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The Four Foundation Yogas of the Tibetan Buddhist Tantra

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by Sangharakshita

Lecture 60: The Four Foundation Yog as of the Tibetan Buddhist Tantra

M r. Chairman and Friend s, As you've just heard we're continuing our course, `Introduction to Tibetan Bud dhism.' In the course of this series of lectures we'v e hea rd first of all quite a b it about the history of Buddhism in Tibet from the very earliest times, from its initial introduction, we 've hea rd ab out sch ools, like those of the Nyingmapas, the Kagyup as, Gelugpas, and so on. We've heard about religious institutions and estab lishments of various kinds, and also about the Dalai Lama, about lay people in Tibetan Buddhism, about monks and mon astic life, and la st week of course we dealt w ith som e, just so me, o f the symb ols of T ibetan Buddh ist art.

And today, this evening, we come to something even more practical, something, if I may say so, e ven more tangib le than the symbols of Tibetan Buddhist art. This evening we come, if not to the very heart of Tibetan spiritual p ractice , at least to its A BC . To day we're dealing b riefly with what are known as the Four Fou ndation Y ogas of the T ibetan Buddh ist Tantra.

It may well be that most of you have never heard of these Founda tion Y ogas befo re, and this isn't at all surprising because hardly anything in fact is known about these practices in the West. It might not be an exaggeration to say that nothing is known about them in the W est. T here a re refer ence s, very cryp tic references, in a few tex ts which h ave b een tra nslated from th e T ibetan and p ublished in rather obscure journals, so perhaps as I say it would not be an exaggeration even to make the statement that nothing rea lly is known in the West, or even outside Tibet, about these particular practices. But they are, nevertheless, of the utmost importance. Because they are not known about, because they are not well known in the W est, it doe sn't mean that they don't have a very prominent and very impo rtant, a ve ry influential ro le to pla y in Tib etan B udd hism.

Often we tend to think th at if we do n't know abo ut som ething in the W est, nob ody k now s abo ut it anywhere, rather like as som eone rece ntly poin ted o ut, our talk of Colombus discovering America. Of course Colombus discovered America only from the standpoint of those Europeans who, up to that time, had been ignorant of the ex istence of Am erica. S o in the sa me w ay these Fou ndation Y ogas may b e new to us, but they're very, very familiar things indeed, very, very familiar ground indeed to Tibetan B udd hists and Tibetan Bud dhism. W e can say I think that these four prac tices, these Four Fo undation Y ogas, these Four Mula Yogas, constitute the basis of the whole spiritual life of Tibet. If one doesn't know something about these practices, if one hasn't some acquaintance with them at least, then one knows really nothing about the spiritua l life of T ibet. Y ou m ay kno w all ab out the Dalai Lam a and you m ay kno w a ce rtain amount of Mahayana philosophy and so o n, but if you don't know , if you haven't grasped these practices, and essentially they are practices, if you don't know something about them, if you haven't caught the feel of them, then really you know nothing about Tibetan Buddhism at all, spiritually speaking, on the spiritual plane.

And inasmuch, as I've said, in the W est these practices are really unknown, even the names of them are unknown, to this exte nt we m ay say that T ibetan Buddh ism on the spiritua l side is simply no t known in the W est at all. And it's because of this fact, because these practices, these four Mula Yogas, are so importan t, because they underpin and unde rgird a s it were the whole vast fabric, the whole vast superstructure of Tibetan religious and spiritual life. It's for this reason that I've dec ided to d evote a who le lecture to these practices.

Now first of all, just a few general observations. Now the practices are called Foundation Yogas or M ula Yo gas. M ula is a Sa nskrit word. It means literally root. It also means a foundation. And you can speak of either root yogas or foundation yogas because the two terms, the two interpretations, are very closely connected, just as yo u may h ave a tree with ro ots, bu t the roo ts are not just roots, the roots are as it were the foundation of the wh ole tree , the tree sta nds firm ly and sq uarely u pon its roots. If the roots are weak as we know the tree may topple over. And in the same way we find that if the mula yogas are weak, then the tree, the edifice of the sp iritual life which one trie s to ere ct upo n that fou ndation is we ak and may also topp le over.

