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Alexander Berzin
Morelia, Mexico, September 1998

Visualization Means Working with the Imagination

The topic for this evening is visualization and its place in Tibetan Buddhist practice. One
of the things that characterize the Tibetan form of Buddhism is its extensive use of
visualization, much more than in any other form of Buddhism. Of course all these
methods developed in India, but Buddhism there died out.
In order to understand the various levels and usages of visualization, first we need to
throw the word visualization out of the window. It is the wrong word because the
wordvisualization implies something visual. In other words, it implies working with
visual images and it also implies working with our eyes. This is incorrect. Instead, we are
working with the imagination. When we work with the imagination were not only
working with imagined sights, but also with imagined sounds, smells, physical
sensations, feelings emotional feelings and so on. Obviously, we do that with
our minds, not with our eyes. If we think of the Western psychological division of the
brain into a right side and a left side, Tibetan Buddhism develops both sides both the
intellectual, rational side and the side of creative imagination. Therefore, when we speak
of visualization in Buddhism, were not talking about some magical process. Were
talking about something quite practical, in terms of how to develop and use all our
potentials, because we have potentials on both the right and left sides of the brain.
When we work with the imagination, were dealing with creativity, artistic aspects and
so on.
We work with the imagination on many different levels. We can divide these
into sutra methods and tantra methods. Of these two, those of tantra are the most

Visualization Methods in Sutra

In sutra, we use our imaginations first of all to help us overcome negative aspects of
ourselves, in other words, disturbing emotions and attitudes. If we are very much under
the control of obsessive desires, lets say desire for young attractive looking people as
sexual objects, we would then try to imagine what these persons will look like when they
are 80 years old. Remember, obsessive desire is based on exaggerating someones
qualities, and so when we have this sexual desire were imagining that this person is
going to look young and beautiful forever, which obviously is not true. Imagining what
the persons going to look like when old and decrepit, fat, and so on helps us to have a
much more realistic attitude toward the person and to relate to him or her as a person

rather than as a young body. This is one usage of the imagination, and as you can see,
its creative: its artistic and very helpful.
Likewise, we can use our imaginations to help us to develop positive qualities, such
as compassion. For instance, we can imagine a sheep about to be slaughtered and
imagine ourselves as that sheep about to be slaughtered, and how we would desperately
want to be free from that fate. Then we could imagine our mother, our father, our
friends, and so on as this sheep. This helps us to develop a strong wish that they be free
of having to be killed as well. And eventually we think about the sheep itself that is to be
slaughtered. In this way, we open our hearts out to developing more compassion for
others and wishing they be free from suffering.
In the sutra path theres a tremendous variety of things that we imagine to help us
overcome negative qualities, develop good qualities, and become more realistic. Like, for
example, imagining if we were to die right now, would we really be emotionally prepared
for that?

How to Visualize
Many people say, Well, I cant visualize. So how can I use these methods? Actually, if
we take a moment to investigate, we find that we all do have powers of imagination. For
instance, try to remember what your mother or your best friend, it doesnt matter who,
looks like. Please do that for a moment. We all are capable of remembering what our
most closely loved ones look like. So, we are able to visualize.
I remember once I was in India with a friend of mine who really had a problem with
visualizing. We were on a long bus ride together on a very hot day and she was suffering
very much from heat and thirst. So I started to torture her in a sense by saying, Wow,
wouldnt it be great if we had some nice cold oranges. Can you imagine how refreshing
they would taste? And their smell? And all of a sudden she discovered that she was able
to visualize and imagine an orange very well. So, we all are capable; its just a matter of
Another use of imagination in sutra is imagining a Buddha in front of us as an object of
focus to gain perfect concentration. The sutra path is divided into
the Hinayana and Mahayana, the modest vehicle of mind and the vast vehicle of
mind. In the Hinayana schools, the usual way to develop absorbed concentration is to
focus on the breath, which uses senseconsciousness. We focus on the physical sensation
of the breath going in and out of the nose. Mahayana, however, points out that we have
to consider what are we using the concentration for. Were using it to be able to focus
on reality with concentration and to stay focused on feelings of love and compassion.
Therefore, what we want to be able to do is to concentrate with our mental
consciousness, not with our sense consciousness. And so, in Mahayana, the preferred
way of developing concentration is on an imagined Buddha.

When we imagine a Buddha, we imagine a very small Buddha-figure in front of us at the

level of our eyes, about an arms length away, and we imagine this figure to be not solid,
but made out of light, and alive. We imagine that theres a little bit of corporeality
some weight for that light this is just a little trick to help keeping that image stable. If
we think too much in terms of it being just light, the image tends to float around too
easily. Whats important in working with this type of visualization practice is that we
dont focus with our eyes staring ahead as if we were looking at the Buddha in front of
us. Rather, we look down toward the floor and imagine something in front of us at the
level of our brow. Try that for a moment. Look down in front of you and hold your hand
in front at the level of your eyes. Now, while looking down at the floor, you can
concentrate where your hand is and imagine that your hand is there, even though you
are not seeing it, cant you? So, it is possible. Thats what we do when we visualize a
figure in front of us.
But, were not just imagining an apple in front of us, were imagining a Buddha. This is
very significant because in Buddhism, as you know, we tend to do many things
simultaneously. By focusing on a Buddha to gain concentration, we also focus on the
qualities of a Buddha. This helps us to keep our perfect concentration on those qualities
as well. Whats more, by focusing on a Buddha, our concentration can be accompanied
with a very strong taking of refuge. In other words, This is the safe direction I want to
go in my life. We can accompany our concentration with a bodhichitta aim as well, in
other words, I want to become a Buddha like this figure Im imagining in order to be
able to benefit everyone. If we canaccomplish perfect concentration on the figure of a
Buddha, keeping in mind the qualities of a Buddha, and we want to go in the safe
direction a Buddha indicates and become a Buddha ourselves in order to help everybody
if thats the package that were gaining concentration on then that has much more
far-reaching benefits that just concentrating on the sensation of the breath going in and
out of our nose. So, this is a vast method. Thats why we call it Mahayana: a vast
vehicle of training through vast techniques.

