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The purpose of the Manjushri practice

Part of a series of teachings on the Manjushri practice given at Dharma Friendship Foundation in Seattle, Washington.

  • The purpose and types of Manjushri practice
  • The four kinds of wisdom
  • The four misconceptions and how Manjushri practice eliminates them
  • Eliminating ordinary appearances
  • Questions and answers regarding the sadhana

Manjushri sadhana and commentary 03 (download)

Listen to this teaching in Spanish translated and narrated by Venerable Jampel Wangmo.

Download the Spanish translation as a PDF.

Manjushri practice especially helps us develop our wisdom. All the buddhas have the same realization. It’s not that Manjushri has more wisdom than all the other buddhas and less compassion; they all have the same realizations. It’s just that Manjushri’s specialty is wisdom, and he’s the manifestation of the wisdom of all the buddhas. There are different forms of Manjushri. This is the red-yellow form [which in our practice sadhana is now called orange]. There’s also a white Manjushri and a black Manjushri. The terrifying Manjushri is Yamantaka or Dorje Jigje. So there are a lot of different forms of Manjushri, and they’re all to develop wisdom.

There’s a big difference between knowledge and wisdom. We often get these things quite confused in our life, because we think that if we have knowledge and we know a lot, that therefore we’re wise. No. We think if we remember a lot, that therefore we’re wise. No. I mean, the computer remembers things far better than we do. Does a computer have wisdom? No. So there’s a big difference in our lives between knowing things and having information, and then having the wisdom of how to use that information in a kind way and an appropriate way.

Manjushri practice can be used to help us with our memory—it can be used to help us gain and remember information. It can also be used to help people who have difficulties with stuttering, and all sorts of things like this. But the real purpose is to develop wisdom. And it’s not just the wisdom of subatomic particles, and the wisdom of how electricity works. That’s basically knowledge, isn’t it? Here we’re looking for the wisdom that understands the nature of reality.

Even in regards to the nature of reality, there’s the difference between having the knowledge about it and the wisdom about it. We can recite all those scriptures, and recite many lectures giving the whole outline of emptiness. We can talk about the 18 types of emptiness, and the four opponent powers that you use, and the different this or that of emptiness, and blah, blah, blah, without having any kind of realization in our mind about it. So we can have knowledge about emptiness, but without the wisdom realizing it.

First we need the knowledge. We need some kind of information so that we can know how to meditate and know how to develop wisdom. But the real thing we’re looking for here is the wisdom, because it’s the wisdom that’s going to change our minds.

Four kinds of wisdom

Sometimes we talk about four different kinds of wisdom. There are various ways to talk about wisdom, and one way is these four kinds. We have the innate wisdom that we’re born with, the wisdom arising from hearing, the wisdom arising from thinking (or contemplating or reflecting), and the wisdom arising from meditating.

This first one, the innate wisdom, is the wisdom that’s a carry-over from previous lives. Whatever wisdom we trained our minds in previously left a deep imprint that comes along into this life. You’ll see that some people, from the time they’re young, they “get it” better than other people get it.

We often think that’s the only kind of wisdom there is—that you’ve either “got it” or you don’t. But that’s not it. This wisdom is only one of the four, and it’s the only one, actually, that comes as a result of previous lives. The next three—hearing, thinking, and meditating—are developed in this life. This emphasizes that we can develop wisdom in this very lifetime, and that’s why we’re doing this practice.

The next wisdom is often literally translated as the “wisdom of hearing,” but it actually includes reading and studying as well. It’s the wisdom of learning. This might have some element of gaining knowledge in it, but when you’re listening to teachings, when you’re studying them, when you’re reading them, there can also be a certain arising of wisdom in your own mind. You can see this as you practice the Dharma over time. The more you practice, the more you become familiar with the different topics, the more you purify, and the more you develop merit in your own mindstream. Then, when you listen to teachings, you can have a totally different experience of what the words mean when you’re listening, or a totally different experience of what the book means.

I had this so clearly in my own experience. I remember the first Kopan courses I went to—the first was in 1975 and the second one in 1976. In between I did the Vajrasattva retreat. When I came back for that second course, I was thinking, “Is this what he taught last year?” It was like it was totally new. I was experiencing it in a totally different way. Some of you may have had that experience too. Even take a topic like precious human life. You listen to it the first time, and you think, “Precious human life, eight freedoms and ten fortunes. What’s all this stuff? I don’t get it!” Then you start getting familiar with the teachings, and you purify and create merit. Then when you listen to the teachings on precious human life, you have a whole different experience in your heart and some kind of feeling comes, even though the words you’re listening to—or the words you’re reading—are exactly the same thing. Have any of you had that experience? So it’s something coming from us.

That’s what’s so interesting about giving a Dharma talk. One person hears the Dharma talk and goes, “Huh?” and another person goes, “Wow!” And, they’re both convinced that it came completely from outside of them.

I gave a seminar in Esalen Institute, and most of the people seemed to enjoy the seminar, but one guy made the effort to write a feedback letter to them saying, “I’ve been coming to Esalen for 20 years, and this is the most terrible workshop I ever went to. She doesn’t know what she’s talking about, and she’s preachy. She’s infatuated with herself, and she comes across like a Buddhist Dr. Laura.” This is the disparity between different people listening to the same teaching!

So you can see that the wisdom derived from hearing or listening is an interplay with our own mind. You can also see how, as you practice, purify, and create merit, your positive potential is going to change.

