begin to find that this world is fabulous and fantastic. All kinds of exciting things are happening. Even people working nine-to-five jobs might find that their everyday life becomes fantastic. Every day is a different day rather than the same old thing.
The tantric approach to relating with the world is resharpening and reopening ourselves so that we are able to perceive our cosmos properly, thoroughly. We are keenly interested in and fascinated by the world. If we see a green light as we are driving, and it turns to amber and then red, it is fantastic. There is a world of self-existing messages and symbolism. For example, everybody dresses in his own colors and his own style of clothing. Some people decide to wear shirts and some people decide not to, but everybody wears a bottom part. Everybody has his own kind of hairdo. Some people wear glasses, and some do not. Everything makes sense. That is the whole point, that things make sense in their own right. Such truth does not have to be written in books – it is self-existing.
This may sound fantastic and enormously entertaining, but there is a catch. Along with that magic there is a naked sort of electricity. Once we are fascinated by this world and see the world without any filter or screen, then we are relating to the world so directly that it is as though we had no skin on our body. Experience becomes so intimate and so personal that it actually burns us or freezes us.. It is not just that the world is becoming open to us, but we are shedding our skin as well. We may become extremely sensitive and jumpy people, and it is possible that we may panic more; we may react even more intensely. For instance, if we become too involved in the brightness of red, it could become poisonous. It is even possible that we could kill ourselves – cut our own throats.
The world is so magical that it gives us a direct shock. It is not like sitting back in our theatre chair and being entertained by the fabulous world happening on the screen. It does not work that way. Instead it is a mutual process of opening between the practitioner and the world. Therefore tantra is very dangerous. It is electric and at the same time extremely naked. There is no place for our suit of armor. There is no time to insulate ourselves. Everything is too immediate. Our suit of armor is punctured from both outside and inside at once. Such nakedness and such openness reveal the cosmos in an entirely different way. It may be fantastic, but at the same time, it is very dangerous.
In addition to ourselves and the world, there is also a third element involved: the teacher who talks to us and introduces to us the possibility of such a true world. In the discipline of hinayana we relate to the teacher as a wise man who gives us constant instruction and guides us precisely. The relationship between teacher and student is very simple and clean-cut. In the discipline of mahayana, we regard the teacher as a kalyanamitra or spiritual friend, who works with us and relates to us a friend. He guides us through the dangerous and the luxurious parts of the path; he tells us when to relax and when to exert ourselves, and he teaches the disciplines of helping others. In the discipline of vajrayana, the relationship between teacher and student is much more vigorous and highly meaningful. It is more personal and magical than consulting a sage or, for that matter, consulting a spiritual friend.
The vajrayana teacher is referred to as the vajra master. The vajra master is electric and naked. She holds a sceptre in her hand, called a vajra, which symbolizes a thunderbolt. The teacher holds the power to conduct lightning with her hand. By means of the vajra she can transmit that electricity to us. If the cosmos and the student are not connecting properly, the vajra master can respark the connection. In this sense the teacher has a great deal of power over us, but not such that she can become an egomaniac. Rather, the teacher is a spokesman who reintroduces the world to us: she reintroduces us to our world.
The vajra master is like a magician in the sense that she has access to the cosmic world and can work with it, but not in the sense that she can turn earth into fire, or fire into water, just like that. The vajra master has to work with the actual functions of the universe. We could say that the cosmos contains a lot of magic, and because the vajra master has some connection with the world and the happenings of the world, there is magic already. Therefore, the vajra master could be considered a supervisor of magic rather than a magician.
Relating with the vajra master is extremely powerful and somewhat dangerous at this point. The vajra master is capable of transmitting the vajra spiritual energy to us, but at the same time, she is also capable of destroying us if our direction is completely wrong. Tantra means continuity, but one of the principles of tantric discipline is that continuity can only exist if there is something genuine to continue. If we are not genuine, then our continuity can be cancelled by the vajra master. So we do not regard our teacher in the vajrayana as a savior or as a deity who automatically will give us whatever we want.
The vajra master could be quite heavy-handed; however, she does not just play tricks on us whenever she finds a weak point. She conducts herself according to the tradition and the discipline: she touches us, she smells us, she looks at us, and she listens to our heartbeat. It is a very definite, deliberate process done according to the tradition of the lineage. That process – when the vajra master looks at us, when she listens to us, when she feels us, and when she touches us – is known as abhisheka or empowerment.
Abhisheka is sometimes translated as “initiation,” but that does not actually convey the proper meaning. As we discussed earlier, abhisheka is a Sanskrit word that literally means “anointment.” It is the idea of being bathed in holy water that is blessed by the teacher and the mandala around the teacher. However, abhisheka is not an initiation or rite of passage in which we are accepted as a member of the tribe if we pass certain tests. In fact, it is entirely different. The vajra master empowers us and we receive that power, depending both on our own capability and the capability of the teacher. Therefore the term “empowerment” is more appropriate than “initiation,” because there is no tribe into which we are initiated. There is no closed circle; rather, we are introduced to the universe. We cannot say that the universe is a big tribe or a big ego; the universe is open space. So the teacher empowers us to encounter our enlarged universe.
At this point the teacher acts as a lightning rod. We could be shocked or devastated by the electricity she transmits to us, but it is also possible that we could be saved by having such an electric conductor.
In the vajrayana, it is absolutely necessary to have a teacher and to trust in the teacher. The teacher or vajra master is the only embodiment of the transmission of energy. Without such a teacher we cannot experience the world properly and thoroughly. We cannot just read a few books on tantra and try to figure it out for ourselves. Somehow that does not work. Tantra has to be transmitted to the student as a living experience. The tantric system of working with the world and the energy of tantra have to be transmitted or handed down directly from teacher to student. In that way the teachings become real and obvious and precise.
A direct relationship between teacher and student is essential in vajrayana Buddhism. People cannot even begin to practice tantra without making some connection with their teacher, their vajra, indestructible, master. She has to be somebody who has gone through the whole process herself – somebody who has been both a panicking student and a panicking teacher.
We could say that the vajra master exists because she is free from karma, but that through her compassion such a teacher establishes a relative link to her world. However, in a sense no one is actually free from karma, not even the enlightened buddhas. The buddhas are not going to retire from their buddhahood to some heavenly realm. They have to help us; they have to work with us. That is their karma and our karma as well.
That is one of the interesting differences between the theistic and the nontheistic approach. In the theistic approach, when we retire from this world, we go to heaven. Once we are in heaven we do not have anything to do with the world. We have no obligations, and we can be happy ever after. But in the nontheistic tradition, even if we attain the state of liberation or openness, we still have debts, because the rest of our brothers and sisters in the world are still in trouble. We have to come back. We can’t just hang out in nirvana.
So the vajra master is a human being, someone who has a karmic debt to pay as a result of the intensity of her compassion. The dharma cannot be transmitted from the sun or the moon or the stars. The dharma can only be transmitted properly from human to human. So there is a need for a vajra master who has tremendous power – power over us, power over the cosmos, and power over herself – and who has also been warned that if she misdirects her energy she will be cut down and reduced into a little piece of charcoal.
It is extremely important to have a living vajra master, someone who personally experiences our pain and our pleasure. We have to have a sense of fear and respect that we are connecting and communicating directly with tantra. Making that connection is a very special thing. It is extremely difficult to find a true tantric situation and to meet a true tantric master. Becoming a true tantric student is also very difficult. It is very difficult to find the real thing.