Visualization Methods in Tantra

Tantra is the main area in which we find the use of imagination, and so the rest of this
talk is going to be about tantra. I think that even if were not yet involved in tantric
practice, or dont even have an intention to be involved with tantric practice at this point
in our Dharma training, it can be very helpful to have some idea of what goes on in
tantra practice. This will help us to dispel any misconceptions we might have about it,
such as its all magic, exotic sex, and that sort of stuff. Having a clearer idea of what it is
helps us to decide on a more rational basis whether or not we would really like to involve
ourselves with this level of practice.
The use of imagination in tantra is a very sophisticated topic, so Id like to present it in a
fairly sophisticated way. Lets start on a general level. In tantra, we use our imaginations

to imagine various Buddha-figures, yidam (yi-dam) in Tibetan. These Buddha-figures

are sometimes referred to as deities, although the Tibetan term being translated
here, lhag-pay lha (lhag-pai lha), actually means higher deities. They are higher in
the sense that they are not samsaric gods in a samsaric god-realm, but are beyond the
uncontrollably recurring rebirth of limited beings. So, theyre not creator gods and
theyre not like ancient Greek gods or anything of the sort. Rather, all these figures
represent the full enlightenment of a Buddha and each of them also represents
prominently a particular aspect of Buddhahood, like Chenrezig or Avalokiteshvara
embodying compassion and Manjushri embodying discriminating awareness or
When we work with these Buddha-figures, we either imagine them in front of us or on
top of our heads or, more frequently, we imagine ourselves in the form of one of them.

Clarity and Pride

When we imagine these figures, we need to work on two aspects simultaneously. These
are usually translated as clarity and pride. This is somewhat misleading. One of the
biggest problems that we face as Westerners dealing with Buddhism is that most of the
translation terms are misleading.
First of all, clarity doesnt mean what we usually understand clarity to mean. The word
translated as clarity here doesnt mean in focus, but rather it means having or making
something appear. This means that our minds actually make an image appear. Thats
one side of the story we have to work on, getting an image to appear. When we work
with these figures, what we try to do is to focus on what our minds make appear and, as
our concentration develops, then the focus, the details, will improve automatically.
There is no need to strain to get all the details and everything in focus. To start with, all
we need is a rough image of something appearing, even if it is just a ball of light.
The second aspect, pride, doesnt mean arrogance. Rather, it means feeling ourselves
actually to be this Buddha-figure or feeling that something is actually present, on our
heads or in front of us, for instance. This is a special usage of the word prideas found in
the chapter on joyful perseverance in ShantidevasEngaging in Bodhisattva Behavior.
There, this Indian Buddhist master wrote:
I shall triumph over everything
And nothing shall triumph over me!
As a spiritual offspring of the Triumphant Lion,
I shall maintain this pride.
Wandering beings conquered by pride
Are disturbed: they have no pride;
For those having pride dont fall under the enemys power,
But instead, have power over the enemy, pride

But those who hold on to their pride in order to triumph

over the enemy, pride,
Are the holders of pride, the triumphant heroes.
And those who kill off the enemy, pride,
even though its gargantuan,
Bestow then the fruit of triumph in full
on wandering beings, whatever they wish.
Thus, if were visualizing something in front of us, such as a Buddha, we not only have
something appear, but we really feel that this Buddha is actually there with all the
qualities of an enlightened being.
These two aspects, as weve described them that something is appearing and feeling
that its actually there are common with sutra, as when we imagine a Buddha in front
of us to gain concentration. But, as said earlier, the major use of imagining these
Buddha-figures in tantra is to imagine that we ourselves are these figures.
We can understand what to hold the pride of the deity means by looking at the Tibetan
word thats translated as pride,ngagyel (nga-rgyal). This word is made up of two
syllables, the first, nga, means me and the second, gyel, means literally, to triumph.
When we speak of pride as a disturbing emotion, what it really means is considering
ourselves as triumphant or better than others in other words, self-importance. In
this context, however, the term means triumphing over the self in other words,
triumphing over the ordinary concept of ourselves, in the sense of overcoming and
ridding ourselves of this concept. This means to no longer feel that we have all the
limitations, the shortcomings of our ordinary self, like being confused, being unable to
understand things, and so on. Instead, we imagine that we actually have the qualities of
this Buddha-figure that we are Manjushri for instance: We have clarity of mind
anddiscriminating awareness; we are able to understand everything.
We can see from this example how misleading the word visualization is, because it
would lead us to think that the only thing involved is actually seeing the image. Because
were training our imaginations, were not only imagining this figure in the sense of it
appearing, but were also imagining what it would be like actually to be that figure with
all its qualities. For example, feeling like Chenrezig, we feel that we have compassion
and love. So, the use of the imagination here is quite broad.
Of these two, imagining that something is actually appearing and imagining feeling that
we have the qualities of what appears, the feeling of having the qualities is the most
important. We only need a vague image to help us keep focus, but we put our energy
into trying to feel like we have discriminating awareness, for example, and clarity of
mind, and then, as our concentration grows stronger, the details of the image will
become clearer automatically.

