The Bliss of Inner Fire - Introduction

Heart Practice of the Six Yogas of Naropa


256 pages, 6 x 9 inches


ISBN 9780861711369

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by Jonathan Landaw

In 1987 Wisdom Publications brought out a volume by Lama Thubten Yeshe entitled Introduction to Tantra. In that work, a compilation of excerpts from numerous teachings given by Lama Yeshe between 1975 and 1983, the reader was offered a glimpse into the profound, and often misunderstood, world of Tibetan Tantric Buddhism. With clear and inspiring discussions of such topics as the basic purity of the mind, the means for recognizing and overcoming our limiting thought patterns, the self-transformational techniques of tantric deity-yoga meditation and so forth, Lama Yeshe presented the tantric vision of totality in a form accessible to as wide an audience as possible. In that introductory work it was his intention to convey the flavor of these most advanced Buddhist teachings in such a way that spiritual seekers, regardless of their cultural background or religious affiliation, might be motivated to discover their own basic purity, fulfill their highest potential, and be of maximum benefit to others.

Included in Introduction to Tantra were a number of passages selected from the last two major teachings given by Lama Yeshe before his passing. These teachings had been delivered at Istituto Lama Tzong Khapa in Pomaia, Italy, in 1982 and at Vajrapani Institute in Boulder Creek, California, in 1983. Their focus was the inner fire practices of Highest Yoga Tantra—the fourth and most advanced level of tantra—as set forth in the famed Six Yogas of Naropa and elucidated in Je Tsongkhapa’s commentary on the Six Yogas entitled Having the Three Convictions. The current work, The Bliss of Inner Fire, is an amalgamation of these two final teachings.

Source of the teachings

Although the practices of inner fire explained in this work can be traced back to the Six Yogas of the famed eleventh-century Buddhist scholar and tantric adept, Pandit Naropa, after which they are named, we should not think that they were his creation. Instead, as is the case with all authentic teachings of Buddhist tantra, they ultimately derive from Shakyamuni Buddha himself, the so-called historical Buddha who lived 2,500 years ago (563–483 B.C.E.). However, as His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama has stated in The World of Tibetan Buddhism,

We need not presume that all of the teachings of tantra were propounded by the Buddha during his historical lifetime. Rather, I think that the teachings of tantra could have also emerged through the extraordinary insights of highly realized individuals who were able to explore to the fullest extent the physical elements and the potential within the human body and mind. As a result of such investigation, a practitioner can attain very high realizations and visions, thus enabling him or her to receive tantric teachings at a mystical level. Therefore, when we reflect on tantric teachings, we should not limit our perspective by rigid notions of time and space. (p. 93)

Both Naropa—the Indian mahasiddha, or greatly accomplished one—and the Tibetan master Je Tsongkhapa (1357–1419) are numbered among the “highly realized individuals” referred to by the Dalai Lama and were, therefore, capable of receiving instructions on such profound practices as inner fire directly from the enlightened source.

The principal form that Shakyamuni Buddha assumes when presenting the advanced teachings of tantra is that of Vajradhara—the Holder of the Diamond Scepter—who is sometimes called the Buddha of the Tantras. In general, the blessings, instructions, and realizations of these tantric teachings come down to the present via two types of lineage: the distant and the close. The former is comprised of the successive guru-disciple relationships that link one generation with the next, the realized disciple of a particular master becoming mentor to disciples of his or her own. In terms of the tantric teachings we are concerned with here, this generation-to-generation lineage, beginning with Buddha Vajradhara, includes such famous Indian mahasiddhas as Saraha, Nagarjuna, Ghantapa, and Tilopa.

As for the so-called close lineages, these come about in the more immediate manner indicated previously. In Naropa’s case, he not only received tantric initiation, or empowerment, from his human guru, Tilopa, but was able to establish communication with Buddha Vajradhara directly; the Buddha of the Tantras manifested to him in the form of such tantric meditational deities as Hevajra, Heruka Chakrasamvara, and Vajrayogini. As for Je Tsongkhapa, he was not only heir to the lineage of Indian, Nepalese, and Tibetan masters that spanned the four hundred years separating him from Naropa, but he also received inspiration from Vajradhara through his own patron deity, Manjushri, the embodiment of the wisdom of all enlightened beings. Thus the teachings we know as the Six Yogas of Naropa, including the inner fire practices that are the main subject matter of this present work, should not be considered the later fabrications of Indian gurus or Tibetan lamas but are ultimately rooted in the enlightened realizations of Shakyamuni Buddha himself, passed down in unbroken lineages of realized practitioners to the present day.

