Tibetan Buddhist meditation, while sharing common practices with other branches of Buddhism, is characterized primarily by its esoteric character.
The word “esoteric” comes from the Greek “esōterikos“, meaning “inner“. Esoteric refers to that knowledge which is not immediately accessible to all, but is reserved for those who have undergone certain trainings or initiations. In the context of Tibetan Buddhism, this esoteric character manifests itself in various ways.
Within Tibetan Buddhism, there is a wide range of meditation practices, some of which are highly esoteric in nature. These practices may involve visualization of deities, recitation of mantras, performance of mudras (hand gestures) and integration of tantric practices. Essentially, these techniques not only seek to calm the mind or generate a state of awakened consciousness, but also seek to transform the practitioner’s consciousness and connect it with deeper realities.
The Vajrayāna (the “Diamond Vehicle“) represents the esoteric path par excellence. This tradition uses tantra, a set of techniques and teachings that seek rapid enlightenment through direct and often secret methods. These tantric practices are considered so powerful that it is said that, in the wrong hands, they could be harmful. Hence the need for direct transmission and proper guidance.
The Importance of Direct Transmission in Tibetan Buddhist Meditation
The Guru or Lama plays a fundamental role in Tibetan Buddhism. He is the spiritual master who has the ability and authority to transmit esoteric teachings and practices to his disciples. This transmission is not simply a verbal teaching; it is an energetic lineage that is passed from master to disciple.
Direct transmission is important for several reasons:
- Protection: Esoteric practices can be powerful and, if approached incorrectly, can trigger negative experiences. An experienced teacher can guide the student, ensuring that the practices are followed correctly.
- Authenticity: In our information age, it is easy to find texts and guides on meditation. However, without direct transmission, it is difficult to guarantee the authenticity of the practices. Transmission ensures that the teachings come from a legitimate source and have been passed down unbroken since the Buddha.
- Deep Connection: The relationship between teacher and disciple is unique and sacred in Tibetan Buddhism. This relationship facilitates a deep connection that can accelerate the process of spiritual transformation.
Tibetan Buddhist Meditation Practices
Although as we have already mentioned, there are common meditation practices among Buddhist traditions, in this article we are going to focus especially on those practices that are unique to Tibetan Buddhism.
Chöd is a spiritual practice found in Tibetan Buddhist traditions and in some of the lineages of Bön (the indigenous religion of Tibet before the arrival of Buddhism). The word “Chöd” means “to cut” or “to sever,” and the practice is designed to sever ego attachment and material illusions, allowing the practitioner to achieve greater understanding and compassion.
Although there are specific variations in the various traditions, some key aspects of Chöd include:
- Visualizations: In Chöd, the practitioner imagines offering his or her body in an act of food charity to beings such as demons and spirits, symbolizing the overcoming of fears and attachments.
- Musical instruments: The practice of Chöd is often accompanied by instruments such as the damaru drum and the trumpet made of human bones, called kangling. These instruments have symbolic meanings and help guide meditation and visualizations.
- Places of practice: Chöd is often practiced in places that are considered disturbing or where there is a presence of fears, such as cemeteries. The idea is to face and overcome these fears directly.
- Facing fears: The practice is designed to help the practitioner face and overcome their fears and attachments. By symbolically offering the body to terrifying entities, the practitioner faces his or her deepest fears and learns to release them.
- Transformation of the ego: One of the fundamental objectives of Chöd is to transform and reduce the attachment to the ego. By severing the ego and attachments, one can experience a greater connection with all beings and reach deeper states of understanding and compassion.
Dzogchen, also known as“The Great Perfection,” is a tradition of meditative teachings and practices found primarily in the Nyingma and Bon schools of Tibet. It is known for its focus on direct recognition of the inherent and primarily enlightened nature of the mind, without reliance on gradual processes or stages of development.
Here are some key characteristics and aspects of Dzogchen:
- Basic nature: Dzogchen teaches that all sentient beings have a pure, enlightened basic nature called “Rigpa,” which is spontaneously present. This is the basis, the natural and authentic state of our mind.
