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The Magic of Vajrayana with Ken McLeod Transcript

Transcription of a Deconstructing Yourself podcast episode, you can listen to here.

Michael Taft: Welcome to Deconstructing Yourself, the podcast for meta-modern mutants interested in meditation, neuroscience, hardcore dharma, shards of earth, predictive processing, tantra, nonduality, awakening, and much more. My name is Michael Taft, your host on the podcast, and in this episode, I’m speaking once again with Ken McLeod. Ken McLeod began his study and practice of Buddhism in 1970 under the eminent Tibetan master Kalu Rinpoche. After completing two three-year retreats, he was appointed as resident teacher for Kalu Rinpoche’s Center in Los Angeles, where he developed innovative approaches to teaching and translation. After his teacher’s death in 1989, Ken established Unfettered Mind, a place for those whose path lies outside established institutions. His many published works include Wake Up To Your Life, A Trackless Path, and his brand new book entitled The Magic of Vajrayana. And now I give you the episode of Deconstructing Yourself that I call “The Magic of Vajrayana with Ken McLeod.”

Michael Taft: Hey Ken, welcome back once again, to the Deconstructing Yourself podcast,

Ken McLeod: A delight to be back and talking with you again, Michael. 

MT: Yes, it’s always a pleasure. You’re one of the most popular guests, and you’ve been on here a bunch of times. And I’m really excited because as we predicted in the last podcast, you now have a new book out called The Magic of Vajrayana

KM: Yes, it finally has seen the light of day. 

MT: And currently it’s available as a hardcover. Are you going to bring it out in other formats? 

KM: Yes, we’ve always planned to bring it out in paperback, we will also do an eBook or digital version. And you encouraged me to also come up with an audio version. So I’m giving serious thought to that.

MT: Boy, I’d be really excited if the audio version existed as well. That’d be tremendous. Especially if you were reading it.

KM: I’ll do the audio version. Definitely. 

MT: Nice. 

KM: I’m going to have a conversation with somebody on Monday about that. 

MT: Great. That’s really, really good news. 

KM: Now, this book, as we talked about last time, was not an effortless book to write. And I think it’s pretty unusual. I haven’t seen anything else out there that is really that similar. 

MT: How would you summarize or just briefly describe this text and what’s unusual about it? 

KM: Well, I’m not in a very good position to comment on what’s unusual about it, because I haven’t read a lot of English language books on Vajrayana. But the impression that I get is most of them are giving a somewhat technical account of the meditations. And sometimes, like Lama Govinda’s book ages and ages ago, more or less elaborate descriptions of the deities, and the history of the deities, and so forth. This book, as really the case with all of my books, is focused on the practice of Vajrayana. And that is what I tried to emphasize in the books that I write. So I think what makes this unusual, or may make this unusual, is that it’s definitely the most personal book that I’ve written–in that I use instances from my own life and experience with Vajrayana to illustrate some of the practice points. 

And then I’m also offering, and I have to be very careful how I word this: when Buddhism has been in a culture for a long time, that culture forms the relationship with Buddhism and the practice of Buddhism in a way that works in that culture, but when it moves to another culture, such as Buddhism coming to the West, then the new culture has to go through the same process. And typically, it’s a process that takes at least decades, if not centuries. And over the decades that I have practiced Vajrayana, I’ve found ways to work with it, most of which I came from looking deeper into the history and some of the Indian origins of Vajrayana. The emphases are different from what one might get from many of the Tibetan teachers. And I’m presenting this as a kind of contribution to how people raised in a Western context might approach this material. 

MT: So that’s really interesting. What elements do you feel are different in the Indian understanding of Vajrayana versus the Tibetan?

KM: The impression that I have is that Indian Vajrayana was much less institutionalized.

That’s certainly the impression one gets from reading say about the Eighty-four Mahasiddhas. 

MT: Yeah, they’re kind of wild crazy yogis, out in the wilderness, or street people or whatever. 

KM: Well, it’s at the margins of society. 

MT: Yes. 

KM: You know, some of them are ordained monks, some of them are women, some arms manufacturers like Saraha the arrowsmith, Tilopa powdered sesame seeds for a living, which is pretty low caste. But this is how they approached and practiced Vajrayana. That’s what the Eighty-four Mahasiddhas record. And I think Vajrayana developed as a contrast to the highly institutional forms of Buddhism in India that took place in the monasteries, and also in the university monasteries like Nalanda. And we have the famous story of Naropa, for instance, who has reached the pinnacle of the institutional framework; he was one of the gatekeepers at Nalanda. And a gatekeeper was an extremely high position. Because in those days, another religious figure could come and challenge you to debate. And if you are not able to defeat him, then your whole monastery had to convert to his way of practicing, his tradition.