Training the Imagination for Visualization

In order to be able to visualize a Buddha-figure, of course we have to know what that
figure looks like. But visualization of ourselves in some special form is not as difficult as
we might think. For example, try to feel your head. First, lets start by imagining
something on top of our heads. The way to do that is to put your hand on top of your
head. Can you feel your hand on top of your head? Now, take your hand away. Can you
still feel the top of your head? Thats how you imagine something on your head. Focus
there. All you need is some feeling of something being there. It doesnt have to be in
focus in order to do themeditation. So its not really that difficult.
Now, to imagine ourselves as a figure, try to be aware of your head, and also your arms
and legs, and your body. Can you be aware of your whole body? Thats how you imagine
that youre a Buddha-figure. Now we may not be able to see our face, we may not be able
to visualize it, but can you feel that you have eyes, nose and a mouth? So, thats how you
visualize it, how you imagine it.
Even when these figures have many arms, thats not so difficult either. Lets try
Chenrezig with four arms. Put your hands in front of you. Do you have a feeling of that?
Now put your hands out to the side. Now imagine this being a double-exposure photo.
Put your hands in you lap. Can you still feel those four arms? Its not that difficult. This
is how we work with our imagination with these figures.
Even when it gets more complicated, it really isnt terribly difficult. Lets imagine three
faces. Put your hands on the side of your face. Try to have a feeling first of the face on
the front of your head. Now take your hands away. Can you feel a face on both your
cheeks as well?
Sometimes we imagine that were inside a mandala, which is being inside the palace in
which one of these Buddha-figures lives. Thats not too difficult either. The key to this is
that were not working with our eyes. Now were all sitting in this room, arent we? Can
you have a feeling that there are four walls around us? Thats how you visualize a
mandala. You dont need to actually have a visual image of a wall behind you to have a
feeling that theres a wall behind. And can you be aware of the fact that theres a garden
and a road outside? Thats how you visualize things outside the mandala: its just a
feeling of those things being there. So, this is the actual process of training the

The Image Arises within Voidness

For all of this to be much more significant and meaningful, it is crucial to generate all
these feelings, images and so on within the context of our understanding of voidness.
Voidness doesnt mean nothingness, but rather voidness is a total absence. What are
absent are impossible ways of existing that our minds make up and project onto objects

and events, as well as onto ourselves and others. The Sanskrit and Tibetan terms for this
total absence are usually translated as emptiness, but this is a bit misleading.
Emptiness implies something that is empty, like an empty bottle, whereas although
there is something that is devoid of impossible ways of existing, the term here connotes
only the total absence of these impossible ways. The Sanskrit term shunya and the
Tibetan translation of it, tongpa (stong-pa), after all, are both also the words for zero.
This distinction between voidness and emptiness has an important ramification in terms
of how we meditate on this crucial Buddhist teaching.
Lets look at a simplified example of what voidness means. Suppose I have done
something destructive and, filled with guilt, I believe that Im a monster. Nobody,
however, exists as a monster. Thats totally impossible; there are no such things as
actual monsters. When we focus on voidness, we focus merely on no such thing. What
our minds are projecting does not correspond to anything real; there is a total absence
of an actual referent to our projections.
It is important to dispel all the crazy fantasies we have about ourselves, such as that we
are monsters. This is especially so in tantra where we work with our self-image, which is
what were dealing with when we imagine ourselves as one of these Buddha-figures. We
contemplate how our usual self-image is crazy, without any real referent. We
understand, Im not a monster, because there are no such things as monsters. And
then we recite in a tantric visualization practice (a sadhana), Within voidness, I arise as
Often this phrase we recite is translated as, Out of voidness, I arise as so-and-so, but
the phrase doesnt mean that we leave our understanding of voidness. Rather, it is
within the sphere of all this craziness being gone, coupled with the understanding that it
never corresponded to anything real, that we then imagine ourselves as one of these
figures. This means that, within this state in which all impossible modes of existence are
absent, I now arise as what is possible in relation to my bodhichitta aim.
With bodhichitta based on love and compassion for all limited beings, we focus on our
individual enlightenments that have not yet happened, but which can happen on the
basis of our Buddha-nature qualities. The Buddha-figure that we visualize ourselves as
represents that not-yet-happened enlightened state. In other words, our actually being
an enlightened being and having all the positive qualities of such a being is possible, not
impossible. Why is it possible? Because we all have Buddha-nature, which means we all
have all the potentials and capacities to be like that. We then label me on the basis of
those Buddha-nature factors on our mental continuums and on our individual not-yethappened enlightenments that can be inferred on the basis of those factors.
This is very important because, when dispelling all these fantasies about ourselves, we
also dispel the disturbing emotions that go along with that. When we think, Im a

monster, we have a great deal of self-hatred and low self-esteem. When werealize that
we are not a monster there are no such things as monsters then disturbing emotions
like low self-esteem and self-hatred have no basis. So we dispel that. The same method
works with other disturbing emotions, such as when we think, Im Gods gift to the
world; Im so wonderful. This is macho arrogance. We have to dispel that as well. Then,
within that absence, we arise as this Buddha-figure based on the fact that we do indeed
have the potentials to become it as part of our Buddha-nature.
This is not self-deception because we know were not there, were not yet a Buddha. But
it is not distorted or crazy either, because we have the potentials to achieve it. Of course,
we could argue that we also have the potentials to be reborn as a dog. But its not the
same thing, since theres no benefit to be gained by imagining that we are a dog. There
is, however, great benefit to be gained by imagining that we have perfect compassion or
perfect wisdom. Imagining and practicing now as if we had perfect wisdom and so on
helps us to develop these qualities more quickly.
Obviously, it is absolutely essential not to deceive ourselves feeling that were there
already; otherwise we never make any progress. Just as when trying to gain
concentration in sutra, we imagine a Buddha in front of us, here we imagine all the
qualities of a Buddha so that it helps us to keep them as our safe direction. Similarly
with the bodhichitta aim, the wish to achieve enlightenment to help all limited beings,
imagining ourselves endowed with these Buddha qualities makes that focus on our notyet-happened Buddhahood even stronger. This is the direction we want to go in and we
want to achieve this goal in order to be best able to help everyone.