- Direct Recognition: Unlike some other paths that may involve a series of gradual stages or practices, Dzogchen emphasizes direct recognition and familiarization with this basic nature.
- Trekchö and Tögal: These are two main practices within Dzogchen. Trekchö means “cortex of attention” and refers to the recognition of the primordial nature of mind. Tögal, on the other hand, involves vision practices that work with light and pure images to stabilize and deepen this recognition.
- Direct transmission: In Dzogchen, great importance is placed on receiving direct transmissions from an enlightened teacher. These transmissions are not simply verbal teachings, but a direct transfer of realization or awakening of consciousness.
- Beyond concepts: Dzogchen teachings often emphasize going beyond any conceptualization and entering into a direct, unmediated, non-conceptual experience of reality.
- Preliminary teachings: While emphasizing direct recognition, many teachers also stress the importance of preliminary practices to purify and prepare the mind.
Dzogchen is widely regarded as the culmination or pinnacle of all teachings in the traditions in which it is taught. It is a profound path that requires proper guidance and correct understanding, and it is recommended to approach it with a qualified teacher.
Lojong, which can be translated as“Mind Training” or“Mental Training,” is a collection of Tibetan Buddhist teachings and practices designed to cultivate bodhicitta, or the wish to attain enlightenment for the benefit of all sentient beings. These teachings offer instructions on how to work with our mind and emotions, especially when faced with difficulties and challenges.
Lojong teachings are typically presented in the form of slogans or pithy phrases that act as reminders or points of reflection. These slogans help practitioners cultivate qualities such as patience, compassion, generosity and equanimity.
Some key Lojong slogans include:
- Transform adversities: Instead of seeing difficulties as obstacles, we are taught to see them as opportunities to practice and cultivate virtues. For example, if someone treats us badly, we can use that situation to practice patience and understanding.
- Equalizing self and others: Lojong teaches that there is no fundamental difference between self and others. We all desire happiness and do not want to suffer. Recognizing this cultivates a sense of interconnectedness and solidarity with others.
- Taking and sending: A key meditative practice in Lojong is“tonglen“, which translates as“taking and sending“. In this practice, one imagines taking the suffering of others with the inhale and sending relief and happiness with the exhale.
- Seven-point mind training: Many Lojong teachings are structured around “Seven-Point Mind Training,” which is a compilation of slogans and practical advice.
- Developing Bodhicitta: The central purpose of Lojong is to develop bodhicitta, the aspiration to attain enlightenment for the benefit of all beings.
These are practices designed to be applied in daily life, especially valuable for those who seek to integrate their spiritual practice into every aspect of their life, rather than limiting it to formal meditation or text study.
Guru Yoga is a central practice in many traditions of Tibetan Buddhism and other spiritual traditions. It is a path to approach the essence of spiritual wisdom and merge with it. Through its practice one seeks to align the mind with the mind of the guru, seeking his guidance, blessings and protection.
The word“guru” comes from Sanskrit and has multiple interpretations, but in essence it means“master” or“spiritual guide“. The guru is not only a teacher in the conventional sense of someone who imparts teaching, but represents the embodiment of all spiritual qualities and the essence of Dharma, or spiritual teaching. The guru is the manifestation of all Buddhas and enlightened beings, offering a direct connection to transcendental wisdom.
The practice of Guru Yoga involves visualizing the guru and making supplications to receive his blessings. Through meditation and mantra recitation, the practitioner seeks to purify his or her mind and connect with the guru’s consciousness. This connection goes beyond simple devotion; it is a fusion of the practitioner’s mind with the enlightened mind of the guru.
One of the main objectives of Guru Yoga is to overcome the ego and its distractions, and in doing so, one can experience a more expansive and connected consciousness. By approaching the guru with faith and devotion, it is believed that we can receive blessings and make rapid progress on the spiritual path.
