The ‘vajra descent’ and ‘authentic completion stage’: the 8th Karmapa and Tāranātha on the meaning of ‘vajra’ and ‘non-conceptual primordial awareness’

In this post today, for the auspicious day of Saga Dawa, that celebrates the birth, enlightenment and paranirvana of Buddha Shakyamuni, I consider and share some thoughts from two great Tibetan Buddhist masters on the ‘completion stage’ and ‘signs’ of attaining full awakening and what the word ‘vajra’ means in that context.

The first  text I consider is by the 8th Karmapa, Mikyo Dorje (1507-1554) called The Lamp that Excellently Elucidates the System of the Proponents of Shentong Madhyamaka on the interaction between the ultimate nature ‘expanse’ at the time of the arisal of the ‘vajra’ ‘primordial awareness’ of realisation’ .

The second is an extensive excerpt from newly-translated A Hundred Blazing Lights: Supplementary Commentary on Meaningful to See by Jetsun Tāranātha (1575-1634) on the ‘authentic completion stage’ and signs of the ‘vajra descending’.

The 8th Karmapa on the meaning of ‘vajra’ realisation and how it obliterates the obscurations
8th Karmapa, Mikyo Dorje

As I wrote about here before, there is some debate about the origin of the Empty-of-Other (gzhan stong) view, and whether or not the 8th Karmapa advocated it, later changing his mind.  In this short text,The Lamp that Excellently Elucidates the System of the Proponents of Shentong Madhyamaka, the 8th Karmapa clearly advocates the view that the Sugata Heart ‘Tathagatagarbha’ is changeless (rgyur ba med pa) and bears the supreme qualities of being permanent, blissful and so on.

In the opening passages of this text, he teaches about the ‘rising from the expanse’ of the ultimate ‘Sugata Heart’, which then eliminates all the seeds of obscurations, and the primordial-awareness of realisation becomes one taste with the dharmakāya. He asserts that this  ‘vajra’ moment of the ‘illumination of primordial-awareness for a single moment at the same time, just as the orb of the sun, in a single instant of its shining, completely eradicates the darkness of the latent tendencies of ignorance’:

At the point when the wisdom of realization—the awareness that exists primordially as not being different from the sugata heart as the expanse—rises from the expanse that is the profound matrix of the sugata heart, all seeds of obscuration are relinquished. The self-awareness of this wisdom of realization is accomplished through the wisdom of the fundamental change of [having gathered] immeasurable accumulations [of merit and wisdom]. You may wonder, “How is it accomplished?” The cognition that frees from stains [and exists] in the cognizance of sentient beings that is associated with obscurations {15} is blessed by the inconceivable power of the wisdom [of a buddha]. In addition, there [also] exists the element of primordial awareness in the element that is the cognition [of sentient beings] free from stains. It is by virtue of the power of both [the cognition that frees from stains and is blessed by buddha primordial awareness and the intrinsic primordial awareness of sentient beings] that their cognizance fundamentally changes into being without stains, and thus the wisdom of realization becomes of one taste with the dharmakāya. Then, with [this primordial awareness dharmakāya’s] not being different from the buddha qualities that are the primordially abiding buddha attributes, it performs a tathāgata’s activity of accomplishing one’s own consummate welfare and that of others.

For, by virtue of this type of realization’s existing primordially, it is not that the entirety of what is accomplished through the paths that depend on the [primary] minds and mental factors of ordinary beings becomes a pointless [effort of] tiring oneself out, and [this primordial wisdom] serves as the basis or foundation for meaningfully aspiring [for it] in a correct and proper manner. Therefore, the means to generate the actual type of realization of the vajra-like samādhi are as follows. In the beginning, the minds and mental factors of ordinary beings are rendered pure through the power of the triad of study, reflection, and meditation.