MT: A lot of skin in the game.

KM: The stakes were very, very high. And so only the very, very best people were the gatekeepers. And Naropa came to the conclusion that–it was a visionary experience he had–you know, that he didn’t really know what the Dharma was about, and so he left and went to study with this virtual outcast, Tilopa. And through him, came to wakening. And many of the teachings and practices that I did actually came from Naropa himself. 

MT: And so in the non-institutionalized version of Vajrayana–what is this non-institutional version of it? What’s different about it? Is it just more devotional or just looser? Or what do you see as the heart of that?

KM: You’re more likely to have a close relationship with your teacher, a personal relationship because you’d be part of a small group. And you would only go and see your teacher when you really had something to talk about. But it would be a very intimate conversation, and you didn’t have sort of a whole monastic–or the responsibilities either of a whole monastic institution. These teachers would be themselves renunciates and wandering around the country as sadhus do today in India. And this is a little speculation on my part. But that’s my guess, is that you’d be part of a small coterie of devoted disciples you might meet together periodically for feasts and so forth. Your practice was your own responsibility. I wouldn’t describe it as looser; it was probably just as demanding, if not more demanding in what was expected of you because you’d be responsible for maintaining your being in the world, teacher may or may not have helped that, but you didn’t have a monastery when which deliver or anything like that. He also didn’t have the support of, say, a monastic library, texts were rare, you had to listen very, very carefully to your teacher, particularly when he was reading the text, because that might be the only time you actually heard everything about that practice. You know, people who had phonographic memories had a definite advantage.

MT: Yeah. So I definitely agree, having read the book now a couple times, that this characterization of it being much more personal is absolutely correct. I mean, yes, you do have an entire system in there or a whole text for doing deity practice with White Tara. But there’s also so much about your own understanding, about what it’s like to do the practice, how it feels, how it can affect you–things that I’ve just never seen in other texts. And it’s not only really helpful, but it’s touching, you know; you really get a sense of your own deep, long-term work with this. Obviously, this was a very meaningful and important book for you and something that was stewing for decades that just is so apparent in the text. And so I’m curious, what do you feel is the main throughline or main understanding you want people to get from this text? 

KM: That’s a very good question, Michael. I think it’s what I write in a couple of places in the book, Buddha’s last words–I can’t remember what the Sanskrit was, but English, it’s often translated, “I have shown you the way, work out your own freedom.” Or something along those lines. Another context I came across is the difference between the definite and the indefinite article in English. A lot of languages don’t have any articles. Tibetan doesn’t really have any articles. And there’s a huge difference between translating something as the way and a way.

So I prefer to view Buddha’s last words as I have shown you a way. And I think this is very important because if we take it as the way then we feel that we have to do what Buddha did. 

MT: It narrows it tremendously. 

KM: That’s what I feel. Yes. And I really don’t want people trying to follow what I did. Because it was just so painful, I wouldn’t want them to. My hope is that by describing–and I won’t even say it was my way–the way I ended up taking or the way that formed as I put one foot in front of the other, that they’ll find a way, a way to put one foot in front of the other also. But it won’t be my way. It won’t be anybody else’s way. It’ll be the way that forms as they make their efforts in practice. And that actually is the wish for my book: that through the discussion of each of the three main sections–guru practice, deity practice, and protector practice–and how to put them all together, that they have some ideas: Oh, oh, my God, I could do this, I could do this. And it helps them find a way forward. 

MT: That’s a beautiful wish. And it definitely comes through in the text, which, as you just mentioned, you’ve organized into these kinds of three main sections: guru, deity, and protector. And that sticks out to me, that three-part structure. Why did you choose that as the main way of organizing this? 

