Shambhala Sun | May 2013
Journey to Awakening
The spiritual path is like any journey we take into uncharted territory—we need a map, a vehicle, and a guide to reach our destination. JUDY LIEF takes us on the three-yana journey of Vajrayana Buddhism.
Maps I have always been fascinated by maps. In grade
school, when we were introduced to map reading and map making, it seemed so magical that the world and its complexity could
be represented by pictures and diagrams on a simple sheet of
paper. It was amazing that if you followed the directions on the
map you would actually be able to get somewhere, even if you
had never been there before. It got even better when I discovered that I could send off a cereal-box coupon and receive in the
mail a genuine pirate’s map leading to a chest of buried treasure.
These sepia maps, ancient looking and burned on the edges, led
me to believe that I could follow such a map to the point where
“X marks the spot.”
There are many kinds of maps. We create internal maps without even being aware of doing so, mapping our physical, emotional, and mental realities. By means of a map, you can find your
way back to where you started without getting lost. A map can
lead you to someplace new or give your friends a way to find you.
Maps give us directions on how to proceed. They provide a feeling
of security and are a defense against bewilderment and disorientation. It is a relief to be able to look at a map and see where you are. It is a relief to know that you are somewhere specific, that you
came from somewhere and that there is somewhere to go.
Journeys Journeys are challenging. We leave our familiar
home and enter new territory. How do we know what to do and
where to go? Embarking on a spiritual journey is like this. The
new spiritual terrain can seem to be a kind of terra incognita,
scary and possibly overrun by monsters. We are afraid we might
get lost and not be able to find our way forward or back. We are
on a treasure hunt, but we don’t know where to look. If we have
the right map, we might be able to find that buried treasure, even
if it has been underground for many years.
On the spiritual journey, it is possible to get stuck and not
really go anywhere. It is also possible to be swept along so rapidly
that we lose our bearings. If we have no map, we might drift
about aimlessly and go round in circles. But if our trip is overly
scripted, there will be no room for personal discoveries. It would
be like signing up for a package tour in which every point of
interest has been spelled out in advance. So we need the right
kind of map, one that gives us a sense of direction and an overview of where we are going but also leaves room for us to explore.
Along with a general map of the territory, we need a good
guide for our journey who can point the way. This guide should
have explored the region so thoroughly that he or she no longer
needs an external map. Their familiarity with the terrain is so
thorough that they have developed a kind of internal map, like
an inner instinctual compass. But although they no longer need
a map themselves, such guides recognize the value of maps for newcomers, as well as the limitations of relying on maps.
On my own journey, I have been fortunate to encounter both
a guide and a map. In my case, the guide is the late Chögyam
Trungpa Rinpoche, the terrain is Vajrayana Buddhism, and the map is the teachings on the stages of the path.
Vehicles In the Vajrayana tradition, one’s journey can be
described in terms of three main vehicles, or yanas. The first is
the Hinayana path of individual liberation, the second is the
Mahayana path of greater openness and compassion, and the
third is the Vajrayana path of indestructible wakefulness. Each
yana has its own integrity and completeness, and at the same time they form a unified system. Although any one of the three
can be studied and practiced separately, the Hinayana, Mahayana,
and Vajrayana are in fact expressions of a single path.
The dynamic nature of this model is exemplified by the use of
the term yana, vehicle, rather than more static terms such as steps
or stages. When you get into a vehicle, you definitely expect it to
move along and carry you forward. Likewise, in the three-yana
journey you are continually moving forward. There is an organic
quality to the three-yana progression, in the sense that with a little
care each experience on the spiritual path naturally evolves and
grows. At the same time, as you progress along the path, you do
not drop the previous yana as you move on to the next one.
Vajrayana teachers also liken the three yanas to building a
house. Here, the Hinayana provides the foundation, the connection with the Earth. There is no way to build a solid house with-
out a foundation—it is what you build first, and it is the ballast
or support for the whole structure. But a foundation alone is
not a house; you need walls and windows and doors. This is like
the Mahayana, for it provides the possibility of hospitality and
a means of communication and exchange with the world. And finally, of course, you need a roof. You need shelter and protection and the kind of adornment that brings the whole picture
together. That roof is the Vajrayana.
This straightforward and systematic guide for practitioners is a
great benefit of the Tibetan tradition. The recently published set
of teachings by Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, titled The Profound
Treasury of the Ocean of Dharma, presents the three-yana teachings as the framework for deepening and refining the study and
practice of the dharma. Trungpa Rinpoche placed great emphasis
on these teachings and presented them in many individual talks
and in public seminars. He came back to this topic again and
again, and most notably, he used the three yanas as the structure
for every one of the three-month-long Vajradhatu Seminaries he
led for his most senior students. The Profound Treasury presents
these teachings to the public for the first time.