Thereafter, without having to rely on the power of any [element] among the triad of study, reflection, and meditation, but in a self-arisen manner, the primordial awareness that is vajra-like realization is able to overcome the legions of ignorance right upon their being met by the illumination of primordial awareness for a single moment at the same time, just as the orb of the sun, in a single instant of its shining, completely eradicates the darkness of the latent tendencies of ignorance. This is the meaning of “vajra,” and therefore it is [also] the meaning of “the seven vajra points” in the Uttaratantra. (དེས་ན་རྡོ་རྗེ་ལྟ་བུའི་རྟོགས་རིག་དངོས་དེ་བསྐྱེད་པའི་ཐབས་ནི་ཐོག་མར་ཐོས་བསམ་སྒོམ་གསུམ་གྱི་སྟོབས་ལས་སོ་སོ་སྐྱེ་བོའི་སེམས་དང་སེམས་བྱུང་རྣམ་པར་དག་ཏུུ་བཅུག་པའི་རྗེས་སུ་ཐོས་བསམ་སྒོམ་གསུམ་གང་གི་མཐུ་ལ་བལྟོས་མི་དགོས་པར། རང་བྱུང་དུ་རྡོ་རྗེ་ལྟ་བུའི་རྟོགས་པ་ཡེ་ཤེས་དེ་ནི་ཉི་མའི་དཀྱིལ་འཁོར་སྐད་ཅིག་ཏུ་འཆར་བའི་ཚེ་མ་རིག་བག་ཆགས་ཀྱི་མུན་པ་རྩ་བ་ནས་དྲུངས་འབྱིན་པ་ལྟར། ཡེ་ཤེས་ཀྱི་འོད་དབྱུང་བ་དང ༌། མ་རིག་པའི་དཔུང་གཉིས་དུས་གཅིག་ཆར་དུ་སྐད་ཅིག་ཐུག་ཕྲད་ལ་གཞོམ་པར་ནུས་པར་ནི་རྡོ་རྗེའི་དོན་ཏེ། )

[N.B. I have changed the word ‘wisdom’ in Brunnholzl’s translation to ‘primordial awareness’, as the word used is jñāna (ye shes) which is different from prajñā (shes rab). This is also the word that Tāranātha uses in the text below].

This idea of the ‘vajra’ penetrating and eliminating darkness by ‘arising’ from the expanse is similar in some ways to what Tāranātha says about the signs of realisation in the practice of the completion stage of the six vajra-yogas and the ‘vajra descending’.

Tāranātha on the ‘vajra descending’ and signs of an authentic ‘completion stage’ in the Kālacakra six vajra-yogas
Jetsun Tāranātha

Non-conceptual primordial awareness

In the second chapter of A Hundred Blazing Lights, when discussing one of the three essential ‘confidences’ (confidence in oneself)  for travelling the Kālacakra six vajra yogas path to full awakening,  Tāranātha goes into detailed explanation, the ‘entrance door’ for a beginner, on the ‘authentic completion stage’ and the ‘arisal of signs’ of practice.

At the outset, he states that it is through practice and experiential realisation alone that a student yogi will acquire incontrovertible confidence in the Dharma, and that signs will arise once one has penetrated the body’s vital points with non-conceptual, primordial-awareness and the ‘vajra descends’:

As for having confidence in oneself, by practising this Dharma, the level of experiential realization will be in accordance with the capacity of one’s own practice.  Through one’s own experiential realisation of this practice, the student yogi themselves will acquire incontrovertible confidence in that Dharma. Furthermore, in Kālacakra Root Tantra:

When one has completely abandoned thoughts [realised non-conceptual primordial awareness] for one day, there will be an authentic  sign. If a sign does not appear, then I have lied.

In the Hevajra Tantra:

Having completely abandoned all thoughts, meditating continually for one day and night without interruption on the psychic energy mind of the form of a deity, the completely perfect sign of this meditation will arise, that excellently accomplishes the welfare of oneself and others. There is no other method [for liberation] in samsara.

If one abides one-pointedly on the object of awareness, meditating continually for one day and night; one-pointedly and continually abiding at the peak of that awareness for one day and one night. At that very time, authentic signs of the path must manifest. Just like at the very time the sun arises, light rays must appear.

”The sun’s rays do not appear after the sun has arisen!”

Tāranātha then goes on to playfully mock teachers who tell their students that the arisal of signs will appear after practising for some time:

Alternatively, some lamas predict that by meditating on non-conceptuality and inner heat [tummo] and so on, for six months, or one year or three years and so on, by cultivating these practises for a long time, then afterwards signs will appear. It will happen like that it is said. This is not a pure confidence in oneself and is not acceptable. If one is meditating on this dharma alone [suchness of reality], then within the very first day, at that very time, an authentic sign will appear. If one is not meditating on the suchness of reality, since the object of awareness then makes no difference, even if one practices it in the future, it will be inauthentic. If that is what you assert, then for your practice that [having to meditate a long time] will seem to be actually true. If one practices a mistaken path for a long time, it is not reasonable for a genuine sign to manifest. Furthermore, any sign that does manifest will be a mistaken sign. A teacher that makes their student exert effort in meditating for a long time with a mistaken practice, how utterly strange is that! Again, from the very first day of a complete, pure practice, thinking that after meditating for a long time, the signs will arise later, is like saying that: ‘today the sun arises, but its rays of light will appear later’!

