Something that has interested me throughout our study of Tibetan Buddhism is the differing view of the self. While some of the previous philosophers and scholars that we have read have disagreed on some of the more minute and complex details, there is a general assumption that the interconnectedness of people and things intrinsically implies emptiness. Following this train of thought, there cannot be a concept of individual people or of the self as something completely independent from other phenomena.
This is why I’ve had a hard time understanding certain concepts in the practice of tantra in the larger concepts of Buddhism. For example, how could the worship of Virupa, someone whose actions were often cruel and odd, fit into the larger teaching of compassion? How could imagining oneself as a deity, an action that seems to take a lot of hubris to the untrained eye, go along with emptiness and lack of self?
I think this is an example of the way that tantra does not entirely reject an extreme, but rather uses it for beneficial purposes. For example, while the fleeting ups and downs of emotional happiness keep an individual in samsara, tantra takes advantage of overall bliss in order to reach enlightenment. In fact, “one actualizes progressively deeper understanding of the nature of reality through experiencing pleasurable cognitions, gaining control over physical and mental energies, and conjoining blissful consciousnesses with realization of the nature of reality” (Powers 261). Tantra thus harnesses these phenomena to attain enlightenment, rather than encourage followers to completely reject them.
So, how does this apply to imagining oneself as a deity? My first impression of the practice was that it was prideful and almost disrespectful. But it is important to understand that visualization is seen as something that will help one become familiar to that enlightened state of being. Therefore, when visualizing oneself as a deity, one is actually meditating on that deity’s higher sense of emptiness. The result is a paradox: by seeing oneself as an individual higher above ordinary beings, one actually realizes the lack of differentiation. That is actually the only difference between an ordinary being and a buddha: “that the minds of ordinary beings are plagued by deluded thoughts which result from mental afflictions… When ordinary beings remove the afflictions and perfect wisdom and compassion, they become buddhas” (Powers 272). In this way, a practice that seems odd or prideful at first actually greatly aids an individual on their way to compassion and enlightenment.
These paradoxes are what makes tantra so interesting. With this in mind, I can see why it is considered more dangerous than other practices of Buddhism. It seems as if misinterpreting the teachings and its many complexities can be fairly detrimental to the individual’s journey to enlightenment. No wonder it is something highly guarded and regulated.
Powers, John. “Tantra.” Introduction to Tibetan Buddhism. Ithaca, N.Y., USA: Snow Lion Publications, 1995.