From Chogyam Trungpa, Rinpoche’s lectures on Tantra at Naropa Institute, 1974.
We are embarking on a very ambitious project, studying the tantric teachings of Buddhism, which are the teachings of the vajrayana. The basic notions of tantra are based on the practice of meditation, so if we do not have a firm grounding in meditation practice, we will be completely lost. At the same time, it is also important to have some kind of theoretical understanding of Buddhism. Because of our lack of meditative experience, the subject matter we are going to discuss may seem extremely hypothetical, but it might have some experiential connections as well. I hope you will take this material personally rather than in an entirely theoretical way.
Before we can start to discuss what tantra is, we first have to find out who is studying tantra. Who is the tantrika; who is the tantric practitioner? This inquiry takes us further and further back in our minds and also further and further back in the levels of Buddhist teaching, right back to the earliest and simplest level of Buddhism, which is known as the hinayana. And the discovery hinayana practitioners made and make is that there is no self.
But how is this possible? We have names, we eat, we sleep, we wear clothes, we grow up. So something must be happening. But, in fact, there is a problem. A common misunderstanding seems to be taking place constantly, every single moment, which is that we are dependent on such reference points. Without such reference points, there is a big gap. We would seem to be completely lost. So we also approach the idea of the nonexistence of self in the same way, in terms of reference points. We try to work out logically that we do not exist. In approaching either our existence or our nonexistence, we are dependent on a relative perspective. In either case, it is the same problem.
The point in embarking on the tantric path is neither to maintain nor to destroy our relative reference points. We have to look at ourselves directly — without any reference point at all. We can be just simply, directly looking at ourselves, even without looking. That may be very demanding, but let it be so. Let us get to the heart of the matter. That is the tantric approach.
At this point we may find that we have no idea how to proceed in trying to do this. We are completely lost. We do not even know how to begin. But that bewilderment in itself is a starting point. We can begin at the beginning — with our own stupidity. In fact, that quality of not knowing how to deal with oneself in the absence of reference points is getting close to the truth. Still we have not found the root of reality — if there is one at all.
We cannot begin tantra unless we have come to the conclusion that we do not exist. And that conclusion has to be experiential, beyond our logical scheming as to how to begin tantra. We discover that there is no beginning — and at the same time that there is no end. The whole thing seems to be rather flat. There is no project.
Although we keep trying to find ourselves we never seem to succeed. As we become more and more acquainted with the fact that, from ego’s point of view, fundamentally there is nothing happening, we feel enormously flat and heavy. Something is being a nuisance but we cannot exactly put our finger on it. According to the tantric tradition, the only way to relate with this situation is through a sense of humor. If we take the viewpoint of humor, we begin to discover that even the flatness and solidity of there being no project, even the confusion and lack of inspiration, is a dance.
So there is a need to develop some sense of excitement and dance about the way things already are, rather than constantly engaging in projects to make something or other feel better. As we begin to discover the playful, dancing qualities of life our heavy-handedness and stupidity appear to lighten. However, it is unclear whether we have cured ourselves or whether we are just viewing ourselves humorously while our stupidity continues to grow heavier. We are still uncertain. It is completely confusing and ambiguous.
That ambiguity is the starting point. But in the tantric tradition, uncertainty is regarded as a basis for our practice rather than a source of problems. The ambiguity as to who we are and whether or not we exist finally and completely is the source of humor as well as the source of confusion. Although we continue to find ourselves lost, this lostness now has the quality of freedom rather than the quality of confusion. And this is a personal experience rather than an analytical conclusion. We begin to realize that actually we do not exist: we do not exist because the whole notion of existence has been undermined. And the world exists because of our nonexistence. The world only exists because our taking our own existence for granted is constantly undermined. We do not exist, therefore the world exists. There is an enormous joke behind the whole thing. A big joke.
We might ask who is playing the joke on us. Well, it is difficult to say. We have no idea. In fact, we are so confused that we cannot even find the question mark to place at the end of our sentence! Maybe that is our purpose in studying tantra — to try to find out who is the questioner, to find out who set this up altogether, if anybody.