The ‘vajra descent’

Even better still, Tāranātha states that if the practice is an authentic one and the person has ‘good channels’, signs can arise immediately in one meditation session, or at the very least, within 24 hours. However, that refers to ‘time spent’ abiding one-pointedly on non-conceptual reality:

For that reason, if a person has very good channels [nadis], signs will arise within one meditation session. For the average person, signs will arise during one day or night. At the very least, within twenty-four hours of meditating a sign will appear, the undoubtable path [of the six Vajra-yogas] is this Dharma practice alone. However, someone might wonder or doubt if there is a contradiction if one sees many signs after meditating for a few days. A beginner normally does four sessions of meditation. However, even though sometimes the mind is abiding on the object of awareness, mostly it is not abiding and is distracted.  After adding together all the times one has abided one-pointedly and it makes up one day, then definitely a sign will arise.  When one effortlessly meditates even briefly on non-conceptual reality [a sign] will naturally arise, it is a part of the vajra (rdo rje ‘bebs pa) descending.

Therefore, it is not totally necessary that one needs to be able to meditate one-pointedly on the object of awareness for one day, without interruption. If in the breaks in between meditating, and during one’s daily activities, it does not interfere with meditating, then within one day of practicing the yoga of space, it is impossible for there to be no signs at all. If one’s meditation is continually mixed with much distraction, then even after two or three days of practising signs will not appear, so where is the contradiction in that? Generally, these days, even people here who enter into this practice, from the very first day, many appearances of signs arise, ‘descent of the Vajra’ is attained and direct realizations manifest. After meditating for a few days, it is impossible for these not to arise.

The reason for it being at the very least one whole day is because within one day or night, or however one thinks suitable to add up the former and latter parts of a day, in the space of ‘one whole day’ there are 21, 600 breaths. There is no doubt that due to the interdependent origination, the non-conceptual primordial awareness penetrates the essential points.  As for those with sharp faculties, it is not certain when it [the sign] will arise within only 360 breaths. Therefore, one can apply this to one hour, one time period, two time periods, up to twelve time periods, whatever is suitable in the circumstances.

The method for the arisal of signs – ’empty-forms’

Tāranātha then goes on to explain the method for signs arising and that meditation on emptiness alone is not sufficient and the importance of non-conceptual primordial awareness. He differentiates other systems and methods from the six vajra-yogas, via the arisal of ’empty-forms’ (gzugs stong):

Otherwise, one should know this. Meditating merely on emptiness alone is not reckoned to be the main factor in the appearance of signs.  They arise as a result of meditating on the subtle drops; via practicing the dissolution of the gross winds in the central channel alone. One needs to know the subtle shimmering force of the winds and channels. Even though this natural expression of the channels and winds can arise on the path it can be a mistaken consciousness, it is not the authentic appearance of ‘all aspects’. From this Dharma, all the main signs will appear and arise. The power of non-conceptual primordial awareness will dissolve a little of the impure channels, winds and drops. Then the channels, wind and drops of primordial awareness will immediately manifest a little; the luminous glow (mdang) of Dharmata itself. As such the aspects will not be limited or biased; infinite aspects will appear.

Therefore, there are two, the appearance of signs from lamdre and the six dharmas of Naropa and so on, and the arisal of the ‘empty forms’ from the six vajra-yogas. Even though these are very similar practices their essence as good or bad is extremely different.  For this reason, those practices do not use the name ‘empty forms’. Here, [the six vajra-yogas] labels them the completion stage of the deity and the empty form.  The reason [the others do not label them as such] is because it manifests from imputation. The conceptual imputation that comes from having meditated a lot, mistakenly gives rise to the clear appearance of non-conceptuality like knowledge, desires, fears, suffering and those similar to that. In dependence on that, several of these signs appear. In brief, since they arise from mistaken concepts, one is not able to touch the primordial awareness in the central channel.