The author and his style of teaching

Lama Thubten Yeshe began his Buddhist training at Sera Monastery, one of the three great institutions of learning and practice founded by Je Tsongkhapa and his disciples in the vicinity of Lhasa, the capital of Tibet. After the Chinese takeover of Tibet in the 1950s, he completed his formal training at the Buxa Duar refugee camp in northeastern India. Unlike most of his fellow monks at Sera, who confined their studies to the Gelug tradition founded by Je Tsongkhapa, Lama Yeshe was greatly interested in teachings by masters of all traditions. His open-minded, nonsectarian approach is attested to by the fact that while at Buxa Duar his own students included lamas from these various traditions.

The Buddhist education Lama Yeshe received had two major divisions. The first of these is called sutra and is named after those teachings, or discourses—such as the Prajñāpāramitā Sutras, or Discourses on the Perfection of Wisdom—in which Shakyamuni Buddha set forth the various aspects of the general path leading to full spiritual awakening. The course of study at the Tibetan monasteries included not only these teachings by Buddha himself but the commentaries on them by such Indian masters as Chandrakirti (Guide to the Middle Way), Maitreya/Asanga (Ornament of Clear Realizations), Shantideva (A Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life), Atisha (Lamp on the Path to Enlightenment) and many others. Through study, debate, and meditation upon these texts and the later commentaries on them by a succession of Tibetan masters, and through intimate exposure to the authentic oral traditions enlivening these texts, students at Sera and the other monasteries had the opportunity of gaining insight into and realization of the vast and profound meaning of Buddha’s teachings.

With the foundation in moral discipline, logical analysis, compassionate motivation, insightful wisdom, and so forth provided by these sutra studies, well-qualified practitioners were able to delve into the second of the two major divisions of their education: the profound study of tantra. The Sanskrit term “tantra” is applied to those advanced teachings of Buddha Shakyamuni/Vajradhara by means of which the full enlightenment of Buddhahood, the ultimate goal of all Buddhist paths, can be attained in the shortest time possible. Each tantra focuses upon a meditational deity embodying a particular aspect of enlightened consciousness; in Lama Yeshe’s case, he received empowerment and instructions in such tantras as those of the meditational deities Heruka Chakrasamvara, Vajrayogini, Vajrabhairava, and Guhyasamaja and studied the famous Six Yogas of Naropa following Having the Three Convictions, a commentary based on the personal experiences of Je Tsongkhapa, as cited above. He received the lineage blessings of these practices from some of the greatest tantric masters of the day, including Kyabje Ling Dorjechang (1903–83) and Kyabje Trijang Dorjechang (1901–81), the Senior and Junior Tutors, respectively, of His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama (b. 1935).

Lama Yeshe did not merely study these profound tantric teachings, he put them into practice in extensive meditational retreats and in his daily life. As became clear to many toward the end of his life, his main practice was that of Heruka Chakrasamvara, and he devoted much time and energy to gaining deeper and deeper realizations of this Highest Yoga Tantra. According to his heart-son and disciple, Lama Thubten Zopa Rinpoche, Lama Yeshe wrote privately about his own meditational experiences of both Heruka Chakrasamvara and the Six Yogas of Naropa and would often speak to Lama Zopa about clear light and bliss, the essence of these advanced tantric practices.

