For purposes of understanding the living, evolving Buddhist path, we may consider it as having three flavors, Hinayana, Mahayana and Vajrayana. A real path by any other name will have corollaries to these three and it could be argued that they loosely correspond to attention given to the will, heart and head centers respectively. Though these three tend to unfold somewhat sequentially, they are always revisited, renewed, deepened and strengthened in oscillating cycles during the course of a life devoted to spiritual practice. Understanding these three provides us with a very simple and direct outline for our spiritual development as well as milestones on the path to changing our reality.
The Hinayana is the path to the enlightenment of an arhat, one who has found nirvana and realization of the ground of reality for themselves. This path has corollaries in western gnosticism and any true spiritual practice will need to find solid footing here. This is the inner renouncing of the outer world, the cultivation of discipline and discernment which culminates in transcendence of the mundane. Though our weariness with ‘the world’ initially stems from an understanding that we need to somehow transcend our current way of being, we do not really understand what renunciation means at the beginning of the path and think we are renouncing something ‘out there’ or something that can be pointed at and understood. This is ultimately a mistake, as there is no outside and no inside. The world we renounce is both the constricted and circular inner island of false reality that we occupy as well as attachment to perpetuating their outer manifestations. This island is one of interpretation and reaction which exists on the ‘middle notes’ of our bodies between the hara and third eye chakras. The major work of the Hinayana path is to free us into the first ‘nen,’ nirvana, or pure awareness before duality.
For all of our lives we have been vibrationally trapped in a sort of island of middle tones, fighting with the shadows of a world which is much like a dream. In order to find what we might call being-ness or the space in which life manifests and to develop a real relationship with it, we need to surrender the ego constantly to greater awareness, to find a “post intellectual” intelligence which has the flavor of openness, clarity and energy. It is meditation practice that physically, emotionally and intellectually unveils the empty nature of our prison while simultaneously settling and preparing our energy body for a shift into what might be called our indestructible being-ness. This hard won shift is the solitary enlightenment of the arhat, the development of the discipline and discernment needed to operate in subtler reality. At first we do not see anything in the darkness, nothing in the silence. In time, we find that it is this darkness and silence which illuminates. “Exert yourself. Cut off the stream of craving and discard sense desires. Knowing the destruction of all conditioned things, become the knower of the uncreate, Nibbana.”
Once one has a solid and clear relationship with one’s true nature beyond birth and death (that is, beyond what arises in experience), one sees beings trapped in the middle tones of their human scale from a new perspective. But this level of awakening is incomplete. We must now take the next step and bring this inner unification into our outer world, recognizing the world as ourselves and ourselves as the world. This is the transmutation of wisdom into compassion, the great vehicle, the endless work of the Mahayana stage of the path.
The Mahayana recognizes our Buddha nature not only in our indestructible being-ness, which we have uncovered traversing the brutal and steep rocks of solitary illumination, but also in all of the world which is, in reality, inseparable from our true nature. Form is nothing other than emptiness, Emptiness is nothing other than form. Understanding that there are no beings to save and there has never been delusion from the beginning, we simultaneously understand that beings, world and delusion are nothing other than our Buddha nature, our indestructible being-ness. All of the contradiction and vexation that we find in conventional life is no more than the growing pains of our Buddha nature waking up unto itself. We may recognize this stage thusly:
O Arjuna, I am the taste of water, the light of the sun and the moon, the syllable om in the Vedic mantras; I am the sound in ether and ability in man.
I am the original fragrance of the earth, and I am the heat in fire. I am the life of all that lives, and I am the penances of all ascetics.
O son of Pṛthā, know that I am the original seed of all existences, the intelligence of the intelligent, and the prowess of all powerful men.
I am the strength of the strong, devoid of passion and desire. I am sex life which is not contrary to religious principles, O Lord of the Bhāratas.
All states of being—be they of goodness, passion or ignorance—are manifested by My energy. I am, in one sense, everything—but I am independent. I am not under the modes of this material nature.
Deluded by the three modes [goodness, passion and ignorance], the whole world does not know Me who am above the modes and inexhaustible.
This divine energy of Mine, consisting of the three modes of material nature, is difficult to overcome. But those who have surrendered unto Me can easily cross beyond it…
-Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 7
The Mahayana stage is the transmutation of solitary realization into unification, the growth of wisdom into compassion. It is the outer movement of our Buddha nature into a world we previously thought apart from ourselves, other, hostile. This is related to the recognition and discernment of the Nirmanakaya (actual, created body), Sambhogakaya (enjoyment, bliss body) and Dharmakaya (boundless wisdom, truth body). Concurrent with the understanding of our Trikaya (three body) nature is a more developed understanding of beings and what it is to “be.” The question of spiritual beings and being-ness is seen in its four fold nature – separate, not separate, both separate and not separate, neither separate nor not separate. Our discipline and discernment are of the quality that may operate with a subtlety that transcends the course notes of humanity’s middle scales.
The path of enlightenment really has one essential flavor. The flavor which separates enlightenment from ignorance is the realization that it is not degree but rather subtlety which defines higher levels of intelligence. This understanding, of course, renders all of the pissing contests and posturing that preoccupy the conventional mind a joke. It also opens the door to a new evolution in which the realization of emptiness not only delivers us from ignorance but also makes greater creative intelligence possible. At a certain point in practice we may begin to ask ourselves if what science calls physics is not merely some ‘law’ but rather higher order intelligence itself. And if so, how can we engage its living essence rather than clumsily attempt to dumb it down to the limits of dual intellect?
The beauty of the Vajrayana is the intricate philosophical detail it provides in understanding and discerning emptiness intellectually, as well as its wealth of active practices which develop the creative, living component of our spirituality, complementary to the shamatha and vipassana stressed in the Hinayana and Mahayana. The culmination of the hinayana and mahayana attainment is known as Mahamudra (Great Symbol) or Dzogchen (Great Perfection) in the living Vajrayana traditions. It is living fully from the insight that things within manifestation are symbols only of themselves, empty from their own side. They are expressions of emptiness which have no enduring essence or selfhood beyond their momentary expression. It is the merging of our head center with cosmic intelligence itself.
“Through the practice of mahamudra, one progresses through the various stages of attainment, which are classified according to the well-known “four yogas of mahamudra”: the yoga of one-pointedness, the yoga of simplicity, the yoga of one taste, and the yoga of nonmeditation. These are briefly summarized by Lama Tashi Wangyal as follows: To rest in shamatha is the stage of one-pointedness; To terminate assumptions is the stage of simplicity; To transcend the duality of accepting and abandoning is the stage of one-taste; To perfect experiences is the stage of non-meditation.” – Secret of the Vajra World, p. 278
A creative and rather intuitive, active meditation found in the Vajrayana is that of the Yidam, or Diety Yoga. In this, one visualizes before them a great being possessing the qualities of enlightenment, who is “apparent yet empty.” This being is then merged with one self and recognized to be oneself before dissolving the meditation. This tantra can serve as a bridge between our receptive meditation and the creative potential of our minds. Visualizing energy centers and energy flow as well as other faculties of intelligent creation can stem from the practice of visualizing that which is apparent yet empty. The highest use of this is to recognize the apparent yet empty nature of all things even in non-meditation. This is simultaneously to recognize the primordial state, the Great Perfection of Dzogchen, which is ‘utterly complete’ and contains all teachings; the mind from which everything springs.