Hinayana: The Path of Individual Liberation
Before you can figure out the map of dharma, you first
have to know where you are. Hinayana is like the spot on the
map that says “You are here.” It is where you begin. This is the
yana that introduces the fundamental principles and practices of
the Buddhist tradition. These key insights are the foundation of
the Buddhist path altogether and the underpinning of the subsequent two yanas.
View In the Hinayana, you examine your view of yourself, your
actions,and the world around you. You contemplate the nature of
your own identity and discover that your seemingly solid self is in fact not all that solid. You see that sensations and experiences
arise and fall continually, but if you try to find what holds them all
together, you come up empty-handed. And as your own solidity
begins to be questionable, you also begin to have doubts about the
so-called solid world outside. There is a softening of the pain of
alienation and the split between I and other.
In this yana, you also look more deeply into your actions and
habits and their consequences. You examine the attitudes and
actions that have brought you up to this point and take a hard
look at where they will inevitably lead you in the future. You
gain respect for how small actions can have big effects. By looking closely into these patterns, you can distinguish where and
why you are stuck and where and how there might be openings
This is the yana of personal responsibility. You begin to see your
own role in creating the thought habits and emotional tangles that
entrap you. You realize how much of what seems to be out there
or coming at you is your own projections bouncing back at you.
This yana has a quality of purity and no nonsense, which
can be summed up by the Buddha’s teaching on the four noble
truths: suffering, its cause, its cessation, and the path to liberation. The reality of suffering, and the many subtle expressions
of suffering underlying our ordinary experiences of pain and
pleasure, is not that easy to understand or accept. It is like we
are addicted to dysfunctional living, so we keep telling ourselves it can’t really be all that bad. But maybe it is that bad, and
once we take an interest in that possibility, we are beginning to
move along. We are awakening our inquisitiveness. That leads
us to explore what might be causing our suffering, and we discover the destructive power of ignorance and grasping. This is
the truth of the cause of suffering.
The brilliance of this teaching is that right away it gives you
something to work with. Instead of dreaming of how things
might be or should be, you begin simply with what is right in
front of you. You begin to make a transition from feeling victimized: you see that since you are actually responsible for your
situation, you yourself can change it. So instead of despairing
that “you made your bed, now lie in it,” it is more like “you made
your bed, so you can unmake it as well.” This is the third noble
truth—cessation, the possibility of freedom. And finally, with
great practicality, the Buddha gave detailed instructions on how
to move forward. This is the path, the fourth noble truth.
Meditation Like the Hinayana view, which is the foundation for the entire path, the meditation practices of the Hinayana
continue right through the Mahayana and Vajrayana. The central practices are twofold, shamatha and vipashyana—mindfulness and awareness.
Basically, shamatha is the practice of taming the mind; it is a
stilling and settling of the mind. Vipashyana means “clear seeing,” and it has two aspects. There is an inquisitive, investigative component, and also a direct perceptual component that
comes when the mind relaxes and opens out. Both shamatha and
vipashyana are ways of gaining sophistication about the working
of your own mind and the play of thoughts and emotions. As a
result, you are less captured by your opinions and judgments and
not so easily overwhelmed by the intensities of your emotions.
There is a quality of kindness and self-acceptance.
Action The Hinayana is all about slowing down and simplifying. There is a paring down of experience at all levels, with
fewer distractions, fewer thoughts, less drama, fewer entanglements. When you act simply, with mindfulness, your actions
have more power. You speak when something needs to be said,
and you act when action is needed. You are learning how to be,
and you manifest the power of simple genuine presence.
In the Hinayana, there is also a quality of restraint. You practice the discipline of refraining from harmful actions. Because
you are less caught in speediness of mind, you can recognize the
arising of impulsive, negative action and nip it in the bud.
The view, practice, and action of the Hinayana set you on the
path of dharma. They help you build the mental, emotional,
and meditative health you need to grow in your dharmic understanding and realization. They prepare you well for the journey.
Mahayana: The Bodhisattva Path
of Wisdom and Compassion
The Mahayana is a natural outgrowth of the Hinayana. It is
the simplifying and paring down of the Hinayana that makes the
expansiveness of Mahayana possible. Doing the hard work of investigating your own nature and your preconceptions about the world
changes you in significant ways. You become more self-accepting,
gentler, more real and genuine. When you have become a better
friend to yourself, you are ready to be a better friend to others.
