Buddhist Visualization Practice Is Pure, Clear, and Vibrant

Visualization practice sometimes involves traditional symbolism that Westerners have trouble relating to, says Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche. He shows us how we can make the most of this powerful method for transforming perception.

The technique of visualization is employed throughout the Vajrayana practices of Tibetan Buddhism. Its use of our imagination makes it quite different from other meditations, such as shamatha, or calm abiding. Imagination also plays a major part in our deluded experience of life. Everything we encounter and perceive in our daily life is a product of our imagination, but because we believe in the illusions we create, they become such deeply rooted mental habits that we completely forget they are little more than fantasy. The imagination is therefore one of our most powerful tools, and working with it by changing the ways we look at our world is what we call the practice of visualization.

One small problem for beginners is that the English word visualization can be misleading. Most people think visualization means focusing on an image and then holding it in their mind’s eye. But physical appearance is only one element of visualization practice, and by no means the whole story. Peoples’ attitudes and understanding change according to their situations and education. Until very recently, Buddhist masters brought up in Tibet would have looked on salad and green vegetables as animal fodder and would never have willingly eaten it themselves. Now that Tibetans have become familiar with food outside of Tibet, their attitudes have changed, and it is precisely this kind of shift in our perception that we work with in our visualization, which is also called “creation meditation.”

Another example of the way we adapt our attitudes to situations can be found on the World Wide Web. Most erotic pictures are usually quite small—certainly nowhere near life-size. Logically, it is hard to believe that such tiny images could cause living, breathing human beings to become aroused, but they do. Our habits are so entrenched that, having programmed ourselves to respond to a specific kind of image, it will consistently have the power to turn us on or make us angry, sad, or even depressed, even when we see it on a tiny YouTube screen. To a certain extent, this is how visualization works, and neither size nor so-called realism have anything to do with it.

According to Vajrayana theory, your perception of this world is unique; it is not seen or experienced in the same way by anyone else because what you see does not exist externally.

Were you to tell a worldly friend that everything we see around us—the houses, cars, trees, and shops—does not truly exist as we believe we see it, he would most likely think you had finally lost it. Yet, according to Vajrayana theory, your perception of this world is unique; it is not seen or experienced in the same way by anyone else because what you see does not exist externally. Vajrayana students who were born and brought up in the modern world often have dif­ficulties with visualization practice. Part of the problem, I think, is that Tibetan teachers like myself assume all sentient beings process things the same way Tibetans do. We teach you to picture the Buddha the way he is traditionally depicted in Tibet, adorned with ornaments that are valued by Tibetans and convey specific mean­ings to them. But becoming a perfect Tibetan iconographer is not the point of visualization practice.

The main purpose of visualization practice is to purify our ordinary, impure perception of the phenomenal world by developing “pure perception.” Unfortunately, though, pure per­ception is yet another notion that tends to be misunderstood. Students often try to re-create a photographic image of a Tibetan painting in their mind, with two-dimensional deities who never blink, surrounded by clouds frozen in space, and with consorts who look like grown-up babies. Practicing this erroneous version of visualization instills in you a far worse form of perception than the one you were born with, and in the process the whole point of pure perception is destroyed.

What, then, is really meant by the terms pure perception and impure perception? “Impure” does not mean that the object of our visualization is covered with dirt or is polluted or defiled in any way; the impurity isn’t “out there.” “Impure,” in this context, means that the problem is “in here”—that is, we look at the world through emotional filters that we label “desire,” “jeal­ousy,” “pride,” “ignorance,” and “aggression.” Everything we perceive is colored by myriad variations of these five emotions. For example, imagine you go to a party, and as you glance at someone you find attractive, your passion filter quickly clicks into place and you immediately label that person “desirable.” If someone else gets in the way, your aggression filter is activated and you label this other person “hideous.” As the evening wears on, other people provoke your insecurities, causing you to sit in judgment of them, make comparisons, defend your choices, and bolster your personal pride by denigrating others—all of which is triggered by the filter of profound ignorance. And the list goes on and on.

The key to visualization is to do the best you can and not worry too much about whether what you are doing is right or wrong; eventually you will get the hang of it.

These different perceptions arise in our very own mind and are then filtered through our emo­tions. In fact, everything we experience, big and small, will always lead to disappointment because we perpetually forget that everything we perceive is a product of our own mind. Instead, we fixate on perceptions “out there” that we are convinced truly exist. This dynamic is what we work with in the Vajrayana practice of visualization.

