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Buddhist Psychology

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The Tree of Enlightenment 
An Introduction to the Major Traditions of Buddhism 
by Peter Della Santina 

Part Three 

The Vajrayana 


Chapter Twenty-Six

Psychology, Physiology, and Cosmology


In the Vajrayana tradition, psychology, physiology, and cosmology are closely interrelated. In this chapter I would like to show how this is the case, and also sketch in general terms the benefits of this interrelationship. 

Let us begin by referring once again to the idea of interdependence and interpenetration. Interdependence is synonymous with relativity, or emptiness, and it is one of the two pillars of the Vajrayana tradition. In this particular context, interdependence has a specific meaning--namely, interpenetration. Insofar as everything depends on everything else for its existence and nature, so everything holds within itself the seeds, the causes and conditions, of everything else. Specifically, we can understand this by focusing on the idea of the interdependence of the parts and the whole. The nature of the whole depends on the nature of the parts, and the nature of the parts depends on the nature of the whole. This is the interdependence of parts and whole.   

Traditionally, we see this idea elaborated in the Mahayana in parables such as that of the net of Indra. In this parable, each part of the net depends for its existence and nature on the other parts, and each small part of the net in a sense contains in miniature the characteristics of the net as a whole. This idea of interdependence or interpenetration of parts and whole became very important in China, too, where it is probably the single most important idea in Hua-yen philosophy, or the philosophy of totality.   

The idea of interpenetration is found in the Vajrayana tradition as well, where we can see it expressed even in the term tantra itself. You may remember that tantra refers primarily and literally to the idea of the weave in a piece of cloth or fabric (see Chapter 22). Using the analogy of cloth or fabric, we can understand the interpenetration of parts and whole when we see that a small section of fabric reveals the pattern that extends throughout the whole. 

The idea of the interpenetration of parts and whole is also expressed in the Vajrayana in the notion of the interpenetration of individual beings (who here represent the parts, or microcosms) and the universe (which represents the whole, or macrocosm). This  notion of man and the universe as microcosm and macrocosm is the first idea I want to consider by way of introduction to a more specific treatment of psychology, physiology, and cosmology in the Vajrayana. To understand the dynamic role of psychology, physiology, and cosmology in the Vajrayana tradition, we need also to recall the second fundamental idea of the Vajrayana tradition--the idea of the variability of experience. This is expressed in the experience of Asanga, who saw the Buddha Maitreya first not at all, then in the form of a diseased dog, and finally in his celestial and transformed aspect. This idea is also expressed in the fact that the beings who inhabit the six realms of existence view phenomena differently: this is the variability of experience relative to the conditioned state of one's mind. Thus reality is dependent on the conditions of one's mind: an impure mind will perceive and experience reality in one way, whereas a transformed and purified mind will experience it in another. 

It is important to keep both interpenetration and the variability of experience in mind if we are going to understand the relationship between the individual and the universe in Vajrayana psychology, physiology, and cosmology, and if we are going to understand how this relationship functions dynamically to bring about the transformation that is the goal of Vajrayana practice.   

Let us first look specifically at psychology within the Vajrayana tradition. Thus far I have been at pains to show that the Vajrayana is a natural and logical development of the Buddhist tradition as a whole, as we find it embodied in the Theravada and Mahayana. Given this fact, it is not surprising that Vajrayana psychology takes as its basic building blocks elements which belong to a system that is central to Buddhist psychology in  general.  

These building blocks are the five aggregates. As in the Theravada and Mahayana, the five aggregates of form, feeling, perception, volition, and consciousness function as the basic components of Vajrayana psychology. In the impure condition of mind--the condition common to all of us before we have transformed our experience--these five aggregates are associated  respectively with the five afflictions, or defilements, of ignorance, pride, attachment, envy, and aversion. You will notice the presence of the three basic afflictions that are causes of the experience of  suffering and, in addition to them, the afflictions of pride and envy.  

We can also see the five afflictions in relation to the five realms of existence that are not conducive to liberation. In this context, ignorance corresponds to the realm of animals, pride to the realm of the gods, attachment to the realm of the hungry ghosts, envy to the realm of the demigods, and aversion to the realm of the hell beings. It is interesting to note that the five afflictions also constitute the causes of birth in the five unfavorable  realms of existence.   