Pure and Impure Appearance-Making

In order to understand the much deeper significance of working with our imaginations,
we need to understand how our minds make things appear, because this is what were
doing with our imaginations, were making things appear. The way that our minds make
things appear is by mixing two things, which are usually called pure appearances and
impure appearances. To really appreciate the significance of this we need to take the
Tibetan word thats translated as appearance, nangwa (snang-ba) both as a noun and
as a verb, but more as a verb. Although we can speak about pure and impure
appearances, if we just leave it at that, it sounds as if they exist out there by themselves.
What were actually talking about is the minds making these things to appear. So we
have pure appearance-making and impure appearance-making.
Whether we want to or not, the impure appearances exist and although we may want to
ignore them, or not believe in them, theyre there. So we have to deal with them. What
we want to do is to stop our minds from making things appear in an impure way. We can
do this because we can work with our minds. If this is the only point that you remember
of the following discussion, you will have learned something very, very important.

Appearance-making, thats what were talking about in Buddhism. This whole

discussion of tantra and of voidness is how to get our minds to stop making things
appear in a crazy, impossible way in other words, to stop projecting fantasies.
Pure and impure appearances have two meanings. We usually dont distinguish these
very clearly, and therefore, we get very confused. Lets deal with one meaning at a time.
If we put it in simple language, one meaning is that an impure appearance is an
appearance of things as if existing in a solid manner in other words, a crazy projection
of something impossible. Pure appearance-making is making things appear nonsolidly,
the way they actually do exist. So, impure is making things appear in a way in which
they dont exist, a non-existent crazy way, and pure is making them appear in the way
that they do exist.
We can understand this better with a superficial example: when we see somebody we
dont like, our minds make two aspects appear what the person looks like and how
they exist. Lets leave aside, for a moment, the appearance of what they look like.
Concerning the appearance of how they exist, our minds mix two appearances. In
addition to how they actually exist as just a human being, our minds also project onto
that person that they exist as a monster. What we see then, in terms of how they exist, is
a mixture of these two modes of existence. But what predominates is that they look to
me like theyre a monster, a horrible person. Conversely, we see a beautiful looking
person and not only do our minds give rise to an appearance of how they actually exist,
but they also project onto them their existence being established as the most beautiful,
sexy person Ive ever seen. Based on that, we develop sexual desire. However, if we
analyze, we realize that this is not how they actually exist. This is because if they really
existed that way, asinherently sexy from their own side, then everybody should see them
as sexy, including the baby and the dog. But, obviously, they dont see that person as
sexy. So that is a projection from our minds that is mixed with the actual appearance of
how they exist. This is one level of how our minds mix pure and impure appearances.
The pure appearance is how they actually exist and the impure one is an impossible way
of existing.
The other meaning is that impure appearance refers to the ordinary appearance of what
we look like and a pure appearance is our appearance as a Buddha-figure. The impure
appearance that our minds give rise to may be either accurate or distorted, depending,
for instance, on whether or not we are wearing our glasses if, in fact, we need glasses to
see clearly. Here, we are not speaking about distorted impure appearances. But, when
we speak of accurate impure appearances and pure appearances regarding what we look
like, these are like two different quantum levels. For example, we have a visible gross
body, thats one quantum level. But we also have an invisible body composed of energy
channels that in Chinese medicine are called meridians. This is another quantum level
of our bodies. We know that these energy channels exist because they function: you can

stick acupuncture needles in certain points of this subtle body and it affects even our
gross body. A pure appearance in the form of a Buddha-figure is just another quantum
level regarding our bodies. So, the second meaning of pure and impure appearances
refers to these two levels of what we look like, the two quantum levels: the ordinary level
and the level of our appearance as a Buddha-figure.
If we factor together these two quantum levels of what we look like with the first
meaning of pure and impure appearances as regarding how we exist, then we can have a
pure appearance of how both quantum levels actually exist and an impure appearance of
some impossible mode of existence that our minds project onto either one of them. We
can see how, without being clear about these distinctions, we could become confused
about this issue of pure and impure appearances.
It is important to realize that perceiving a mixture of impure and pure appearances of
how things exist involves both our eyes and our minds. Both visual and mental
consciousnesses mix the appearance of a nonsolid identity with the appearance of a
solid identity. We can understand this through a very simple example. When we see
something, what are we actually seeing? Were seeing several things mixed together. The
first thing were seeing is innumerable dots of light from each of the cells in our retina
and we perceive them appearing with a nonsolid manner of existence. Mixed with that,
our minds put these dots together and perceive as well the appearance of not only
a conventionalobject, but the appearance of a conventional object that truly exists as
something solid. Were not just talking about seeing somebody as a monster; were
talking about how our ordinary sight works.
One of the important points that Tsongkhapa, the founder of theGelug tradition, made
is that the object to be refuted by voidness, the thing we have to work on, is how our
minds operate every single instant of our lives. Its not something that only happens
when were insane; Tsongkhapa is not just talking about paranoia. Hes talking about
how our minds ordinarily work. Our minds put together all the dots and project onto
them not just a conventional figure, but a conventional figure that appears to exist
solidly as this or that. All the senses work like that. When there is the sound of a voice,
all these little hair-like structures inside the ear vibrate and send electrical pulses to the
brain; the brain puts these together into words and then we understand them.
Now, the problem here is that we believe that things exist solidly, the way that the mind
puts them together and makes them appear. Lets take this point to the level of
emotions. Going back to our example, there are all these dots of light and we see the
dots combined together into a conventional object, which we take to be a spider. Thats
accurate. But then we project onto the appearance of the conventionally existent spider
an impossible manner of existence, as being solidly a spider. We scream, Ah! Theres

a spider and project onto this accurate appearance of what it is something impossible:
Its a monster and its going to get me. All sorts of paranoia and fear build on that.
The basis for this scenario is putting the dots together first into a spider and then
projecting onto it a solid identity of not only a spider, but also of a monster that is going
to get me. In other words, were not denying the accurate appearance of the dots on
another level as being the appearance of a spider. But the spider is merely a limited
being that has a whole life of its own. Its out there on the wall trying to find food and
then its going to go home to feed its babies and so on. But we put the dots together and
see them instead as being solidly a spider. We then no longer view it as merely a
limited being with an ordinary spider life of its own. Rather, once weve made it into a
solid monolith of a spider, then we hang onto that framework that its solidly and
inherently existent as a monster. Based on that come our paranoia and fear.
It is the same with the feelings that we have about ourselves. We mix a pure and impure
feeling about how we ourselves exist. The pure one is that were open to many
possibilities; we have many facets of personality and talent; and so on. On top of that
basic general feeling of whats actually there, we mix the feeling of having a solid
monolithic identity: Im Gods gift to the world or Im a loser. Then we identify with
that monolithic feeling and we become completely neurotic. All our disturbing emotions
follow from that.