It’s all a matter of training the mind. One of the many methods offered within the three yanas of the Mahayana teachings is that of the Shravakayana, the “path of the listener.” In the Shravakayana, the student relinquishes clinging to “self” by disciplining body and speech using particular methods—for example, shaving the head, begging for alms, wearing saffron-colored robes, and refraining from worldly activities like getting married or having sex. Training the mind in the Bodhisattvayana is also about practicing discipline in body and speech as well as meditat­ing on compassion, arousing bodhichitta, and so on. Lastly, the Vajrayana not only trains the mind through discipline and meditation on compas­sion, but it also offers methods for transforming our impure perception into pure perception.

The Dissolution of a Visualization

Ultimately, the most important goal of buddhad­harma, particularly the Bodhisattvayana, is the realization of nonduality. One of the most effec­tive methods for accomplishing that realization is the practice of visualization, central to which is the dissolution of the deities or gurus as they merge to become one with the practitioner.

But how does the practice work?

Imagine the reflection of the moon in a mirror or on a lake. Although the reflection is pristinely clear, it is still just a reflection, not a direct view of the moon that has somehow been submerged beneath the water or inserted into the mirror. Another example is a rainbow: even though we can see the rainbow quite clearly, at the same time it is empty of intrinsic reality. Similarly, even though a rainbow is empty, we can still see it. Both the reflection of the moon and the rainbow are simultaneously empty and visible.

Until we fully realize nonduality, the exercise of dissolving or merging the deity or guru with ourselves is an extremely useful tool.

So, the meaning of nonduality here is the absence of separation, or the absence of dif­ference, between appearance and emptiness. In other words, nothing we perceive—not the guru, the student, or anything else—truly exists externally. And until we fully realize nonduality, the exercise of dissolving or merging the deity or guru with ourselves is an extremely useful tool.

It is also a method that works well if you want to receive blessings, empowerments, or even inspiration.

Often, however, practitioners have difficulties with this part of the practice because they tend to turn over in their minds all the theories about visualization and dissolution that they have learned (while they are supposed to be practic­ing). This is a good example of how stuffing your mind with too many concepts can hinder your spiritual progress, and this is why we are told to put theory aside altogether when we practice.

The best advice here is to keep it practical. Spiritual practice is a bit like riding a bicycle: once you have learned how to cycle, there is no need to go over the theory behind how the gears work or to think about the best height for your seat every time you go for a ride. All you have to do is get on your bike and start pedaling. The key to visualization is to do the best you can and not worry too much about whether what you are doing is right or wrong; eventually you will get the hang of it.

The pith instructions are extremely prag­matic—just do it!—which makes realizing non-duality a little like learning to drive. However preposterous it may sound when you start out, having spent weeks learning about where all the different buttons and levers are in your car, there will come a time when you have no choice but to put the manual aside, turn on the engine, and drive. The same goes for visualization prac­tice. At first, the dissolution may be more like dropping an apple into a bag than merging with the guru, but unless you take a risk and try it, nothing will change. With practice, though, your guru will become less like an apple and more like a glass of water that you then pour into a bucket of water—which is an indication that you are beginning to understand the process of nondual­ity a little better.

Eventually, you will come to realize that the dissolution happens in the same way that the space inside a container mixes with the sky and the whole atmosphere—and this is the part of the practice that many students misunderstand. Imagine a clay pot. It is both surrounded by and filled with space. When the pot breaks, the space that had been inside the pot mixes with the space that had been outside of it and the two become inseparable. It is not possible to tell the “inside” space from the “outside” space; space is just space and there is no way of knowing where any part of it originated. This is how the practitioner and the guru dissolve into each other to become inseparable.

Right now, because you cannot help seeing the guru or the Buddha as an independent entity separate from yourself, try to remember that what you see is exclusive to you, and everything that any of us sees, hears, or thinks is based on our own personal interpretation. This is the prin­ciple that not only forms the basis of all Buddhist philosophical theory but is also the reason that visualization practice works. Louise may think of herself as “Louise,” but she would never describe herself as a “visualization of Louise,” even though that is precisely what she is. In fact, every one of us is a visualization of ourselves.

Questions often come up about whether or not visualization is a method that’s effective only for people in certain cultures, or if it involves some kind of theistic worship. But as I have said, to visualize Guru Rinpoche or Vajradhara as they appear in a Tibetan thangka is a mistake. Even if it were possible for everyone to use exactly the same thangka, each individual’s perception of it would be different, and probably wouldn’t even come close to what the thangka’s artist had in mind. So, as we visualize Guru Rinpoche, or any deity, we might as well be bold about it. Guru Rinpoche is a sublime and superior being, and one aspect of “sublime” is usually beautiful, or at least very good-looking. But good-looking to one person is ugly to another, because, again, our interpretations are so very different. Surely there is no need for Americans and Mexicans and Bul­garians to have to learn the Tibetan definition of “good-looking.” All we can do is make the best use of our own interpretation. Don’t forget that even as you read these words, the mind inter­preting this text is your mind, and its interpre­tation is based on your habits and perceptions. You may think that you have understood what I mean by “good-looking,” but you haven’t; all that has happened is that you have developed your own version of what you think I mean by “good-looking.”