It is not surprising, then, that the last two major teachings Lama Yeshe gave were on the inner fire practices of the Six Yogas, through which the blissful experience of the clear light is attained, and that he opened each of these teachings with an empowerment into the tantra of Heruka Chakrasamvara. Nor is it surprising that the final practice he himself engaged in, up until his heart stopped beating, was that of Heruka Chakrasamvara. What is particularly inspiring, however, is that through his mastery of the blissful clear light consciousness dawning at the time of death, Lama Yeshe was able to pass away and be reborn in a state of full conscious control, even to the point of choosing as his future parents two students of his who had helped establish a meditation center in Spain called Osel Ling, the Place of Clear Light. Their son, Tenzin Osel Rinpoche, born in 1985, was recognized as the reincarnation of Lama Yeshe by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, and is currently enrolled at Sera Monastery in South India, where a number of the great Tibetan schools of learning have been relocated.

Although the practices of inner fire belong to the most advanced branch of the Buddhist teachings, Lama Yeshe often presented them, in simplified form, even to his newest students. He did this to give them a taste of the inexhaustible treasure of blissful energy existing within each and every one of us right at the present moment. Although such blissful energy, by itself, cannot liberate us from the vicious circle of dissatisfaction and suffering, our ability to experience it directly—to “taste the chocolate,” as he would often say—can have a significant and beneficial effect upon us. Such an experience convinces us, as no merely philosophical investigation can, of the profound changes we can bring about simply by gaining control over our mind in meditative concentration. The inspiration provided by such direct experience can empower our entire spiritual practice.

The courses in Italy and California, from which the material in this book has been taken, were run as meditational retreats, and Lama Yeshe’s lectures were designed to guide and encourage the participants in their efforts to gain an actual experience, rather than a mere intellectual understanding, of what meditation has to offer. The emphasis was on clarifying the instructions of the Six Yogas, without an in-depth examination of their historical significance or philosophical basis. Because most of the course participants were already familiar with the necessary preparatory material through previous exposure to Buddhist teachings, the way was clear to focus single-pointedly on the step-by-step practices of inner fire itself. So, in a sense, The Bliss of Inner Fire is like a second Introduction to Tantra, opening up the world of Highest Yoga Tantra’s advanced practices the way the earlier work opened up the world of tantra in general.

The present work, in addition to dealing with more advanced subject matter, differs from its predecessor in that it concentrates on specific technical aspects of tantric practice. As the reader will discover, The Bliss of Inner Fire offers detailed instructions on the various phases of inner fire meditation. This emphasis on meditational instruction makes the present work a valuable manual for those interested in engaging in serious and prolonged practice themselves. However, because many readers will lack the background necessary for a full appreciation of these teachings, it may be helpful to introduce Lama Yeshe’s instructions with a few remarks about the tantric path in general and the place within this path of the yoga of inner fire.

An overview of the path

To begin with, the ultimate purpose of all Buddhist teachings is to lead others to enlightenment, or Buddhahood. This fully purified and expansive state of consciousness is characterized by limitless compassion, wisdom, and skillful means; the Mahayana, or Great Vehicle, teachings of Shakyamuni Buddha stress that only by attaining such complete awakening of mind and heart can we fulfill our own innate spiritual potential and, more important, be of maximum benefit to others.

As already stated, the Mahayana presents two interrelated approaches to this full and complete enlightenment: the more general path of sutra and the esoteric path of tantra. The sutra vehicle (Skt. Sutrayana) sets forth methods whereby the obscurations veiling one’s innate purity of mind are gradually removed, like peeling away the layers of an onion. At the same time, the mind’s positive qualities of love, compassion, wisdom, and so forth are gradually enhanced so that eventually one attains a state beyond the limitations of ordinary, egocentric consciousness.

The trainings in nonattachment, compassionate altruism, and penetrative insight so vital to Sutrayana practice form the foundation of the tantric vehicle as well. But Tantrayana—also known as Mantrayana and Vajrayana—is distinguished from Sutrayana by being a so-called resultant vehicle. That is to say, the qualified practitioner of tantra is empowered to take the future result of the path, the experience of enlightenment itself, as the very basis of his or her practice. In place of the ordinary, limited self-image, the tantric trainee cultivates the powerful vision of having already attained full enlightenment in the form of a particular meditational deity (Tib. yidam). All the elements of ordinary experience—one’s surroundings, sensory enjoyments, and activities—are likewise viewed as having undergone a similar enlightened transformation. Everything is seen as pure and blissful, just as a Buddha would experience it. By training in this way it is possible to achieve the actual result of full enlightenment much more swiftly than by relying on the Sutrayana approach alone.