We not only listen to or study the teachings. We also have to think about them, reflect on them, contemplate them, and try to understand them properly. Sometimes we listen to them, and we think we understand, but we’re totally off base. We don’t have the right idea at all. That’s why it’s so valuable to meet together and discuss together. When you discuss, you see all of a sudden how much you understand. And you listen to other people’s understanding and compare it to your own understanding, and that helps you see what you don’t understand correctly, or what they don’t. A lot of learning goes on there. So that second step of thinking is to make sure we have the correct understanding of the teachings. It’s not just sufficient to know the words, or even to be able to recite the words. Sometimes we can do that, but, in our heart, we misunderstand them. This can go on for many years before we actually realize we’re off base.

Once we’ve thought or reflected or contemplated the teachings, then we meditate on them. The actual wisdom that arises from meditation is a union of shamatha and vipassana: calm abiding and special insight. That’s quite a deep level of wisdom that comes in the meditation.

Those are the three wisdoms that are developed in this very life. This is important to recognize. Don’t just think, “I didn’t do very well in school, so how am I ever going to learn the Dharma?” That’s wrong thinking. First of all, what we come into this life with is only one kind of wisdom; we gain the other three in this life. Secondly, worldly “wisdom” and Dharma wisdom are two different ball games. I’ve met people who have a lot of worldly wisdom—high careers, PhDs, etc.—but you take them to a Dharma talk and they don’t get it. There’s no facility in them to look inside and look at their own minds; they just don’t understand Dharma. Even though their IQ is 160 something.

Then you have other people who are totally uneducated, but they have genuine wisdom in their minds. They hear a little bit of Dharma and say, “Wow!” They get it. Look at all these stories from the past of poor or uneducated people who became great practitioners. So I highly recommend throwing out all your self-images of whether you’re smart or dumb, or what you know or what you don’t know because most of them are wrong, especially when it comes to the Dharma.

Four misconceptions

I want to introduce the four misconceptions or four distortions. Some people say, “I’m a non-believer. I don’t have any religion. I don’t believe in religion. My mind is completely free from any kind of religious dogma.” Well, is that person really not believing in anything? We may say, “I’m not a believer,” but we still hold many basic beliefs, including these four distortions, also called wrong attentions or wrong mental engagements. These are four ways of looking at the world that we generally don’t recognize that we have. Even somebody who says, “I’m a non-believer,” believes in these things.

What are these four beliefs that permeate our “take” on the world? First of all, we think that impermanent, changing, transient phenomena are static, fixed, and permanent. Forget philosophy! We all say, “Oh yes, everything’s changing, moment by moment, but why did my car get scratched? That wasn’t supposed to happen!”

These four misconceptions are innate beliefs. We can get them reinforced by what we hear in wrong philosophies, but these are basic innate beliefs we come into this life with. We react towards impermanent things as if they were fixed and permanent, don’t we? When we look at our body, do we feel like our body changed since yesterday? Do we feel like our body’s getting older, day by day, minute by minute? Do you really? When you look in the mirror in the morning, do you really think your wrinkles are deeper than they were yesterday? Well, no, because you’ve been putting all that cream on, so the wrinkles are less deep today. That’s how we think of impermanence— that our wrinkles are going to go away. We never think our wrinkles are going to get worse. But, in actual fact, that’s what’s happening. Things are changing, moment by moment, and yet, we’re trying to make them very fixed and solid. So that’s the first misconception or distorted view.

A second one is the belief that things, which are actually suffering in nature, are happy. This is the big one that tricks us. Yes, we’re very deceived by thinking impermanent things are permanent, but this one that thinks that unsatisfactory things are happy—this is the big one. This is the one that makes us like B.F. Skinner’s rats that are always pecking at the lever to get their next hit of grain. We go along all day pecking and pecking, trying to get our pleasure. It starts out with Starbucks in the morning, and it goes on from there, as we’re trying to get some kind of pleasure, thinking that all these things we reach for are going to make us happy. When we get praised, we feel that praise is real happiness, and we’re seeking it. We want it. Our plans go well, and we get acknowledged for the kind things we’ve done, and people congratulate us. We think this is happiness, don’t we? That’s why we get so bent out of shape when we don’t hear these pleasant words. If you think you don’t have these attachments, just think of what happens in your mind when you don’t get them. Then you’ll see that you have them. We love nice pleasing words, and when we don’t get them we’re upset.

We think food is going to make us happy, so we try to get good food, and we try to get nice music, and we try to be around good people. We’re always looking outside for the latest thing that’s going to make us feel good. Then we think if we get that thing it means we’re successful and our lives are happy. But in actual fact, do any of these things bring happiness? They may bring relief from a certain kind of dissatisfaction, or relief from a certain kind of suffering, but do they bring us durable happiness? No, because if they brought us happiness then the more we had them, the more they would make us happy.

You may say, “I can never get enough praise.” But, if somebody sat there and, like a tape recorder, told you the same sweet words over and over again, you’d begin to think they were manipulating you, or putting you on, or even using you. Right? So we see that even we get all those nice words and we have a good reputation, we still don’t feel good about ourselves. We have to look and see: we think things that are actually suffering in nature will bring us happiness. We really believe this. And we need to see how we base our whole life upon this belief, just like we base our life upon the belief that impermanent things are permanent.