KM: Well, when I first took refuge with Kalu Rinpoche, the refuge prayer that he gave to people was a six-part refuge: take refuge in the guru, take refuge in the deities, take refuge in the Buddha, and then the Dharma, and then the Sangha, and then the Protectors. That was how that particular refuge prayer was set out. So you have this interweaving of Vajrayana and Sutrayana really—which is the other branch of Mahayana—basically, right from the beginning. And in all traditions of Buddhism, we have refuge in the Three Jewels, the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. And in Vajrayana, those take on a different form as guru, deity, and protector, basically. And all of these refuges have external and internal interpretations. In Vajrayana, the three pillars–the guru, deity, and protector–are referred to as the three routes or the three sources; I prefer that translated as source, though the term in Tibetan is literally root. And the source of energy, or inspiration, or blessing is the guru, and the source of power, and skill, and ability is the deity. And the source of where you learn and are able to act in the world is what you develop through a protector practice, or the way that you’re able to interact with your own reactive patterns, for that matter. Those three sources are fundamental to all of the traditions of Vajrayana in Tibetan Buddhism. So that was the logical framework to use for this book. As I said, I’m not very original.

MT: It seems to me that if we’re talking about gurus, definitely; but also, I often notice something similar with deities and protectors is these are not in any way easy or comfortable things to work with for the average Westerner, even the average Westerner who’s attracted to Vajrayana. Seems like those can be really complicated concepts. Would you agree?

KM: Yes and no. I remember a very brief conversation I had about translation with Trungpa Rinpoche. I asked him about the translation of technical terms. And probably the most infamous in the Tibetan context are dharmakaya, sambhogakaya, and nirmanakaya. And Trungpa Rinpoche’s reply is, “We don’t want to make it too easy, do we?”

I think a lot of people in the West, because their relationship with religion has been so limited in many respects, don’t really understand what a spiritual path entails. And they can entail a lot. And I have a friend who’s very capable in her own right, and she’s not the least bit interested in teaching anybody who isn’t prepared to devote their life to it. And by devote life, doesn’t mean to say they give up everything else, but it becomes the center of their life. I think this is very important. People may not start there. Quite definitely, I know many people have started doing some basic mindfulness or meditating because it helps them in some way in their lives.

But a certain proportion of those people find that as their experience in meditation changes, then more possibilities and more questions arise. And they become interested in those and about at that point, they did begin to embark on what might be called a spiritual path. It’s no longer about helping them in their lives; it’s become something that is meaningful in and of its own right. And I think that for many of these people–maybe all of them, I don’t know–it’s because they begin to touch something that cannot be put into words. And there’s a mystery there and a depth there which brings a new dimension to their life. And that’s why it becomes so intensely meaningful.

MT: Now, you and I have had previous conversations about some aspects of these topics. Let’s just start out with the guru. This might be the one that’s the most charged really, for most people since we often hear so much about negative experiences with gurus. And the term is almost, at this point, a pejorative only in English. How would you want someone to understand this guru relationship, which is something that I think both of us have had, the experience can be tremendously wonderful. 

KM: Well, in the book itself, I use the word teacher rather than guru, partially for the reasons that you just mentioned. And one of the things that I’ve noticed is that when people use the word guru, they put so much weight on it; they’re looking for a person who can satisfy a very wide range of desires, or even needs, in them. And don’t really have a good idea of how you relate to a person who, to a greater or lesser extent, embodies the spiritual qualities to which you yourself aspire or displays them in some way. Well, particularly in our culture today, we’re dismayed when an artist that we love we learn has a less than impeccable behavior. But that doesn’t necessarily make him any less of a great artist. And I know this is a touchy topic in today’s world. But there’s something similar in spiritual practice, that we’re all human beings in the end. And some people develop really deep understandings and capabilities in certain dimensions, and by necessity, other aspects of life may not be as developed. And so I think a lot of people approach a spiritual teacher as looking for a perfect person. And that’s a bit of a problem, as I’m sure you can imagine. In Wake Up To Your Life, which is the first book that I wrote, the quality that you’re looking for in a teacher is someone who speaks to you, even when you’re completely crazy, someone you’ll actually listen to when you’re completely crazy. Now, that’s pretty important. 

If you go a bit further, anytime that we enter a discipline of any kind, you know, whether it’s football, or violin, or medicine, or law, or welding, or anything, we look for someone who can reveal to us what is possible. And they may show this by their own example, or they may show it to us in other ways, by pointing it out to us in other people or something like that. But they’re able to show us new possibilities. Things that we hadn’t thought of, hadn’t even imagined. And we also need someone who can teach us how to build the skills and the capabilities that we’re going to need in spiritual practice in the same way that, you know, if you’re learning how to play football, someone needs to teach you how to throw or how to block or how to build strength in your body, or how to root yourself in the ground, as in martial arts, and so forth. But there are a lot of skills that one has to develop. And then we also need someone who can point out when our own stuff is getting in the way. And those are the three main things that we look to a teacher for, regardless of the discipline. But it’s rare, actually, that we find all of those in one person. We may find them in three different people. 

