Anne Klein is an eloquent and accessible voice in the teaching landscape of Tibetan Buddhism in the West. She has spent many decades weaving together “the life of practice” and “the life of study.” Professor of religious studies at Rice University and founding codirector of Dawn Mountain Tibetan Temple in Houston, Texas, Klein’s own path is reflected in the mission of the temple, which also serves as a community center and research institute. A distinguished Buddhist scholar, Klein (Rigzin Drolma in her practice community) is author or translator of six books, most recently Heart Essence of the Vast Expanse (Snow Lion, 2007), a chantable English translation of the foundational practices of Jigme Lingpa and Adzom Paylo Rinpoche. Other books include Unbounded Wholeness with Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche (Oxford University Press, 2006), Meeting The Great Bliss Queen (Snow Lion, 1995), and Knowledge and Liberation (Snow Lion, 1996). See www.dawnmountain.org for her teaching schedule; various writings are downloadable at www.rice.academia.edu/AnneCarolynKlein.
Martha Kay Nelson, Barbara Gates and Susan Moon interviewed Klein in the spring of 2013.
Inquiring Mind: We would like to start by asking about Tibetan deity practice. What is the nature of these deities?
Anne Klein: The main thing emphasized in Tibetan Tantric Buddhism is that everyone has the potential to relieve themselves of any obstructions that prevent full flourishing of the true nature of a human being. Buddhist language talks about Buddhanature, Primordial Wisdom and Naked Reality. All these point to a completely open, unsullied and already available state. The infinite womb is one translation for this reality; basic space or the spacious matrix is another. This state is not simply dead space or a sterile womb. It holds great potential for many positive qualities: love, compassion, trust, power, protection, compassionate ferocity. The different male and female enlightened beings represent and express these qualities. These figures are neither wholly internal nor external, yet seeing them in front of you helps you to connect to them within yourself. When you encounter such a being, you might feel, “Really, we have never been apart, and we are not meeting now. Still, in the play of it I’m looking at you in front of me, and asking you to unite with me.” This is meaningful practice because there is something within to awaken. The deity is a mirror of your potential, not some new person on the horizon for you to impress. Expressions of enlightenment can be either male or female. Even more central, for the Tibetan tradition, is that they can be peaceful or wrathful.
IM: Are all deities equally enlightened?
AK: Yes, but they display enlightenment in different ways because people have different needs. Tantric Buddhism talks about the three Buddha bodies, or the three dimensions of enlightenment. Everything is an expression of those three dimensions, though they are not fundamentally different. It’s like the moon that rises high in the night sky. It reflects on lakes, pools and buckets, but the reflection’s size and clarity depend upon the water. Similarly, figures such as Tara or Yeshe Tsogyal express themselves in different ways; what they express depends upon what is needed. And it’s always an expression of compassion. The Dalai Lama is considered the human emanation of compassion, Avalokiteshvara, who is also Kuan Yin in China.
IM: Are these deities merely symbolizing different states? Or are they actual beings, in and of themselves?
AK: The deities are multivalent. They are symbols, and they also are what they symbolize. As a practitioner, your intention is to feel the tender compassion, or fierce wisdom, or whatever quality is being symbolized. That is the point of practice. Once you begin to discover and develop this feeling within yourself, a powerful relationship with this enlightened being and their particular qualities is formed. These qualities are expressed also in their unique sound, or mantra. Seeing Tara, for example, and sounding her mantra, helps evoke the feel of fresh and tender compassion. In this way, practice involves the senses—especially sight and sound. Both of these impact what you feel in your body. So the body and its energies are very important in sensing and bringing to life qualities like compassion.
IM: Is this feeling quality related to what you call energetic sensibility?