The third distortion is thinking that impure things are pure. Again, we take our body as an example. We have all this propaganda … (Excuse me, for the people who believe the propaganda, but it is propaganda), “The body is beautiful.” We all heard this, didn’t we? The alternative thought is, “Your body is evil and sinful,” and who wants that? So we go to the other extreme and tout the idea that your body is beautiful. Actually, both of them are completely wrong.

Let’s look at this, “Oh, my body is so beautiful!” idea. With that in mind you sit in front of the mirror every day and check your hair and your makeup. The guys too, and they especially check their hair because it’s all falling out. We check, “How do I look? How’s my pot belly today? Did I get a little bit thinner?”

We think this body is pure and wonderful, and that it’s so desirable. And we think other people’s bodies are too, so we want to hug and kiss their bodies. But stop and really look at what the body is. Does anything that comes out of any orifice in your body look good to you? Before you eat the food, it’s appealing. You have this wonderful lasagna. It’s great. But as soon as it goes into the body, that changes. And wherever it comes out, is it pure and clean then? No way! Our body has an ability to make things kind of yucky, according to our ordinary perception. These things aren’t inherently yucky, of course, but in the basic way we view our body, these things are not pure and clean. If you work in an emergency room or you work with 911, you see incredible things: bits of people’s bodies over here and bits over there, and completely opened up from the inside. Do we think that’s beautiful?

Remember when you had the chance to take college anatomy? Did you take it, or did you find some way to get around it? We don’t generally look at the insides of the body and say, “This is nice.” Yet our mind makes and believes all this propaganda about the body being beautiful—both beautiful and desirable. With this innate misconception we want to hold onto our body. We don’t want to separate from it at the time of death, because it’s so pure and so good. And other people’s bodies are also pure and beautiful, and we want to hug and kiss them. That is, until they die, and then we scream and run away. This shows just how wrong our mind is about what the body is. So that’s the third misconception: thinking impure things are pure.

The fourth misconception is thinking that selfless things have a self. In reality, things do not have any kind of concrete essence; they do not have any nature from their own side. But we think they have an essence, that they have their own nature and exist under their own power independently. This misconception is the root one. This is the self-grasping ignorance that’s the root of samsara.

Here’s what’s interesting about these four misconceptions. We come to Dharma class, and we write them down, and we say, “Oh, yes, I can see how these four are wrong.” But we keep on living our life exactly as if they were true. The moment we walk out of class, we’re back into that same old perception. This makes us incredibly ignorant of the value of the Dharma. How? Because when we believe in these four misconceptions, we don’t recognize that everything we perceive is wrong. Instead, we think that things exist in the way they appear to us. They appear to exist under their own power, and we believe that. They appear permanent and unchanging, and we believe that. They appear beautiful and able to give us happiness; we believe it. They appear pure; we believe it.

We go along with these views innately, and we structure our whole lives around them—even though we can name these four and go, “Blah, blah, blah” about them. It’s silly. We may say, “I’m practicing the Dharma because my mind’s full of misconceptions, and I’m trying to realize reality.” But our basic gut feeling is, “I know what reality is. It’s how I perceive things.” Don’t you think so? Isn’t that your basic gut feeling? “I know reality. Well, yes, I’m coming to Dharma class, but I know reality. Okay, maybe it helps me get rid of my anger a little bit, but I know reality.”

We don’t go around all day and every time we see something say, “This is wrong.” We go around all day saying, “This is right. It exists the way it appears to me.” But we only have to use a little bit of logic, look a little bit deeper, and we’ll see that every single perception we have is wrong— completely whacked out, bananas, wrong! But this doesn’t go along with our self-image, because we’re intelligent; we’re bright; we’re always right, aren’t we? We’re not wrong. We’re right.

This is what undermines our drive to practice the Dharma—we don’t realize how wrong we are. Sometimes you might be doing retreat or meditating, and all of a sudden something goes, “boing!” and you think, “My god! My mind is totally off this planet!” Forget about the distortions that come when we have anger and jealousy, which really compound things. Even just the normal, relaxed state of my mind has absolutely nothing to do with what reality is.

That’s not something we’re used to thinking about, but it’s really the way things are. For example, let’s take our sense perceptions. Take what you’re seeing with your eyes right now. We look out there, and we see people, don’t we? There’s Julie, and Kim, and Linda, and Barbara, and Bonnie, and everybody else. They are, in our view, they are real people out there, aren’t they? But that’s wrong. In fact, they are just bodies and minds, and we impute a person on top of that. But we don’t know that we did that. We think there are real people out there and, more importantly, there’s a real person in here. And that’s me.

When we look with our eyes again, everything looks quite fixed and solid, doesn’t it? It’s all static, predictable, secure. But in actual fact, even from a scientific view, all the little subatomic particles are weaving around at this incredible rate, and changing all the time. Our body, the table, the microphone, everything we’re looking at is not remaining the same from moment to moment. Yet we live as if this world is completely static and predictable. It’s not.

We look around and we say, “Oh, all these nice people,” and, “This nice place,” and, “I’m so comfortable. These nice soft meditation cushions—I’m so glad the center finally got them. And this is happiness. I have my car, and my family, and I just had dinner and this is good. This is happiness.” And we believe it, don’t we? And it’s wrong.

We feel about our body, “Oh yes. I’m going to take care of this body, and I want to keep it forever, because it’s so wonderful.” Yet it’s this sack of junk, basically. So, you see, just our raw basic experience is wrong. I’m not talking philosophy here; this is raw stuff. Forget realizing ultimate reality—the emptiness of inherent existence. We don’t even understand conventionally how wrong our perceptions are, how our conventional perceptions are wrong.