Generating Ourselves as a Buddha-Figure

What we need to do first is to stop believing that we exist in the impossible ways that our
minds project we exist. For that, we need to focus on voidness, which means we need to
focus on the fact that these fantasy projections of ours dont correspond to anything real.
It is very helpful to use a rude word that shocks us into seeing that this is ridiculous,
namely to think, This is bullshit! Im not like this. Nobody is like this. Its bullshit that
Im Gods gift to the world, and its also bullshit that I am this monolithic solid thing.
What that leaves us with is the feeling that the way we actually are is open to many
different possibilities based on Buddha-nature, talents and so on.
Within that absence of all this bullshit, we then arise with an identity based on the
openness of these Buddha qualities. Thats how we arise in the form of a Buddha-figure.
And we have the pride of the figure, in other words, we try to feel that we are like this.
Rather than feeling that we are this monolithic Gods gift to the world, we feel that we
are open to many possibilities, and with the development of these possibilities, we can
become a Buddha. So thats how we visualize ourselves as a deity, how we imagine that
we are one of these Buddha-figures. Its a very sophisticated process.

The Inseparability of Samsara and Nirvana

The Sakya tradition, one of the four traditions within Tibetan Buddhism, speaks about
the inseparability of samsara and nirvana. This is taken on several levels. On one level
weve discussed this already, Im just putting it into another framework is the
inseparability of how our minds make things appear solidly and non-solidly.
Inseparable here means that theyre mixed together. If we look at anything, from one
point of view we see that theres a solid appearance-making of it; if we look from another
point of view, theres a nonsolid appearance-making of it. Even when were a Buddha,
even though our minds will no longer make things appear to exist solidly from their own
sides, nevertheless a Buddha will see that for others it is the opposite. The minds of
limited beings make things appear as if their existence were established solidly from
their own sides, and this makes inseparable samsara and nirvana.
The other level of the inseparability of samsara and nirvana is the inseparability of our
gross ordinary appearance and our subtle appearance as a Buddha-figure. Within
ourselves, we have two quantum levels. One is the gross level of how we ordinarily
appear; the other quantum level is the subtle appearance that we have in terms of these
Buddha-figures. So, out of the clear light mind, our energy appears in a gross and a
subtle form. The gross is impure; the subtle is pure. The gross is samsara; the subtle is
nirvana, used in a special sense. Were not talking about the subtle body with the
channels and so on that we find in other tantra systems, were talking about a pure
subtle body. Buddha has this also. Buddha appears as a Nirmanakaya, a Corpus of
Emanations, in ordinary looking forms, and as a Sambhogakaya, a Corpus of Full Use, in
those incredible Buddha-figure forms that only highly realized bodhisattvas can see. The
Sakya tradition makes this point more clearly than the other traditions do.
I think the easiest way to relate to this is considering two quantum levels within our
bodies that are mixed. If we look at the whole package of our bodies from one point of
view, we see an ordinary person and if we look at it from another point of view, we see a
Buddha-figure. Thats one of the keys for understanding the tantra vision of seeing
ourselves as a Buddha-figure or seeing our spiritual mentor as a Buddha, and so forth.
When we work in tantra with visualization, with imagination, we are switching to a pure
level from an impure level, not only in terms of the appearance of nonsolidity; but we
are also switching quantum levels to the plane of a Buddha-figure.
Our minds can make this mixture of the two quantum levels appear as having either
solid or nonsolid existence. The problem is, however, that our minds are automatically
going to make this appearance that we have as a Buddha-figure, based on Buddhanature, appear as a solid identity. Then we might feel that we now have this solid
identity like, Yes! I have clarity of mind. Yes! I have wisdom. Im Manjushri. .It
doesnt have to be as emotional as that, it could be quite subtle, but still theres this
feeling of solidity. When were doing this, we forget about all the other aspects of

ourselves, so we think that this is my monolithic solid identity. However, we know that
were not there yet.

Applying This in Ordinary Daily Lives

This is a marvelous method for gaining insight into how our minds normally work,
because we can apply the analogy of what were experiencing with this Buddha-figure to
our ordinaryperception in life. This helps us not to grasp at that solid feeling of our
ordinary identities of Im a loser or whatever, because we know by analogy that,
although we might solidly feel like a loser, we dont actually exist like that, just as we
know that although I might solidly feel as though Im Manjushri and Im so wise, Im not
really like that yet. Transferring this insight to our ordinary experience helps us to
understand voidness in our ordinary life, as well as to overcome our disturbing
By projecting this imagination of a Buddha-figure and focusing totally on that and on
the feeling of being that, we temporarily stop projecting our ordinary appearance of a
solid identity. This is not the same as stopping the projection of our ordinary
appearance when we go to sleep. Thats not so helpful; it doesnt do anything. Whats
significant here is that, not only do we stop projecting our ordinary solid appearance,
but weve generated this special appearance within the context of our understanding of
voidness. This starts to build up a habit of generating even our ordinary gross
appearance within the context of the understanding of voidness, just as we have done
with this special appearance. Thus, we take a break from our habitual ordinary solid
appearance-making. Even though we might feel solidly like this Buddha-figure
generated within the context of voidness, our grasp on it is much weaker than usual
because we remember weve generated it while understanding its voidness. Thus,
visualization in Buddhist tantra is not the same as the power of positive thinking or
creative visualization, with which we imagine the ideal golf shot before taking the shot.
Those methods lack the understanding of voidness, not to mention that they lack a
bodhichitta aim.

