Vajrayana rituals or sadhanas work at two levels. At the level of everyday reality, they use a variety of different visualisation methods to transform our mundane perception of ourselves and the world. This is called 'the phase of creation'. On a more profound level, the rituals involve directly recognizing and resting in the true nature of the mind without any thinking at all. This is called 'the phase of completion'.
The phase of creation uses our imagination to break down our solid and fragmented perception of ourselves and the world. In these practices, we take on another identity by imagining ourselves in the form of a deity. In so doing we are aligning ourselves with who we really are - our Buddha Nature. We also imagine the external environment to be a pure realm of the deity, which is not another place, but our everyday world viewed through pure eyes. In order to immerse ourselves in this different way of seeing things, the sadhana employs all sorts of skilful means, such as visual mandalas, physical gestures or mudras, ritual music and so forth.
What we are really doing with these practices is breaking down the tendency to see ourselves and the world as being solid and fixed - instead we are training ourselves to see things as being transparent and radiant. Also, through imagining in this way, we break down the false sense of separation we have between ourselves and others and between ourselves and the environment. When we do Chenresig practice, for example, and imagine ourselves to be Chenrezig, we see all form as the body of Chenrezig, all sound as the sound of his mantra and all thoughts and emotions as the play of his enlightened awareness. We see everything as the manifestation of the wisdom and compassion of the deity. This is referred to as 'pure appearance' in Vajrayana Buddhism. When everything and everyone is perfect, how can we possibly entertain thoughts of friends and enemies, or what I like and what I don't like?
At the end of the sadhana, we dissolve our visualisation of the deity into emptiness and then simply rest in that state for a while. This is the completion stage. Here we let the mind relax in its true nature and simply remain in this space for as long as feels natural. Mind knows mind with great stillness and precision until finally the total truth of who we really are reveals itself to us, just as it is.
This total realisation of truth, the very summit of the spiritual journey within the Kagyu lineage of Tibetan Buddhism, is known as 'Mahamudra'. It means 'Great Seal'. Everything is stamped with the seal of ultimate truth. When we realise Mahamudra, we see the ultimate truth wherever we look. It is beautifully expressed in an extract from a prayer written by a great master of the Kagyu tradition, the Third Karmapa:
"When looking again and again at the mind, there is nothing to look at.
The 'nothing to be seen' is seen vividly just as it is.
This is what cuts through all doubts of 'being' or 'not being'.
May I recognise myself unmistakenly.
When looking at objects, there are no objects - they are seen as mind.
When looking at the mind, there is no mind - it is devoid of essence.
Looking at both, the dualistic belief is automatically dispelled.
May luminous clarity which is the natural state of mind be understood."
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