One teacher I know in England had one five-minute meeting with a teacher that he desperately wanted to talk with. He was never able to say a word, given the formality of how things worked in Tibetan culture. And so he returned to his room, you know, completely shattered because he hadn’t been able to ask any of the questions that he wanted to. But when he sat down to meditate, he found that his meditation had changed completely, and he regarded this teacher, with whom he never exchanged a word, as one of his primary teachers because he showed him what’s possible in his own way.

Other people are like, Oh, you do this instead of that, and Oh, I can actually do that, you know, your learning skills. I’ve advised many, many people that; stop trying to understand something like Mahamudra and Dzogchen, build your capacity in attention. When you have enough attention, you’ll be able to know it directly, and it’s not a case of understanding it with your intellect, so forget about that. People in the West find that very, very hard because they want to understand it intellectually, but it actually gets in the way a lot of the time. 

And I know many practitioners who’ve never had anybody point out where they’re getting in their own way. That’s also a problem. So we need all three kinds of people. We may find them in one person, and I know people who have; we may find them in three different people. In this way, I’ve tried to take some of the magic or the mystery out of the term guru and just put it down in very practical terms, if that makes sense to you. 

MT: Yeah, absolutely. And it certainly matches my experience. The question that comes up there is, What about dead people? What about gurus who are no longer alive? Obviously, it’s going to be hard for them to point out your flaws or whatever. But do you think there’s anything to be gained by taking a non-living teacher as your guru? 

KM: Very definitely, I would say actually, not only someone who’s no longer alive but even a mythical figure can form those things. And for some people, such a figure does reveal possibilities. For other people, such a figure may help them develop strength, capabilities and skills, I mean because they’re just inspired by what this person can do. And for other people, yeah, when they think of this person, then they see their own faults very clearly. So I think that a non-living person can do all three functions, possibly. But there is a danger there, in that you may never leave your own world of experience. If you embark on that, it’s helpful to have someone else that you actually have to talk to, because that requires you to put your understanding, or your abilities, or your personality out into the world. And you get feedback from the other person in very, very clear terms. Sometimes, it may not be what you want. I could talk about this for a long time. 

And there’s a statue in the middle of America in the Nelson Atkins Museum in Kansas City, Missouri. It is a statue of Avalokitesvara, Kuan Yin, I guess, in the Chinese tradition, carved from a single tree trunk. And I think it is one of the most extraordinary pieces of art in the world, and nobody knows that it’s in the middle of America. I’ve seen many, many pictures of it. But I was driving across the country, and I went to see it. And I spent two hours there in tears most of the time, because this is the posture of royal ease. And here you feel the nobility of bodhicitta, and the noblesse oblige that arises in that nobility, and the richness and power it’s utterly peaceful. I found it tremendously moving. And I’m going to go and spend more time with that before I die. Very much on my list once I get a few things done here. Because I just think it’s amazing. So this statue and Kuan Yin Avalokitesvara, what Avalokitesvara represents, speaks to me very, very powerfully, as this is one form that the compassion can take in a person. And I sit in front of that figure, and I have no words whatsoever but I can feel the radiant presence of compassion. So it’s a bit long-winded answer, but you get the idea, Michael?

MT: I do. And it leads directly to the second portion of the book about deities, since we could place Avalokitesvara in that category. And I think perhaps the least interesting question is the ontological status of them. And yet, that’s what everyone focuses on in one way, obviously, maybe that’s important, but it doesn’t seem to me to matter much in practice. That’s just the intellectual mind trying to get in the way. But I’m curious. You’ve done, of course, decades of practice with deities and taught so many people to do that practice as well. What do you think is the main benefit there, and also some ways people can circumvent some of the more typical Western cultural issues that come up?

KM: I’m going to be a little blunt in my response. I’m going to start with the second part. And here I’m speaking from my own experience as much as I’m speaking about anybody else. 

MT: Yes. 

KM: I think, just to be safe, I’ll put it in the first person. I was raised in a Protestant tradition in Canada. And I approached Tibetan Buddhism from that perspective. In the West, by and large, we have a very limited idea of what a religion is, and our template is basically the Protestant understanding of what a religion is. And I find it very embarrassing to say that I didn’t really start breaking out of that very limited range of thinking until 30 years after I started practicing. 

