Everything was so normal. And then, in March 2020, it wasn’t. All of a sudden, everyone was dealing with the unknown. In the West, widespread vaccinations are now allowing life to return to something that looks normal, but we still live with uncertainty and the devastation of the hundreds of thousands who have fallen ill or died alone in hospitals. People remain out of work, and our home lives are drastically different after this year-and-a-half of what we thought would be a temporary situation. It can be difficult to rest in this space of uncertainty, where solid ground eludes so many of us.
This is not the first time I have felt lost, though unlike previous difficult periods of uncertainty, this time I had faith in the dharma to guide me. Things fell apart for me when I was 26, as the title of the Pema Chödrön book that helped me through that period put it. After I read it, I was intrigued by the dharma and wanted more. Coming back to my breath, my body, and my experience felt good, and also allowed me moments when I could relax and feel my heartbreak. It was an intuitive process. At the time, I had no way of knowing meditation would become a type of support that allowed me to trust in my emotions, experience, and myself. I just had some interest in it. In a way, I had faith.
But I don’t mean that I had a baseless belief in the Buddha. In Buddhism, faith is not blind. Rather, one develops confidence in the dharma through knowledge of its truth, which may come by way of reasoning, analysis, first-hand experience, or all three.
This natural trajectory in Buddhism is different from many other faith traditions. In Catholicism, for example, the congregation is not expected to have direct communication with God. Instead, the word of God is spoken through a priest. In this example, faith is dependent upon believing something that cannot be known directly.
Tibetan Buddhist faith (depa) however, incorporates both evidence-based faith (like trusting in karma after observing cause and effect) and faith based on the testimony and works of other believers. The Tibetan tradition defines faith as a “vivid and eager mind towards that which is true,” (Rigpa Translations) and distinguishes three types of faith: vivid, eager, and confident.
Vivid, or clarifying, faith is cultivated through direct relationships. One may see a Buddhist shrine or hear a teaching that sparks an attraction and intrigue, which leads to a practitioner committing further on the Buddhist path. The wish to obtain, or eager faith, speaks to one’s actions on the path. It is the point when one turns away from causes of suffering and toward a path of liberation. I experienced this second stage of Buddhist faith after practicing for a few years. There was a distinct moment when I thought about the suffering in the world and realized I needed a change in my life. Wishing for this change eventually leads to confidence, the third type of faith. For example, one may have an interest in the Buddhist teaching that all things are impermanent. That person analyzes, contemplates, and observes whether or not this is true. With enough experience, one comes to know that all things are impermanent. Now, that person has confidence in that teaching. Likewise, based upon past actions and experiences, one can find certainty that the Buddhist path leads toward liberation.
Confidence may also be gained through direct experience of ultimate truth. In A Treasure Trove of Scriptural Transmission: A Commentary on the Precious Treasure of the Basic Space of Phenomena, twelfth-century Tibetan meditation master Longchenpa writes that “unique, unobstructed awareness is revealed in all its nakedness, which is perceived within the scope of one’s individual self-knowing awareness.” This direct experience is not perceived through ordinary mind but through primordial wisdom (ye shes). Additionally within this experience, one has “uncontrived faith, which is the expanse of unchanging space.”
The Teacher-Student Relationship
There is no end to what one might cultivate faith in or confidence for, and there can be real issues when a person cultivates faith in things without external support or navigation. Sometimes we have a significant experience or make progress on the path, while other times we doubt our ability to achieve buddhahood. For these reasons, it is important to have reliable guidance, which helps us overcome doubts and wrong views, and Buddhism explicitly calls for that very support so that we don’t travel alone.
Instructors, spiritual friends, and masters or gurus are the three types of guides that are available to us. Instructors may offer us teachings, but we may not have much personal interaction with them. A spiritual friend in the Tibetan tradition is someone who has more experience and is a reliable source of advice and support. Masters or gurus, also sometimes referred to as kalyanamitra, are the heavy hitters. Masters, as Patrul Rinpoche [1808-1887] writes in Words of My Perfect Teacher, are “our true guides to liberation and omniscience.” Important to all the Buddhist traditions, they play a special role in the Vajrayana path, which explicitly incorporates the teacher-student relationship to support the student’s cultivation of trust in her own liberation and potential for omniscience. The careful selection in choosing a master demonstrates that students have confidence in themselves to achieve buddhahood with guidance.