Right now, in our ignorance, we perceive neither ultimate truths nor conventional truths accurately. Now, all existent phenomena are either ultimate truths or conventional truths. So if we don’t perceive either of those two accurately, we don’t perceive anything accurately. This means we’re in trouble, because when you misperceive things, you get into trouble. You goof. That’s why we’re making big boo-boos all day long, because of these four misconceptions. We’re operating in a fantasy land created by our own wrong-conception mind, and then we wonder why we have problems. It’s all just the wrong-conception mind.

Manjushri practice and the four wrong conceptions

I especially like this teaching on the four misconceptions. It really cuts to the quick of our problems; there’s no messing around with this one. But how does tantric practice—specifically, how does the practice of Manjushri—help us resolve these four?

As you meditate, you will understand more and more deeply from your own side how the tantric practice acts as an antidote to these four distortions. I’m not giving you the answers here. I’m just giving you some things to contemplate, which come from my own ideas in playing with this. Then you’ll learn from your own meditation and your own experience.

Regarding the first misconception—seeing impermanent things as permanent—when you’re doing the self-generation1 sadhana, your whole body disappears. You have impermanence there. You arise. There’s the egg and the DHIH, and then that changes into Manjushri. And then there’s more change because Manjushri is radiating out this light. And then there’s more change when all the wisdom beings are dissolving into you. And there’s even more change when you’re radiating out offering goddesses that are making offerings, and you’re experiencing pleasure, and they’re dissolving into you. And when you’re doing the mantra recitation, there’s light radiating out then invoking Manjushris, and invoking wheels, and texts, and swords, and, “Om ah hums,” and mantra garlands; and everything is moving and changing all the time in this sadhana. So that’s teaching us something about change, isn’t it?

Even when you’re meditating on yourself as Manjushri, you’re not some fixed, unchangeable thing. You/Manjushri are constantly changing. Everything’s emanating everywhere and absorbing, and there’s all this stuff happening. It’s really interesting. Sometimes when you do this sadhana pay a special attention to how things are changing, and be really aware of impermanence as you meditate on the sadhana. Focus on that as you’re meditating: “This session I’m going to really focus on impermanence and how I’m doing this visualization.” Especially at the end—you’re radiating out the light, and everything dissolves, doesn’t it? The whole environment, all sentient beings, everything dissolves. “Goodbye.” Impermanent.

Now what about the misconception that thinks things that are unsatisfactory by nature are happiness? How does the practice go against this?

First of all, when we gain an idea of something’s unsatisfactory nature, it helps us to offer it—because we see there’s nothing to cling on to. And here in the Manjushri sadhana we’re not offering ordinary things. It’s not like, “I see this candy is really in the nature of suffering, so Manjushri, you can have it. I see it’s really garbage and it’s not going to bring me any happiness, so it’s okay, I can offer it to Manjushri.” It’s not like that. We dissolve the candy into emptiness, it appears as a pure substance, and we offer that. In this way we’re helping to diminish the idea of unsatisfactory things being satisfactory—we dissolve them into emptiness and then we offer them. This explains how we go from ordinary vision to the clear appearance.

We can also do this with people. When we look at ordinary people, we think they’re going to bring us real happiness. When we realize that the people are in the nature of being unsatisfactory, then we stop thinking that they are going to make us happy. Now just think how different your life would be if you stopped thinking that other people would make you happy. Isn’t this a basic preconception in your mind—that other people are going to make you happy? “When I’m lonely, if I spend time with that person, or if this one likes me, then I’ll be happy.”

We expect other people to make us happy. They can’t. Why? It’s because they’re changing, and because they’re in the nature of dukkha or unsatisfactoriness themselves. Realizing this we stop expecting them to make us happy. That enables us to drop our projections on other people, and we begin to see their Buddha nature. When we begin to see their Buddha nature, we become able to see how they could potentially become deities.

When we have the old view that thinks this person—whose nature is actually unsatisfactory—is the source of happiness, then there’s no space in our mind to see that person any other way. We think that person is really like what our projection sees, and we count on them to bring us happiness. We can’t see them in any other way, except as a living being who is going to make us happy. Think about the people who are important in your life. Isn’t that how you see them? Am I popping a few bubbles here?

It’s true, isn’t it? We think, “They’re going to make me happy.” And we project so much onto them; we have so many expectation about this living being. “They’re going to live forever. They’re always going to be there. They’re going to make me happy. When I’m with them, I’m going to be joyful.” We have so much stuff, so many preconceptions, that we project on the people we “love” that there’s no space for them to move.

When we realize that’s a wrong conception, we let go of it and stop expecting others to make us happy. Then, when we look at another person we see something completely different. This is especially true as we stop grasping at them as being inherently existent. We begin to realize, “There’s a body; there’s a mind; there’s a person that exists by being merely labeled.” And that brings more fluidity to the situation. We begin to ask, “Well, who is this person?” We realize there’s no essence in the person, and that lack of essence is their fundamental Buddha nature. It’s their emptiness of inherent existence. That emptiness is what gives them the possibility to change and become buddhas. It’s because they aren’t inherently anything that they can change and become buddhas.

If that person was our loved one inherently—our child, lover, friend, or whoever it is—he or she could never change and become a buddha. They would exist inherently as they are right now. But when we leave aside our expectations of them we can begin to see their emptiness, and when we see their emptiness we see their potential to become a buddha.