View In the Mahayana you see yourself as inextricably connected with all other beings, and because of that your individual
path expands and broadens. Your Hinayana training has brought
you to the point where you sense the underlying inclination of
all beings to awaken, and you gain more confidence in your own
potential. At the same time, you recognize that focusing on your own development is not enough. You cannot be free from suffering if you know that others around you are still suffering.
So the awareness you have cultivated through sitting practice
makes it hard to ignore the suffering of others, and it gives birth
to greater empathy and compassion. Likewise, the silence and
stillness cultivated in your shamatha practice gives birth to a
sense of vastness, openness, and continual expansion. This wide-open quality, since it is free of deception or any boundaries, concepts, or limits, is referred to as emptiness, or shunyata.
Meditation The practice of sitting meditation continues
to be important in the Mahayana. But in addition to the cultivation of mindfulness and awareness, there is an emphasis on the
cultivation of the heart and on meditation in action.
The term “meditation” usually refers to more formless practices, such as placing attention on the breathing process. But once
the mind is somewhat settled, you can engage in a variety of contemplative exercises as a mindful way of reflecting on a particular
subject. This kind of reflection could be about obstacles you need
to overcome or it could be about qualities you aspire to cultivate.
In one traditional contemplation, you contemplate the qualities of loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity, known as the four immeasurables. This is not done in a
dry or abstract way; you aspire to tap in to the limitless energy
of each of these benevolent emotions and direct it outward to
beings near and far. So at one and the same time, you are deepen-
ing your understanding of these four qualities and you are evoking them on the spot.
Perhaps the most well-known Mahayana practice is that of
tonglen, sending and taking. This practice is also referred to as
exchanging yourself for others. It is a radical reversal of the habit of putting oneself before others; in this practice, others come first.
When others are experiencing difficulty or pain, you breathe that
in; when joy or confidence arises within, you breathe that out to
benefit others. You practice tonglen in relation to your own mental-
emotional process and you practice this in relation to others, starting with those closest to you and extending from there. Tonglen
practice challenges our sense of territory, limits, and boundaries; it
confronts us with the limits of our thoughts, and the limits of our
love and compassion for ourselves and other beings.
In the Mahayana, the practice of tonglen is complemented by
the ongoing practice of bringing wisdom and compassion into
our ordinary, everyday encounters. This is called meditation in
action. Formal practices are like basic training, but the test of
that training is how it manifests in your daily life. It is easy to
be compassionate in theory, but putting it into practice is not
so easy. So along with tonglen practice, you can work with a set
of Mahayana slogans called lojong (mind training) that serve as
pointed reminders to continue the cultivation of loving-kindness and compassion in the midst of daily life. These powerful
little slogans will not let you off the hook.
Although such Mahayana practices as tonglen have become
popular, Mahayana wisdom practices are equally important. In
the Madhyamaka, or middle way approach, you work with a
sophisticated system of logical reasonings to deconstruct your
ego-clinging and fixed views about reality. These cut off any
escape from immediate experience and leave you groundless, in
a kind of no-man’s-land. Although this might sound desolate or
devastating, it is simply the pain of emergence from the constraints of our fear and ego-clinging.
A related practice is the systematic contemplation of the different aspects of emptiness. Once again, you are using reasoning mind to realize the nonconceptual. You do so with such diligence,
putting so much energy and fuel into the project, that eventually
the struggling conceptual mind simply burns itself out.
A key aspect of Mahayana practice is that you continually
bring compassion and wisdom into balance. There is no real
wisdom without compassion, and no real compassion without
wisdom. Fundamentally the two are inseparable, but it is possible to lose that balance, so it must continually be restored.
Action In the Hinayana you cultivated the discipline of
restraint, of refraining from harmful actions. On that basis you
can afford to extend yourself. In the Mahayana, your discipline
is not only to limit harmful actions but to increase activities that
are of benefit to yourself and others. You are challenged to push
beyond your comfort zone and be willing to engage fully with
The notion of virtuous action in the Mahayana has great
depth. Six fundamental principles serve as guidelines: generosity, discipline, patience, exertion, meditation, and knowledge.
These are known as the six transcendent perfections, or paramitas. There is constant interplay among these six and a variety
of checks and balances. And underlying all of them is the basic
Mahayana principle of putting others before yourself.
There is a subtlety in the approach to action in the Mahayana. If you are attached to the idea of being virtuous, if you are fixated on results, if you want a pat on the back, it is no longer real virtue. You may accomplish a certain level of benefit, but if your actions are less tainted by those kinds of concerns, you can accomplish much more. Without that kind of residue, there is a lightness and humor in your actions, as well as great depth and power.
Vajrayana: The Tantric Path
of Indestructible Wakefulness
The third and final yana is the Vajrayana, which is also
known as tantra. It is the natural fruition of the groundwork laid
by the Hinayana, and the expansion of the path in the Mahayana.
