by Lama Sherab Dorje, at the 1st Buddhism in America Conference 1997
(A participant asked Lama Sherab Dorje what he thought the average person in America would find appealing about "trying to visualize themselves as some guy wearing strange clothes and a funny hat?")
Lama Sherab Dorje : Nothing at all. I wouldn't find that appealing. And that's why I kept emphasizing that that's not the point here at all. The point really is that this technique is available to help you understand that emptiness is both the starting point and the arriving point of all Buddhist meditation. This visualization practice is a brilliant technique to help you recognize that. It emphasizes it at the beginning, it emphasizes it throughout the visualization, and it emphasizes it at the end, as you allow the mind to rest in its nature.
This technique is available for people. It uses so much of your being that it's very, very powerful.
People who get a taste of what the technique is can appreciate it as a very powerful way to work toward the core understanding that is at the heart of all traditions of Buddhism.
I think it's crucially important to help people understand what is really going on with Tibetan Buddhism meditation, becaue if it remains at the level of watching a beautiful performance of other people doing their meditation by chanting and dancing and so forth, it's a nice show but ultimately it's not a technique that is very helpful for us. So I personally try to emphasize it. I think in the past people feared that, although deity visualization practice might work for people who are already hard-core, serious Tibetan Buddhist practictioners, that somehow it'll just be too confusing to people who are just interested in Buddhism in general and want to know how this works. I disagree with that completely and think there is a lot more that can be done by people who have experience in the practice to help others understand how valuable it is.
(Noting that there are many different techniques, a member of the workshop asked if one should identify one technique and stick with it, or select the meditation technique that is best for the individual's practice.)
Lama Sherab Dorje : In all Buddhist practice, you work with developing concentration and focusing or quieting your mind in order to achieve greater insight. So, in a sense, it almost doesn't matter. On the other hand, when you are introduced to something, you may feel that it is working for you. I can work with mind on the basis of this. I can see concentration growing within me because my mind just naturally wants to focus on this, whether it's a candle flame or a statue or the breath within oneself or the picture of the deity that one generates within one's mind.
When you have this kind of visualisation practice, it's a smorgasbord. It's the whole thing. So if you take it like a training course, if you work with a teacher and learn this kind of practice, of which there are thousands, you may feel a close connection to one particular teacher, and so it makes sense to work with that person.
(A participant asked if there were more active or physical ways of mandala practice.)
Lama Sherab Dorje : Absolutely. You've seen the sand mandala practice. There is a great tradition of what's called Cham, or " lama dancing" where the mandala is created and visualized in the process of moving as the deity, of seeing oneself as the deity in movement rather than just sitting there. When you sit on your cushion and do a visualization such as the emanation and collection of light, you don't have to sit there like a statute because this picture that you have is at rest. You are free to move around, stretch your legs, whatever. You're not locked into being this thing. Again, the whole point is to break away from ideas of solidity.
I remember this person asking a lama once, "I'm Vajrayogini and I'm holding this hooked knife up there, and what happens if my hand get tired holding up this knife, picturing myself as Vajrayogini holding this knife?"
And he says, "Well, put it down! You don't have to hold it up there. There is no rule about that."
So yes, there is a tradition of lama dancing.
And if you have ever heard of the New Year Festival like Mani Rimdu, where dance performances are put on by lamas, that's exactly what it is. There's one which is the dance of subduing different kinds of obstructing forces and of bringing the teachings of Dharma to Tibet. But all of that internally is a meditation on breaking through obstructing forces in the mind. So the lamas are meditating on that as they are dancing and the dance becomes an expression of concentration and of wisdom-mind.
(The final questions concerned the use of mandalas that the meditator made for himself or herself and the advisability of embarking upon this practice without a teacher.)
Lama Sherab Dorje : I think there is a tradition of these teachings that comes from the enlightened masters themselves, that expresses a kind of architecture or road map of enlightenment; the different expressions of wisdom-mind with different kinds of buddhas. And I do think that there's a purpose and wisdom behind those choices.
If you feel capable of duplicating that wisdom as a source map that you want to create for yourself, then that's what all these masters who came later did. They created new mandalas and new expressions that came out of their own wisdom understanding. On the other hand, if you're saying, Can I just work with a bit of this and a bit of that because I like to visualize this deity, or this particular thing resonates with me and I find that helpful? Can I just pick and choose in that sense and not have to do the whole practice like that, I think the answer is yes. Of course. But whether you can take a bit from this mandala and paste it onto that one in a kind of computer-age image, I don't think that would be helpful.
I think it's important to get introduced to a deity with the help of a teacher. It will give you more confidence that you really know what you are doing.