Introduction to Tantra - Preface
“A lucid explanation of Buddhist tantra... a classic.”—Phillip Glass, composer, from the foreword
The material that makes up this introduction to the often misunderstood world of Buddhist tantra was compiled from teachings given between 1975 and 1983 by the late Tibetan monk Thubten Yeshe, known affectionately to his many students around the world as Lama Yeshe.
Lama Yeshe was born near Lhasa at Tölung in 1935 and from the age of six attended Sera Je Monastery, where he received an extensive spiritual and academic education. After the Chinese takeover of Tibet in 1959, he completed his education at the Buxaduar refugee camp in northeast India and eventually settled near the Boudhanath stupa outside Kathmandu, Nepal.
It was in Nepal that his contact with Westerners began in earnest, and by 1971 Lama Yeshe and Zopa Rinpoche had founded the Nepalese Mahayana Centre Gompa on Kopan hill, the site of yearly meditation courses that have attracted an ever-growing number of students. These students were eventually to establish numerous centers where Buddhism could be studied and practiced in the West, and Lama Yeshe spent the last ten years of his life traveling to these and other centers providing teachings, organizational leadership, and, perhaps most importantly, the inspiration of his own tireless example of benefiting others. Finally, on March 3, 1984 in the Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles—at dawn on the morning of the Tibetan New Year—he succumbed to a serious heart ailment that had been threatening his life for more than twelve years.
The idea for this book arose as early as 1981, when Lama Yeshe said he felt there was a need for a work that would introduce Buddhist tantra to the West in a non-technical, easy-to-understand way. Even though tantra is considered by the various Tibetan traditions to be the most profound and advanced of all Buddhist teachings, he felt its central message to be simple and clear, and extremely relevant to twentieth century life. As he said on many occasions, the West has discovered how to tap so many powerful sources of energy in nature but still remains largely unaware of the tremendous force, even more powerful than nuclear energy, contained within each one of us. As long as this powerful internal energy lies undiscovered, our life is doomed to remain fragmented and purposeless, and we will continue to fall victim to the mental and emotional pressures so characteristic of our age. The practice of tantra, which is designed to take advantage of this hidden inner resource and utilize it to the maximum extent, oﬀers us the best opportunity to overcome these pressures and transform our lives into the meaningful, integrated whole that we all desire.
According to Lama Yeshe, the practice of tantra is so suitable for the modern West because it is “scientific.” In other words, tantra, far from being a system of dogma to be accepted on faith or authority, is in fact a practical, step-by-step exploration of the human condition leading to self-discovery, and its results are verifiable through our own observations and experience. It is this emphasis on direct experience that should make tantra appealing to the great number of Westerners who have long been disillusioned with paths demanding belief and blind faith. Furthermore, as the following chapters should make abundantly clear, tantra is a path of joy and affirmation, qualities so sadly lacking in many of the currently depleted forms of what were once powerful spiritual traditions.
In the winter of 1982–83 an editing retreat was held near Cecina, Italy, with the aim of going through the many transcripts of Lama Yeshe’s tantric teachings in preparation for their eventual publication. Each member of this retreat focused his or her attention on a teaching or group of teachings related to a particular tantric practice. As part of this process, the editors tried to identify the major introductory themes common to all of Lama Yeshe’s teachings on tantra, discovering how these themes were dealt with in the individual teachings. In this way a large body of material was selected from many different sources and loosely arranged according to subject matter, leaving the more detailed explanations of specific practices for separate publication.
The compiler of this present work then edited and rearranged this selected material in an attempt to produce a coherent presentation. The resulting draft was then read to Lama Yeshe in Dharamsala, India during April 1983, at which time he oﬀered many corrections, additional explanations, and suggestions for the improvement of both tone and subject matter. During that year he also continued to lecture around the world and selections from these lectures—most particularly those given in Pomaia, Italy, and Boulder Creek, California—were edited into the manuscript.
It was my hope that the entire revised manuscript would be checked once again with Lama Yeshe, but this was not to be. For many months after his death my work on the manuscript came to an almost complete halt as I found it extremely difficult to face the task of editing his words while coming to terms with the sad but unalterable fact that I would not be hearing the sweet, laughter-filled voice that uttered these words ever again. Eventually, however, with the kind and extremely patient support of many friends, it was possible to bring the manuscript to its present state of completion and offer it here.