The theme of enlightened transformation pervades the vast scope of tantric teachings and practices. Energies and states of mind that are considered negative and antithetical to spiritual growth according to other religious paths are transformed by the alchemy of tantra into forces aiding one’s inner development. Chief among these is the energy of desire. According to the fundamental teachings of Sutrayana, desirous attachment only serves to perpetuate the sufferings of samsara: the vicious circle of uncontrolled life and death, born from ignorance and fraught with dissatisfaction, within which unenlightened beings trap themselves. Therefore, if one truly wishes to be free from this samsaric cycle of misery, it is necessary to eliminate the poison of desirous attachment from one’s heart and mind completely. While the Tantrayana agrees that ultimately all such ignorantly generated desires must be overcome if freedom and enlightenment are to be achieved, it recognizes the tremendous energy underlying this desire as an indispensable resource that can, with skill and training, be utilized so that it empowers rather than interferes with one’s spiritual development.

Of course, any path utilizing the powerful and potentially destructive energies of desire and the other delusions is dangerous indeed. If followed improperly or with a selfish motivation, tantra can lead the misguided practitioner into realms of mental and physical suffering of unimaginable enormity. That is why even though tantric techniques may be outlined in a book such as this, they can only be followed safely and productively under the watchful eye of a fully qualified tantric master, and only by those who cultivate a particularly powerful altruistic motivation, receive the requisite empowerments, keep purely their tantric pledges, and undergo the proper preliminary trainings. It is said that for those who do rely on an accomplished tantric master and observe the precepts of tantric practice purely, it is possible to reach the goal of full enlightenment within the space of one short human lifetime, even within a few years.

Not all the tantric systems have equal power in propelling their trainees along the path to enlightenment. Instead, tantra is divided into four progressive classes—(1) Action, (2) Performance, (3) Yoga, and (4) Highest Yoga—and it is only through the pure practice of a system belonging to the supreme class of Highest Yoga Tantra that full enlightenment can be attained in the swiftest possible manner. What chiefly differentiates these four classes from one another is the varying abilities of their respective trainees to utilize desire on the spiritual path. While followers of the lower classes of tantra can control and utilize only the less passionate levels of attachment—traditionally likened to the desire aroused when (1) looking at, (2) laughing with, and (3) embracing an attractive partner—the qualified practitioner of Highest Yoga Tantra is one who can channel into the path of spiritual evolution energies as intense as those associated with (4) sexual union itself.

Harnessing desire in Highest Yoga Tantra is accomplished in two successive levels of practice: the evolutionary stage and the completion stage. The former, also known as the generation stage, serves as a preparation and rehearsal for the latter and involves, among other things, cultivating what are known as the clear appearance and divine pride of one’s chosen meditational deity. For example, if one is following the tantra of the wrathful male deity Heruka Chakrasamvara, one practices overcoming the ordinary view of oneself as a limited, samsaric being and cultivates in its place the enlightened self-image of actually being this powerful deity. This not only involves gaining familiarity with the various qualities of Chakrasamvara’s body, speech, and mind so that one can experience oneself as possessing these attributes, but also demands a degree of mastery in meditation upon ultimate truth: shunyata, or emptiness.

The subject of emptiness is too vast to go into in any great deal here. Suffice it to say for now that it involves ridding the mind of all falsely conceived, fantasized modes of existence arising from ignorance of the way in which things actually do exist. It is fundamental to all Buddhist systems of practice, whether sutra or tantra, to recognize that the limited, concrete view we have of ourselves and our surroundings is in the nature of ignorance and therefore the source of all suffering; all such misconceptions must be overcome if we are ever to achieve lasting liberation from samsaric dissatisfaction. As Lama Yeshe declared in Introduction to Tantra, “As long as we are burdened by these misconceptions, we remain trapped in the world of our own projections, condemned to wander forever in the circle of dissatisfaction we have created for ourselves. But if we can uproot these wrong views and banish them completely, we will experience the freedom, space and effortless happiness we presently deny ourselves” (p. 69).