So the experience of nonexistence brings a sense of delightful humor and at the same time a sense of complete openness and freedom. It brings complete psychological indestructibility: unchallengeable, immovable and completely solid. “Indestructible ” is the meaning of the Sanskrit word vajra. This experience of indestructibility is the key to the vajrayana or tantra. Such an experience can only occur when we realize nonexistence, a point of view without reference point, without philosophical definition, in which even the notion of egolessness has no purchase.
Usually if we think of psychological indestructibility, we think of someone very well established, like a person who has studied philosophy in depth, or someone well-versed in the science of warfare. Because a person has stored up tons of proofs or tactics we consider him immovable or indestructible. However, the tantric notion of indestructibility, the notion of vajra, is just the opposite. From this viewpoint, a collection of information, tricks and ideas is vulnerable to destruction. Indestructibility does not depend on any such fortifications or credentials; rather it is a basic attitude of understanding and trust in the nonexistence of our being. The tantric notion of indestructibility is that there is no ground, no basic premises, and no particular philosophy apart from our own experience. This understanding can be extremely powerful and dynamic.
The tantric approach has a certain tone of noncooperation: the tantric discipline is a state of mind that neither cooperates nor non-cooperates with anything at all and therefore is indestructible. The discipline of this approach is the opposite of ingratiation. It is also more than purely boycotting the samsaric set-up. One begins to recognize all sorts of tendencies towards diverting oneself and materialistic occupations, but without yielding to any of them. It is very straightforward and hardheaded.
The word “hardheaded” is very interesting. It refers to an attitude which is not taken in by anything, which is tough and solid, impervious to any kind of seduction. One’s basic “hardheaded” intelligence is known as “vajra nature.” We talk about “hard truth,” meaning the truth is very unyielding, unchallengeable. For instance, if one gets the news that someone has died, it is the hard truth. One cannot pay someone to bring that person back to life, or hire an attorney. That person is actually dead and one cannot do anything about it. Vajra nature has this quality of hard truth: one cannot challenge it or manipulate it in any way at all. It is both direct and precise.
The vajra quality is traditionally expressed by the image of a diamond. Like a diamond it is at once adamantine and precious. Unless we experience this vajra nature, this hardheadedness of rot yielding to any kind of seductions — little tricks, little plays on words, little bits of charm or whatever — we cannot understand vajrayana at all.
People have projected all sorts of ideas onto tantra, such as that it is an expression of wildness and freedom with lots of energy and excitement. But it is not quite as easy as that. Vajrayana reaching has to be cultivated on a very subtle, very definite and very real basis — otherwise we are lost. Not only are we lost, but we end up destroying ourselves. So we should be very careful and open. There is no substitute for proper preparation, which means going through the hinayana and mahayana levels of the path. This training on the hinayana and mahayana levels prepares the ground of egolessness and nonexistence in which there is no longer any room for wishful thinking.
When we talk about tantra, we are not referring to mystical experience, but to the way in which we perceive reality every day. Ordinarily we perceive reality in terms of three principles: forms, emotions and mental constructs. Body or form consists of all manner of self-consciousness, the five sense consciousnesses as well as the consciousness of thought. Emotion is fundamentally aggression, passion, and ignorance. And mental constructs, which might also be called mindlessness or basic ignorance, is our state of total bewilderment, the sense that we have no idea what it is we are doing or experiencing and that we are completely missing the point all the time. These three styles of perception constitute our life situation.
We are not discussing these three principles as hangups from which we are attempting to free ourselves. Instead, we are talking purely in terms of how we can relate to those principles existing within our state of being. According to tantra, the level of body is the world of manifestation; the Level of emotions is the world of complete joy; and the level of bewilderment or ignorance is total space. But there is no particular tension or contradiction between these two ways of describing the three constituents of our perception of the world. This kind of experience is happening instantly — the direct simple experience of reality.
The problem is that we do not accept things as they are, either our body, our emotions, or our thoughts. In the sutras, Buddha once said to Ananda, “Ananda, if there is no body, there is no dharma; if there is no food, there is no body. So take care of your body for the sake of the dharma.” Relating to our body properly is very important in tantra, as long as we do not make a major personal campaign out of it. We should relate to the matters of the body as they are.