Like having faith, following a spiritual guide is not haphazard or blind, but requires trust and devotion. The student and teacher can spend years examining one another. During this period, students look for specific qualities in a teacher, which are also qualities they want for themselves. Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche, the contemporary Tibetan lama and filmmaker, writes in The Guru Drinks Bourbon? that a good master is realized in the ultimate view, open-minded, and abides by the Vinaya, Bodhisattvayana, and Vajrayana of Buddhism. Since we want to achieve buddhahood, we choose a mirror that can reflect these qualities back to us.One might say, then, that the Buddhist path is an oscillation between self-discovery and cultivating healthy, helpful relationships for support.
Teachers are incorporated in particular ways in Vajrayana or tantric practice, which uses additional modalities like the body, imagination, and the breath to transform fixed ideas about oneself and perceptions of reality. One specific type of tantric practice known as guru yoga relies on the connection between a student and her teacher. This particular meditation practice, along with the lived experience of a healthy student-teacher relationship, allows students to ultimately cultivate trust and confidence in their own wisdom. Once students realize that they’re ready, they receive teachings through transmissions and creation- and completion-stage practices.
Transmission (lung) is conveying something between teacher to student. In tantra, transmissions are not only spoken or written words, but also an energetic quality that is expressed in one way by a teacher and received by a student. Students must be prepared enough to receive a transmission, particularly when teachers give an empowerment—a moment when students recognize their primordial wisdom. This exchange relies upon students’ confidence to experience that moment.
With fully developed confidence, students can commit to creation- and completion-stage practices. The former occurs when a practitioner imagines seeing or being a deity, while the latter occurs when that imagination dissolves, and a practitioner rests without trying to do anything. In The Treasury of Knowledge: Book Eight, Part Three: The Elements of Tantric, the 19th century Tibetan Buddhist scholar Jamgön Kongtrul describes the process as:
To remedy disturbances, we use a method of practice in which we consider our body and the bodies of all beings as being the deity’s body. When we practice this way, we don’t see the deity’s body as made of matter, but as empty yet appearing, appearing yet empty. Form and emptiness are one, like a reflection in a mirror or an appearance in a dream.
In the creation stage, the imagination, supported by clear cognitive understanding, allows a practitioner to envision her form and environment in an alternate way that points toward what Kongtrul says is seeing emptiness and appearing. This transformation, especially experiencing directly that one’s appearance does not inherently exist, makes it possible to cut one’s attachment and aversion to the body and other external objects.
Completion stage is the non-conceptual stage that follows and allows a practitioner to rest within the ultimately true natural state. While a practitioner gets familiar with this state through creation stage practice, as Kongtrul writes, she incorporates mental images and effort to do so. In the completion stage practice, however, the practitioner drops away that effort and thoughts. She comes to know primordial awareness firsthand and develops the confidence that she may experience emptiness and resting in the natural state every time she returns to practice.
One might say, then, that the Buddhist path is an oscillation between self-discovery and cultivating healthy, helpful relationships for support. We spend time investigating support that is reliable and points us in a healthy direction. Then we feel safe in those relationships. We are able to let go and be ourselves. We trust those relationships and work from there. This safe space allows for receptivity and open-heartedness, with our guards down. In this safe space, we can go for refuge with full certainty and confidence.
Refuge in the Buddhist tradition is the foundation and core of turning away from thinking that worldly things will bring ultimate peace and turning toward a promise that the Buddhist path can eradicate suffering. In Tantric Practice in Nying-ma, Khetsun Sangpo writes that, “going for refuge to the Three Jewels . . . is the foundation of all Buddhist paths.” Taking it differentiates a Buddhist from a non-Buddhist, and one can go for refuge in various reflections—three jewels, three real blissed-filled ones, or three aspects of reality (dharmakaya)—of the goal, which is buddhahood.