Viewing Ourselves as a Buddha-Figure All Day Long

In tantra practice, we try to visualize ourselves as a Buddha-figure not only in
meditation, but all day long. Likewise, we visualize all others as Buddha-figures and our
environment as amandala the palace and pure surroundings of a Buddha-figure.
Nevertheless, we need to walk around and function and do ordinary things in life. The
view of inseparable samsara and nirvana suggests a good way to understand how to do
If were going about our daily lives while seeing ourselves only as a Buddha-figure and
everything around us as a mandala palace, were probably going to soon be hit by a car.
What we need to do instead, while walking around all day, is to see the two quantum

levels of pure and impure appearance superimposed on each other. This is symbolized
quite nicely in the Nyingma tradition manner of visualizing mandalas, for instance. In
those visualizations, we visualize the walls of the mandala as consisting of two levels of
image superimposed on each other. One level is as five thin walls pasted together, with
each wall being a different color light. Another level is as three thin walls pasted
together, with each being made of skulls in different stages of decomposition. We
superimpose and visualize both levels simultaneously. This trains us to see other types
of different levels superimposed. This is not so difficult to do when we use our
imaginations and doing so trains us to see both the ordinary level and the Buddha-figure
level of appearance superimposed in daily life. The Gelug tradition provides a technical
description of how its done.
Anuttarayoga tantra, the highest class of tantra, has two stages of practice. On the first
stage, the generation stage, we see ordinary appearances with our eye consciousness,
but our mental consciousness superimposes on them the image of Buddha-figures and
mandalas. We conceive of these impure appearances as being pure. Then, on the second
stage, thecomplete stage, starting with its first step called body isolation, were able to
actually work with the energy-winds of the eye consciousness and generate them in the
form of a Buddha-figure. In so doing, the pure appearances of Buddha-figures and
mandalas are no longer cognized through a conceptual process.
If we study the different Tibetan traditions we get different views that, when put
together, make our understanding as to how the process of visualizing ourselves as
Buddha-figures actually works much more completely. Its like the three blind men
describing the elephant. One touches the legs, one touches the trunk, one touches the
ears and, when we put together all the information they derive, we get the picture of the

The Benefits of Superimposing Appearances

The benefit of seeing these two levels simultaneously all day long the superimposition
of the ordinary appearance and the appearance of a Buddha-figure is that it helps us
to understand that we also mix together an appearance of ordinary solid reality and
nonsolid reality. In other words, it helps us to gain the insight that we do not exist in the
world simply in the way in which we ordinarily appear to exist. On another level, it helps
us not to identify solidly with our ordinary gross appearance, lets say of being old and
fat and incompetent. Rather, it helps us to feel that we also possess these various
Buddha-qualities, but of course within the context of our understanding of voidness.
This, in turn, helps us to deal with our lives with a much more positive attitude, without
risking the danger of inflation of our egos.
Furthermore, by focusing on a Buddha-figure in meditation, lets say on ourselves as a
Buddha-figure, its much easier to develop perfect absorbed concentration than by

focusing on our gross bodies. Thats another advantage. The reason for this is that our
gross bodies are constantly changing. Our body position is always altering slightly, even
while sitting in meditation. Also, one day were feeling good and the next day were
feeling not-so-good, and so on. There are various aches and pains, not to mention itches.
Because of these constant changes, we dont have a consistent stable object to focus on
for gaining absorbed concentration. By contrast, if we focus on this Buddha-figure that
we imagine, that Buddha-figure doesnt change. We can always go back to the same
visualization. What were imagining always stays the same, so its much easier to
develop stable concentration on it.
Its also much easier to gain full concentration on the voidness of the imagined Buddhafigure than it is to achieve total concentration on the voidness of our bodies. Voidness
itself doesnt change; but here, if the basis for voidness in other words, the thing that
doesnt exist in impossible ways is something constantly changing like our bodies,
then the voidness of it gets somehow the word they use in Tibetan is infected by that
instability. By contrast, if the basis for voidness is something that doesnt change, then
its much easier to keep stable focus on its voidness. So, by focusing on the voidness of
the Buddha-figure, its easier to understand voidness itself.

The Gelug Prasangika Interpretation

What are we doing when we identify ourselves with a Buddha-figure? We are labeling
ourselves, calling ourselves a Buddha-figure on the basis of our Buddha-natures. Yet we
cant find that Buddha-nature and we cant find a solid Buddha inside us. We
understand, however, that this is a valid labeling of ourselves as a Buddha-figure. Were
labeling ourselves as a Buddha-figure, the second quantum level, on the basis of our
Buddha-natures. But we cant find that Buddha-nature and we cant pinpoint this
second quantum level of being the Buddha-figure, and yet we understand that this is a
valid labeling. We assume that quantum level as a Buddha-figure because we have the
Buddha-nature factors that will allow us to achieve that level. Thus, we exist as a
Buddha-figure merely in so far as we can be validly labeled as such. Theres nothing
solid and findable inside us making us that.
So, what actually is this Buddha-figure that we are? If we cant actually find it, we cant
actually see it, its merely what the valid label, or our imagination of it, refers to. In this
way its easier to understand that, in general, our existence as this or that, as a mother,
as a laborer, as whatever, is established by valid mental labeling alone and not by the
power of something solid and findable inside us. For example, suppose that we
conventionally exist as a mother. What establishes that we exist as a mother? We exist
as a mother because we can be validly called a mother based on the fact that we have
children. Theres nothing inside us that we can point to that makes us mother by its
own power, independently of anything else.