But generally we do not relate to things as they are. There is a tendency for us to view the world as if it were not a real world at all. Sometimes we see it as a problem child, threatening all kinds of evil things; sometimes we may view it as a rich uncle offering us fantastic wealth. But we really have not made up our mind what this world is all about. Some people think they have, but there is still a flicker of doubt somewhere. That is a big problem: we have not accepted our world thoroughly, properly and fully. In fact the world we are talking about is a very simple world, extremely simple, made out of concrete, plastics, wood, stones, greenery, pollution and thin air. Actually, every one of you is sitting on that world. Sitting here, the world is made out of carpet. This is our world, here, right now. You could say, “Hey, that’s not true. I could get in my car and drive up to the mountains.” But you are thinking that still sitting here on the carpet. This world is the real world, the actual world, the world we experience, the world which communicates to our senses. You cannot get away from it. Even though you may have a memory of the past, your memory itself is part of this world, this real world, made out of this-ness. In fact, made out of us. Relating to this world as it is means relating to our body as it is.
The second level is the world of emotions, primarily aggression, passion and ignorance. When we feel depressed and angry, we grind our teeth and begin to feel that the whole world is doing us in. Everything is incredibly irritating, including fenceposts in the countryside which are just harmlessly there. We feel invaded, raped: everything is the expression of injustice. It might be a beautiful, sunny day, but we still grind our teeth. The beautiful sunshine is too embarrassing to look at; it is an insult. There is constant, enormous hate. It is almost unreal: we are so angry we almost levitate.
On the other hand, in passion or love, we feel that the whole world has been sprayed with glue. We want so much. We want to spray our own glue all over everything; we want to be stuck to things, persons, clothes, money, or what have you. We are asking to be stuck: “I want to make sure that my glue is strong enough so that once I manage to glue my friend to myself I don’t have to worry. Even if I step back he will still be stuck to me. He will be with me all the time because my glue was so powerful and tough.” But our own trick may rebound on us: we may find ourselves stuck in our own glue. The glue is so powerful and tough that we cannot back out. Then we might begin to worry.
The third emotional expression is bewilderment or stupidity. We are so fascinated with our world that we want to miss the sharp edges of things. If we have a dirty pile of laundry in a corner of our room, we try not to look at it, let alone think about where the nearest washing machine is. It is too embarrassing to think about. We try to save face by ignoring the reality. If somebody is irritating us, we feel we cannot be bothered: “Let’s change the subject. Let’s talk about my trip to Peru.” Sometimes we shield ourselves with a superficial sort of humor, while fundamentally ignoring the basic situation.
The three emotional patterns — aggression, passion and ignorance — constitute the second level of perceptions, the emotions. The third level or principle is that of basic bewilderment or confusion. At this level our experience is dreamlike, even somewhat mystical, as though we do not exist and the world does not exist either. It all seems to be like shimmering reflections on a pond. There is a quality of being completely stunned, fixed — so fixed that our experience is purely an experience of the solidity of our own fixations. It is extremely confusing: we do not want to let go of the solidity, but at the same time it is impossible to hold on because we half see through it. Still we are stuck, fixed, solid, part of the rock or the flat air, without any energy. It is as though we were wearing a big frying pan on our head, completely flat, heavy and uninteresting. It is not even corrugated iron: that would be too interesting. Or it is as if our head were made out of cast iron: our shoulders are stiff, our neck is stiff, everything is stiff even though we still have a heartbeat as our reference point. Maybe our legs are cast iron as well, up to our hips. We cannot even move. The only things functioning are our lungs and our heart. That is the level of stupidity we are describing.
In tantra, there is a definite point of view with which we approach these three levels of perception, known as the principle of the three kayas, or trikaya in Sanskrit. Kaya simply means “body,” and the prefix tri makes it “three bodies.”
The level of basic, total bewilderment or mind is that of dharmakaya. Dharma means “law,” “norm,” “truth,” among many other things. The reason bewilderment or ignorance is associated with “dharma” is that the dharma speaks in the language of ignorance in order to communicate with people. That ignorance is the beginning of the path: without ignorance, without confusion, there is no dharma. Ignorance is the only possible starting point, the working basis which allows the language of intelligence or dharma to begin to come through. So dharmakaya is the opposite of ignorance, the opposite of having a cast-iron head. It is a state of complete openness, complete freedom. It is so free that the question of freedom no longer even applies. It is utterly, magnificently open. Completely spacious, without reference point. At the same time it allows enormous scope to relate to this or that; there is room to be dualistic (to deal in terms of reference points) because the space is so vast that duality is not particularly threatening or unkosher. So there is complete openness and complete freedom.