AK: Yes, exactly. When you bring your attention to your body, you notice that it is not static, that it is suffused with subtle vibrations or currents moving on the surface and deep within. Your ability to become aware of this is what I have called the energetic sensibility. What you’re sensing is energy, wind, prana, your body’s natural dynamism, the flowing currents that bring life to your life. Every consciousness rides a steed of wind, it is said. So our energetic sensibility is an aliveness to the movement of our own minds and emotions, as well as to more obvious physical motion. And these currents carry information. All of us are familiar with butterflies in the stomach. This tells us we are nervous. But the information carried can be much more subtle and specific. In Berkeley, my teaching partner Phyllis Pay works with the art of exploring such information; this has been important in our “Buddhism in the Body” programs and, more recently, in my own teaching and writing. A well-trained or finely tuned energetic sensibility can access important information. This is part of a practitioner’s exploration into qualities that she both seeks and resists. For example, in cultivating compassion, someone might bump up against the armored energy of her defensiveness, her habitual distancing from others. So it’s important to explore the full range of feeling.
IM: Does deity practice with a female, with Tara or the Great Bliss Queen, tend to be any more embodied than practice with male deities like Avalokiteshvara or Guru Rinpoche, for example?
AK: Great question. I don’t think so. I think the level of embodiment depends more on the practitioner. But the deities do look and feel different. First, there are different genders, male or female. Second, a specific quality is associated with the deity, like Avalokiteshvara or Tara, who embody compassion, or Sarasvati, creativity. Tara, especially Green Tara, is an exquisitely kind and sweet, tender compassion, like a fresh green shoot springing from the earth. The third differentiator is how it actually feels to identify with that quality, and how the practitioner recognizes the role of that quality in her own life and path.
IM: So, a practitioner chooses to focus on a particular deity at a particular time in life, while working on certain internal qualities. Could you speak to this from your own life?
AK: It’s kind of mysterious. People tend to be drawn to particular deities. I was drawn to the Great Bliss Queen, which is how Yeshe Tsogyal is known in the heart essence of the great expanse lineage (Longchen Nyingthig). Maybe I needed more red! At one level the practice is about connecting with Yeshe Tsogyal’s passionate compassion, which is what her red color expresses. At another level, my practice with Yeshe Tsogyal is an exploration of what, in my own energy or psyche, lacks or resists that passion. Often a teacher will suggest practicing with the deity to whom you feel most connected. Sometimes practitioners aren’t sure what they feel, so they ask a teacher to recommend a particular deity who will be their yidam or “favorite deity.” You could still have very strong connections with other enlightened beings and do their deity practices too.
IM: Could you describe one of your own deity practices for us?
AK: Well, not really! Because practice is infinitely rich and varied, you don’t want to reify it by talking about it—the next time it can be quite different. Also, you want to be sure you can distinguish between an adventitious experience in meditation, a nyam, versus actual realization. So, until the practice is 100% matured, it’s best not to speak of it. Kind of like when you are in an exciting but not yet definitive phase in a relationship. It’s the center of your world, but you don’t want to categorize it yet. When in retreat with these practices, your orientation can shift quite notably—but that doesn’t mean you’ve accomplished the practice. I do find retreats very important and helpful. It’s a way to discover much more of what is possible for you as a practitioner. Retreat enriches your daily practice, and the daily practice you bring into retreat supports you there.
Geshe Wangyal, one of my first teachers, once said, “We do these practices in order to meet the deity.” Yes! And meeting can mean different things. Ultimately, it means connecting with your own potential for love or wisdom. It’s like you are a tuning fork and the deity is what you are tuning to. And the mantra, which has its own vibration, helps you to do that. Musicians use the tuning fork to check for perfect pitch; we rely on a deity to tune in to its enlightened qualities. You’re trying to meet the deity in order to experience what, say, tender compassion really feels like. As part of this process you might sense the deity in some way that is not exactly sight. It might not exclude sight though, or it might come in dreams. Your own love for your real nature—not yet understood, perhaps, but somehow glimpsed—is a tremendous motivator. You want to touch this enlightened quality because it exists at the deepest level of what you actually are. The practice is a way to fully manifest your ocean-like true nature. Each drop is connected to the whole ocean. One quality brings all of them streaming in. In this context, the practice is profound and deeply satisfying.
