QUESTION: Is there a connection to awakening the Kundalini energy and Tibetan Buddhism practices? Thanks.
ANSWER: Hi Tom,
Yes, there is. It is understood rather differently, and it is difficult, if not impossible, to "extract" it from Buddhist practice as a whole. It is usually known as "tummo", or "fierce heat".
You can find a few texts about it, on the net or elsewhere, but it is extremely difficult to get the real teachings outside the context of a retreat, and those retreats are often long and strict.
The short answer, however, is definitely yes.
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QUESTION: What role does tummo play in enlightenment. Thanks again.
That is a very good question, but as your wording implies, it's very much a matter of context. And then, what is being the way it is, contexts are within other contexts, so it's hard to give a short answer.
To give tummo its place, we need to look at Buddhism as a whole, and see that there are three very broad approaches to practice. First is the narrow way of renunciation, epitomised by the monastic life. Having seen that our own mind is the most important factor in our suffering, the practitioner renounces greed, hatred, attachment, pride, anger and so on. People who can really do that are very, very much admired in Buddhism, but it's not hard to see that this is something of a case of "easier said than done".
Secondly there is the way of what is known as the bodhisattva. Here there is more a sense of "letting go" than actually "repudiating", because it is seen here that nothing exists in its own right, everything is empty of any concrete, individual essence. On the positive side, there is a big emphasis on compassion, which is expressed in generosity, kindness, good ethics, perseverance, patience, practising meditation and studying the nature of things. The bodhisattva is almost a "spiritual prince" (or princess). This wide and inclusive approach is very inspiring, but there is still a sense that it will take a long time – traditionally thought of as many lifetimes – to accumulate enough merit to become enlightened this way.
Thirdly, therefore, there is a more direct approach, known as the vajra vehicle, mantra vehicle, or tantra vehicle. The word "tantric" is a good one, but some people nowadays like to avoid it because it has been hijacked by people essentially selling "sex-with-oriental-mysticism-and-mantras". Anyway, the vajra approach involves methods for directly transforming ourselves and the world. Having seen that our own mind is the most important factor in the way we perceive things, it is possible to "just" start seeing the world in a different way, as a pure land inhabited by enlightened beings – "deities", if you will. Here again, unsurprisingly, there are many different approaches which the tradition has graduated, classified, and differentiated. Some of them involve invoking a form of the Buddha, making offerings, praises, and reciting the appropriate mantra to request the Buddha's blessing, allowing us to become more and more like the Buddha. In the higher forms of this practice there is more emphasis on ourselves as, in a sense, already being Buddhas, already having the enlightened mind, but needing to recognise it, clarify, and cut through the poisons and contamination with which we cover it.
Here again we have to classify and subdivide! This time, let me mention what are known as the four empowerments. In the first one, the meditation, practice, ritual and what have you is focused on our body being the same as the "body" of the deity. (I put inverted commas around the word there, because it is used in quite a broad sense, much broader than we would normally find in English.) In a superficial way, this is a matter of visualisation, but the real experience of this empowerment is more to do with the deep meanings of these things. The second empowerment is at the level of "speech", although again the word is very broad, and has quite a lot to do with communication, breathing, and energies that move inside our body. The third empowerment belongs even more to the realm of yoga, and involves the experience of bliss caused by drawing the energies that I just mentioned inwards and holding them in the centre of our being – in quasi-physical terms, that is to say "in the central channel". This is exactly where tummo comes in. It is a powerful technique for experiencing bliss through the control of the energies that drive us along.
These first three empowerments are said to be "similes", because they are "like" enlightenment. The fourth empowerment, sometimes called the "word" empowerment, is not a simile. It simply involves pointing to the true nature of the mind itself: everything leading up to this has been, as it were, a springboard for recognising the true nature of the mind in a way that doesn't have anything to do with visualisation, energy control or anything else.
Very importantly, the Tibetan Buddhist traditions also stress the possibility of recognising the true nature of the mind quite directly, and basing our practice on that. This is the foundation of teachings like mahamudra and dzogchen. In that case, the full-blown tantric methods, including tummo, are not necessary. They remain, however, very powerful aids, and most masters (or mistresses) of mahamudra or dzogchen would also practice Tantric ritual, visualisation, and yogas that might very well include tummo.