This is very important to understand, because if we unconsciously imagine that theres

something inside us making us mother by its own power, then we have to be mother
all the time to everybody. Then all the neurotic syndromes come up because of
identifying with being solidly mother. We only exist as mother in as much as we can be
called mother and such a label or name is valid because it is dependent on the fact that
we have children. This reasoning leads us then to be validly established as a friend on
the basis of our friends, as a business woman on the basis of our work, and so on. And so
this allows us a tremendous amount of openness to be of help to everybody. We call this
type of existence dependent arising.
What Ive been describing is the Gelug interpretation of the
Indian Madhyamaka Prasangika school of tenets. There are four Indian Buddhist
schools of philosophical thought. In addition, there are four Tibetan Buddhist traditions,
and each of them has a different way of understanding each of the four Indian schools.
This gets rather complicated. But the Gelug presentation of the Prasangika view is that
the existence of all phenomena is established merely by mental labeling. There is
nothing findable on the side of any object that by its power, either alone or in
conjunction with mental labeling, establishes the existence of anything.
We can understand this much more easily by working with imagination of ourselves as a
Buddha-figure, because it is quite obvious that we cant find anything inside ourselves
thats making or establishing us as a Buddha-figure, not even a findable Buddha-nature.
We can establish that we exist as a Buddha-figure merely by the fact that we can validly
imagine ourselves that way and validly refer to ourselves in that way and validly feel that
we are like, on the basis of our Buddha-nature factors. Dependent merely on that fact
this is what we mean by dependent arising we can say that we do exist as a Buddhafigure, despite there being nothing inside us, solid and findable, thats making us exist
in that way.
There are deeper levels of understanding the importance of visualization and
imagination, but this is deep enough for us to gain an appreciation of how sophisticated
the use of imagination is in Buddhism.

In summary, this has been our survey of the process of visualization, the use of
imagination in Buddhism. As we can see, it is a very worthwhile and sophisticated
method of practice. At all levels of working with it, from the simplest level of imagining
how a young attractive person is going to look like at 80 years old, all the way up to the
most sophisticated level, visualization helps us to overcome our disturbing emotions
and consequently our problems and difficulties. It enables us to use our potentials more
fully to be of best help to everyone. Although using the imagination is by no means an

easy method, it is a very effective one for attaining liberation and going on to become a

Question: Following your last reasoning, shall we conclude that Buddha-nature itself is
also void?
Alex: Yes, everything is void of impossible modes of existence. Whatever actually exists,
which means whatever is validly knowable, theres nothing findable inside it that
establishes its existence. Something findable inside an object is an impossible way of
establishing that that object exists, because there is no such thing as something findable
inside it. What voidness negates is the impossible way of existing, by which there is
something inside, solid and findable, that by its own power establishes its existence and
gives it therefore a solid, permanent identity that has not and can never be affected by
anything. So, the only thing that we can say, if we have to say something about what
establishes that things exist is mental labeling alone.
This doesnt mean that mental labeling creates them, since we can mentally label
someone a monster and that doesnt make them a monster. What establishes the
existence of something is that it is merely the referent object of names and concepts, as
validated by valid cognition of that referent object. This fact pertains to everything,
including Buddha-nature, enlightenment, Buddhas, and even voidness itself. Obviously,
we need to think deeply about this in order to understand and realize that it is true.
We tend to wonder, perhaps from our Western scientific point of view, What makes me,
me? And we might say, Well, its the genetic pattern of the chromosomes in my cells;
its my unique genome. Thats something inside me that makes me who I am. But
Buddhism would say Hey! Look a little closer than that. These chromosomes and genes
are made up of molecules, and the molecules are made up of atoms, which are made up
of subatomic particles, which in turn are made up of fields of energy. Where is there
anything findable? There is nothing solid, findable inside us making us who we are.
Theres nothing solid inside the chromosomes making them chromosomes.
So, we exist as who we are because people can conceive of us and think of us and label us
and call us by our name and its a correct label. And thats all! Nothing else is needed to
establish our existence. That is what is meant by mental labeling only. Buddhism has a
very complicated and full discussion on how do we know that a label or a name is
correct. But again, just because I call that cushion a dog doesnt make it a dog. But valid
ways of knowing is another huge topic in Buddhist studies and we cannot go into that
Question: We dont have any understanding of what a Buddha is; we can hardly imagine
what can that mean or what can that be. Whatever we think a Buddha is, is only a

projection of our minds. So, if I can only project that, then when I visualize a Buddhafigure, thats a mere projection. How can I know if this projection of a Buddha-figure is
correct or incorrect? In other words, do I have to merely trust my Buddha-nature that
because of my Buddha-nature, the way I project the Buddha-figure in front of me is
correct, or what?
Alex: I think that the Sakya approach of inseparable samsara and nirvana can help us
with this question. According to the Sakya system, not only are samsara and nirvana
inseparable with samsara and nirvana being understood to have many different levels
of meaning but also the basis, path and result levels are inseparable. So, when we are
seeing someone as a Buddha, thebasis level of that is Buddha-nature, the potentials that
will allow that. The resultant level, the final level, is the actual state of Buddhahood that
people can attain and which now exists as a potential. The pathway for going from the
basis to the result is our different levels of more and more
accurate conceptualizationand realization of that Buddhahood.
So, when we are viewing somebody as a Buddha, these three aspects are inseparably
mixed together. Our pathway conceptualization of what Buddhahood is like, which is on
the basis of the foundation level the Buddha-nature factors is just an approximation
of the result, Buddhahood. Its only natural that the pathway level is an approximation;
it cant be anything else. Of course we need to validate our approximation according to
the various descriptions of a Buddha that we read. We dont want to have an
approximation, lets say, that a Buddha is omnipotent like the description of God
Almighty in the Bible. That is not a quality of a Buddha. If our conceptualization is based
on the actual scriptural descriptions and so on, then we can validly work with it even
though it is an approximation.
Question: How can we work with these Buddha-figures when we have this very strong
cultural barrier toward them in their original iconography Tibetan, Indian or
whatever. Because theyre so strange, so alien to us, to our culture and way of seeing, I
cant relate to them. So is it valid that, for example, when I try to develop compassion, if
instead of visualizing Chenrezig, I visualize a face that has been meaningful for me a
face filled with compassion or love or wisdom or whatever.
Alex: Well, we have to be a little careful here. First of all, all these Buddha-figures were
also alien to Tibetan culture, yet the Tibetans were able to eventually, over time, feel
comfortable with them. Being from a different culture is not an inherent barrier.
Second, these figures are not just to be taken at face value. They are used in a very
sophisticated method. All the arms, faces and so on represent many different levels of
meanings and bear profound symbolism. They stand, for example, for many different
realizations that were trying to have in our minds simultaneously. To try to have 24
insights simultaneously in our minds is very difficult if we do it abstractly, not only