And so, when we’re doing the Manjushri practice—in both the sessions and in the break times—we’re trying with our mental consciousness to see all sentient beings as buddhas. To do this, we have let go of the ordinary view that thinks they are capable of giving us happiness. Letting go of that expectation gives us the ability to see that they have the Buddha nature. Seeing that they have the Buddha nature—that they aren’t inherently this, that, or the other thing—gives us a way to relate to them in a pure way.

If we think someone is inherently good and pleasurable, then when that person makes a mistake, we think of her as inherently obnoxious, and we get inherently angry. Do you see? We’re always fighting with these projections that our mind has created. When we realize that there’s nothing there inherently, then there’s space to see that person’s basic nature, their basic potential, as something pure.

Be careful here. This is important: we’re not saying that there’s nothing there at all, that the person doesn’t exist. Of course she exists and functions as Julie or Ann or whoever. But she exists by being merely labeled in dependence on the body and mind, which is different from how she appears. She exists dependently, and is therefore empty of independent or inherent existence. And, as I said, when we see her emptiness we see her potential to become a buddha.

How does practicing Manjushri help us get rid of thinking that impure things are pure?

At the beginning of the practice, this flesh and bones body—this basic thing that is just kind of yucky—dissolves into emptiness. We think “dissolve into emptiness” means it just completely vanishes and it doesn’t exist anymore. That’s not the case. It’s not like, “Poof, my body is gone.” But we realize that there’s no inherently existent body there. There’s no inherently ordinary body there. There’s no inherently impure body there. But what we call body is something that’s merely labeled on the collection of all these different parts. There are all these whirling atoms and molecules that are appearing in a certain way. Then, in dependence on that appearance, we label “body.” And then it appears as a body to us.

However, when we meditate on emptiness that ordinary appearance disappears. We see that it’s empty. Instead, when you do the self generation you are there with a body of light.

This body that we clung to before, this impure body that we think is pure, is completely dissolved into emptiness, and instead there’s this body of light. In dependence upon the body of light and the wisdom that realizes emptiness and whatever bodhicitta we have—all these thoughts, and attitudes, and emotions that we’re generating in the practice—in dependence on all those mind states, and in dependence on the body of light, then we label “Manjushri.” We label “I.” And that’s what the self generation is all about.

We’re no longer identifying ourselves as having a contaminated body. We’re no longer relating to our body as some contaminated thing that gets old and sick and dies, whose knees hurt, who’s getting wrinkles and gray hairs, who’s fat and slouchy, and everything else. Instead we’re a 16-year-old Manjushri, and that’s good, isn’t it—going back in the time machine? “I’m 16-year-old Manjushri, with my sword!” But it’s a whole different way of relating to your body.

It’s very good when you’re doing the self generation to really focus sometimes on what it feels like to have a body made of light that looks like Manjushri. Instead of thinking, “Here’s little old me with my stomach ache, and I don’t look the way I wish I looked.” That body’s gone. You’ve dissolved it into emptiness. It’s no longer appearing to your mind. What is appearing to your mind is that body made of light that you’re labeling “I,” you’re labeling “Manjushri.” So doing that completely gets rid of that concept of impure things being pure.

It’s very important when you’re doing the Manjushri practice to remember that it isn’t that our ordinary body becomes Manjushri. Don’t think that, “Okay, there’s the egg and light radiates out, and then my ordinary body becomes Manjushri.” No! Our ordinary body ceases to appear, because we realize it’s empty of inherent existence. The body that we label Manjushri is something arisen out of that wisdom that realizes the emptiness of our ordinary self and our ordinary body. It’s that wisdom that appears as Manjushri, and that is what we associate with “I.”

Again, this is a whole different way of thinking of our body. It’s not a body made of atoms and molecules; it’s a body whose nature is wisdom. That’s why it’s very helpful when you’re doing the sadhana, when you pause right before you say the mantra and meditate on yourself as Manjushri, that you sit there for a while and really feel what it feels like to have this body made of light.

Doing that can actually be a challenge. In doing this practice myself, at the beginning my body of light was very solid. It was like a regular old body with a light bulb inside. That was my internal feeling. The image progressed from there to become this thing that has an outer sheath made of concrete, but was empty and filled with light inside. But when you really focus on having a body made of light, the boundary from “in here” and “out there” is not so clear and distinct. There’s no line around where my body of light stops. Experiencing this gives you a whole different feeling.

Think about your internal organs. We usually think of our stomach, for example, “This is inside.” But now here’s just light inside there. And that’s it. Just light. We think that if something hits our ordinary body it can’t go through; but now you have this body of light. Everything’s radiating in and radiating out of it all the time. As you’re meditating you’re invoking all these Manjushris. Some are as big as mountains, and some are as big as dewdrops, and they’re all falling into you, and they all fit. Where do you fit the big Manjushri that’s like a mountain? But it’s all light.

So that’s how the practice works to counteract this feeling of our body being something solid and being something impure. Now, with our body made of light, we are thinking of it as pure.

And then, last of all, is this fourth distortion: thinking that things that don’t have a self have a self. Here self means inherent existence.

The word self means different things in different contexts. When we talk about the self-grasping of persons—or the selflessness of persons, or the selflessness of phenomena—the word self in those situations doesn’t mean self as in person. It means inherent existence.

This fourth distortion of thinking that things that are selfless have a self, means thinking that things that don’t have inherent existence actually do. Things don’t exist under their own power, they don’t exist from their own side with their own essence as findable entities. The distortion is thinking that things that do exist that way, thinking that they actually do have that kind of nature and essence and findability.