In this tradition, empty forms are due to the non-conceptual mind penetrating the vital points of the vajra-body [the primordial awareness of the central channel].  At the beginning, in dependence on the coarse channels in the central channel, one is able to immediately touch the primordial awareness channels in the central channel. Both the path of meditating on primordial awareness and the object meditated on, the channel of primordial awareness, are similar to the non-conceptual primordial awareness.  Therefore, they are able to penetrate the vital points. Conceptual meditation is not able to penetrate the vital points of the channel of primordial awareness. Since there is a vast difference between whether it is a superficial or non-superficial practice, it is like not having the power to pierce space with a closed fist.  In brief, one should understand that there is the arisal of signs that come through genuine realization and the arisal of signs that appear without any genuine realisation.

Four possibilities – conceptual and non-conceptual

Then, he explains how meditations on emptiness, ordinary compassion or renunciation, although valuable, are conceptual and do not penetrate the vital points:

Generally there are four possibilities. Two possibilities are conceptual meditations that penetrate the vital points of the vajra body and those which don’t penetrate the vital points (gnad du bsnun par).  The other two are non-conceptual meditations which penetrate the vital points of the vajra body and those which don’t penetrate the vital points. These together make four possibilities. Practices like tummo and the four cakras and so on, are the secret mantrayana yogas of the subtle drops. Even though there is conceptuality, one can penetrate the vital points [1]. In Tibet, even though the renowned mind instructions are non-conceptual, they do not penetrate the vital points [2]. With analytical meditation on emptiness and renunciation, ordinary compassion and so on, there is conceptuality and there is also no penetration of the vital points [3]. However, with the six vajra yogas there is both non-conceptual meditation and penetration of the vital points of the vajra body[4].

The authentic ‘completion stage’ 

Tāranātha then states that even well-known systems like Mahāmudrā and Dzogchen are not ‘actual completion stage’ as they cannot penetrate the vital points of the vajra-body. For example,  Mahāmudrā with karmamudrā cannot do so, stating that ‘even though the aspect of experience is similar and suitable to enter into, since it is the ‘fabricated’ collection of two different causes [the non-conceptual meditation and the tummo, karmamudra and so on], it does not have the power to penetrate the vital points of the primordial awareness channel and so on. ‘ Here is the full explanation below:

Here in Tibet, the famous practices are mainly Mahāmudrā, Dzogchen, Zhichod and so on. Indeed the completion stage is famous and desirable but it does not penetrate the vital points of the vajra-body.  The Mahayana and Sutric traditions, the hearers and self-realisers, some attainment of worldly samadhis are all ordinary practices. They are not completion stage. Some use the equivalent term for completion stage, apply the term. shpanna,‘uncontrived’ or  ‘unimputed’.  As for Pali, that which is called shpanna, they apply the term ‘thoroughly perfect’, in order to explain the meaning of the word. If one wonders is it the completion stage, the mere etymology [sgra bshad] of the word does not completely change the object itself, like the words ‘born from water’ and ‘lotus’ (‘water-born’)[have different meanings]. If it were like that it would be a huge consequence.  Moreover, in the explicit teachings of the Prajnaparamita sutras, the Uttaratantra, the Moon Lamp Sutra and the Collections of Reasonings, it is accepted to be like that. There are also those who say the uncommon secret mantrayana practices are the completion stage.  Even though such statements are a big contradiction, and such sayings are not said out of sectarian influences, as the reason for saying such things is not apparent, for the time being I remain neutral about it.

Objects of practice such as the interaction between the focal object of tummo, the seed syllables, the subtle drops and of rays of light and so on, are the coarse elements alone.  Even though the interaction of these has the potential to work with a karmamudra and yeshemudra, they are also not the actual completion stage since they are conceptual meditations. They are mainly an apparent demonstration of someone making exertions with their body and speech.

