The awareness-holder pledges of the Secret Mantra Way aim to dissolve the patterns of movement of dualistic conceptions by reawakening, through special means, the blissful pristine awareness that has always existed as the core of being. As this pristine awareness finds its support in the seminal essence, to dissolve the patterns of movement has the sense of blocking the movement or emission of seminal essence, which is the starting point of cyclic existence in a double sense (emission meaning both the beginning of dualistic representations and the conception of a new being in the womb).
The natural “vow,” or “reality,” in the tantra is that everything is permeated by innate pristine awareness. The “vow” of implementation consists in the phases of creation and completion, which bind dualistic appearances within blissful pristine awareness. The final, resultant “vow” is the spontaneous arising of all subjective appearance as enlightened dimensions and pristine awareness.
Only with a very elastic conception of the term can tantric vows be designated as moral obligations. For that matter, the very purpose of the vows is to overcome the dualistic judgment of good and bad, from the beginning of the path up to realization of the pristine awareness that is at the origin of all phenomena, conditioned or otherwise.
In assuming the vow of tantra, no distinction is made among candidates, who may even be prostitutes or butchers; however, one should be interested in and capable of maintaining the pledges. As a precondition for all subsequent tantric conduct, aspirants must conform to the four great pledges: to believe in the law of cause and effect, to take refuge, to develop the awakening mind, and to be initiated.
Kongtrul discusses the tantric vows according to the traditions of both the ancient and the new tantras. The ancient ones are followed primarily in the Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism; the new, in the Kagyu, Geluk, and Sakya schools.
Tantric Pledges in the New Schools
The new schools categorise the tantras into four main classes. Each has its own sets of pledges, which share the single aim of dissolving dualistic conceptions but are distinguished by the use of different and gradually more intensely blissful experiences, ranging from the delight born from looking at a consort to that experienced in sexual union with a consort. All these “vows,” or “conducts,” are included in pledges concerned with skilful means and those concerned with wisdom, or in the vow of EVAM, the single union of bliss and emptiness, the reality that pervades all seasons of being, from the ground up to the fruition of enlightenment. Included within the tantric pledges are some of the vows of personal liberation and other commitments incorporating the spiritual practices of the Way of the Perfections.
In the Highest Yoga Tantra, pledges are interpreted in terms of their provisional and definitive meanings, the creation and completion phases, and their relation to the five or six buddha families. An adept of the phase of creation may perform, for others’ welfare, actions prescribed in the provisional meaning which would be strictly prohibited by the personal liberation vows. The hidden, or definitive, meaning of interpretable pledges is largely related to the phase of completion and the various techniques dealing with winds, channels, and semen.
The Highest Yoga Tantra is distinguished from the three lower tantras in that it teaches a deity yoga based on the awareness of the inseparability of oneself as the deity (“symbolic deity,” samayasattva, dam tshig sems dpa’) and the pristine-awareness deity (jñanasattva, ye shes sems dpa’) invited from space. This tantra dispenses with many of the lower tantras’ observances related to cleanliness, white foods, and outer purification which involve the concept of a deity different from and superior to oneself.
Because the “binding agent” of dualistic conceptions is the pristine awareness of great bliss, many of the pledges in the Highest Yoga Tantra concern pristine awareness and the outer and inner means for its actualisation, such as the action seal, the imaginary seal, and the great seal, or the semen which is the support of the pristine awareness of bliss. The tantric path is deemed the “resultant way,” because the practitioner transforms his or her own ordinary body, speech, and mind into the deity’s and thereby realises enlightened body, speech, and mind. The result is buddhahood. For this reason, the pledges are also presented as those of a buddha’s body, speech, and mind. More- over, the spiritual master is the medium through which the enlightened activities of all the buddhas shine; therefore, the most important of the fourteen vital pledges is never to lose respect for one’s master. Several other pledges prescribe the proper relationship to the vajra master and vajra siblings.
The prescribed conduct for adepts of the Highest Yoga Tantra who dwell in a state of uninterrupted contemplation prohibits the performance of symbolic hand gestures, building stupas, drawing mandalas, paying homage to masters other than one’s own, and other external good deeds, all of which are required by lower tantras. Once practitioners have gained mastery of pristine awareness, they are beyond vows and transgressions, acceptance and rejection, good and bad conduct, and other creations of dualistic thought. For these yogins, the pledge is an “all-embracing observance” that takes place spontaneously.
Numerous methods of restoration of tantric pledges are mentioned, such as the fire ritual, recitation and meditation on Vajrasattva, and so forth. Higher tantric pledges associated with higher initiations are to be restored by understanding the intrinsically pure nature of one’s own mind. Tantric pledges, though strict, are likened to a dented vessel that can be restored to its original form through one’s own efforts.
Tantric Pledges in the Ancient Schools
In the ancient tantras, the pledges are described in relation to the Mahayoga, Anuyoga, and Atiyoga systems of tantra. The general ones are not radically different from those of the new tantras, while the specific, exceptional, and ultimate ones are flavoured by the language and the views of these three inner tantras.
The pledges are classified as those with and those without limits to be observed. Those with limits are associated with compassion and are said to be assumed gradually, in dependence on initiation. Those without limits, which are the very realisation of reality, are said to be
gained instantaneously, without ritual. The latter are said to be most wonderful and to exceed all others, but practitioners of “weak aspiration,” who have not had the realisation of reality, are advised to observe the pledges with limits to be observed.
Pledges in the system of Atiyoga, or self-perfection, reflect the “third way”—that of intrinsic freedom (Tib. rang ’grol). Included among its general pledges are vows typical of personal liberation and others of a tantric nature, most likely because this system is placed by the Nyingmapas at the peak of (that is, as the result of) nine spiritual pursuits.
Although included within the three inner tantras—Mahayoga, Anuyoga, and Atiyoga—Atiyoga does not belong to the path of transformation. It speaks of the primordial state of being that cannot be polluted by unawareness or actions stemming from unawareness, and is therefore beyond the sphere of purification and the means of purification. It does not involve pure and impure visions, and it is beyond the sphere of transformation and the means of transformation.
The pledges of self-perfection comprise four exceptional pledges. Two are related to the practice of “cutting through,” and two are related to the practice of the “direct leap.” These do not involve prohibitions; these pledges represent the view and method of implementation of this system. The two pledges of “cutting through” are to realise that all phenomena are primordially non-existent and to drop all clinging to appearances and allow all appearances to flow into the state of reality through the cultivation of natural intrinsic awareness unbounded by the sense of an observer. The two pledges of the “direct leap” are, first, to abandon an external spiritual quest by finding the buddha within oneself through the cultivation of the four visionary appearances out of one’s inner radiance, and, second, to dissolve all things into the state of reality through the experiential knowledge that the entire universe is simply one’s own natural intrinsic awareness.
In concluding his discussion of the three ethics, Kongtrul provides an extremely terse résumé of the process of spiritual development for individuals following the Individual, Universal, and Secret Mantra ways. These serve as introductions to themes that are developed fully in the later sections of The Infinite Ocean of Knowledge.