These are some of the fundamental characteristics of this Tibetan Buddhist meditation practice:
- Direct connection to wisdom: the practice offers a direct channel to the accumulated wisdom and blessings of the guru’s lineage. This connection is invaluable for those seeking spiritual understanding and guidance.
- Inner transformation: By aligning with the guru’s mind, one can begin to purify one’s own mental afflictions and overcome obstacles. This transformation accelerates the process of enlightenment.
- Development of devotion: Genuine devotion is a powerful spiritual tool. By developing sincere devotion to the guru, one cultivates an open and receptive heart, which facilitates the absorption of profound teachings.
- Refuge and protection: In times of doubt or challenge, the practice of Guru Yoga can offer a refuge. The guru figure acts as a beacon, guiding the practitioner through the storms of life.
Although Guru Yoga can be practiced in formal meditation sessions, its principles can also be incorporated into daily life. By remembering the guru and his teachings throughout the day, we learn to live with compassion, wisdom and equanimity. Every decision or action can be viewed through the prism of the guru’s teachings, allowing for a life more aligned with higher spiritual principles.
Dream Yoga, also known as “lucid dreaming,” is a spiritual practice that originates in the ancient traditions of Tibet and India. Its purpose is to transcend ordinary perception and awaken a clear and lucid awareness within the dream, allowing the practitioner to interact, learn and evolve within the dreamscape. Although the roots of this practice lie in Buddhism and Hinduism, in recent decades it has gained popularity in the West, both in spiritual and scientific contexts.
It is based on the idea that, like daytime reality, the dream is another state of consciousness that can be explored and understood. However, unlike daytime reality, the dream world is not limited by physical laws and can be shaped by the mind. It is a realm where the boundaries between self and other, between subject and object, become permeable.
One of the main objectives of this practice is to achieve lucidity in sleep. A lucid dream is one in which the dreamer realizes that he or she is dreaming while the dream is still in progress. This realization leads to an awakening experience within the dream, where the dreamer can observe, interact with, and sometimes even control the elements of the dream.
To achieve lucidity in dreams, the practitioner employs a variety of techniques that may include meditation, visualization and mantras. Before going to sleep, one may meditate on the intention to remember and recognize the dream. The constant practice of questioning the nature of reality during the day, asking oneself“Am I dreaming?” may eventually infiltrate the dream state, bringing about a similar realization within the dream.
Dream yoga is not limited to simply achieving lucidity. Once achieved, the practitioner can work with the dream in many meaningful ways. For example, he or she can face and overcome fears, resolve inner conflicts, receive spiritual guidance, practice meditations, or even seek teachings from dream guides.
Beyond the individual experiences within lucid dreaming, this practice has deeper implications for the perception of reality. By experiencing the malleable and subjective nature of dreams, one can begin to question the nature of daytime reality. What is real? What is illusion? What role does the mind play in creating our experience?
Dream yoga can also prepare one for the experiences of death. In Tibetan traditions, it is believed that the awareness that develops through the practice of dream yoga can help the individual navigate the intermediate (bardic) states after death, guiding the consciousness toward favorable rebirths or even final liberation.
Mahamudra, which literally translates as “The Great Seal” or “The Great Gesture,” is one of the most profound and essential teachings and practices of Tibetan Buddhism. It is presented primarily in the Kagyu school, but is also found in other Tibetan traditions. Mahamudra is both a vision of the ultimate nature of reality and a series of meditative practices that lead to the recognition and realization of that vision.
The teaching of Mahamudra emphasizes the primordially pure and luminous nature of mind. This nature of mind, which is clear and free of conceptual elaborations, is the true refuge and source of liberation. Unlike other practices that may focus on transforming or purifying the mind, Mahamudra focuses on recognizing and resting in this basic nature as it is.
From the Mahamudra perspective it is recognized that all experiences, both samsaric and nirvanic, arise from the very nature of the mind. This mind is not contaminated by afflicted emotions or limited by dualistic conceptualizations. It is spontaneously present, immaculate and free from the beginning. This nature is often described by terms such as “emptiness with qualities” or“clarity-luminosity“.
