Within the larger context of Buddhist spirituality, the Vajrayana is striking in its insistence on the unique power of relative reality—that is, the feelings, thoughts, emotions, perceptions, and situations that make up our ordinary human experience—to wake us up.
From the Vajrayana viewpoint, our journey unfolds in three stages, which correspond to three increasingly subtle ways of relating with the relative. First, in the Hinayana [“lesser vehicle”] stage, we come to see the problematic nature of our day-today manner of going about things. We see that there is something about life that never quite satisfies and that we respond with a habitual reactivity (karma) that digs us deeper into our own suffering (duhkha). In the Hinayana, our relative reality is clearly an obstacle, and we need to create some distance from it. Through the practice of meditation, we renounce the temptation to react blindly to phenomena, and we discover how to dissolve our anxiety. Gradually, we develop a sense of peace, well-being, and ease; an acceptance and basic “OK-ness” in relation to what life is. This level of attainment is both powerful and liberating, but it remains limited because we have not yet experienced the full depth and freedom that is our birthright as humans.
In the second, or Mahayana [“great vehicle”], stage of the journey, we become increasingly aware of a spacious, open, and unimpeded dimension of our experience that lies beneath the comings and goings of our relative lives. Through practice, we realize that this vast awareness is actually the ground of our being. We become identified with this basic sanity and learn to rest in it for periods of time, bringing an unprecedented sense of freedom and happiness. We may feel that we have found our true home and attained the realization we have always sought. But an important question nags at us: What about the relative reality of our lives that we have to set aside whenever we enter the “natural state?” Are we meant to leave behind the apparently limited relative world forever?
From the Vajrayana standpoint, it is actually quite the opposite. The third, Vajrayana [“diamond vehicle”] stage of the journey calls us to reenter the world of the relative with a ferocity and intensity that is—to the conventional mind—quite crazy. In the Vajrayana, we see that our difficulties with relative reality stem from our attitudes and beliefs, rather than from relativity itself. We are called to see each arising of our day not as a threat, but as an opportunity—a chance to open our arms, lay down our weapons, and surrender to this exact moment of our life.
You could ask, Why are we called to become so intimate with our relative situations—with every personal encounter, every job, every relationship, every emotion? It is because, from the viewpoint of Vajrayana, “ultimate truth” is found in the relative, and nowhere else. Relative truth—our lives experienced nakedly, with no overlay—always arrives as a fissure in the fabric of our conceptual world. It feels risky because it’s pointing to an area that is unknown to our egos; and the invitation to the Vajrayana practitioner is to step through that fissure—to go toward it, to trust it, and to open to it. And the interesting thing is that on the other side it’s dark. You actually can’t see the essence of the relative situation you’re in before you step through. It’s very much a kind of darkness practice because you’re stepping into something, but you have absolutely no idea where you’re going to land or even who you’re going to be on the other side. The surrender is that complete. This is how you live in the relative world while practicing in an ultimate way.
Our lives are truly so kind and so trustworthy. It is the great blessing of the human realm that phenomena constantly arise as our relative experience, always knowing exactly where we are hiding, and offering precisely what is needed to smoke us out. The ego has no place to hide. Zero. This is the meaning of sacredness in Vajrayana—that the ultimate appears in the form of the relative to liberate us from the prison of our limited self. The freedom we find in the Vajrayana is not exclusive but inclusive: not a freedom from our relative lives, but freedom for our lives exactly as they are. In Sanskrit this is called mahasukha, or great bliss, which indicates the utter and unique sense of joy that is possible when nothing in our experience is pushed aside or cast out.
We talk a lot about “empowerment” in the Vajrayana and it is important to understand exactly what that means. To receive empowerment doesn’t mean that someone grants you the power to escape from your life, or to override and control things you don’t like; rather, they help you tap into the power you inherently possess to surrender utterly to your unique life, which is the only gateway in the entire universe through which you can enter eternity.
This power is obviously not what we normally think of as power, though. This power has three aspects. The first is that we are completely free from all of our karma. This doesn’t mean that our karmic situation somehow disappears; it means that, because we have experienced our own emptiness and the freedom that it brings, we are no longer looking to our relative karma to see who we are or find fulfillment.
Out of that freedom comes the second aspect of power, which is love; love for everything that is—for reality, for life itself. You could say that the essence of the human being is freedom, but once we feel freedom, the job of the human is to love. That’s why we’re here—to love. In Tibetan Buddhism, this kind of love is called compassion, but it’s way more than what that limited word means in English. Trungpa Rinpoche actually used the term “lust.” Lust means love that is voracious, uncontrollable, and reckless; we’re not talking about sexual lust here—it’s a much vaster and more inclusive than that. As our practice deepens, we realize that in us there is a love for everything that is; and it doesn’t matter how big or how small, how ugly or how beautiful, how blissful or painful it may be; at the very core of the human person is an unconditional and unlimited passion and caring for what is.
Why do we call that love power? Because at a certain point, you realize that the love you feel for the people you meet, for the situations you’re in, for this beautiful world of ours, is actually not your love. It doesn’t belong to you in the least. It’s much more boundless and profound. It touches the very essence of what this universe is and arises from the utter depths of reality itself. We realize that, as humans, we are vehicles of that universal love for all that is. Experientially, it might feel like a mighty ocean rushing through your system—as though your human heart cannot bear its sheer immensity. It’s not like “Who am I gonna love? Who am I gonna hate?”—which is weak. When we realize that our basic nature is to love everything, it’s incredibly liberating.
And then the third aspect of power is called ziji in Tibetan. Ziji is sometimes translated as “confidence,” but it’s actually the beauty of our own being. All of us possess a sense of our innermost beauty and the radiance of life itself that is us. And this has absolutely nothing to do with ego. It’s a sense of being utterly at peace with who we are, and what we are, and how we are, and who we’ve been and who we’re going to be. It’s trust in what it means to be human and willingness to let the river of life flow through us, come what may.
So to feel the fundamental vastness and openness of our life; to feel the freedom and inevitability of loving everything that is; and to feel the trust, confidence, and beauty of being itself—this is the point of the Vajrayana journey. It is what Trungpa Rinpoche called the “ultimate positivity” of the Vajrayana—that from the beginningless beginning there have never been any shadows or stains in the unfolding of reality, that all is immaculate and openly displayed, and that all the realms of being are expressions of the utter joy of being. To realize this is to be free of the “problem” of oneself, and therefore to be liberated to live our lives in love and service to this suffering world.
On “Hinayana”: As it is used within Tibetan Buddhism, the term “Hinayana” means “the foundational stage” of the spiritual path and refers to the first of three phases in a person’s spiritual unfolding (“Mahayana” is the second, “Vajrayana” the third). As it is used in Tibetan texts, it has no relationship whatsoever to any historical or living school of Buddhism. Although Tibetans themselves have not always been clear on this point, the consensus today is that the attempt to apply the terms “Hinayana” and “Mahayana” to other Buddhist traditions is inaccurate, misinformed, and deeply misguided. It is interesting that all the historical Buddhist meditative schools, including Theravada, Ch’an, and Zen, have teachings that correspond to all three phases of the Tibetan path, Hinayana, Mahayana, and Vajrayana.
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