Classic and Contemporary Buddhist Works

Introduction to Tantra - Foreword

The Transformation of Desire

Foreword

“Then the swirling ocean of tantra is crossed through the kindness of the navigator, the vajra holder. Bless me to cherish more than my life the vows and commitments—the root of attainments.” With these inspiring words the First Panchen Lama introduces the practice of tantra in his monumental work, The Lama Chopa (Offering to the Spiritual Guide), clearly showing with what high esteem the Vajrayana (the “Diamond Vehicle,” in which the practices of tantra are taught) was regarded by the great masters of Tibetan Buddhism. Though these words were written nearly four hundred years ago, this high regard for the practice of tantra remains to this day.

The great Tibetan diaspora is recent history, having begun with the Chinese invasion of Tibet in the early ’50s. In the decades that followed, the arrival in the West of many, many living masters of Tibetan Buddhism turned the tragedy of Tibet into an unexpected and spectacular windfall for Western devotees of spiritual discipline.

Tantra was at that time not entirely unknown. The encyclopedic works of Sir Arthur Avalon (The Serpent Power and Tantra) offered highly technical descriptions of the Bengali system of this meditation practice. These works came complete with colorful drawings of the required visualizations. In addition, numerous books on Kundalini yoga by an equally large number of Hindu teachers and yogis could also be found. There were translations as well of the Chinese Taoist work The Secret of the Golden Flower, an apparently parallel meditation practice. However, to the novice meditators of the early ’70s (and virtually everyone was a novice in the early ’70s), these texts raised far more questions than they answered.

 It was only with the arrival of the Tibetan lamas, tulkus, and rinpoches in the early ’70s that, finally, this first generation of Western practitioners found actual tantric meditators and qualified teachers in their midst. For the Vajrayana is, in fact, the living tradition of the Buddhist tantric system. It was immediately clear that, far from being a theoretical or speculative science, it was a practice clearly, precisely, and completely embodied by these teachers. They would be the “navigators” who would help these young, eager students cross “the swirling ocean of tantra.” The words of the First Panchen Lama were not poetry. For these new practitioners they were prophecy.

Lama Yeshe’s Introduction to Tantra did not actually appear until 1987. It seems that the first wave of Tibetan teachers (all trained in the monasteries of “old” Tibet) held off for some time before making the subject of tantra publicly available. Perhaps there was some hesitation on their part to offer such a powerful and profound instruction before their Western students had acquired a basic grasp of the more conventional Sutrayana system. This, of course, would be most natural, since instruction in renunciation (the determination to be free), bodhicitta (love, compassion), and emptiness (wisdom) traditionally precede initiation into the Vajrayana. And so it was with that first generation of American and European students. When Lama Yeshe’s Introduction finally appeared, it was like an illumination, a vision both brilliant and generous, for which many people had spent years waiting and preparing.

Re-reading it again today, I am thrilled, as if for the first time, by the clarity and directness of his thought. His descriptions of foundation practices and subsequent stages are both essential and complete. I know of no work on tantra that has improved on this one as an entry to the subject.

Over the years I have given away countless copies of this book to interested friends, until, during those times it was not in stock, it could be quite scarce. Now, with this new edition, I will no longer have to search through used and rare bookstores to find a prized copy. And a new generation of practitioners will discover and benefit from the skillful teaching of Lama Yeshe.

Though I knew Lama Yeshe’s work and teachings while he was still alive, it was not my good luck to have known him in the flesh. What a marvelous experience that would have been! Still, thanks to this new edition, his words are still part of our world. To me they ring as clear and true today as they did when I first encountered them more than fifteen years ago. A wonderful legacy for the present and for the future!

Philip Glass
June 2001

 

How to cite this document:
© Lama Zopa Rinpoche, Introduction to Tantra: The Transformation of Desire (Wisdom Publications, 2001)

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