This realization of emptiness, of selflessness, is actually the essence of the whole practice. It’s the essential thing that helps you counteract the other three distortions. This understanding of selflessness counteracts all four distortions, actually. Can you see how that works in the sadhana?

You’ve dissolved yourself into emptiness and reappeared as Manjushri on the basis of being empty. Therefore you are no longer seeing your impure body as pure. And you no longer mistake the basis of the offerings and objects in your Manjushri environment—things which, in their ordinary form, are in the nature of dukkha—as having the nature of happiness, because you’ve dissolved them into emptiness, and they’ve arisen in a pure form. Thus our ordinary, mistaken way of conceiving these things has stopped.

The things that we used to see as permanent—that are, actually, in fact, impermanent—we dissolve them into emptiness. Then all those things—the environment, our self, our resources, other sentient beings—reappear as pure things. By virtue of having dissolved them into emptiness, when they reappear we understand that they’re transient, that they’re changing moment by moment by moment. Why? Because something that is a caused phenomenon has got to be impermanent and changing, and it’s also empty.

This understanding of selflessness is what undercuts all four of the distortions. That’s why you can say this whole practice is basically a meditation on emptiness and selflessness. And that’s why, at the very beginning of the practice, we do the meditation on emptiness saying, “Om sobhava shuddoh sarva, dharma sobhava shuddho ham,” because it’s all empty. Then, on that basis, you arise, and you generate things that appear in exactly the opposite way as the way they appear to the four distortions. See how skillful this is, how profound this way of meditating is? It’s really quite something!

Understanding Tantra

The more you can understand the philosophy behind tantra, and the more you can recognize the four distortions in your own mind; and the more you can see how those four are wrong, then the more effective your Manjushri meditation will be. Whereas, if you don’t have this background in understanding the four distortions—if you can’t recognize them in your own mind, and if you can’t see them as wrong—then you might do this whole practice and have this great image of, “Here I am, Manjushri.” You might feel very blissful, but nothing changes in your mind, because you see yourself as an inherently existing Manjushri. And you’re offering inherently existent things to this inherently existing Manjushri. And when you see other sentient beings as Manjushri, you’re imputing on them an inherently existent purity. Thus your practice never seems to go right.

That’s why people sometimes get so tangled up in understanding tantra. For example, we hear that in tantra you see all beings as buddhas. So we think, “Oh, all beings are buddhas,” and our mind thinks, “Therefore, they are inherently existent buddhas.”

Here’s the problem with that. If somebody is an inherently existent buddha, then everything they do is right. That means dropping bombs on some country is right, because—in my distorted “pure view”—it’s the Buddha who’s dropping bombs. Or if we see this person telling that one off, and this person mistreating that one, then we think, “Well, they’re all buddhas, so everything they do is right.” Do you see?

This leads into what happens when we’re seeing an inherently existent guru as an inherently existent buddha. Let’s say your guru is doing something that seems a little … well, at odds with the teachings. You have no idea what they’re doing, but you’re thinking, “Well, they’re an inherently existent buddha, so what they’re doing is inherently-existently right.” And then it turns out there are some genuine ethical problems.

That happens because we don’t understand the fundamental thing about tantra—which is emptiness, and that the whole practice of tantra is based on emptiness. Instead, we project all this inherently existent purity, but we’re not getting rid of our four distortions. Basically, we’re plastering our vision of heaven onto our contaminated vision. It’s garbage, and we’re putting frosting on top of it, and we’re thinking, “Now it’s good.” But it’s the same old stuff.

That’s why the understanding of emptiness is so essential for practicing tantra. And we often don’t get this at the beginning; at least I didn’t. You come into these practices, and it’s so nice: “Here I am. I’m Manjushri now. This is good.” But we’re not really getting what it means to meditate on emptiness. Or we start to meditate on emptiness and go to the extreme of nihilism, thinking nothing exists. “It’s all dissolved into emptiness. I don’t exist anymore. You take my ego away and I don’t exist.”

Lama Yeshe actually had a very nice example to counteract that fear. Because sometimes we have that fear, don’t we? “I know who I am, and I’m a solid person. I’m real, and if emptiness means I’m not real, then uh oh, oh. There’s nothing there!” And I freak out. So Lama gave this really sweet example.

When we have a big ego we buy a big car; and our car represents our ego. People do that, don’t they? You buy a really nice car which represents your ego. There it is out on the highway for everybody to see: “My car is special.” And he would say, “Your car can disappear, but you can still be here.” Meaning that your ego can disappear, but the conventional self still exists. He was saying that to assuage our fear that if we realize emptiness, we’re going to feel like there’s nothing there whatsoever. We’re just letting go of all the wrong conceptions.

There’s still a conventional self, but you can’t find that conventional self when you analyze because it’s only an appearance. It exists only by being labeled in dependence on a base; there’s nothing else there—that’s the extent of conventional existence. There’s still a self there, and that’s why out of emptiness Manjushri and the offerings and the whole environment can appear. But those are only things that exist on the level of appearances; they exist by the power of being merely labeled. Aside from that, they don’t have any essence in them. They’re empty.