conceptually but also nonconceptually. Were talking about love, patience,

understanding and so forth. But if we represent these 24 insights or qualities graphically
with 24 arms, its much easier to imagine all of these at the same time. Therefore,
visualization of these multi-armed, multi-face figures is a device to help us keep all the
things they represent simultaneously in our minds.
So, we need to be very careful not to throw away one of the most important purposes of
these figures, which is to have all these arms and legs and faces. However when the
iconography of these figures went from one country to another from India not only to
Tibet, but also to China and Japan the facial features, for example, changed from
Indian to Chinese features. Some of the clothing also changed. The most drastic change
was that Avalokiteshvara underwent a sex change and became female in China. He was
male in India and Tibet. So, there are certain things that on a superficial level can be
adapted, but one has to be very careful. To make any cultural adaptations, as my
teachers have pointed out again and again, requires pretty much thorough knowledge of
both the original culture and the culture that youre going into, and, of course, full
knowledge of Buddhism. This requires a very broad understanding, not just deep
but broad.
Question: I understand that there are two ways of dissolving a visualization, and I want
to know if this is correct. One of them is, for example, when we visualize Vajrasattva on
top of our heads, at the end of our practice he melts and dissolves into light and comes
to our heart. Right? Thats one kind of dissolution. The other one is like with the merit
field, where one figure dissolves into another. Is that correct?
Alex: There are many different ways of dissolving a visualization. One is certainly that
the visualization dissolves into our heart. This has many purposes in terms of
understanding how appearances come from the clear light mind and so on. Sometimes
visualizations, as you say, collapse into themselves and then either dissolve into
voidness or dissolve into us. Sometimes visualizations expand until they become the size
of the universe and dissolve that way. Sometimes visualizations go off to a Buddha-field.
So there are many different ways and each of them has its own specific purpose.

Let us now dissolve our session then with a dedication another way to dissolve an
appearance. We think that whatever understanding, insight and positive force we might
have gained tonight, may that grow more and more. Particularly, what weve discussed
tonight has not been easy; its very sophisticated. So we hope that our understanding of
it will grow deeper and deeper as we listen to the tapes or read the transcription and try
to understand more and more, if we are interested in doing so. May we be able to derive
more and more benefit from integrating these teachings into our practice and into our
personalities, so that they can help us overcome difficulties and realize more and more

of our potentials to be of best help to everyone. And may we try to put all the pieces of
the Dharma puzzle together, so that we understand more and more and can derive more
and more benefit from the teachings and the practices.
Take for instance, the advise of looking at the spiritual teacher as a Buddha while the
teacher is teaching which, by the way, is a practice for only very advanced disciples,
not for beginners. It is for practitioners who already have put the safe direction of refuge
into their lives and who have a bodhichitta aim of working to become a Buddha in order
to be able to benefit everyone. For that kind of practitioner, then, its very beneficial to
see the spiritual teacher as a Buddha while receiving teachings. But what does that
We need to put the pieces of the Dharma puzzle together. That means switching
quantum levels from the ordinary level to the Buddha-nature, Buddha-figure level.
Remember, inseparable samsara and nirvana. The teacher has shortcomings, but also
good qualities, inseparably. One is the gross level; one is the more subtle level. The
subtle level is the good qualities. Just as in meditation, we would only focus on the
subtle level for various beneficial reasons, likewise while receiving teachings we would
also focus just on the more subtle level of the teacher in terms of this more subtle
quantum level of being a Buddha. That will allow us to focus on and appreciate the
teachers good qualities while receiving teachings, which will help us to have the most
open and receptive mind to try to understand what the teacher is saying. To focus on the
gross problems of the teacher while listening to teachings distracts us from what he or
she is saying. Its not at all helpful at the time of listening to the teachings.
Nevertheless, regarding the teacher as a Buddha while listening to teachings, in other
words focusing on this more subtle quantum level, doesnt mean that we lose our ability
to discriminate between the teacher saying something correct or something incorrect.
Thats there. Seeing a different quantum level does not preclude the functioning of
discriminating awareness. So, in this way we need to put together all the pieces of the
Dharma puzzle in order to really understand on a deeper level some of the most
confusing teachings.
May our understanding and our process of putting the pieces together grow more and
more, so that we can truly be of best help to everyone.

Pages with Similar Content:

What Is the Difference between Visualizing Ourselves as a Buddhist

Deity and a Deluded Person Imagining They are Mickey Mouse?
Making Sense of Tantra 4 Buddha-Figures
Listening to, Thinking about, and Meditating on the Dharma Session
Six: Visualization

Alaya and Impure Appearance-Making

Fundamentals of Dzogchen Meditation 1 Recognizing Different
Levels of Mental Activity and Appearance-Making
Developing Our Buddha-Nature Factors through Sutra and Tantra
(video + audio + transcript) (multipart text)
Theory of Tantra in Terms of Inseparable Samsara and Nirvana
Session Four: Questions about Visualization, Transforming Disturbing
Emotions, Sleep and Dream Yogas, Avalokiteshvara

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