Yoga Tantra, Paths to Magical Feats

Yoga Tantra, Paths to Magical Feats

By His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, Dzong-ka-ba, and Jeffrey Hopkins
Trans. by Jeffrey Hopkins, co-ed. by Kevin A. Vose and Steven N. Weinberger
Ithaca, New York: Snow Lion Publications, 2005. Paperback, 181 pages.

Tantric literature, like alchemical arid Hermetic, is usually arcane, obscure, and almost impossible for the uninitiated to read. This is because it is not meant for the average reader, but is a cryptic guide to be understood only when there is a guru, one in the know, to initiate and lead you through it. Hence, I approached this book on yoga tantra with some hesitation. My fears were immediately magnified when I discovered that this volume is the third in a series published by Snow Lion Publications that presents The Stages of the Path to a Conqueror and Pervasive Master, a Great Vajradhara: Revealing All Secret Topics, a major work by Dzong-ka-ba, the late fourteenth and early fifteenth century founder of the Geluk school of Tibetan Buddhism. This particular book contains a translation of Dzong-ka-ba's Great Exposition of Secret Mantra: Yoga Tantra. In other words, this work is not really self-contained. It would be, I thought, like trying to read the last section of Kant's Critique of Pure Reason without the benefit of what went before.

Moreover, according to the author Jeffrey Hopkins, this work constantly refers to and subtly reinterprets a number of earlier Indian Tantricists such as Varabodhi, Buddhaguhya, and Anandagarbha as well as the Tibetan Budon; none of whose writings I have easy access to. How could one possibly offermuch insight or evaluation with obstacles such as these?

It was with some pleasure, then, that I discovered that most of my fears were misguided and that the work is not really a whirlwind of obscurity after all. In large part, this is due to both Jeffrey Hopkins, a well-known Tibetan Buddhist expert, and His Holiness the Dalai Lama who offers very clear and readable interpretations of the text. If the main text is read first, though somewhat awkwardly translated at times, it seems reasonably clear and comprehensible.

In effect, Dzong-ka-bas work is a meditation guide. In typical tantric fashion the emphasis is upon the visualization of "deities" or rather Buddhas such as Vairocana who is to be seen as first sitting before you and then eventually as you. Along with the visualization go mudras i.e., hand gestures, that are not only described but also pictured in the text. With the deity visualization goes the equally important visualization of emptiness. All of the steps in this very complicated process are summarized very clearly by Jeffrey Hopkins at the very end of the book.

There is, of course, a great chasm between reading about the process and actually doing what is described. No matter how clear Hopkins and the Dalai Lama are in their descriptions, one must certainly have a guru to adopt the yogic discipline. Whether it is even possible for a twenty-first century American to undertake this process successfully is an open question. Our own world view may preclude the possibility of developing the faith such a yoga demands.

Certainly those of us standing outside will have special difficulty with the magical feats-finding buried treasure, walking on water, flying through the air, etc-which the author promises that the successful tantricist will accomplish. Are these "symbolic" achievements that intimate inner transformations or did Dzong-ka-ba believe that such miracles could actually be performed? To what extent has inner visualization simply replaced good, old-fashioned reality?

No matter what one's attitude toward these feats, most readers will find this an interesting, even compelling book. At the very least it offers a glimpse into a worldview and a spirituality so foreign to modern America that it can jolt and awaken one. For those intent to follow the Path, it may provide a much needed intimation of a way to the highest and deepest levels of enlightenment.


July/August 2007