The phenomenon of energy return within the reversing sections of Vajrayana Buddhism.
The motivation for writing this communication to Vajrayana practitioners is more or less the same as usual. As a Western practitioner and Lama who hallucinates himself to be engaged in actions dedicated to the welfare of others, I have always sought to offer clarifications, in particular for Western practitioners who can benefit from more in-depth explanations of the practices, their meanings, and a kind of roadmap with landmarks.
Most of us are familiar with the peaceful practices of Buddhism in general and of the Vajrayana in particular. Nowadays Western practitioners have become somewhat familiar, if not enamored, of the wrathful practices, as well. Within these practices come three well-known categories of activities of Nyen, to suppress by burying, sek (burning), and phang (throwing). There are other methods that fall within the category of lower activities, meaning that they are acts of compassion directed towards eliminating the sources of suffering that arise within confused spheres of existence. In general, practitioners do not undertake the performance of lower activities until they have exhibited certain capacities in the deep stabilization and realization from within their own practices.
Having recently completed the Gutor wrathful reversing practices, I feel it is a good time to clarify why we do these practices and how they must be seen and engaged in, within their own proper contexts. One of the most common mistakes made by practitioners is to take liturgical or textual descriptions of the nondual absolute reality and to dualize or intellectualize them. There are many mentions of things we consider to be negative mentioned within the wrathful practice sessions ranging from unwanted or perverted views, bad circumstances, enemies, sicknesses, demonic influences, etc. It is very easy for people reading these texts to mistakenly externalize these notions if they are taken dualistically. One could perform a reversing practice thinking that their next-door neighbor is an evil person from a different political party who needs to be taught a lesson, or a political leader that should be removed from office, etc. These days, people even have problems with their own parents who have shown them intense and prolonged kindness, calling them burdens and even enemies. Failing to recognize their kindness, they seek to dissolve their connection with them. None of these attitudes are commensurate with Vajrayana view, meditation, and action.
Westerners often have many reservations about their practices within the Vajrayana context. They often find them too complex to even move through, let alone understand the real meaning behind the practices. As a Western Lama, I am always encouraging Westerners to go beyond their hesitation and doubt and to perform Buddhist rituals and practices with good faith and simple devotion for the good of all. One can even go so far as to say that if one really is a suitable vessel for tantric initiation to begin with, then, having entered a mandala such as Vajrakilaya or other wrathful deities, one breaks one’s vows if we do not cleanse away and purify demonic influences in general.
I myself have taken many risks when performing rituals since there is always a first time for everything. Knowing basic principles common to all practices, one gradually becomes familiar with and flexible in one's movement through texts and the general flow of the rituals. So I wish to continue to encourage Western practitioners and Lamas to engage themselves fully with the practices they have received empowerment for, and have been given transmissions for, and to try by practice to embody their energies, meaning, and realizations. At the same time, I offer some cautionary words concerning the lower activities. It has been over three decades that I have engaged in wrathful practices, and in particular the lower activities associated with the year-end reversing of negativity (Gutor) that all monasteries and many Buddhist centers engage in. Initially I would perform these in a group under the guidance of presiding lineage lamas and eventually, on many occasions, had cause to complete them as the Loppon or master of ceremonies. I wish to stress that normally, these lower activities, such as the casting of Dzor Tormas, etc., should not be engaged in unless one is doing it within the context of a group practice led by a qualified Lama. But if one does receive instruction from one’s Lama to perform these on one’s own, or feels the need to do so and has the confidence, then these words might be for you.
It is very important to make sure one’s meditation is motivated by compassion, clear, unencumbered, and not under the sway of the ordinary dualistic mind and all its distorted emotions. The goal is to transform blocked or stagnant psychological or visceral energies into a vast flow of rigpa, the light of which illuminates and benefits all beings. That being said, the concept of return, or as I like to call it, blow back or recoil, is a very important aspect of wrathful practice to be able to recognize and deal with.
Since we are now only humans practicing to become fully enlightened Buddhas, we still have residues of the five poisons of mind which are distortions of pure wisdom reality. Therefore, whenever we do practice, our motivations can be clouded by these distortions, and these distortions give rise to actions and results within the cycles of karma, both positive and negative. Since the wrathful practice can be likened to peaceful practices on steroids, whatever is present in the mind becomes amplified and can come up to the surface. Furthermore, if done properly, the practices occur on causal levels, and can ripen quickly and often instantly.