IM: What is the difference in meaning between “meet” a deity and “become” a deity? Or is there any?
AK: “Meet” is easier to talk about. But the actual word in Tibetan is drub, which means “to accomplish”—that is, to actually become the enlightened being. That’s what the practice is—to feel that this is who you are. And it is who you are. You are an ocean, not the small stream you imagine as self. The deity gives you a clear reflection of something true in you, something you may be totally unaware of. You’re learning to walk out of your own cage, to break the spell you’re under. No more sleeping beauty; here comes wakeful beauty.
IM: This deity practice is reminding me of what it might mean to have a personal relationship with God or with Christ. It’s a way in.
AK: Totally. The point is to not think of God as separate. Every tradition seems to have a strand within it, like Sufism in Islam or perhaps Gnosticism in Christianity, Kabbalah in Judaism, which invites a meeting or uniting, a deep identification with the divine within.
IM: And embodied practice is essential to this “meeting” in other traditions as well. Even in making the sign of the cross, you feel something when you move your hands in that ritualized way. It’s not just thought; the experience is in the body.
AK: Yes. And the body is not just flesh and blood and bones we have to drag around. Our streaming energies are also part of the body. In Tibetan Buddhist tradition, the more esoteric you get, the more this less-obvious kind of embodiment becomes central.
IM: Through practice then, do our very bodies become transformed? I’m thinking of the difference between the tangible body itself, versus what is simply moving through it.
AK: Whatever attention touches in the body is more easily transformed. This is partly because attention is a form of caring, and partly because attention brings dynamism to areas that have been left untouched by awareness. There are places deep in the body where attention ordinarily does not go. Practice, meditation and the cultivation of attention help us gain access to those places. The dynamic flows begin to shift. Your ability to be present with what arises can also change dramatically. There are great masters in the Tibetan tradition who are said, even to the present day, to have manifested what is called the rainbow body and who have dissolved into light and space. For some people this sounds too over-the-top to even consider. Yet, what exactly was it that Christ did? Even if the Christ story is not literally true—and I’m not saying it isn’t—hearing it makes us reflect anew on the nature of our existence.
IM: Regarding the different manifestations or qualities, you mentioned that they arise in response to what is needed. Do you mean what is needed by any given human being?
AK: Yes. Perhaps you are experiencing tremendous grief because someone has died, or you are in hospice and you’re dying. You need a particular kind of sweet, supportive energy. The deity will appear in just that way—a spontaneous response to the immediate circumstance. There is an exquisite Rumi poem with the line, “there are such helpers in the world, who rush to save/anyone who cries out.” Rumi’s point is, learn to cry out, learn to weep, learn to call for help and there will be a response.
IM: In Zen practice there is a saying that crying and response come up together. The minute you ask it, it’s already there.
AK: Beautiful. But you do have to ask. This reminds me of another of Rumi’s story-poems, “The Debtor Sheikh.” The sheikh is dying and he owes money. All his life he has been in debt. Now he is surrounded by his debtors, who are sitting with long faces—they want their money before he dies! A boy comes by selling pastries; they take a whole tray but no one pays him. The pastry boy starts yelling, “I wish I was dead before I ever met you! My master is going to beat me! You’ve taken my goods and I have to go home!” The sheikh seems oblivious; he relaxes, covering himself with his bedding. He is happy with dying, happy with everything. And the boy continues to howl. He wails and wails until evening prayers, when a tray comes in piled high with the exact amount of money needed to cover the sheikh’s debts. Plus, in the corner, wrapped up in a little piece of paper, are the three coins for the boy. And the sheikh says, “Now, you see! Until the boy’s wailing, God’s generosity was not loosened.” Isn’t that a great story? It is the practice of call and response. Of course, God is always generous, but sometimes you have to yell for the generosity to appear. The yearning that brings it forth, the love for what is good and real, is also what keeps practice alive, calling on your enlightened self, which you long to know more completely. And the only thing strong enough to push you through resistance to this knowing is your passionately compassionate conviction that it really can help others.