A Mandala of 21st Century Perspectives: Tradition and Innovation in Vajrayana Buddhism

The book , A Mandala of 21st Century Perspectives, is the proceedings of the international conference on Tradition and Innovation in Vajrayana Buddhism, held from July 1-3, 2016  in Thimphu, and published by the Centre for Bhutan Studies & GNH. It is the first of its kind dedicated solely on Vajrayana Buddhism in Bhutan. The conference was jointly organized by the Central Monastic Body and the Centre for Bhutan Studies & GNH.

The presentation of papers was interlaced with physical demonstrations of the techniques of Vajrayana Buddhism, magnetising people of all ages. The papers in the book discusses issues within contemporary expressions of Vajrayana Buddhism, how it has fashioned art, culture, medicine and yogic practices. Besides academic papers written by scholars, it also contains keynote address by the Prime Minster and opening addresses delivered by spiritual leaders, such as Dorji Lopen, Khamba Lam Gabju of Mongolia, Tsugla Lopen, Lama Lobzang and Leytshog Lopen.

There are 14 academic papers in this book. The first paper argues that Vajrayana Buddhism may have a place not only in Bhutan but also in the world as a whole in the future. For Vajrayana Buddhism to survive, people will need to appreciate the teachings of Buddha and provide support for it. In Bhutan, the continuity of Vajrayana Buddhism is ensured by His Holiness the Je Khenpos through the promotion of elements of Vajrayana Buddhism, such as meditation, mudras and arts. The author suggests four practical applications of Vajrayana Buddhism to make it more meaningful in life: health and illness, death and dying, planetary environment and Western science and Vajrayana understanding of reality. Tshe grub practices such as ‘Chi med srog thig’ are used in society to reinforce the healing procedures of contemporary medicine, to bring about within the patient the will to recover and, in skilled practitioner, the ability to direct inner flows within the body to aid the healing process directly. In death and dying, mastering ‘pho ba’ enables one to direct consciousness at the time of death.

The second paper describes the Vajra activity of Guru Rinpoche and the purpose of his journey as peacemaker, healer and trainer towards absolute truth in Dzogchen tradition. Illustrations of Guru Rinpoche’s translation, transmission and transformation activities – the purpose of Guru’s journey in the Himalayas – are also provided.

The third paper describes how yoga can be used for awakening of mind. To master the mind, one has to master the body. Various Hatha Yoga techniques are described, with special exposition of 23 sequential yogic movements known as Tsalung Trulkhor, revealed by Pema Lingpa, as “keys for realizing the self-liberated nature of mind and body.” A clear explanation of ati yoga (supreme yoga), korde rushen (yoga of spontaneous presence) and togal (yoga of integral perception) can be found in this paper.

Visual transmission using Bhutanese arts from the 17th to 19th centuries is the focus of the fourth paper. Visual arts, such as murals, thangkhas and sculpture, create sacred space, provide support for initiated practitioners and transmit lineage and religious history. Tsang Khenchen Penden Gyatso, the biographer of Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, is one of the foremost artists in Bhutanese history credited for founding Tsangri and Menri artistic styles in Bhutan. To appreciate his artistic mastery, one has to visit his seat at Menchuna temple in Paro, established in 1656. Two of his leading students were Drakpa Gyatso, who painted Taktshang monastery in 1692, and Sangngak Gyatso, both Bhutanese.

Vajrayana Buddhism can also be practiced outside the monastery. The fifth paper illustrates the importance of non-monastic sangha known as ngakpa sangha (gos dKar lCang lo’I sDe), who wears white skirts and keep long hairs, in preserving the teachings of Vajrayana Buddhism, and outlines the practices from a contemporary Western non-monastic Terma lineage – the Aro gTer. One of the well-known non-celibate practitioners is Dri’med Drakpa (Vimalakirti), who was a merchant by livelihood.

The origin and the cause of awakening Kundalini (the primordial dormant energy) for attaining heightened awareness is expounded in the sixth paper. Kundalini is a combination of light and individual energy. Pineal gland in human body absorbs photons from light energy and when it is combined with biophotons of individual energy it forms Kundalini. The primary cause of Kundalini awakening is hypothesized to be “coherent heart vibrations oscillating at a resonant frequency that create resonant entrainment between the heart, the brain and the breath.” Meditation, prayer, chanting and yoga constitute Kundalini awakening activities.

The Eight Principal Tantric Medicines (sman rtsa brgyad) included as key ingredients in sacred medical pills in the course of medicinal accomplishment (sman sgrub) practices are discussed in the seventh paper. The classification of Eight Principal Tantric Medicines are white sandalwood (tsandan dkar po), maroon sandalwood (tsandan smug po), cloves, gandha pa tra (understood to be white gentian, spang rgyan dkar po), saffron (gur gum), nutmeg (dza ti), cinnamon (shing rtsa) and camphor (ga bur), as reveled in Pema Lingpa’s text.

Mind space (also known as the Mandala of the mind) which defines the very perception of our being, is elucidated in the eighth paper. Mind space contains all other elements, the formless form, the womb and the matrix where all forms arise, dance and abide in and dissolve into.

When one is conscious that one is dreaming as dream is happening it is termed as lucid dreaming (ninth paper). During lucid dreaming, self-assessment and self-perception is said to increase markedly backed by evidence from neuroscience. It is also known to heal phobia and trauma.

In the 10th paper, the reader will find that an innovation of Vajrayana Buddhism known as Shingon Buddhism was established in Japan in early 9th century by Kûkai. Kûkai studied Buddhism under Master Hui-kuo, the patriarch of Esoteric Buddhism and chosen disciple of Amoghavajra. Amoghavajra was in turn the chosen disciple of Vajrabodhi.

A 12 one hour weekly (half an hour devoted to lecture and the other half hour to practical session) mindfulness programme conducted in high schools within school hours in Australia showed that enrolling for the programme helped them focus on study better, developed better self-discipline and helped to reduce stress (11th paper).

In Tantric Buddhist practices, pure food that eliminates toxicities inside the body is essential for transforming the body into a yidam body (12th paper). A weak body is not recommended to practice inner recitation practice such as Kundalini and Tummo. Ginger is considered good for health whereas garlic and onion are not recommended since it stimulates heart and brain excessively hampering concentration during practices.

In the 13th paper, the description of five dhyani mudras – Dharmachakra, Bhumisparsa, Varada, Dhyana and Abhaya – associated respectively with the five dhyani Buddhas – Vairocana, Aksobhya Ratnasambhava, Amitabha and Amoghasiddhi – are presented along with influence the mudras had on contemporary Asian arts. For instance, artist Gonkar Gyatso has depicted mudras in all his artworks.

The last paper gives an outline of the Sangye Migyur Ling construction project in Phuentsholing. This project was initiated by Lama Kelzang, a Bhutanese native who have lived in Hong Kong for more than 28 years, with the idea to attract pilgrims from both Bhutan and India. The main part of the project is Milarepa Tower, in which the ground floor will contain life-sized marble statue of Milarepa. The Grand Opening of Sangye Migyur Ling is scheduled for 2019.

A careful reader will notice that the papers in this book are not categorized according to themes, but this is simply because there are so many themes in Vajrayana Buddhism that it is difficult to do so. After reading this book one will realize that there are more themes to cover and more questions to answer. And precisely for this reason the Second International Conference on Vajrayana Buddhism will be organized and held from March 28 to 30, 2018, in Bhutan.

To understand the practical applications of Vajrayana Buddhism in this modern world and how meaningful it is to our everyday life, read this book.

 Contributed by

Sangay Chophel

Centre for Bhutan Studies & GNH