I mean, this is really quite embarrassing, but what the hell? And religion is so much bigger that I think it’s a shame, in many respects, that many people’s conception is limited to that framework.

Now I practice in the Tibetan tradition, and as you said, just now, when you’re engaged in these practices, the ontological status becomes less important. And part of the reason there are a couple of things in here that are philosophical but they may be helpful to some people who are listening to this. The first off is that the ontological status of the deities, and the protectors and so forth, aren’t in question; everybody acknowledges they exist. That is, I had this picture of Avalokitesvara, and there’s a statue of Avalokitesvara, so Avalokitesvara exists. Now, one may say he exists as a mythical figure, not a material being. But there’s no question about whether he exists or not. It’s what category of existence do we put them in? You follow? 

MT: Yes. 

KM: And so as you practice, or as I practiced, I’m going to keep this in the first person, I realized that my categories of existence had to broaden a little bit because things would happen, which didn’t fit into any of them. And this leads me to what I was mentioning earlier: that, basically, I was approaching spiritual practice, in another culture, from a very narrow frame of mind, very narrow-minded. That’s the embarrassing part. And one of the first understandings that helped me break out of this–which is probably sometime when I was in the three-year retreat–I came to understand that Buddhism isn’t really concerned with ontology at all.

MT: Exactly. 

KM: It’s concerned with how we experience things, it’s much more epistemological. It’s not concerned with how things exist or are, or what being is. That’s kind of a given. And what one’s exploring and trying to come to is a different way of experiencing things. 

When Rinpoche was asked,  Does Chenrézig exist? Yes. Or Avalokitesvara; Chenrézig is the Tibetan; he’d say, “Yes, people have visions of him; people have seen him in their dreams. Yeah, of course, he exists.” People would find that very unsatisfactory. But from my teacher’s point of view, and from Eastern Buddhism in general, the fact that you experience something nixes the ontological question at all. And the whole thing is about how you experience life, what you’re experiencing, not whether it’s real. And in the end, the idea that everything has to have a material existence is another instance of the narrowness with which a materialistic mindset limits us when we come to approach spiritual practice. So the question actually comes from what I think is a very narrow, materialistic, ontologically based mindset that most people are not aware of. 

MT: Yes. And so what’s the other part?

KM: As I practiced this, I came to appreciate I was practicing magic. And there are Western traditions of magic; a lot of them have been lost, and there are people who are trying to revive them or reform them; I’m thinking of chaos magic, for instance. And there’s some good stuff there. But it lacks the long and steeped tradition that one benefits from in something like Tibetan Buddhism. 

You know, there we were practicing magic, and there’s no way around it. And so we were invoking deities. Not only were we invoking deities, we were evoking deities. That is, we were seeking to create the qualities of being the deity in ourselves. Well, this is how a magician or a sorcerer does it, and it is a very, very different form of practice. 

I had to laugh because when I was in LA, I got to know a Sri Lankan teacher who’s a very smart guy, a good guy. But as far as he was concerned, Tibetan Buddhism was all about devil worship, demon worship, and there’s no understanding at all on the part of the Theravadan traditions or Theravadan people that I encountered that there was some actual Buddhism here. And I remember an exchange between this gentleman, this monk, and my teacher, when he met my teacher, he said, you know, in Theravada tradition, we have the–and he named some of the 37 factors of enlightenment. And my teacher went, “Oh, yes, we have those too,” and then named the next set of the 37 factors. And the Sri Lankan teacher looked at my teacher and said, ‘You know, all these?” He was very surprised. And it’s understandable because the traditions had been completely separated from each other geographically, so all they had was their own ideas about them. And they didn’t really know or understand them deeply. 

So, here I was, a Westerner who had two degrees in mathematics. And I was practicing magic. Oh, that was interesting. And it worked. There were enough things that happened during the three-year retreat. One occasion, some acquaintances of mine had been involved in a very, very serious car accident. And I didn’t know whether they were alive, injured, or dead. And a group of us, because we’re all from the same place in Canada, at this point did a long ritual. And that night, I had a dream in which one person was okay, one person was hurt but would be okay, and one person, the third, her health status was questionable, but she was probably going to be okay but she’d have a permanent injury. A few days later, we got word that that was exactly what happened. One person had survived a car accident without any injury. His wife had sustained some injury, but not serious. And their daughter had sustained a very serious injury and had a lifelong disability. But that actually, very fortunately, has not prevented her from having a very full, quite successful life. Not a bad ending to a potentially tragic story. 

