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Lions Roar : July 2014
practice—bright colors, ritual items, thangkas, the recitation of mantras and prayer sadhanas—are merely parts of Tibetan culture and should be excised from the American Buddhist tra- dition. Another idea we might have is that meditation should empty the mind of concepts. When we work with visualization practice, aren’t we just piling more concepts on top of an already conceptual mind? A third idea about visualization is that it is dif- ficult, and that meditation should actually be natural, easy, and enjoyable. If we read the traditional sadhanas and texts that pres- ent the methods for visualizing deities—for example, the refuge tree or Vajrasattva—the instructions are extremely detailed; we feel incapable of even visualizing a very small part of what we are instructed to visualize. for that reason, we might think this prac- tice is just not for us. however, in spiritual practice, as in life, our expectations are just that—projections and misunderstandings of how things actually are. I teach generation stage practice to Western Buddhists who have a great desire to progress on the Buddhist path and who are also open and willing to try something new. I believe that many Western Buddhists haven’t understood the proper context in which to place this practice, and for that reason, it is contrary to their expectations. I should say up front that generation stage is a difficult practice. Becoming skillful at it entails the same amount of effort, if not more, that we put into our professional careers, families, and worldly obligations. We have to let go of the idea that meditation is easy and natural, along with all of the other fantasies we have about ourselves and the world. Why is training in generation stage practice so essential to Vajray- ana Buddhism? We can find the answer to this question within our- selves. It is likely that we became interested in meditation because we were tired of living with ourselves. The human mind is restless; it is unable to relax quietly even for an instant. The constant bar- rage of thoughts, emotions, judgments, criticisms, and obsessions is exhausting. Because the mind is dominated by conceptual thoughts and emotions, we aren’t open to other experiences. The mind can- not find even a moment’s peace, and neither can we. Although it may appear to be merely a conceptual exercise, gen- eration stage practice is an excellent method for helping the mind find rest and refuge from the unceasing landslide of thoughts and emotions. When we are working to generate a visualization, we are focusing so fully that the mind has no choice but to drop the things it normally chases after. And this is not just true of our visual sense. Visualization practice is a multisensory experience. for example, when we recite mantras, we work with the sensory experience of sound. If we are working at the full experience of the visualization, even the senses of touch, taste, and smell are absorbed into that experience. So, we should understand that the purpose of generation stage practice is tied to pacifying conceptual mind. We may have the idea that we are simply overlaying more concepts upon con- cepts, but actually we are using the mind’s ability to focus to cut through conceptual mind itself. But the purpose of generation stage practice does not end there. To deepen our understanding of this practice, let’s use the simple example of visualizing Avalokiteshvara, the quintessential bodhisattva of compassion. he is an example not just of ordi- nary compassion but also of immeasurable compassion. You may have experience working with a sadhana, or a ritual practice, that helps you visualize Avalokiteshvara in stages. how- ever, such experience isn’t necessary. for the purposes of this explanation, we will rely upon just one verse as an invocation and refer to an image of Avalokiteshvara in his ordinary form: white in color, with four arms, seated in vajra posture, with two legs, and ornamented in the sambhogakaya style. We start with the invocation: HRI I prostrate to Avalokiteshvara, Whose white body is uncontaminated by fault Whose head is adorned by the perfect buddhas, And whose compassionate eyes watch over beings! Next, we work at trying to “see” some of the details of Avalok- iteshvara’s appearance, which are present in the illustration. here, we use the word “see” metaphorically. We aren’t capable of visualizing in great detail in the beginning, because we haven’t trained and practiced in this technique. Instead we “see” with eyes of devotion, our own conviction that it is just so. In the very beginning, we may find that while we wish to visu- alize Avalokiteshvara, we are unable to concentrate on anything at all. In that case, we can start very slowly. We could begin by visualizing Avalokiteshvara’s face. Perhaps even that is too much, so we may want to concentrate on the shape of his eyes or his mouth. once that becomes easier, we can move to another part of his body, such as his hands. Slowly, over time, we will develop the ability to see all of the details of Avalokiteshvara’s form. Another method that we could use to train in visualization is to rely on an image of Avalokiteshvara: a painting on the wall above our shrine or a statue in our practice room. We could look at the image, concentrating on it deeply, then look away from the image and try to maintain what we saw. We can do this repeat- edly, looking at the image and then turning away from it, in order to increase our ability to concentrate on Avalokiteshvara. We are not just trying to connect with an image of Avalokitesh- vara as an exercise in shamatha, or one-pointedness. We are trying We are not superimposing some concept over our actual experience. We are training to see the world’s pure nature. SHAMBHALA SUN JULy 2014 58