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Is Deity Yoga Buddhist?

The Philosophical Foundations of Tantric Practiceby Brian T. HaferThe various schools of Buddhism differ widely in their philosophical tenets and in their practices. For example, the family of practices known as deity yoga is unique to Tantric Buddhism and is very different from other types of Buddhist practice. Not surprisingly, other schools of Buddhism often respond skeptically to the practices of Tantra, to say the least. In the words of one Theravada bhikkhu the author interviewed on this topic, I dont see the purpose. Although the purpose of Tantra, as will be discussed later, may be well-defined, viable objections remain as to the ontological status of the myriad forms and beings that are visualized during Tantric sadhanas and as to the fruitfulness of such practices as tools for attaining enlightenment. This paper will explore the question, Is deity yoga Buddhist? and investigate the philosophical foundations of Tantric practices as well as the objections to them which have been raised by other Buddhist schools.According to the Tibetan Mahayana, the schools of Buddhism are classified according to the Triyana, or Three Vehicles: the Hinayana or Individual Vehicle, the Mahayana or Universal Vehicle, and the Vajrayana or Indestructible Vehicle. In some systems of classification, the Vajrayana is considered as a subgroup of the Mahayana, and Buddhism is separated into only two main divisions: the Hinayana and the Mahayana. However, since the current paper is concerned with the unique deity yoga practices of the Tibetan Mahayana, the Triyana classification will be used as a basis for explanation. Regardless of whether one considers the Vajrayana as a subgroup of the Mahayana or as a separate division of its own, it is important to realize the close historical and philosophical affiliation of the two.The HinayanaThe Hinayana school of Buddhism has been called the way of self-benefit and of negation. Adherents of the Individual Vehicle of Buddhism engage themselves in trying to fix their own shortcomings and in negative ascesis, that is, refraining from committing acts which are considered to accrue bad karma for oneself. Hinayana practice has been likened to refusing a cup of poison, that is, ceasing to commit acts of body and mind which cause direct or indirect harm to oneself. The goal of Hinayana practice is to reach the stage of anarhat,one who has rid oneself of the defilements of ignorance (avidya), attachment (raga), and aversion (dvesha) with the aid of a teacher.The Mahasanghika, to which the rise of the Mahayana is apparently deeply indebted, and the Sthaviravada, from which the modern Theravada school arose, both were descended from a common form of primitive Buddhism.1The Hinayana that is often criticized in the texts of the other two vehicles as having fallen into the trap of reification of the dharmas is also descended from the Sthaviravada. This criticism is specifically targeted at the Sarvastivadin school of Buddhism, which had stagnated and petrified the Abhidharma into a list of inherently existent dharmas. It is important to realize, however, that the modern Theravada school of Abhidhamma developed independently and did not fall victim to this reification. The Theravada system is an open-ended, dynamic philosophy which does not reify the teachings of the Buddha as information, but instead recognizes that the Buddha Dharma is transformation. The Buddhas teaching ofanatta(the lack of inherent self-existence) is seen by the Theravada to apply to both the existence of the personal self and to the existence of the dharmas.The MahayanaThe Mahayana school of Buddhism has been called the way of other-benefit and compassion. The culmination of Mahayana practice is different from that of the Hinayana. The Mahayana claims that becoming anarhatis only a partial achievement of the goal characterized by an excess of wisdom and a lack of compassion. The true goal, they say, is to become a Buddha, a self-enlightened one. To do this, Mahayana practitioners take the Bodhisattva Vows to fully utilize the three karmas (body, speech, and mind) to help others until all sentient beings have been freed from samsara. This emphasis on compassionate benefit of others is a key distinction between the Mahayana and the Hinayana.Mahayanists maintain that since the distinction between pure and impure or good and bad is a creation of dualistic thinking, and since dualistic thinking is a manifestation of ignorance of the true nature of reality, then this type of distinction must not actually exist at the level of ultimate reality. The consequence of this is that when the passions (kleshas) are viewed from pure perspective, no distinction can be made between pure and impure. Thus, according to the Mahayana, the negative ascesis (avoiding impure actions) of the Hinayana serves to strengthen dualistic thinking and further mire the mind in samsaric misperception of reality. The followers