The Dark Red Amulet: Oral Instructions on the Practice of Vajrakilaya
It’s been a while since I read a book that came with a warning label: "As with all Vajrayana practices, Vajrakilaya should not be practiced without receiving an empowerment or reading transmission directly from a qualified lineage master. Please do not attempt to practice these Vajrakilaya instructions without proper authorization and lineage blessings."
Like many texts on meditation that have gone through several rounds of translation, this book was initially difficult to get through but became clearer as concepts and names were repeated. Following the book’s advice to seek guidance from a qualified teacher would, I believe, bring the greatest benefit to the serious student of meditation.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with Vajrakilaya, he’s an emanation of the Buddha Shakyamuni, the Buddha of Compassion. Don’t be thrown off by Vajrakilaya’s “cemetery ornaments” or his monstrous consort, Diptachakra, who is wrapped around his waist in, um, “bliss.” Their compassion is so great that they’ve become wrathful, and all of the skulls and other scary items are meant to break down ideas of duality, such as the distinction between clean and dirty.
As with most Buddhist teachings, lineage is an important part of this text. Here is the short version. Buddha Shakyamuni told the wisdom dakini Yeshe Tsogyal to write down this great treasure of a practice and hide it away. Thousands of years later, Yeshe Tsogyal, who is, in case you weren’t already confused, merely and emanation of Sarasvati and of Tara, appears with yet another emanation of Shakyamuni (Guru Padmasambhava) to lead the “crazy wisdom yogi,” Tertön Tsasum Lingpa to this writing. This tertön left more than 5,000 pages of writing, much of which was lost in the Tibetan upheaval of the twentieth century; but the authors were able to compile this book from several condensed versions of the practice.
It took me several wadded up sheets of paper to figure that out, because the information is spread out through the introduction and several later chapters, and the authors often go into great detail about how many stones got caught in Tertön Tsasum Lingpa’s shoe on the way up the hill. It also helps to have a working knowledge of some of Buddhism’s concepts (including bodhichitta, samsara, and nirvana), otherwise, you may get lost on page xiii. As the warning suggests, the book seems to assume that you have some access to a teacher.
Even with the glossaries in Tibetan and English, I felt more like a translator than a reader. Some definitions were vague. For example, when I looked up the term tertön, the glossary said it was a treasure-revealer. That I could have figured out from the context. I was trying to figure out if it was a person specifically or if it could be a book. Other terms have two meanings, such as padma, which means both lotus and wisdom.
The book begins with a prayer, because just reading it is a practice. The prayer is followed by instruction on how to use the book. Roughly half of it is taken up by the practice text. This text is given in Sanskrit, Tibetan, and English. At the end of the Sanskrit lines are sometimes “symbolic letters in the dakini script,” which can no longer be translated except by tertöns who “realize” it. The Vakrakilaya practice is structured much the same as any other ritual, with drawing boundaries of protection, blessings of offerings, the main visualization, and mantra recitation.
As someone who’s always had trouble meditating, I’ve always wondered why, to achieve a state of oneness, one needed to name everything: three stages of mind, broken down into five parts each. Perhaps contemplation of ambiguity or seemingly arbitrary systems breaks down the mind so much that we are finally able to figure out maybe we’re not meant to figure everything out. The core of these teachings seems to be that despite our beliefs that we are incomplete, that we always need to be doing something, there’s really nothing to worry about. While the presentation of how to come to the practice can be confusing, the practice text is clear and what it teaches seem so painfully obvious that it’s no wonder we forget it so easily.