This is the picture of reality seen from the point of view of the untransformed mode of being, the impure vision which is typical of our experience, and which was typical of Asanga's experience  when he was unable to see Maitreya. Even in the Perfection of Wisdom literature, we find statements to the effect that, as a Bodhisattva progresses toward Buddhahood, his aggregates become perfectly pure. In the Vajrayana, this general statement is given positive and specific content so that, in Vajrayana psychology, the five aggregates are transformed and appear in the form of the five celestial Buddhas when the mind has been purified by the cultivation of wholesome conditions. Thus, in their transformed mode of being, the five aggregates appear as the five celestial Buddhas: the aggregate of form, when purified, appears in the form of the Buddha Vairochana; feeling, in the form of Ratnasambhava; perception, in the form of Amitabha; volition, in the form of Amoghasiddhi; and consciousness, in the form of Akshobhya.   

Some of you may have seen these five celestial Buddhas iconographically portrayed in the mandala, a sacred or magical circle which is a representation of the purified or transformed universe. What the five celestial Buddhas represent is the five components of psycho-physical being in their transformed and purified mode of being. The five celestial Buddhas together  represent the transformation of our impure experience into a purified, or liberated, mode of being. 

Incidentally, these five celestial Buddhas are also said to be the Buddhas of the Five Families: the Buddha, Ratna (or jewel), Padma (or lotus), Karma, and Vajra families, respectively. These are the symbols that stand for the five aggregates in their transformed mode of being.   

Just as, on the untransformed and impure level, the five aggregates are associated with the five afflictions, so on the transformed and purified level, the five celestial Buddhas correspond to the five transcendental knowledges, or wisdoms. The first of these transcendental knowledges is the knowledge of the Dharmadhatu, which corresponds to the Buddha Vairochana. The knowledge of the Dharmadhatu is the knowledge of things as they are in reality, the knowledge of the quintessential nature or character of things. In other words, the Dharmadhatu is that essential nature of all phenomena which is their emptiness, their nonduality. Thus the transformed aggregate of form is the Buddha Vairochana, and this transformation similarly implies a transformation from the affliction of ignorance to the transcendental knowledge of the true nature of all things, or emptiness.   

Second, with the Buddha Ratnasambhava, who is the transformed appearance of the aggregate of feeling, we have a transformation of the affliction of pride into the transcendental knowledge of equality. This is the knowledge which makes all things equal. Here, again, we have a specific echo of something which occurs in the Perfection of Wisdom literature. In the Heart Sutra, it is said that the perfection of wisdom makes the unequal equal. In the case of Ratnasambhava, we have the knowledge which makes things equal. More than anything else, the knowledge of equality sees no distinction between samsara and nirvana. The transcendental knowledge of equality which sees no distinction between samsara and nirvana enables the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas to operate freely in the world.   

Third, in the case of the aggregate of perception, which in its transformed and purified dimension becomes the Buddha Amitabha, we have a corresponding transformation of  the affliction of attachment into the transcendental knowledge of discrimination. This is the knowledge which is able to see all things according to their individual characteristics. In a sense, this corresponds to the knowledge of the Dharmadhatu, which is the knowledge of the quintessential and universal character of all things--that is, emptiness. As a complement to the knowledge of the Dharmadhatu, we have the knowledge of discrimination, which is the knowledge of the particular characteristics of all things. Fourth, in the case of the aggregate of volition, which on the purified level takes the form of the Buddha Amoghasiddhi, we have a transformation of the affliction of envy into the transcendental knowledge of accomplishment. This knowledge is the ability to know with precision the exact situation of all sentient beings so that they can best be helped to progress toward Buddhahood. Finally, in the case of the aggregate of consciousness, which on the purified level takes the form of the Buddha Akshobhya, we have a transformation of the affliction of ill-will into the transcendental knowledge known as the mirror-like knowledge--the ability to reflect all things in the manner of the mirror. The mirror reflects precisely whatever is presented to it but remains itself unchanged, unaffected by the images that it reflects. You can see that there is here a symmetrical arrangement of basic psycho-physical constituents, with the five aggregates on the impure level corresponding to the five celestial Buddhas on the purified level. Similarly, there is a symmetrical arrangement of the five afflictions on the untransformed, or impure, level corresponding to the five  knowledges on the transformed and purified level.

This symmetrical arrangement between an impure and a pure experience is carried over into the building blocks of matter as well. On the purified level, the five elements of the world--earth, water, fire, air, and space--take the forms of the five celestial female deities who are consorts of the five celestial Buddhas. The element of space, which corresponds to the aggregate of form, is transformed on the purified level into a female deity who is the consort of the Buddha Vairochana. The elements of earth, fire, air, and water, which correspond to the aggregates of feeling, perception, volition, and consciousness, respectively, are transformed at the purified level into the female deities who are the consorts of Ratnasambhava, Amitabha, Amoghasiddhi, and Akshobhya, respectively.