of Mahayana strive to strengthen the modes of being known as wisdom (mahapraja), which correctly perceives the ultimate nature of reality, and great compassion (mahakaruna), which strives to benefit all sentient beings. Because of this, the Mahayana has been likened to taking sips of poison, that is, being able to use the overriding principles of wisdom and great compassion to act skillfully to benefit others, which may, at times, mean performing actions that the Hinayanist would consider contraventions of the Vinaya rules regarding moral conduct (shila). However, the positive rule of compassion takes precedence over the negative prohibitory rules.The VajrayanaThe Vajrayana school of Buddhism has been characterized as stopping ordinary perception. If the Hinayana and the Mahayana correspond to refusing a cup of poison and taking sips of poison, respectively, then the Vajrayana corresponds to drinking poison and transforming it into nectar. The practitioner of Vajrayana is able to use the energy generated by the passions as an aid on the path to enlightenment. This is done by adopting a standpoint of having already achieved the goal and of ones already being a Buddha as opposed to striving along the path towards enlightenment. Practices involving the adopting of the goal as the path2are called Tantrayana, or the Effect Vehicle. Obviously, the practice of Tantra is not for everyone, as practitioners must have a solid foundation in wisdom and compassion before attempting to use passion in the path or they may experience negative consequences such as rebirth in the Vajra hells, which are said to be below even the Avici Hell (i.e. the Hell of Uninterrupted Pain). The practices of Tantra are referred to as deity yoga because of the adoption of the viewpoint of having already achieved the goal (i.e. ones already being a deity).Bodhicitta: The Heart of the Mahayana and Vajrayana TeachingsTo be able to understand the controversy regarding deity yoga, the similarities and distinctions between Mahayana and Vajrayana must be carefully examined. The heart of the teachings of both schools is the practice of cultivating the two levels of enlightened mind (bodhicitta), the conventional and the ultimate. The conventionalbodhicittais the mind of great compassion (mahakaruna) that is the desire to work for the benefit of all sentient beings. Recognizing, however, that physical means of benefit are temporal and impermanent and that only an enlightened being can provide lasting benefit by dispelling ignorance, the conventionalbodhicittagives rise to the altruistic desire to achieve enlightenment as the most expedient way of exercising compassion. The ultimatebodhicittais the bodhisattva wisdom cognizing emptiness. The cultivation of conventionalbodhicittais requisite for the attainment of ultimatebodhicitta.The ultimatebodhicittaoperates in a non-dual mode of perception in which good and bad, pure and impure, or extra-samsaric and intra-samsaric do not have independent self-existence. The ultimatebodhicittaperceives the emptiness (sunyata) of inherent existence of all phenomena.The doctrine of emptiness is one of the most important teachings of Mahayana Buddhism and one of the most difficult to understand fully. Madhyamika, the philosophy of the Middle Way, employs a system ofreductio ad absurdumwhich slips between all extremes of this and that in order to show that emptiness is the ultimate nature of reality. There are two standard lines of reasoning by which one cultivates an understanding of emptiness.3First, nothing has independent self-existence because everything is made of parts. Since all things are dependent on their parts, they cannot have independent self-existence. Second, nothing can be said to have independent self-existence as a group of many individual things because all of the component parts are shown not to have independent self-existence by the first line of reasoning. If the parts of the whole are dependent upon their parts, then the whole cannot be independently self-existent.However, the philosophy of Madhyamika does not deny the existence of things on the relative level. This misunderstanding of the Middle Way teachings would lead one to assert one of two wrong positions. The first is nihilism, in which one would have found nothing left on the relative level of truth by which to recognize things and would dismiss all conceptions or understanding of things on the relative level as being untrue. This might lead one to conclude that emptiness, as misunderstood to assert the lack of inherent, independent self-existence of things on the relative level, was itself incorrect. According to theMahasmrtyupasthanasutra,abandoningsunyatawould cause one to be reborn in the Avici Hell.4The second wrong position would be to accept emptiness on the ultimate level of truth, but to see all things on the relative level as mere mental conceptions which are mistaken by the mind as being real. This could cause one to abandon Dharma teachings and practices such as