The whole practice is this interplay between dependent arising and emptiness. And it’s not just dependent arising and emptiness on an ordinary level—that the bell is dependently arising and it’s empty, and “me” is dependently arising and empty. We’re also getting rid of the ordinary view and the ordinary grasping that sees everything as somehow ordinary. So instead of thinking, “Well yes, the bell’s empty. It’s a dependent arising,” when you dissolve it into emptiness, it appears as something in a pure land. It appears as the nature of blissful wisdom; so that’s dependent arising.

So do you see that the meditation on emptiness and dependent arising in tantra has a slightly different flavor than in sutra? In tantra you’re making the object arise as a pure article after you’ve dissolved it into emptiness. In the sutra practice, you meditate on things as empty, and then you see that they exist dependently due to causes and conditions—and that’s it. There’s not this thing of transforming them into a pure substance because there’s something empty. It’s the same way with our self-image. In sutra there’s no inherently existent me, but there’s a conventional me. But in tantra, there’s no inherently existent me, and there’s a conventional me that is Manjushri. It’s a totally different, new feeling about yourself and your own potential.

The conventional self—the conventional “I”—is labeled in dependence on pure aggregates, not aggregates that are the results of karma and delusion. In tantra, the “I” is now labeled on pure aggregates that are arising out of wisdom, and the body aggregate is made of light. The mental aggregates are bodhicitta and the wisdom realizing emptiness and all the other good qualities. So what you label “I” in dependence upon in tantra is a different base than what you label “I” in dependence upon in sutra. This brings a completely different feeling to the meditation. You begin to get a sense of how it’s possible to become a buddha, and what a buddha is, and what a buddha actually does.

When you’re meditating on yourself as Manjushri, it’s like a dress rehearsal for becoming a buddha. You’re not only dissolving all the inherently existent appearances, and therefore letting go of the grasping at inherent existence, but you’re also dissolving the appearance of everything as ordinary and the grasping at it as ordinary. Therefore it can arise as something pure, and that’s where you get into a buddha creating a pure land. And when you’re a buddha and you create a pure land you can help so many sentient beings in that pure land. So tantra brings in a completely different flavor.

Questions and answers

Audience: In the practice, I’m changing my perception of my conventional self from this impure collection that I’ve labeled Bets, to this pure collection, which is labeled Manjushri. But where did Bets go?

Venerable Thubten Chodron (VTC): The point is that Bets was never here to start with. It’s not that the old Bets walked out the door. The old Bets was a fantasy to start with. It’s like realizing that the water on the asphalt is a mirage, and that the face you’re seeing in the mirror is not a real face. It wasn’t like the water evaporated; there wasn’t any water on the asphalt to start with. And it wasn’t like the face left the mirror; there wasn’t a face there to start with.

Audience: So what’s the basis upon which we’re imputing Manjushri? Is it my mind, the emptiness of my own mind?

VTC: The wisdom that realizes the emptiness of your own mind is appearing as this body of light. In dependence on that you label Manjushri. Your blissful wisdom that realizes the emptiness of all phenomena, that wisdom appears in the form of Manjushri, and in dependence on that you label Manjushri, or you label “I.”

Audience: I can understand the idea that I have labeled my conventional self on the basis of my body and mind, and I can see that’s an incorrect perception. It’s not really there the way I think it exists. Then I think, “Okay. If I can label myself any way I want, I want to be Manjushri. I’ll relabel this conventional self Manjushri-that’s-not-inherently-existent.” But I don’t understand about labeling the wisdom and realizing emptiness as Manjushri.

VTC: What you’re saying is that you can see there’s no person inside the aggregates, so then you’ll label it Manjushri, right? That’s the same as thinking your ordinary body is becoming Manjushri’s body. You haven’t really gotten rid of the idea of your ordinary body. You haven’t really let go of the inherent existence of your own body or of your own mind.

It’s not like, “There’s a real solid body, and there’s a real solid mind, and I’m just taking the label Peter off of it, and putting the label Manjushri on top of it. But actually, it’s the same body and the same mind, and I am going to think that, because I called it Manjushri, then all of a sudden it’s Buddha.” No. In other words, the Peter-body is a hallucination to start with. The Peter-mind is a hallucination to start with. So not only is there no solid Peter there, there’s also no solid Peter’s body or Peter’s mind either—and then the wisdom that realizes that appears, and in dependence on that, is labeled Manjushri.

Audience: So I label that wisdom Manjushri?

VTC: The appearance of that wisdom in the form of Manjushri—those new aggregates that you’ve assumed—in dependence on that, you label Manjushri. It’s not in dependence on the same old body and the same old mind you had before.

Audience: I’m getting caught on the phrase, “in dependence on.”

VTC: “In dependence on” is actually a very important phrase. I keep saying that. It’s not that you label something on the body and mind. You label in dependence on the body and mind. There’s a difference there. When we say, “On the body and mind,” we feel that there’s a real body and a real mind, and that we just stick the label on those. Once the label’s stuck on it—once you have that label—then it’s a real thing. It’s like it’s now wrapped in plastic and on the shelf. But in fact, that label is given in dependence on the body and mind. Saying it that way shows that the object that’s being labeled is not the body, and it’s not the mind either. It’s something that’s labeled in dependence on these, but it’s not either of one of them. The label is not something that’s put on top of the base like Saran wrap. It’s not like you labeled Manjushri, so, therefore, that body and mind now become a unit.

Audience: My confusion is about the words. Is it “in dependence on” or “independence on?” Is it two words or one word?

VTC: It’s “in” “dependence” “on”—it’s three words, it’s not “independence.”