And therefore we find that in Tibetan Buddhism that the Four Foundation Yogas, the Four Mula Yogas are preparatory to the whole system, to the prac tice of th e whole system of Vajrayana meditation and religious observance gener ally. In other words they form , they constitute the e ntranc e, the door way, the g atewa y, to the prac tice of the Tantra. And it is said, it is in fact emphasised in Tibetan Buddhism, that there is no success on the Tantric path, no suc cess in V ajraya na pr actice if the Four Fou ndation Y ogas, the Fo ur M ula Yo gas, are neglected. They come first. You must practise these four first before you can think of embarking on the practice of the Vajrayana, on the practice of Tantric Buddhism.

In the W est I know some peo ple have got into the habit of thinking that the Tantra, the Vajrayana, is a short and easy path. We're always looking for shortcuts, and as soon as you mention the Tantra, the Vajrayana, peo ple's ears prick up. And you can almost see them or at least feel them thinking, well here's a nice easy way which, as it were, circumvents all that meditation and all that asceticism and all that study, and you can get it quickly, easily, gaily as it were. Well there's a certain amount of truth in this. In a sense we may say the Tantra is a short and easy path. One may say that it's short if one practises it long enough, and one can say that it's easy if o ne pr actises it ha rd en ough ! And the T ibetan s thems elves o ne ma y say often spend year s upo n years w orking on these Foundation Yo gas, on these Mula Yo gas. Years. I'm sure some of you have heard of some T ibetan monks - I believe I mentioned them in an earlier lecture - some Tibe tan monk s who go into retreat for a period of three mon ths, three weeks, three days, three hours and three minutes. This is a tradition. And sometimes of course they go into retre at for thre e years and th ree m onths a nd so on.

So you might wonder, well what do the y do? Th ere the y are shu t up in the ir little hermita ge in their cell, with just a glim merin g of light co ming throug h a small slit or a small opening and their meal is just pushed through once a day, a nd the y're all alon e there in dark ness o r semi-d arkne ss in most cases, well what do they do? W ell it's easy eno ugh to say, well they med itate, but ju st imagine. Just think of yourself sitting down in a darkene d room a nd ju st meditating , but indefinite ly. Yo u wou ldn't get very far, you wou ldn't know what to do. After an hour you'd be restless, you might be pacing up and down your cell and wondering what to do n ext. B ut the T ibetan s aren't like that. W hen the Tib etans go into this so rt of retreat they really do get on with it. One of the things they do get on with, one o f the groups of p ractices with which they do get on is this group of the Four Mula Yogas, the Four Foundation Yogas. And I have known myself personally Tibetan monks, Tib etan yo gis, who have said after years o f seclusio n in this way, it's rema rkab le how qu ickly the time goes. Th ey say the days, the weeks, the mo nths, they just slip by because they're fully engaged with it, fully occupied with the practices which they find very interesting and the more they go on with them, the more deeply they go into them, the more interesting, the more fascinating even , they do find them .

Bu t this is the Tibetan way. The Tibetans are prepared to devote a great deal of time. They're prepared to be patien t. Th ey're prepa red to prac tise hard and to prac tise long. But in th e W est unfo rtunately we do tend to be sometimes a little less pa tient and we do tend v ery often to expect from our spiritual life, from our spiritual practices, rather quick results. Thus it is perhaps that quite a lot of people tend to neglect the prelim inaries o f spiritual life, of med itation an d so o n.

But we can say that the preliminaries, if these are mastered, constitute really half the battle. I know on other occasions in other talks I have gone so far as to say that if you prepare for meditatio n pro perly in the full sense th en you are alre ady m editating , or at lea st almo st med itating if you p repa re you rself pro perly.

On ly too o ften we tend to think of the means and the end as som ething so rt of sharply sepa rated: the means is a means to the end and you can as it were separate the one from the other. And sometimes we try to have the end, separating the end from the means, but this isn't really possible. I remember on one o ccasio n Mahatma Ga ndhi r ema rked that the en d is the extrem e of m eans. If yo u really wa nt the end, de vote yo urself who leheartedly to the means and forget all about the end. In this way you will gain, sometimes before you've noticed that you've gain ed it, the e nd. So if you p eg aw ay at the p relimina ries you will find you rself, in due course, deep in the heart of the essentials. But if you try to neglect the preliminaries and jump ahead and leap ahead , then you may no t find yourself anywhe re at all. Perhaps we'll return to this topic before the end of the lecture.

Now for the meaning of the word `yoga'. W e're dealing with the Mula ...

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