Jigme Lingpa, an 18th century Buddhist master in the Great Completeness tradition, composed a beautiful refuge verse that combines various levels of support that includes reality itself. “I take refuge in the three real jewels, the three-root blissed-filled ones, the nature of channels, winds, and orbs, awakened mind, the sphere of essence, nature, and ceaseless compassion, in the heart of enlightened mind.” The three jewels are the historical Buddha, the teachings of the Buddha, and the community of the Buddha. The three-roots and bliss-filled ones, or sugatas, are those who have already achieved the state of complete bliss: the yidam, or special deity, with whom the student has a special connection, or the dakinis, sacred female spirits, associated with activities that come forth from practice. The channels, winds, and orbs are various aspects of the subtle body, which holds at its very core, the essence of primordial wisdom. Lastly, essence, nature, and responsiveness are three aspects of reality, specifically of the sheer knowing (rigpa) spoken of in the Great Completeness tradition. In The Precious Treasury of Philosophical Systems, Longchenpa states that these aspects “are essentially inseparable, abiding constantly as the nature of the three kayas and primordial wisdom within basic space, which is without transition or change.”
Practice offers us an opportunity to open into this vast and expansive open-heartedness. Indeed, my therapist and meditation practice help me dissolve some of my own worries and help me wonder what new possibilities might be on the horizon.Reciting my daily practices, including the refuge verse, allows me to cultivate a sense of protection and relax into the present moment as my doubts and fears subside.
These uncertain times during COVID-19 revealed to me how I use my short-term plans to create control and security. Now that all of those plans have fallen through or been rearranged, I notice how groundless I feel in my life. Even now as I make new plans for the future, I have moments when I do not trust what will come, fearing the pandemic will disrupt everything again. In these moments, I have to find ways to imagine my life beyond the worrisome thoughts and anxiety I create.
Reciting my daily practices, including the refuge verse, allows me to cultivate a sense of protection and relax into the present moment as my doubts and fears subside. I recognize that I do not need to hold onto future plans to feel safe. Even in these moments, I can trust myself, consciously or subconsciously, to know what is true. We can take this process further by linking the external support of a spiritual teacher with internal support like Jigme Lingpa does in his refuge verse. In other words, manifestations of buddhahood in which we take refuge are not only external. We can also take refuge in our own primordial wisdom. As we recite the line, “the nature of channels, winds, and orbs, awakened mind,” we remember that the nature of our own channels, winds, and orbs is primordial wisdom. Jigme Lingpa points out that our primordial wisdom is no different from and just as trustworthy as the three jewels, our teacher, and reality itself. In this way, we may begin to take refuge in our own primordial wisdom that is undifferentiated from the way things are. We can trust that it exists and be receptive to our own buddhahood.
From there, our receptivity continues to open, perhaps to the extent that we do not recognize the differentiation between external and internal. In Treasure Trove of Scriptural Transmissions, Longchenpa says that “once you have realized that samsara and nirvana are miraculous expressions of awareness, there is no hope of attaining some higher state of buddhahood, for you have decided that samsara and nirvana are miraculous expressions of awareness.” Practitioners come to know that all experiences are not beyond the mind. This knowing gives rise to confidence that one does not need to seek something more or other than what one is already experiencing.
Once we recognize that there is nothing else to gain, we rest in a state of spaciousness that Jigme Lingpa in The Precious Treasury of Philosophical Systems calls the “nature, essence, and ceaseless compassion” of reality. We can take refuge in nature being empty, essence being luminous, and ceaseless compassion being the energetic response. Longchenpa says that this reality is “not anything whatsoever that pertains to either suffering (samsara) or liberation (nirvana).” Reality is beyond hope and fear, doubt, and wrong views. When we fear uncertainty, we are not in accord with reality.
At a certain point, when fear of uncertainty arises, we begin to trust ourselves and our potential, and can return to that confidence. I remember the first time I experienced this confidence in meditation. I was Yeshe Tsogyal, a dakini who is closely linked with Padmasambhava: calm and spacious, immovable—nothing could shake me, not even my thoughts. This moment did not last forever, but I can remember and drop back into that confidence when doubt or wrong view steers me away. It does not mean we still do not worry, fear, or doubt, but these emotional states dissolve and our fear of uncertainty lessens. We are able to move through a world fraught with uncertainty with full confidence.
This article was made possible in part with support from Sacred Writes, a Henry Luce Foundation-funded project hosted by Northeastern University that promotes public scholarship on religion.
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