Audience: Could you say that the mind as it is right now—the ordinary mind—is appearing as this light body, and that the wisdom realizing emptiness is also a mind and it appears as Manjushri?

VTC: Can we say that our ordinary body is an appearance of our ordinary mind? Not in the same way that Manjushri’s body is an appearance of Manjushri’s mind. Why? Our ordinary body is material in nature, and the body and mind have different continuums. The body dies, we die, and it has its continuum, and the worms eat it.

Audience: But the wisdom realizing emptiness is a mind?

VTC: Yes, but within the explanation given in highest class yoga tantra, the extremely subtle mind and the extremely subtle wind are one nature; one entity. So if you have the extremely subtle mind being wisdom, it is one entity with the extremely subtle wind. That’s how you get the dharmakaya and the sambhogakaya at the same time, being unified. If you want something really mind-boggling to think about, think about that one!

Audience: It almost seems like we’re doomed to do the practice wrong until we really know emptiness. I mean, until we have the wisdom realizing emptiness, we’ll have it wrong.

VTC: But this is the method with which you develop that wisdom realizing emptiness. Think: in the process of becoming a doctor, you had to be able to imagine yourself as a doctor. So when you were three years old you put on a white coat, and you had your little plastic stethoscope. Even when you started medical school you didn’t know what in the world you were doing, but you wore the clothes and you practiced with the idea, “Okay, I’m a doctor.” And you kept playing and playing until, eventually … well, you just keep playing, don’t you? Except now you have a diploma on the wall saying that you play professionally. So by the process of pretending that you’re something, you become that. That’s why they say, “Always be careful what you pretend to be because you might become what you’re pretending to be.”

Audience: I get mixed up here. I think I heard you say that the wisdom that realizes emptiness is the thing that is transformed into Manjushri’s body and mind. So what are these extremely subtle wind and extremely subtle mind being one entity?

VTC: Yes. Our ordinary body and our ordinary mind have two totally different natures. Ordinary body is material; it’s made of atoms and molecules and it has color and shape. Ordinary mind is totally immaterial. When you get into this thing about the extremely subtle mind and the extremely subtle body being the same nature—(they’re one entity, but it’s said that they are different isolates, which is a philosophical way of talking about it)—then the division between body and mind as we know it blurs. I think this also has to do with how we grasp at things as inherently existent.

Audience: Going back to the question about the wisdom realizing emptiness as being a mind … In the practice, we don’t really realize it do we?

VTC: Yes. We don’t really realize emptiness, but we’re pretending we’ve realized it.

Audience: So it’s referring to that extremely subtle mind?

VTC: Yes. That’s why we try and meditate on emptiness at the beginning, to get some flavor of what it is. We may not have the real realization, but you have some flavor.

Audience: Back to the question about pretending to be something you’re not. How does that work in conjunction with what you just said about pretending to be something we are?

VTC: Pretending to be something you aren’t, versus pretending to be something you are? Do you think you’re Laurie? Do you think that who you’re pretending to be when you go to work every day is actually who you are? Do you think what you’re pretending to be when you’re with your family is who you really are?

Audience: Sometimes, of course.

VTC: This is what was so great about Lama Yeshe. He used to look at us and say, “You don’t need to take drugs, dear. You’re hallucinating all the time.” And this is the whole point. We are hallucinating. All day long, our notion of who we are is wrong! This takes us back to the four distortions—how we don’t recognize these ideas as wrong. In fact, we think they’re right. But our whole idea of who we are is wrong. That’s why I tell people that in Buddhism we’re not trying to find out who we are; we’re trying to find out who we aren’t.

Our problem is that we think we are a bunch of things that we aren’t. We think we’re permanent, partless, independent, and pure. We think we have the nature of happiness, and that we have a self. We also think, “I’m totally incapable and unlovable, but I have all these good qualities that other people don’t appreciate. But, really I’m a mess inside and confused, and if other people recognized that, nobody would love me.” That whole story line is wrong! In big caps, not small caps: WRONG, okay? And yet, we believe it all. So we have to check up and see if who we think we are is real.

Audience: If it isn’t, then we go see our therapist, right?

VTC: Well, that’s the thing; in therapy, you’re working with the conventional self, but you’re not looking at the real nature of the self. Underlying therapy is the notion that there’s a real person there.

Audience: I am confused. What is the conventional self?

VTC: It’s hard to understand the conventional self until you’ve understood emptiness. That’s why I say we don’t even perceive conventional truths correctly, much less ultimate truth. The more we can get an idea of emptiness, and how there’s no “I” that’s an “I” from its own side, then the more we can get an idea that things exist by being merely labeled in dependence upon the aggregates. So the more you understand emptiness, the more you are going to understand conventional truths as being conventional truths.

  1. The sadhana used in this retreat is a kriya tantra practice. To do the self-generation, you must have received the jenang of this deity. (A jenang is often called initiation. It is a short ceremony conferred by a tantric lama). You must also have received a wong (This is a two-day empowerment, initiation into a performance tantra, yoga tantra, or highest yoga tantra practice). Otherwise, please do the front-generation sadhana

Venerable Thubten Chodron

Venerable Chodron emphasizes the practical application of Buddha’s teachings in our daily lives and is especially skilled at explaining them in ways easily understood and practiced by Westerners. She is well known for her warm, humorous, and lucid teachings. She was ordained as a Buddhist nun in 1977 by Kyabje Ling Rinpoche in Dharamsala, India, and in 1986 she received bhikshuni (full) ordination in Taiwan. Read her full bio.