As stated, then, the practice of tantra involves a combination of emptiness-yoga—through which all ordinary conceptions of oneself are dissolved—and deity-yoga—in which one cultivates the enlightened identity of a particular meditational deity. As the Dalai Lama points out in The World of Tibetan Buddhism, “A unique characteristic of…Highest Yoga Tantra is that it employs in its profound path various meditative techniques that have corresponding similitudes not only to the resultant state of Buddhahood, that is, to the three kayas, but especially to the bases of purification on the ordinary level of human existence—for example, death, intermediate state, and rebirth” (p. 125).

These correspondences are outlined in the accompanying table and the significance of the three Buddha bodies (kaya) can be explained briefly as follows. The attainment of full enlightenment, or Buddhahood, is said to accomplish two purposes: those of oneself and those of others. With enlightenment comes the elimination of all obscurations of the mind, which are created by ignorance and produce suffering, as well as the enhancement of limitless beneficial qualities such as blissful awareness and universal compassion; this perfection of consciousness completely fulfills the practitioner’s own purpose for following the spiritual path. But such an extremely subtle, unobstructed, and fully evolved consciousness—the truth body, or dharmakaya, of a Buddha—can fulfill the needs of others only if it manifests in forms to which those not yet fully enlightened can relate. Therefore, with the compassionate motive to benefit others, there first emerges from the unobstructed sphere of dharmakaya the subtle enjoyment body (sambhogakaya), which only higher bodhisattvas can perceive, and then the grosser emanation body (nirmanakaya), which even ordinary beings can contact. It is through the guidance and inspiration provided by these two form bodies (rupakaya) that the purposes of others are accomplished.

During the evolutionary stage of Highest Yoga Tantra, the practitioner simulates the movement from death, through the intermediate state (Tib. bardo), to rebirth—which also corresponds to the movement from sleep, through dreams, to reawakening—in such a way that these three times are taken into the path and regarded as the three bodies of a Buddha. Although one contemplates deeply upon the increasingly subtle states of consciousness experienced during death and upon the transformations associated with the intermediate state and rebirth, these changes do not actually occur at this time. Instead, these evolutionary stage practices serve as a rehearsal for the actual transformations that take place only during the advanced levels of the completion stage. For it is during the completion stage that one gains control over the elements of the vajra body—the subtle channels, winds, and drops existing within the envelope of the gross physical body—and with this control comes the ability not merely to simulate the death experience but to bring about the actual transformations of consciousness occurring during that experience.

All completion stage practices are directly or indirectly associated with the meditative technique known as inner fire, the main subject matter of this present volume. Through mastery of inner fire, one can gain full conscious control over the vajra body and the ability to bring the mind to its most subtle and penetrating state: the blissful clear light experience. This extraordinarily powerful state of mind is unequaled in its ability to gain direct, penetrative insight into ultimate truth and thereby eliminate all afflictive states of mind.

Through the profound completion stage practices, the activities of one’s body, speech, and mind become the natural resources of unprecedented spiritual growth as all forms of desirous energy are channeled into the path. Eventually one develops the ability to negotiate the hazards of death and beyond with complete awareness and control. And finally, at the culmination of the path, one attains the blissful state of unlimited awareness known as full enlightenment, spontaneously and effortlessly fulfilling one’s compassionate intention to work for the welfare of all other beings. In this way the promise of one’s inner potential for limitless compassion, wisdom, and skill is realized and one’s life becomes truly meaningful.

This extremely brief summary of some of the major points of tantric practice should provide a context within which the following explanations of the inner fire teachings of the Six Yogas of Naropa can be more fully appreciated. For a more detailed discussion of these points, the reader is referred to the list of selected additional reading at the end of this text (p. 221). And those whose interest has been sufficiently whetted can do nothing better then search out reliable tantric masters for themselves and receive from them personal instruction in the entire range of sutra and tantra practices.


How to cite this document:
© Lama Thubten Zopa Rinpoche, The Bliss of Inner Fire (Wisdom Publications, 1998)

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