The level of emotions or speech is that of the sambhogakaya, which literally means “body of joy.” There is a sense of celebration: emotions are no longer regarded as hassles. And the level of form or body is that of the nirmanakaya or the “body of manifestation.”
In order to study tantra it is necessary to understand the trikaya in a personal, real way. We can begin on the nirmanakaya level by relating to the solidity of the teacher’s body, that he is actually, physically there. Our teacher embodies the other two kayas, but at the same time is right here on earth, able to communicate directly with us and to teach Buddhist doctrines. Then, as we continue to work on ourselves, our relation to the emotions becomes straightforward and workable. This is the beginning of a sense of the sambhogakaya. Beyond that we may find that we can tune into the spaciousness and freedom of the dharmakaya, which is totally open space without either constrictions or reference points. But we must begin at the beginning, relating with the form of the vajra master as he exists on earth. In some sense he is a magician or a conjurer, having managed to conquer the level of emotions and mind but still be here on earth, actually existing in an earthly body.
Often when we think of magic, we associate it with something mysterious, like turning fire into water or the floor into the ceiling. We have read lots of comic books, which give the impression that magic is something extraordinary, something unusual. Odd things can be done by a person who has magical power: such persons can change cripples into runners, giants into dwarfs, mutes into poets. And we tend to approach spirituality in the same way, thinking that through spiritual discipline we may end up by being magicians with fantastic exotic powers. Although we may have little problems while we are beginners, we think when we are highly accomplished we will be able to do anything we want. We will be able to shake the universe, change the course of fleas and the habits of mice, turn tigers into cats and cats into tigers. That is the promise of the simpleminded view of magic. But there are some problems with this view.
One obvious problem with this view is that it regards the world as a nuisance: the world gets in our way, so we want to change its course. This way of seeing the world is ego’s way. Regarding the world as a threat separate from itself, ego wants to acquire magical powers that will enable it to dominate this threat. It thinks it can just latch on to such power without having to give up anything at all. Such attitudes create enormous problems and blockages in approaching tantra.
Precisely because of such attitudes, it is necessary for us, as students of tantra, to go gradually, to start slowly and very simply. We must give up any idea of a rapid path. Taking a simple approach, the world becomes more personal, more direct, more real, more workable. It is no longer regarded as separate from our basic being. The world invites our participation and we in turn give our participation to the world. That seems to be absolutely necessary. And beyond that, there is the magical aspect of the world, which is not as sensational as we might expect. Real magic does not have to be sought; it happens by itself.
The greatest magic of all is to be able to control and work with ego, our mind. We could say that magic begins at home. We might think, “So what is so special about this? We have been doing this all along. It doesn’t seem particularly extraordinary.” That is true, but the ordinariness becomes so powerful that it is magic. If it depends on being extraordinary it becomes a contrived invention — sensational and feeble. But by letting everything be ordinary, real magic is possible.
From the point of view of tantra, magic is relating with the world on as ordinary a level as possible. You make flowers open: you make the sunrise, the moonset. If you would like to make the sunrise you might have to stay up all night: if you stay up late enough, it finally becomes early, and the sun rises. You have to have some kind of discipline; you cannot cop out and go to bed early. If you do, quite possibly you might not make the sunrise.
Magic at this point is something very relevant to our life, our actual practice. As we accept the ordinariness of our life more and more, everything becomes very real, very direct, very personal. So personal that it becomes excruciating. At the level of excruciation we have a glimpse of magic, which is a glimpse that we can still push ourselves one step further into the ordinariness. So-called sensible people would not take such a risk: “Oh, no! We’ve gone far enough. We should step back.” There is a threshold at which we feel we have gone too far in surrendering our reservations about being in the world. And at the same time as we experience that warning, there is also some kind of faint invitation taking place. Quite possibly we might chicken out in such a situation because extending ourselves further seems to require too much effort and energy. According to the Tibetan Book of the Dead, when the brilliant light comes to us, we shy away from it, drawn to a less brilliant, more pleasant and soothing alternative. That means going back to square one, returning to samsara. But if we do not shy away, that juncture of warning and invitation is the threshold of magic.