Mahamudra practice can be divided into two phases: Shamatha Mahamudra and Vipassana Mahamudra.
- Shamatha Mahamudra: This is the practice of mental calm. Here, the meditator sits in meditation, allowing the mind to rest in its natural state, without following thoughts or being distracted by sensations. Through this practice, one cultivates stability and clarity, preparing the ground for deep penetration into the nature of reality.
- Vipassana Mahamudra: Once a certain stability has been cultivated in Shamatha, the meditator proceeds to the Vipassana or penetrating vision phase. Here, one investigates and contemplates the nature of mind and reality, coming to recognize the inherent luminosity and emptiness of all experiences.
For those entering the path of Mahamudra, it is essential to receive instructions from an authentic and qualified teacher. The teacher not only provides teachings and transmissions, but acts as a mirror, reflecting and confirming the student’s experiences.
As one progresses in Mahamudra practice, the distinctions between meditation and post-meditation begin to fade. The clarity, peace and equanimity cultivated on the meditation cushion are infused into daily life, and life itself becomes an expression of wisdom and compassion.
Meditation on the Bardo
Within Tibetan Buddhism, the concept of the“Bardo” is essential. This Tibetan word is generally translated as “intermediate state” or “interval,” and describes the transitional phases between different states of existence, such as life, death, sleep and meditation. Meditation in the Bardo, therefore, involves techniques and teachings intended to help the practitioner recognize and navigate these states with lucidity and understanding.
The most famous text on this subject is the “Bardo Thodol“, known in the West as “The Tibetan Book of the Dead“. This text guides the practitioner through the Bardos that arise after death and before the next rebirth.
After death, the practitioner is guided through three main Bards:
- Chikhai Bardo: This is the Bardo of the moment of death. As the physical and mental processes disintegrate, a clear and vast luminosity presents itself. The prepared practitioner can recognize this luminosity as the inherent Buddha nature and, in doing so, attain liberation.
- Chönyid Bardo: If liberation is not achieved in the Chikhai Bardo, the individual enters the Chönyid Bardo, the Bardo of visionary experiences. Here, the karmic seeds in the mind project a whole series of visions, both peaceful and angry. These visions are manifestations of one’s own mind, and recognition of this can lead to liberation.
- Sidpa Bardo: If liberation is not achieved in the previous two Bardos, the individual enters the Sidpa Bardo, the Bardo of rebirth. Here, an attraction to new parents is felt, culminating in rebirth in one of the six realms of samsara.
For those who practice Bardo meditation, the preparation for death is not a somber process, but an opportunity for enlightenment. Death is seen as a portal, a time when the mind is particularly open and malleable. Bardos are, therefore, opportunities to recognize the true nature of the mind.
Meditative practices related to the Bardo include:
- Cultivating lucid awareness: As in dream yoga, cultivating the ability to recognize that one is dreaming can prepare the practitioner to recognize the mind’s projections in the Bardo.
- Meditation on clear luminosity: Some practices focus on familiarizing the meditator with the experience of clear luminosity, which manifests at the moment of death.
- Phowa, or transference of consciousness: This practice involves training to direct the consciousness at the moment of death, guiding it to a favorable rebirth or to a pure Buddha state.
Phowa, often translated as “transfer of consciousness,” is an essential practice within the Vajrayana tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. Although it is often associated with death and the dying process, it is much more than simply a preparation for the end of life; it is a technique that enables practitioners to face death with confidence, understanding and a sense of spiritual direction.
The basic idea behind Phowa is that, at the moment of death, it is possible to direct or transfer our consciousness from the physical body to a higher state or realm. This transfer can be to a pure Buddha realm, such as the Paradise of Amitabha, or to a favorable human rebirth. Through continued practice of Phowa, practitioners can cultivate this ability and, when the time comes, perform the transfer with clarity and determination.
- Preparation: As with many vajrayana practices, it is essential to receive direct instruction and transmission from a qualified Phowa teacher. This connection with the teacher provides a solid foundation for the practice and ensures that it is performed correctly.