It is important to be aware that rituals have two sides, which are not mutually exclusive. Often times, simply performing the rituals with faith and with adherence to the texts and liturgical methods, one can say that the puja has been completed successfully. As we may or may not have sufficient insight into the quantum mechanics of the world of cause and result, we can rely on the words and instructions of the Buddha. But there are more in depth ways of looking into the true signs of accomplishment of any given practice. The external elements of the rituals, mudra, chanting, offering of substances, music etc. should all connect with the proper concentrations either focused or vast or both, in order to truly influence our realities. To put it simply, when done properly, the internal and external activities of the rituals should actually be connected to and impel transformations in our collective realities. This is difficult to measure and in order to reduce further proliferation of concepts and discursive thoughts and to curtail the degradation of Buddhist rituals into materialism, most Lamas tend to downplay analysis of signs of the results of the rituals.
What I am saying is that within the continuum of the Loppon Rigdzin Lamas performing the rituals, actual alchemical changes are being transacted within the universe without supremacy being placed on outside or inside, since such divisions are erroneous to begin with. The performance of reversing practices can therefore become a true action of compassion, or conversely, a show of more or less empty ritual and everything in between these two extremes.
That being said, it follows, that within the spheres of concentration and function, various successes can be experienced as well as mishaps or mistakes. We as practitioners, should therefore do our very best to take these variations into account and try to purify them adequately by recitation of Vajrasattva and confessions stanzas. This should be done regardless of if we personally feel that the rituals have gone well or not.
Many monasteries engage in reversing practices and this too can create what can be called a vapor of return. Since they are performed on a lunar yearly basis, there becomes a cyclic energy call srid, which is recorded and rides on the planetary rounds. This subtle imprint means that the struggle between our wish to rise above the accumulated negative energies of the year and put them behind us can also be met with a kind of pushback that can start even before the practices commence. One can meet with accidents or challenges of many different kinds before and even after the Gutor practices have been completed.
Normally, we only like good things to happen to us and for bad things not to happen to us and we have a fairly clear idea of what those things are in general, if not in specific. But the rituals are in fact there to symbolically help us release the stagnant energies that have stored up, which basically carry the potential for negative arisings. We must pay the price either willingly or against our will, but regardless, the karma is trying to ripen on us. At these times it is particularly important to see any accidents as having purified some or all of the accumulation of negativity and then dedicate the apparent loss side of it, or so-called sacrifice, to the benefit of all beings. This helps us transform the mishap into a benefit on several levels.
The negativity we see going on around us, including the deep divisions among humans that appear to be intensifying, carries with it collective karmic vapor as well. As Buddhists, we can understand that in so many ways we are complicit in the earth’s degradation and in the harm caused to other humans and beings such as animals and even unseen beings.
It is critical that we come to recognize that in our zeal to become excellent practitioners, we do not lose the underlying base of compassion, which pursues harmony for all at the expense of self-centered activities. Many people feel that it is excellent to become a billionaire, for example, but they may be ignoring the types of gathering of circumstances and accumulative forces that are required to make that happen, including environmental degradation, huge disparities in wealth, healthcare, educational levels, and costs to other simple elements of human dignity.
The reversing practices are similar in that one can wish to be triumphant in any field and feel it is of no concern that this occurs at the expense of other beings. Such an attitude will definitely create recoil or karmic blowback to whatever extent that it was held in the continuum of the practitioner. Understood properly, the correct practice of reversing of negativity is to recognize our own faults, to identify the subtle negative and underlying false assumptions we hold, and to commit with decisiveness and energy not to engage in them any longer. The assembly therefore, becomes a very important context for these practices.
When we do reversing practices, there are safeguards, which keep us from going off the rails and causing harm to ourselves and others. Number one, we must do the practices for the benefit of all beings. This is already a vast and inclusive mode, which recognizes the interconnectedness of all that lives. Any dualistic hostility generated within the mind, subtle or gross, can be amplified and come back on us. By doing the practices within an assembly, led by a qualified Lama, we are acting in accordance with a more impersonal set of imperatives and duties, which again protect us as individuals from specific harm and therefore functions within the context of refuge.
Having already completed these reversing practices this year, I would encourage all practitioners to continue to engage in daily Vajrasattva and sang practice to dissipate any mistakes we may have made throughout the year or while performing the ceremonies, either knowingly or unknowingly. Remember that if we are practicing properly, there is never a pinnacle of a mountain called “I” that we should ascend to. We must maintain a humble and kind demeanor, being thankful for all we have and willing to let go when called upon. Since we are not omniscient Buddhas, we cannot be sure of all the forces that undulate throughout space nor can we be fully aware of all of our issues of entitlement and miserliness when performing what are supposed to be releases of our small-individually pig-minded selves into the vast open, compassionate, radiant, wisdom expanse of Kuntuzangpo, and Kuntuzangpo’s union.
This was written on the third day of the Female Earth Pig Losar, after performing a sang purifying practice by someone whose only virtue is that he dons the outer habit of a practitioner from time to time and has faith in the instructions of his Lamas.