All sorts of invitations and all kinds of boundaries continue to crop up for us. Usually, we prefer to keep within those boundaries. We do not really want to step beyond them. It is a question of survival. We do not really want to push any more for fear we are going beyond safety, beyond the prescriptions of the teaching, even beyond the level of basic human sanity. Still, some kind of pushing is necessary.
“Well,” we might say, “I have committed myself to the teaching. I’ve signed my name on the dotted line. I pay my dues.” But something is left out. Somehow we are missing the point. That kind of commitment is very easy to make. But at this point, when we talk about committing ourselves, it means giving up our arms and legs, our brains and hearts. We have no idea, none whatsoever, as to how to give up our hearts and brains. But once we give them up, the magic begins. It actually does. Giving up our little heart is the spark — and we get nothing in return. But actual magic begins there.
According to tradition there are four aspects of magic: one-pointedness, simplicity, one taste and nonmeditation. The first aspect, one-pointedness, does not refer to the mindfulness type of one-pointed precision, which pierces through discursive mind like a highly sharpened needle. That is one-pointedness on the hinayana level. Such a needle is designed to sew fabric, to go in and out through the texture of the material without damaging it. Consequently, our clothes are made very efficiently with an almost invisible seam. But when we talk about the vajrayana level of one-pointedness, we are talking about a dull needle. A dagger made out of stone rather than stainless steel. We are talking not only about going through the web of fabric, but destroying what is there, poking right through. In that way, penetration is so thorough that there is no obstacle. Whenever there are obstacles, they are acknowledged and poked through. Therefore, there is always a hole, a gate or entrance point. The hinayana approach of mindfulness is very sneaky and efficient; it does not alter the fabric of the situation, but nonetheless manages to sew it up beautifully. It is so very polite. But the vajrayana one-pointedness is very blunt and not at all polite. When emotions arise, they are experienced, not neurotically suppressed, not exorcised, but dealt with very directly in their own places.
The second aspect of magic is simplicity or noncomplication, literally nonexaggeration. At this point we are already relating properly and fully to the phenomenal world. Having already been penetrated by varayana one-pointedness, it can exist in its own way. So there is simplicity already. There is no need for further exaggeration, no need to acquire anything further — techniques, philosophies, embellishments of any kind. Usually when we say someone is simple, we consider that person to be slightly dumb or naive, someone who does not know how to be sophisticated or complicated. People find that naive energy very refreshing. But here we are talking about the simplicity of self-existence: a rock has its magic because it sits still but never gets bored. Rivers flow in a very simple way but they never get bored and they never leave their course. Fire burns by the simplicity of its own nature, but still has tremendous energy.
The third aspect of magic is called “one taste.” One flavor or one taste means not needing any relative reference. The quality of one taste is direct. It is not that sugar is sweet because salt is salty such references do not apply. One taste is a one-shot deal: if you feel pain and frustration, you feel it as it is, not by comparison. Often students say, “I feel pain and frustration and I can’t understand why.” Maybe there is some truth in that experience without explanation, some magic in that. They are feeling the nowness of pain, their pain as it is or pleasure as it is, personally, directly, very simply. This is very powerful.
The fourth aspect of magic, last but not least, is known as nonmeditation. Often meditation is based on a sense of wanting something, wanting to bring something in so that you can have it; Eke contemplating a rose so that after the sitting practice you can feel rosy, a living rose. You want such things so badly, seemingly. And meditation is part of that world of wanting. But that wanting is questionable, actually. It manifests in all kinds of ways: “I want to eat. I don’t even want to chew. Once the food is in my mouth I just want to swallow.” The level of nonmeditation is the complete opposite of that. You are not particularly hungry. It is not that you are dispassionate and cool and good, but there is less hunger involved. You are not particularly full, but you are not particularly hungry either. If there is something to eat, you can accommodate it. It is welcome, maybe even fantastic; but let us eat properly, in a nonmeditative way without wanting things to be other than they are.