And there are many other things. I don’t claim any special abilities here. It’s just that these things happen, and they force you to relate to the world in a different way and open up your mind to other possibilities.

MT: Yeah, you just noticed some very unusual things happening, and the explanation is not important, right? 

KM: Well, it’s actually problematic, because if you start clinging to the stuff, it just starts backfiring on you six ways to Sunday.

MT: Yeah, it gets hugely difficult right away. So you just learn to not worry about it. Yeah, that kind of stuff happens.

KM: That kind of stuff happens. And just to give you an example, I was sitting with my teacher one day, and he said, “Ken, according to Westerners, where does rain come from?” And I said, “Well, the sun shines on the ocean. And the sun evaporates, turns the water to water vapor, which rises up in the sky, becomes clouds; and when the clouds are dense enough, they form droplets, and rain falls.” And he looked at me–this is all in Tibetan, of course–and he said, “That’s not true at all. If that were true, Los Angeles wouldn’t be a dry place.” So for him, the Western explanation of rain was just as magical as… 

So culture brings us together, but it also limits us. And one of the facets of practice that I think is very important–I’m really thinking of the four immeasurables here: loving-kindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity. You practice these in a way that enables you to see beyond your culture. I think that’s very important.

MT: Yes. When you mentioned about the Sri Lankan teacher characterizing Vajrayana as devil worship, I presume that whether he knew it or not, he was talking about the protectors.

KM: Or the deities, because many of the wrathful and semi-wrathful deities and you know, I mean, basically, the semi-wrathful deities, they’re all vampires.

MT: Right.

KM: Canine teeth bared, and they drink blood. Sounds like a vampire to me.

MT: Sounds like a vampire. So let’s wade into the territory of the protectors.

KM: First off, I have a friend who’s very deeply trained in the Japanese Vajrayana tradition, Shingon. And in that tradition, there isn’t any distinction between deity and protector. And as my own knowledge and understanding of Vajrayana developed, I realized that these three categories–guru, deity, and protector–there’s not a sharp line between them. For some people, there are certain teachers that function very much as a yidam, and there are yidams that function as teachers, and there are yidams or deities that function as protectors, and there’s protectors that function as deities. Green Tara, for instance, one of the many forms of Tara, but Green Tara–virtually every monastery in Tibet does an invocation of Green Tara every morning. And the invocation is essentially a protector practice, it’s not a deity practice, and she’s known as the protectress, then that’s what the 21 Taras is about.

But my teacher’s teacher who, after he completed his three-year retreat, was the monastery’s tailor, which was a big job, because there were always banners and other decorations for the temple to be sewn or repaired or whatever. And after a few years of those, he thought, you know, this is a waste of time, and he couldn’t get leave to leave the monastery. So he went into one of the latrines of the monastery and barred the door and stayed there for seven years. After a week or two, they started pushing food under the door so that he could eat. But he stayed there for seven years. And you can imagine what a latrine in a Tibetan monastery was like, and he practiced Green Tara the whole time. So that was his deity. 

And I mentioned this because you form a personal relationship. Your yidam, or deity, is your personal deity. It’s who you turn to. And this is a living relationship. And Westerners coming from a tradition where this stuff just didn’t exist or only very rudimentary forms, it’s going to take a while to develop that, but you actually develop a personal relationship. So the deity is this figure who speaks to you, is in your heart, and you turn to, you pray to, etcetera. And that can be a protector or yidam, doesn’t really matter. And I think in the original tantras in India, like the Hevajra tantra, the Cakrasaṃvara, Mahamaya, and so forth, they probably function both as deities and protectors; you turn to the same deity for everything. But as these things evolved, and this distinction developed over the centuries–that’s speculation on my part, but I think that’s probably what happened.

MT: It’s certainly the case that in my Hindu Tantra practice, the main deity functions also as a protector deity. And in fact, some of the most complex long practices I’ve done are all, on the surface of them, protector practices, using the deity as invocations of protection. And so when we would often ask, Well, why are we spending so much time on this protection stuff? The concept or the understanding becomes: It’s not that you’re trying to avoid getting hit by a bus, although that’s in there may be on some level; it’s much more about, in a simple way of saying, like protecting you from yourself. And that’s where it starts to turn into the deity part of it, where it’s really helping you to work with your own transformation.

