Beginning the Journey
An element of uncertainty characterizes any journey. Buddhism teaches that we are already travelling around in uncertainty. It is just that we have become familiar with it -this familiar world is regarded as cyclic existence, samsara. Therefore, the impulse to embark on a spiritual journey arises from the fact that we do not feel at home in this world. We feel that there must be another kind of world to explore. We have begun to see through the facade, the inauthenticity of everything that we experience.
The Spiritual Path
Buddhist teachings often refer to the path, but we need to reflect on what it actually means to travel this spiritual path. Essentially, it entails undergoing a journey of change and transformation, discovering things that were previously outside our experience. A spiritual practitioner can be compared to a traveler or a pilgrim. When you become a traveler, you leave behind your familiar world and venture forth into unknown territory. You may have read something about the places that you want to visit or heard stories about them, but you have never actually been there yourself. Likewise, on a spiritual journey
The Tibetan Buddhist tradition is not based on one particular school of Buddhism as such; rather it tries to incorporate a variety of thought from many different traditions. This is known as the “three yanas” perspective on Buddhism. Yana (Sanskrit) is the spiritual vehicle that transports the individual from the samsaric condition to the freedom of nirvana.
The three vehicles are the Hinayana, the Mahayana and the Vajrayana. The Hinayana or “small vehicle”, refers to the early teachings on the four noble truths, karma and rebirth and training in ethics, concentration and wisdom. These teachings set out the foundations of Buddhist practice such as mindfulness and awareness and the path towards enlightenment. “If we want to change our behavior, we must have a greater understanding of our own minds and we need to change our attitudes.”
The Mahayana or “great vehicle”, builds upon the fundamentals whereby the practitioner aims to achieve the benefit of all beings. The view here is that through working for the benefit of other beings, one is achieving benefit for oneself also. Self and other both have the common goal of wishing to be free of the pain and dissatisfaction common to our existence. “Mahayana Buddhism goes further by saying that, if one wants to achieve enlightenment, one needs to do it with a two-pronged approach. The two prongs are compassion and wisdom.”
The Vajrayana or “indestructible vehicle” involves further methods designed to expedite the process of spiritual growth. These methods which are not found in the sutric Mahayana include visualization practices, the recitation of mantras and working with the physical energies in the body. The Hinayana and Mahayana teachings are incorporated within Vajrayana practices such as deity visualization. For example, we might visualize a deity with six legs. The legs represent the six paramitas which are important aspects that one cultivates in the Mahayana teachings. “The tantric system has many names, such as Tantrayana, Vajrayana, and Mantrayana. Tantra is called gyu in Tibetan, meaning “continuity,” because the tantric teaching emphasize the idea of continuity between the inner nature of a person in the condition of samsara and the inner nature of the person when in the state of nirvana.”
The Mahamudra tradition encompasses many key Buddhist terms and presents them in a unique light. The Sanskrit word mahamudra literally translates as “great seal,” or “great symbol,” which suggests that all that exists in the conditioned world is stamped with the same seal – the seal of ultimate reality. Ultimate reality is synonymous with the quintessential Buddhist term emptiness (shunyata), which describes the insubstantiality of all things – the underlying groundlessness, spaciousness, and indeterminacy that imbues all of our experiences of the subjective and objective world. In the Kagyu tradition of Tiebtan Buddhism, the word mahamudra is also used to refer to the nature of the mind. The nature of the mind is a pivotal concept in this tradition. The essential quality of the mind is emptiness, but it is described as a luminous emptiness, for the mind has the inherent capacity to know, or to cognize. When spiritual fulfillment is attained, this luminous emptiness is experienced as pervasively and profoundly blissful, and enlightenment is characterized as luminous bliss.
The Tibetan term for Mahamudra is chag gya chen po. The word chag denotes wisdom. The word chag denotes wisdom; gya implies that this wisdom transcends mental defilement; and chen po verifies that together they express a sense of unity. At a more profound level of interpretation, chag gya suggests that our natural state of being has no origin, because we cannot posit a particular time when it came into being, nor can we say what caused it to come into existence or what it is dependent upon. Our natural state of being is self-sustaining, self-existing, and not dependent upon anything.
Mahamudra is also associated with the concept of nonduality, which refers to the possibility that samsara and nirvana can be experienced in a non dual way without denying the relative existence of either. As Saraha, the eight century Indian meditator who is credited with being the actual originator of the Mahamudra tradition, states in his Song to the People, “As is Nirvana, so is Samsara. Do not think there is any distinction. Yet it possesses no single nature, for I know it as quite pure.” This is because samsara and nirvana emerge together from emptiness. When the term nonduality is used in the context of Mahamudra experience, it does not suggest that two things come together as one; it implies that two seemingly opposite things have the same underlying nature – the nature of emptiness. Mahamudra is therefore a “seal” in the sense that it transcends all dualistic concepts and encompasses both samsara and nirvana. As such, it cannot be limited to any philosophical view.