We do not just perform magic because our gadget happens to work, in the manner of an angry soldier firing his machine gun. Such a soldier gets enormous satisfaction as he repeatedly fires into his enemy. He licks his lips and keeps on gunning. But somehow magic does not work that way: it is an expression of total nonaggression, while at the same time being an expression of total energy and power.
All this may seem to be slightly toned down, a bit too sensible. “Is this magical enough?” we may be thinking. Perhaps the problem here is that we have not experienced the four aspects of magic personally. So we actually have no idea what is meant. We may have had some little glimpse of that energy, but there is a great deal more to it. There is a great deal more than we have experienced. Naropa once said that practicing tantra was like trying to ride a burning razor. Maybe he was right.
I would like to discuss the overall tantric perspective and, in connection with that, the last of the nine yanas or maha ati, which is both the beginning and the end of the journey. Maha ati is called me final stage, not in the sense that we have finished and have nothing more to say, but in the sense that, having said something, we feel we have said enough. It is as though we have been walking along a narrow, winding mountain path. All sorts of obstacles and dangers come up, but still we make the journey. We manage to get through them. And then, when we finally reach the summit of the mountain we begin to celebrate. But rather than planting our national flag on the peak, the maha ati style seems to be to look down again, to see the vast perspective of mountains, rivers, forests, meadows, plains. Once we are on the summit looking down, we feel more attracted to the panoramic quality of all we see from there rather than to the summit itself. So from this point of view, maha ati is not regarded as a terminal journey, but a re-appreciation of what we have gone through. Having already seen everything, we get back to the ordinary path in a new way.
Ati teachings talk of enormous space. Not so much space as opposed to confinement, but space as total openness, not opposed to anything. This total openness has never been seen in the previous yanas; and this yana, maha ati yana, which has that perspective of spaciousness, is called the “imperial yana,” or “the king of all the yanas.” From its perspective of spaciousness, we are able to view all the characteristics of all the previous levels of teaching in terms of openness and space. The reason it is called the imperial yana is that, from its view, the hinayana discipline and the mahayana discipline, as well as the earlier five tantric yanas, are all seen as having their own majestic spaciousness and perfection.
One definition of ati is that it transcends coming, it transcends going, and it transcends dwelling. It is beyond the level of slogans or beliefs: things are as they are, extremely simple. So one cannot manufacture a concept or idea to make oneself feel better. From the ati point of view, the rest of the yanas are seen as trying to comfort one: “If you feel separate, okay, don’t worry, there is nonduality to be your savior. Just rest your mind, everything’s going to be okay. Don’t cry.” But in this case the approach is extremely blunt. There are no more saviors of any kind. It is a vast attitude of total flop, as if the sky were turned into a giant pancake and suddenly fell on your head — your whole world is flattened, but that flattening, ironically, also creates enormous space. That is maha ati’s approach: a larger way of thinking, a larger viewpoint.
There are all sorts of Buddhist traditions: the svatantrika, the yogacara, madhyamika, kriya yoga and many more. Every one of them claims that they alone have the right answer, while at the same time claiming to speak the language of totality. Let them believe, it is okay. But what does that mean to us personally, as practitioners? Actually, if we could be permitted to make a maha ati remark, the three yanas of hinayana, mahayana, and vajrayana are a succession of more and more advanced mechanized toys. Still they are absolutely necessary means for relating to the learning stages of practitioners. When your child is young, he has to start with simple unsophisticated toys, like creative playthings. As he grows up, he can play with more and more complicated gadgets. And when he becomes a teenager, if you are rich enough or brave enough, you can buy a sports car for him. Finally, when you are an adult, you can keep on buying toys for yourself. You can buy a hammer and an electric saw and build yourself a house — the ultimate creative plaything. “I actually built a house. I have designed the whole thing, the plumbing, the electrical system, everything. Isn’t that fantastic!”