Then one might ask but in that case, do the correct, authentic tantric texts not explain the completion stage? Even in those texts, since they are a cause for approaching the completion stage, and have similar aspects to the completion stage, they apply the name‘ completion stage’.  Since one dissolves the material phenomenal wind[i] in the coarse vital drops[ii]of the central channel and so on, by merely binding the atomic particles of the vital drops, it penetrates the vital points of the body, yet it does not have the power to touch the channels, drops and winds of primordial awareness, because it is not a meditation on the ultimate, abiding reality. Since it is conceptual, it is not the real completion stage. It is the actual generation stage, which has the label ‘completion stage’. Furthermore, even though it has the uncommon characteristics of the secret Mantrayana, like empowerments for meditating on deities and saying mantras and so on, it is not a non-conceptual meditation and it also does not penetrate the essential points of the body. Not only is it not the actual completion stage but there is no need to examine those who say it is the completion stage.

So in terms of the same aspect, even though these three types of possibilities are not the actual completion stage, they are the methods for studying about the tantra of the profound path of vajra-yogas. For example, doing the preliminaries can make someone completely suitable obtaining a little of the support of the vajra-yogas. With that one can expand it and with meditation make progress and improve on this path. Like the process of turning iron into silver, it can transform into doing the completion stage. Similarly, the non-conceptual samadhis are meditations on the ultimate, abiding reality. By that meditation, when the concordant basis for unmistakenly penetrating the essential points of the vajra body arises, that is the authentic completion stage. Furthermore, other than these vajra yogas alone, there is no other method.

Then, reflecting on well-known practices like Mahāmudrā. If, in addition to the non-conceptual meditation on the abiding reality, by relying on tummo and karmamudra and so on, one can penetrate the vital points of the vajra body, it can become great bliss-emptiness Mahāmudrā. By having both; the practice of non-conceptuality and the penetration of the vital points of the body, one might wonder if this is no different from the vajra-yogas. Even though the aspect of experience is similar and suitable to enter into, since it is the ‘fabricated’ collection of two different causes [the non-conceptual meditation and the tummo, karmamudra and so on], it does not have the power to penetrate the vital points of the primordial awareness channel and so on.

As it is said, if one binds together many hundreds of plants [like a plank], it is difficult for it to bear the load of the beams of the house. This vajra-yogas here cannot be done by other methods. Since one can only penetrate the vital points of the vajra body with the non-conceptual primordial awareness alone, there is a vast difference in the characteristics of these practices. Like the difference between [the light from] a collection of stars and the sun.

With respect to this above, the cause for penetrating the vital points of the vajra body are the six upper and lower channels, the six root chakras, and their respective winds and vital drops and so on. This is not posited as a mere ordinary body. Likewise, out of all the paths the greatest is especially that of the six vajra-yogas here. With this practice, one can gain experience in one day, become a great master siddha in one month, enlightenment in one year, there is nothing else equal to it. As was explained before, in terms of what it is necessary to understand, when giving the guidance instructions, whether one explains or not extensively and with logical analysis depends on the suitability of the time and the person requesting.  After that, as the previous masters have taught, this is a teaching at the beginning, an entrance door to the practice. It can be given in a three, four or five teaching sessions, however is suitable.


In conclusion, what is clear from both these valuable and precious texts is the key to unlocking the door to full awakening is the vajra descent/arisal of non-conceptual primordial awareness. This cannot be accessed conceptually and must be experienced via the inner winds, drops and channels of the internal vajra-body of six elements. May this be of benefit and may all beings attain the ‘vajra descent’ and eternal union bliss-emptiness!

Written and translated by Adele Tomlin (Dakini Publications 2020). All rights reserved.


Bibliography/further reading

The Lamp that Excellently Elicudates the Proponents of Shentong Madhyamaka by 8th Karmapa Mikyo Dorje. Translated by Karl Brunnholzl, published in When the Clouds Part: The Uttaratantra and Its Meditative Tradition as a Bridge between Sutra and Tantra (Shambhala Publications, 2015).

A Hundred Blazing Lights by Jetsun Tāranātha . Translated and edited by Adele Tomlin (forthcoming Dakini Publications, 2020).


[i] bem chos. The essential nature (ngo-bo) of these vital energy drops is subtle matter (bem-pa) that is in the shape of a ball, the size of a mustard seed, and which is a mixture of the white and red source elements, namely white and red bodhichitta. As subtle matter, they are intangible and completely translucent like space.

[ii] There are four vital drops, those of the body, those of the speech, those of the mind and those of primordial awareness.

དབུ་མ་གཞན་སྟོང་སྨྲ་བའི་སྲོལ ་ལེགས་པར་ཕྱེ་བའི་སྒྲོན་མེ་




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