KM: I think that’s very good. And for the benefit of the listeners, I would like to suggest that when you say protecting you from yourself, the yourself is two words, your and self, you follow? 

MT: Yes. 

KM: And that’s certainly one of the functions. The protector section, I don’t call it protector. I call it protectors and balance. Balance is very important in spiritual practice because you are developing abilities and embarking into areas of human experience where it’s very easy to become imbalanced. And if you become imbalanced and aren’t able to hold attention, then your reactive tendencies just get amplified, or there’s a great risk of that. They can be amplified by wrathful deities, they can also be amplified by peaceful deities. And so the relationship with–let’s say the protector aspect of practice–is very important in terms of helping to maintain balance. Because in those rituals, those long and often very complex rituals, you’re invoking forces and aspects which you don’t generally talk about, you don’t even consider, and yet some of these deeper areas of our psyche–if you want to use that Jungian term–in which there is an awakened knowing with which we may have very, very little relationship with. And one way of forming a relationship is through the performance of these rituals, which is why ritual is a very important part of Vajrayana practice.

And people in the West are often distrustful or even antagonistic to ritual, but I learned that these are extremely sophisticated and subtle and powerful rituals. And even though you cannot say one plus one equals two, things don’t add up quite that way. There’s something that, through the practice of a ritual, forces tendencies, stuff moved more into balance. And balance is the optimal condition from which to practice. So that’s why, when you’re doing any kind of, in-depth meditation you perform–or most people perform–a protector ritual each evening. And we do Green Tara; on retreat, we do Green Tara in the morning and Mahakala in the evening. And it is very, very clear that, in their own way, they kept us sane, or helped to keep us sane. As you said, it’s not about preventing being run over by a bus. 

The act of prayer, which operates in all of these, you pray to your teacher, and deity practice, the deity rituals are filled with prayers, some shorter and some longer. And the rituals are built around a certain petitionary of prayers. You’re not really asking for things, or things in the world. The power of prayer comes because, through prayer, you give expression to your deepest aspirations, your spiritual aspirations. You say, This is where I want to go, this is what I want, and I need help. So two things are happening–at least two things are happening in prayer. One is that you are allowing yourself to formulate these things, which you know, the small voice inside, you’re actually allowing it to take expression; you want this connection with the world, a way of experiencing that is not mediated by the conceptual mind. There’s an immediacy to experience that we never know, as long as we’re interpreting what we experience as trees, or cars, or road, or houses, or people, and so forth. And the other is that we are expressing our willingness to step into what we don’t know, through the practice of prayer, what we don’t know, what we haven’t experienced, that can be a little frightening. And ritual gives us a way of doing that. These kinds of things we’re bringing to the fore. What is so deeply held in our hearts and in our beings that we are afraid, often to give any voice or any kind of expression to it? That’s really important. That’s really important, I think. This makes sense to you, Michael?

MT: Deeply. The act of continuously, or let’s say, often bringing up your heart’s wish or your deepest intention for what you’re doing is, with spirituality, why you’re even there at all, is crucial. And the fact that these rituals help to not only remind you to say it, or help you to repeat it, but give you a framework within which to really refine it and really deeply explore it is incredibly important. And part of the growth, right?

KM: Yes, it’s like these parts of us have not had much opportunity to grow. And in doing these rituals, I think it’s very important to understand what you’re saying, and you actually give expression to it. It’s a little intimidating. Maybe it’s a little more than a little intimidating. Because dare I wish this? 

MT: Yeah. 

KM: What’s going to happen to me, if I let myself feel this? And again, there’s the intrusion of the self, this idea that in some way we stand apart from the world that we experience,

MT: What’s going to happen if I get my wish?

KM: Well, your life’s going to change. That’s all.

MT:  Timewise, we should end this here. But would you be willing to do kind of part two of this interview sometime soon so we can continue with this fascinating conversation?

KM: Well, I’m very grateful to you, Michael, for this opportunity. I speak more easily than I write. And as we’ve been having this conversation, it’s a little strange for me to hear myself speaking a little bit more passionately than I am prone to ordinarily. And so I think I would very much like to continue this. So thank you for the opportunity.

MT: Of course, thank you and I deeply appreciate you taking the time again. So until soon.

KM: Very good. Look forward to hearing from you.

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