- Visualization: During Phowa practice, practitioners often visualize a deity, such as Amitabha, located above their heads. This deity symbolizes the enlightened nature and destiny of transference.
- Using the central channel: Practitioners are taught how to focus their energy and awareness on the central channel of the body, a subtle channel that extends from the base of the spine to the crown of the head. The practice involves directing consciousness along this channel and “expelling” it through the crown of the head.
- Mantras and breathing: Specific mantras are often recited during the practice, and breathing techniques are employed to help mobilize and direct consciousness.
One of the traditional signs of success in the practice of Phowa is the appearance of a small bump or change at the crown of the practitioner’s head. This physical change is an outward manifestation of the inner work and transformation that has occurred within the practitioner.
Although it is valuable to practice Phowa throughout one’s life, its most critical application is at the moment of death, either oneself or in helping others. When one is present at the time of another person’s death, reciting mantras and performing Phowa visualizations can be of great assistance to the dying person, guiding them through the transition with grace and direction.
The practice of Phowa is a powerful reminder of impermanence and a preparation for one of the most significant moments in human existence. Rather than facing death with fear or uncertainty, Phowa offers a technique and a roadmap for approaching this transition with clarity and purpose. Ultimately, the practice reinforces the Buddhist understanding that death is not an end
Tonglen is one of the most profound and transformative Tibetan Buddhist meditation practices. Translated literally,“Tonglen” means “to give and to take.” At its core, it is a practice of compassion in which one imagines taking the suffering of others and giving happiness, love and whatever positive resources one possesses. This technique invites us to directly confront our selfishness and aversion, cultivating instead a loving heart and an open mind.
The central goal of Tonglen is to cultivate Bodhicitta, the enlightened mind of love and compassion that desires the well-being and liberation of all beings. The practice is based on a deep understanding of interdependence, recognizing that our well-being is intrinsically linked to that of others.
Here is a basic outline of the steps for this type of meditation:
- Preparation: Before beginning the formal practice of Tonglen, it is helpful to enter a state of calm and concentration through Shamatha meditation or mental stillness.
- Visualization of suffering: Begin by imagining a loved one who is suffering. Feel their pain and anguish as clearly as if it were your own. Then, as you inhale, imagine taking that suffering in the form of a dense, dark cloud of smoke, allowing it to enter your heart.
- Transformation: Once that dark cloud of suffering reaches your heart, imagine it meeting the bright, warm light of your love and compassion. This light instantly transforms the dark smoke into a bright light.
- Offering relief: As you exhale, imagine sending this transformed light from your heart in all directions. This light carries with it love, joy, well-being and any other positive resources you wish to share. Imagine this light relieving all sorrows and meeting all needs of your loved one.
- Expansion: Once you feel comfortable practicing Tonglen with a loved one, expand your practice to include others: friends, acquaintances, strangers and even enemies. Eventually, you can practice Tonglen for all sentient beings everywhere, wishing everyone to be free of suffering and filled with joy.
Tonglen is revolutionary in its approach. Often, our instinctive reaction to suffering is to turn away or avoid it. With Tonglen, we approach that suffering directly, with the intention of alleviating it. In doing so, we challenge our habitual patterns of self-protection and self-concentration, opening our hearts to human suffering and the transformative power of love and compassion.
Devatayoga (Yoga of the Godhead)
Devatayoga is a fundamental practice in Vajrayana Buddhism and other tantric traditions. It is a form of meditation in which the practitioner identifies and merges with a deity, thus seeking to transform his or her mind and approach enlightenment. This identification is not a mere act of imagination, but a profound inner transformation through which one seeks to manifest the qualities of the deity within the practitioner.
It is not simply a matter of worshipping a deity from the outside. Rather, it is a practice in which the yogi seeks to embody the qualities and energies of the deity. Through visualization, mantra and other techniques, the practitioner seeks to generate a direct experience of the deity within himself.