I cannot make this offering, however, without a few words of apology, or at least of explanation. No one who ever had the experience of listening to Lama Yeshe speak would think it possible to capture in print the extraordinary eﬀect he had on people. Like so many great teachers, what he revealed through his presence itself was the spark that gave his teachings their immense power and eﬀectiveness, much more so than the highly unorthodox and often ungrammatical language that he used. This present selection from his oral teachings—recast in more or less standard English—will therefore most likely strike those readers familiar with Lama Yeshe as a pale imitation of the original. Furthermore, there is no way in which a work such as this can claim to represent Lama Yeshe’s definitive views on tantra. As the historical accounts testify concerning Shakyamuni Buddha’s original discourses themselves, Lama Yeshe’s teachings could be understood on as many different levels as there were listeners. It would therefore be presumptuous to think that any one interpretation of what he taught is the only interpretation possible. All a compiler or editor such as myself can do is listen intently to the lectures or tapes and read the transcripts carefully, and then present as clearly as possible what he hears inwardly while familiarizing himself with the teachings. It is important to keep in mind, therefore, that if someone else had been working from the same tapes and transcripts, a book of very diﬀerent tone and content would have resulted.
Lama Zopa Rinpoche was referring to this multifaceted quality of Lama Yeshe’s teachings when he said, “Most teachers like myself teach only what they themselves know and not so much according to the needs of the people. But for Lama, whenever he gave teachings nothing was fixed; he didn’t just talk about one subject. In the audience there would be people with various problems—spiritual problems, personal problems, family problems—and Lama would speak to all of them. And so, after a one-hour talk from Lama everybody would have received some answer to their problems. In the beginning some might have come just to see how a Tibetan lama looks and others might have come sincerely wanting peace. When Lama had finished, they would all go home with a happy mind, with some solution to their problems.”
To put this in a way that relates directly to the subject matter of this present work, Lama Yeshe had the marvelous ability to touch in the people he contacted a center of peace, wisdom, and joy that they may have only dimly been aware of previously. Perhaps his most profound teaching was just this: that we each possess within ourselves not only the answer to our own problems but the potential to live our lives on a much higher level than we currently imagine possible. It was not just that Lama Yeshe gave every appearance of having fulfilled that potential within himself, although his example of continuous selfless giving, in spite of a defective heart that should have killed him many years ago, was surely a profound inspiration to all who knew him. Even more strikingly, he was able to inspire in his listeners a confidence that they, too, possessed similar unlimited potential waiting to be tapped.
Throughout this presentation of Lama Yeshe’s introduction to the vast and profound subject of tantra, eﬀorts have been made to keep technical terminology and historical references to a minimum. This has been done in accordance with Lama Yeshe’s wishes in an attempt to convey the flavor of these teachings in as straightforward a manner as possible. However, when technical terms have been used—whether English, Sanskrit, or Tibetan—they have been noted in the glossary. And for those interested in exploring further the various topics raised in this work, a list of suggested readings, briefly annotated, will be found at the end.
The completion of this work would have been impossible without the contribution of a great many people, only a few of whom can be acknowledged here. My deepest thanks go first to the other members of the editing retreat at which the material for this book was first selected: Hermes Brandt, Lee Bray, Robyn Brentano, Stephen Carlier, Sharon Gross, and Nick Ribush. During later stages of editing this material, the Aryatara family at Jaegerndorf and Munich gave unreservedly of their time and hospitality, as did the Philipsen family of Dronten, the Netherlands, and Geoﬀ Jukes of London; the gratitude I feel for this kind and loving support cannot be easily expressed. Special thanks are also due to Yeshe Khadro whose encouragement and assistance proved invaluable. And finally to all those associated with Wisdom Publications—especially Robina Courtin, whose contributions benefited this work at every stage of its development—I would like to convey my deep appreciation for their patience during the many months it took for the manuscript of this book to be completed, as well as for their expert presentation of the final work.
How to cite this document:
© Lama Zopa Rinpoche, Introduction to Tantra: The Transformation of Desire (Wisdom Publications, 2001)
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