The yanas that we are going through are similar to that process. As we grow up, we become more sophisticated and more fascinated. But we constantly reduce ourselves to the level of children fascinated by their toys. We may become important persons in the society, like an architect who builds whole cities, whole museums, whole zoos. Fantastic! But somehow we haven’t quite gotten to the level of maha ati yet; we are still fascinated by our toys. The point is that at the maha ati level those little tricks are no longer regarded as anything particularly fascinating; exploring the phenomenal world no longer gives us any special kick. The phenomenal world is no longer anything special, but at the same time it is everything there is. It is as though you are designing your zoo or building your apartment building and
suddenly the whole sky turns into a gigantic pancake and drops on you. That is the maha ati experience coming in. When the maha ati perspective clicks in, a new dimension of surprise, something you never thought about, something that you never expected takes place. You never expected the sky to drop on your head. It sounds like a children’s story or a fairy tale, a good fantasy but something you would never believe. The sky just turns into a blue pancake and drops on your head. Nobody would believe it, but it actually does happen. There is a new dimension of shock, a new dimension of logic. It is as though you are working on a mathematical problem in the usual way when suddenly an entirely new perspective on the problem descends on you. The whole approach becomes completely different. It is possible that there are situations which exist beyond our logic, beyond our usual system of thinking. That is not an impossibility. In fact, it is highly possible.
The basic Buddhist tradition talks about the rug being pulled out from under your feet. That is something you can understand in terms of your ordinary world, as when suddenly you lose the lease on your apartment. But nobody thought the entire sky was going to collapse. It is an entirely different approach. No one imagines that anyone could pull that kind of trick on you. But it does happen. A blue pancake falls on your head and that defines your way of relating with the world and reality. In maha ati we are not particularly talking about ground, how we settle down or find our way around. We are talking about headroom; it is more important to develop the space above us, our headroom.
The style with which a maha ati person relates with the world is called crazy wisdom. When we use the term “crazy,” we usually think of someone who is neurotic or eccentric, slightly out of touch with things. But the level of craziness we are discussing is very wise. Its basis is being wise, knowing exactly what to do. Crazy-wisdom people know how to handle themselves, from how to make a good fire up to the fine points of philosophy. And on that basis, craziness begins to appear like an ornament. In other words, crazy wisdom does not happen unless there is a basic understanding of things. Once there is total sanity, then there is enormous room for crazy wisdom. That craziness is a display of higher sanity, magic on top of the basic logic or basic norm. Seeing completely how things work brings a quality of fearlessness, energy to destroy what needs to be destroyed, to nurse what should be nursed, or to encourage whatever needs encouragement. So crazy wisdom is based on unobstructed perspectiveness. It is fearless, blunt and fundamentally wise. It is based on spaciousness — there is room for being blunt and at the same time for being open. In this case, the spaciousness and activity are created by the environment seif The crazy-wisdom person is just an activator; he is one of the conditions that has evolved within the environment.
Questioner: What is so hot about having a pancake fall on your head? Where is the inspiration in that?
Rinpoche: Well, I think it is a big joke, a big message. You cannot even just joke about it and run to your next door neighbor: “I had a little pancake fall on my head. What can I do? I want to wash my hair. In this case you have no room: the pancake that falls on your head is cosmic; it falls all over me place. All over the face of the earth. The basic point is that you cannot escape. So the problems as well as the promises are cosmic.
Q We begin the tantric or vajrayana path with a sense of basic ambiguity. Does this ambiguity become apparent once again at the level of maha ati?
R. You see, the reason for the ambiguity is that you feel that somebody has the truth and you may not be able to get hold of it. The ambiguity comes from regarding truth as just one thing you can get, not realizing that a cosmic pancake is possible. We are so starved. Our approach to reality is so poverty-stricken that we do not realize that the truth is not one truth but all truth. It could be everywhere, in the manner of raindrops as opposed to water coming out of a faucet that only one person can drink at a time. That notion, that only one person can drink at a time, whether it pertains to philosophy, psychology, religion or whatever, has become a problem. Thinking that you are the one to do it, you crank up your machinery and go ahead. But then, if you discover that somebody else has done it already, you begin to feel jealous and resentful. In that approach the dharma is being auctioned or marketed. There seem to be a lot of problems with that. From the point of view of ati, there is all dharma rather than the dharma. The notion of “one and only” does rot apply anymore. If the gigantic pancake falls on your head it falls on everybody’s head.