These are the key aspects of this type of tantric meditation:
- Choice of a deity: Before beginning the practice of Devatayoga, it is essential to choose a deity with whom the practitioner feels a strong connection. This choice is usually made under the guidance of a spiritual teacher.
- Visualization: Once the deity is chosen, the practitioner begins to visualize it in detail. This visualization is extremely accurate, including all the attributes and characteristics of the deity, from its posture to the objects it holds.
- Identification: As the visualization becomes clearer and more stable, the practitioner begins to identify with the deity. This identification involves feeling that one has become the deity, embodying its qualities and energies.
- Mantra Recitation: With the identification established, the practitioner recites the mantra of the deity. Each deity has its own mantra, which is a combination of sacred syllables that encapsulate the essence of that deity.
- Meditation: Once the visualization and identification are firmly established and the mantra is recited regularly, the practitioner enters a state of deep meditation, where he or she merges completely with the deity.
At first glance, Devatayoga may appear to be a form of spiritual theater, but its purpose is profoundly transformative. Through the practice, the yogi seeks to overcome his or her identification with the limited ego and conventional notions of self. Instead, he seeks to identify with something much larger and vaster: the enlightened qualities of the deity.
This transformation is both psychological and energetic. On the psychological level, it helps the practitioner to free himself from negative mental patterns and cultivate positive qualities. On the energetic level, the practice seeks to activate and transform the practitioner’s inner energies, aligning them with those of the deity.
How to Learn and Practice Tibetan Buddhist Meditation
Unlike simpler forms of meditation that focus exclusively on mindfulness and concentration, Tibetan practices often incorporate complex visualizations, mantras and rituals that require not only intellectual understanding but also direct guidance. Underlying this is the critical importance of a qualified mentor or teacher.
For those seeking to delve into Tibetan Buddhist meditation, it is very important to begin with a basic understanding:
- Study and understanding: before delving into the practice, it is essential to study the basic teachings of Buddhism. This includes understanding the Four Noble Truths, the Noble Eightfold Path and other fundamentals.
- Choosing a tradition: Within Tibetan Buddhism, there are several schools such as Nyingma, Kagyu, Sakya and Gelug. Each has its own approach and meditative techniques. Researching and feeling an affinity with a tradition can be a good starting point.
- Preliminary meditations: Before moving into more advanced practices, it is necessary to establish a solid foundation. Shamatha or mental stillness meditation, which involves simply focusing the mind on the breath or an object, is an excellent start.
As one progresses, the esoteric and complex nature of Tibetan Buddhist meditation becomes apparent. This is where the guidance of an experienced teacher becomes indispensable for several reasons:
- Direct transmission: In Tibetan Buddhism, many teachings and practices are transmitted from teacher to disciple in an unbroken lineage. This transmission is not merely informative, but energetic and spiritual. It allows the disciple to access the depth and power of a practice.
- Personalized guidance: Given the personal and subjective nature of the meditative experience, it is easy to misunderstand or stray from the path. A qualified teacher can provide corrections and guidance based on his or her own experience and realization.
- Protection against misunderstanding: Advanced practices, especially in Vajrayana, include techniques that can be harmful if misunderstood or practiced incorrectly. A teacher ensures that the disciple approaches these practices with proper understanding and respect.
- Inspiration and support: The spiritual path is often challenging. A relationship with a teacher provides inspiration, strength and a constant reminder of the sacred and serious nature of the practice.
The teacher-disciple relationship is one of the most profound and sacred in Tibetan Buddhism. However, not all who present themselves as “teachers” possess the realization and skill necessary to guide others. It is essential to discern between a qualified teacher and someone who claims to be one:
- Research: Investigate the teacher’s training, lineage and reputation. A true teacher has usually spent years, if not decades, under the tutelage of recognized teachers.
- Intuition: Listen to your intuition. The teacher-disciple relationship is a relationship of the heart. There must be a sense of trust and reverence for the teacher.
- Commitment: Don’t rush. Spending time with the teacher, attending teachings and retreats, and observing how he or she interacts with others can give you a deeper understanding of his or her integrity and ability.