In the three-yana system, the Vajrayana is the fruition, the endpoint, yet it is also a continuation of what has come before. The
Vajrayana does not leave the Hinayana and Mahayana behind; it
incorporates the views and practices of the previous two yanas
and builds on them.
You gather your energy in the Hinayana and extend out in
the Mahayana. In the Vajrayana you dive into reality completely.
When you dive in without hesitation, the world is seen as sacred,
and your ordinary vision is transformed into sacred outlook. At
this point you are already steeped in the view and practices of the
buddhadharma, so the time has come to fully manifest what you
have learned. It is the Vajrayana that shows you how to do that,
and so it is known as the yana of skillful means.
View In the Vajrayana your view is expansive. It is as if you
have been trudging along a mountain trail for miles and miles and finally reach the top, where at long last you have a chance to see the entire panorama. You experience your ordinary world in a fresh way and the most mundane experiences are seen to be infused with sacredness. The Vajrayana view is nontheistic, yet you experience this sacred world as filled with deities, filled with teachers and teaching, filled with symbolism. In the Vajrayan you being to touch in to a realm of boundless space that is both luminous and empty, accommodating birth and death,
samsara and nirvana, all phenomena.
Meditation Vajrayana practices can
be divided into those with form and those
that are more formless. Naturally, the foundation for embarking on these advanced
practices is your training in shamatha and
vipashyana, and in the Mahayana mind
training and compassion practices.
Visualization practices make use of
the mind’s natural tendency to form pictures. In visualization practice you create
an image in your mind of a deity, and you
evoke the wisdom and power of that deity,
identifying the deity with those qualities in
your own nature. Visualization practices are
done in the context of liturgies, or sadhanas,
that include meditation, the recitation of
mantras, and ritual gestures, or mudras. In
tantra, there are many deities representing
different types of realization. For instance,
Avalokiteshvara represents compassion and
Manjushri represents wisdom. However, it
is important to understand that these deities are unlike more well-known theistic
concepts, such as a creator God. Tantric
deities are luminous yet empty, and they
arise and dissolve out of emptiness in the
process of visualization. They embody our
own enlightened nature.
Vajrayana formless practice is the epitome of simplicity and relaxation. This
experience is sometimes referred to as
being like an old dog. There is a carefree,
confident, and nonstriving approach to
meditation and a letting go of pretense.
Trungpa Rinpoche talked about this as
being content to be the lowest of the low.
There is an exhaustion of egoic ambition.
Vajrayana practices are meant to be
transmitted directly by an accomplished
master to students who are well-trained
and prepared to enter into them fully.
They are not taken up casually. The per-
sonal relationship between teacher and
student is paramount. The meeting of the
dedication of the teacher and the devotion of the students provides the essential
spark for Vajrayana practices to take root.
Action Vajrayana action, like that of
the previous yanas, is based on wisdom
and compassion. It has its root in mindfulness and awareness. But at this level, com-
passionate activity becomes more radical,
even wrathful, and totally uncompromising. Such action is described as having four
forms or energies: pacifying, enriching,
magnetizing, and destroying. There is a
no-nonsense approach to obstacles, and a
determination to clear away fearlessly anything that threatens to undermine one’s
progress on the path to the realization of
the sacred, wakeful nature of reality.
In the Vajrayana we recognize that
physical gestures, sounds and utterances,
and thoughts are all gateways to awakening
and should be worked with and respected.
We see that all aspects of our experience,
and the environment as a whole, are
workable on the path to enlightenment.
The Vajrayana is a complete world. Once
you enter it, every action becomes a message of the teaching. There is no boundary
and nowhere to hide.
Treasure The three-yana journey
I have been describing is not a linear
journey. You repeatedly circle back to
the beginning and start over again. Each
time you think you have reached a break-
through, you find that there is further to
go, and it becomes clear that an accomplishment at one level can become an
obstacle at the next. However, you keep
going, drawn by the lure of the treasure,
the promise of awakening, the yearning
for freedom. If you follow the map with
enough persistence, maybe you will find
it. There it will be: X marks the spot. Or
maybe the search itself is the treasure.
Maybe you have been carrying the treasure with you all along.
Judy Lief is a Buddhist teacher and the editor of The Profound Treasury of the Ocean of
Dharma, a new three-volume series presenting the
Hinayana, Mahayana, and Vajrayana Seminary
teachings of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche. The
author of Making Friends with Death, Lief
teaches a contemplative approach to facing death
and working with the dying and leads an annual
retreat for women touched by cancer entitled
Courageous Women, Fearless Living.