In Vajrayana psychology, therefore, we have aggregates, afflictions, and elements on the ordinary, impure level which are transformed on the purified level into the five celestial Buddhas, the five transcendental knowledges, and the five female deities who are consorts of the five celestial Buddhas. We have two levels of experience that are symmetrical, one level of experience being typical of an impure form of existence, the other of a purified form of existence. This is the basic scheme of Vajrayana psychology. In the system of Vajrayana physiology, these five celestial Buddhas, along with their five consorts, are found within the body of each individual person. They are situated at five centers of psychic energy, called chakras, which are found within the body of every person. The five centers of psychic energy are situated at the top of the head, the throat, the heart, the navel, and the genitals. At each place, there is one of the five celestial Buddhas with his consort seated on a lotus throne: the Buddha Vairochana, who is the purified dimension of the aggregate of form, is at the top of the head; Amitabha, who is the purified dimension of perception, is at the throat; Akshobhya, who is the purified dimension of consciousness, is at the heart; Ratnasambhava, who is the purified dimension of feeling, is at the navel; and Amoghasiddhi, who is the purified dimension of volition, is situated at the genitals. 

There are a number of channels of psychic energy, called nadis, connecting these centers of psychic energy. Although there are a great number of these channels, there are three which are very important: the central psychic channel (avadhuti), which runs directly from the top of the head to the genitals and which connects the five cakras; and the two psychic channels on the right and left of the central channel (the rasana and lalana, respectively). On the level of advanced Vajrayana practice, the practitioner is able to manipulate and direct the flow of psychic energy--which is none other than the energy of mind alone--through these psychic channels. This enables him or her to unite the opposites which are reflected in the psycho-physical experience of the individual person and in the universe as a whole, in order to realize within him- or herself in meditation the absolute union of all opposites, the annihilation of all dualities, which is the goal of tantric practice.

Through this very brief portrayal of Vajrayana physiology, you can see how the basic building blocks of psycho-physical experience, be they viewed from the impure level or from the purified level, are reflected in the physiological makeup of the person. Through achieving the union of opposites within his psycho-physical experience as an individual person, the Vajrayana adept is able to bring about the transformation of his vision of the universe as a whole. He is able to do this because his body is a microcosm of the universe. In Vajrayana cosmology, the features of the universe as a whole are present within the psycho-physical experience of each person. Mount Sumeru, the central mountain of the universe according to Buddhist cosmology, is situated within the body of the practitioner, just as the sun and moon, the sacred rivers of India, and pilgrimage places are found within the body in a microcosmic way.

Not only are these features of the universe situated within the body but so, too, are the primary features of the transformed or purified experience. We have already seen that the five celestial Buddhas are found within the body at the five centers of psychic energy. In the same way, we find that the experience of the individual person is in fact none other than the experience of the celestial or purified universe, so that the body is in fact the celestial mansion of the divine Buddhas. In Vajrayana psychology, physiology, and cosmology, therefore, we find the real meaning of the expression that 'The body is a temple.' It is a temple that contains the celestial Buddhas, who are none other than the transformed mode of being of the ordinary mode of being of the psycho-physical components, or aggregates. 

You can see how, in the Vajrayana tradition, a close correspondence is drawn between the ordinary level of experience and the purified level of experience. This correspondence is established through the idea of microcosm and macrocosm. Specifically, the Vajrayana supplies a special psychological and physiological scheme of the elements of experience precisely so that they can be subjected to the direct and efficient manipulation of the mind. This scheme employs the centers of psychic energy and the channels through which psychic energy flows. 

What I have tried to do in this chapter is show that, in the Vajrayana system of psychology, physiology, and cosmology, as in Vajrayana myth and symbol, we do not have an arcane and exotic portrayal of haphazard or arbitrary forms. Rather, we have a very carefully designed system which accords with the fundamental principles of the Buddhist path to liberation. What we have is really just a particularly rich and colorful development of the suggestions we have seen in the earlier Buddhist traditions, in the psychology of the Abhidharma and in the Perfection of Wisdom literature. In the Vajrayana tradition, all these suggestions receive a very definite content. The Vajrayana supplies colorful, bright, and attractive representations of the various components of psycho-physical experience, and a description of how their transformation can be achieved through the gradual purification of one's mode of being.


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