meditation and taking refuge which bring good karmic effects. Both of these positions are misunderstandings of emptiness and would lead individuals to believe that they had attained everything when in fact they had attained nothing at all.A correct understanding of the teaching of emptiness is the ability to hold both truths, the relative and the ultimate, in the mind at the same time without seeing any contradiction between them. Ashvaghosa has said, You should never ignore the relative level of truth because of sunyata. Rather, you should understand that the relative level of truth and sunyata on the ultimate level work in harmony with each other.5For this reason, the Madhyamika philosophy is said to steer a middle course between eternalism and nihilism.Nagarjuna, the dialectical master of the Madhyamika school, uses a cyclic strategy to discredit the assertions of his opponents and to support the doctrine of emptiness. He begins by accepting the notion of own-being (svabhava) and then showing the absurdities implicit in such a realistic view point. His attack on these metaphysical propositions is that they do not provide the knowledge they claim to. Nagarjuna shows that they cannot possibly fulfill their promise because words and expression-patterns are simply practical tools of human life, whichin themselves,do not carry intrinsic meaning and which do not necessarily have meaning by referring to something outside the language system.6By disproving all extreme views of this and that without offering a viewpoint of his own, Nagarjuna allows the wisdom of emptiness to manifest itself. Since emptiness cannot be described due to the limitations of language just mentioned, this method is the only way to truly share a profound understanding of emptiness. By using this strategy, Nagarjuna consistently replaces apparently common sense notions which are in fact highly metaphysical with apparently metaphysical notions which are in fact common sense. For instance, Nagarjuna responds to the following objection in theMadhyamikaprajnamula:If everything were ultimately void of any true independent self-existent nature, then there would be no creation and no destruction, and it would follow that there would not be even the four noble truths. How do you explain that? In answer to this objection that if everything were ultimately void of any true, independent, self-existent nature, then there would be no distinction between those things binding you to samsara and those liberating you from it, I would say precisely the reverse. Both creation and destruction are dependent functions, arising from their causes according to the law of dependent arising. Therefore it is only if everything were not ultimately void of any true, independent, self-existent nature (in other words, it is only if things did have true, self-existence, independent of their causes) that it would follow logically that there would be no creation and no destruction of things and that there would not be even the four noble truths.7Thus, it can be seen from this example that far from denying the existence of reality, emptiness actually saves reality from the brink of extinction! For without emptiness, conventional interdependent reality as we observe it could not exist. However, even the doctrine of emptiness has the danger of being reified as independently self-existent. To prevent this, one must apply the doctrine of emptiness to itself in order to remember the emptiness of emptiness. The enlightened mind holds the conventional and the ultimate truths of reality in mind simultaneously; there is no other way that the conventionalbodhicitta(mahakaruna) and the ultimatebodhicitta(mahapraja) could coexist simultaneously. Therefore the simultaneous cultivation of wisdom and compassion is the first step of Mahayana practice, and the perfection of this cultivation marks the culmination of Mahayana practice.Two Truths: The Relationship of Samsara to Nirvana in Madhyamika PhilosophyImportant ontological dilemmas arise as a result of maintaining this position of reality as ultimately non-dual. Paramount among them is the question, if reality is non-dual, how can samsara and nirvana be ultimately different? Nagarjuna makes the following statements in hisMulamadhyamakakarika(MMK), the Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way, regarding the ontological relationship of samsara and nirvana:Samsara is nothing essentially different from nirvana.

Nirvana is nothing essentially different from samsara.The limits (i.e. realm) of nirvana are the limits of samsara.

Between the two also, there is not the slightest difference whatsoever.8These eloquent couplets quickly reject the validity of any attempt to discriminate ultimately between samsara and nirvana. In fact, it is precisely the discriminating nature of mind which creates the illusion of ultimate difference between samsara and nirvana and hence creates conventional suffering. The basis of di...


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