Another important point is that we do not visualize deities holding a vajra (a symbolic weapon or scepter) or kapala (a human skull­cap used as a ritual bowl) for aesthetic reasons or because ritual objects are especially useful. Some students wonder whether they should visualize deities holding something more modern, such as an iPad or an iPhone. But the attributes, orna­ments, and implements associated with each deity all hold important symbolic significance and should therefore remain intact, just as they have been described in the sacred texts.

The teachings on ngöndro—the founda­tional or preparatory practices that students are required to accomplish before going on to further Vajrayana teachings—tend not to emphasize one key point about visualization. This point is usu­ally only mentioned in the context of sadhana practice, which is introduced after the student completes ngöndro. This key instruction is that as you create an image in your mind, the deity you picture should be clear, vibrantly alive, and sealed with an appreciation of nonduality. To give you some idea of what this means, take the example of visualizing Guru Rinpoche as small as a sesame seed, sitting in a palace as large as Mount Meru. The palace you envision could even be as large as the whole universe. It may sound awkward and ugly, but in practice it works perfectly because the container is neither too big nor the contents too small. The difference in size between the sesame seed and Guru Rinpoche presents no problem at all. Other visualizations involve imagining the palace to be as small as a sesame seed and Guru Rinpoche as the size of the whole universe, still fitting into his tiny palace quite comfortably. This is an exercise in nondu­ality and it is used in visualization a great deal.

As the twentieth-century Tibetan scholar-monk Gendun Chöpel pointed out, Vajrayana practitioners must get used to believing in the unbelievable. Tantric methods of visualiza­tion might involve creating a raging inferno in your mind’s eye, in the midst of which sits a deity on a fragile lotus flower and a cool moon seat, embracing a very passionate consort, and surrounded by an unruly mob of angry deities wielding deadly implements. Yet the heat and the flames do no harm whatsoever and no one gets hurt. A rational analysis of such a situa­tion can only result in disbelief, since everything about this scene is contradictory and nothing in it could possibly exist in our ordinary reality. But the point is that tantric practitioners have to get used to believing in the unbelievable. Our aim is to unite and dissolve subject and object so that they are one. We unite desire and anger, dissolv­ing them into one, just as we do heat and cold, clean and dirty, body and mind. This is known as “the union of jnanas and kayas,” and is the ultimate kind of union.

Gendun Chöpel also said that the reason we cannot grab hold of inexpressible notions like that of dharmadhatu is not because we strongly believe in what exists. On the contrary, it is because we strongly disbelieve in what does not exist. But it will take quite some time to insert this new knowledge of nonduality into our very stubborn system of duality.

Field of Merit

To visualize effectively, we usually need to begin by creating a field of merit, the details of which will depend on the ngöndro tradition you are following. If you are a beginner, try not to get too paranoid about each and every detail of the visualization—unless, of course, details inspire you. Remember that whatever you visualize is itself an illusion, a figment of your imagination based on your mind’s interpretation of various bits of information. The bottom line here is that illusions do not truly exist.

If you are a beginner, try not to get too paranoid about each and every detail of the visualization—unless, of course, details inspire you.

What is a “field of merit”? Imagine that you want to get rich and need some form of capital to invest. A farmer with such an aspiration will need a field in which to plant seeds or graze ani­mals; a businessperson will need a loan or inves­tors to finance a new venture. Likewise, those who follow a spiritual path, because they long to liberate themselves and all other suffering beings from this net of samsara, will need to accumulate merit. To do so, two fields of merit are used, one of sublime beings and the other of sentient beings. It is through these two that we are able, ultimately, to harvest the fruit of enlightenment.

Both fields of merit are employed throughout ngöndro practice. We visualize the sublime field of merit of the buddhas and bodhisattvas and imagine that they support us by providing all the power, compassion, and omniscience we need to bring all sentient beings to enlightenment. We visualize sentient beings in the ordinary field of merit and feel compassion for every one of them. In this way, we accumulate merit through both fields. Practitioners should therefore bear in mind that as we accumulate merit through visualization practice, we will always either be praying to the buddhas or offering compassion to sentient beings, and in one form or another, these two fields of merit will be part of each of our practices.