“Without empowerment there’s no accomplishment; You can’t get oil from pressing sand.”
–Patrul Rinpoche in Words of My Perfect Teacher
“Vajravarahi is the mother who begat all Buddhas. She is essentially Mahamudra, appearing in the form of Sahaja. She belongs to a family of yoginis who are especially warm-hearted toward sentient beings. Hence, through her, blessings may be quickly received. It is especially propitious (to visualize yourself as Vajravarahi while you practice this meditation) since she was the secret yidam of Lords Marpa, Mila and Dagpo. Do as they did!”
—Jamgon Kongtrul the First, in ‘Torch of Certainty’ (Nges-don Dron-me)
“Completion of the Four Foundations enables us to practice all the major yidam meditations. In the Kagyu tradition this would include those of Cakrasamvara and Vajravarahi; in the Sakya tradition, Hevajra and Vajrayogini; in the Nyingma tradition, the peaceful, wrathful and dakini aspects of Padmasambhava and numerous other peaceful and wrathful yidams; in the Gelug tradition, Vajrabhairava and Guhyasamaja. Generally speaking, completion of the Foundations enables us to practice all meditations involving the Creation and Completion Stages.”
—Deshung Rinpoche in ‘Torch of Certainty’ by Jamgon Kongtrul (Shambhala Publications, 1977)
A treat for the Vajrayogini/Varahi fans and practitioners out there, here is a brand new translation of a commonly practised, very concise Vajrayogini daily sadhana in Karma Kagyu by the ‘Red Hat Karmapa’, 6th Zhamarpa, Chokyi Wangchug (1584-1629). The new sadhana text also includes the Tibetan, phonetics and images of Vajrayogini and the BAM seed syllable to support one’s practice. Please contact me here to get it.
I was partly inspired to write this new article and translation by an email I received last week from a long-time Karma Kagyu devotee who told me that she had received the full Vajrayogini empowerment from the 16th Karmapa, Rigpe Dorje when he came to the UK and that she practiced the visualization in the Guru Yoga (of the Ninth Karmapa’s Ngondro text). She did not have this Vajravarahi text though and did not seem to be aware of it.
The short Vajrayogini text by the 6th Zhamarpa comes from an important and renowned Karma Kagyu Preliminaries (Ngondro) text, Chariot that Travels the Noble Path (‘phags lam bgrod pa’i shing rta)[i] by the ninth Karmapa, Wangchug Dorje ( dBang phyug rDorje, 1556-1603) who included the short daily generation stage sadhana after the four ‘uncommon’ foundations. I recieved the oral transmission and instruction on this text from the 17th Karmapa, Orgyen Trinley Dorje during the Kagyu Monlam, Bodh Gaya India in 2006, along with the transmission of a new Ngondro text composed by the 17th Karmapa called Ngondro for Our Current Day, of which attendees received a hard copy. That text can be purchased here.
An English translation of the ninth Karmapa Ngondro text was published by Karma Triyana Dharmachakra in 1989, and reprinted in India in 2001. It does not say who translated it. There is a more recent version of both the ninth Karmapa and Jamgon Kongtrul commentary text on it with a foreword by the 17th Karmapa and translated by David Karma Chophel[ii]. However, as it is for purchase only and does not appear to include the Vajravarahi daily practice, I have done a new translation of that for free download on request to those with the empowerment from a qualified master.
In any case, I hope that this new translation of a Vajrayogini sadhana from the Karma Kamtsang tradition, together with an explanation below about the necessity of practising the Preliminaries, of having an authentic empowerment and her different forms, provides clarity, inspiration and support to those who would like to connect with the scarlet goddess in all her guises!
Music? I am a Queen by Jessie J, ‘I am a goddess, I am a Queen…let’s get naked start meditating, feel elevated inside’.
Written and compiled by Adele Tomlin, 14th March 2022.
Authentic empowerment and strong foundational practice of Ngondro Preliminaries
As Vajrayogini is a restricted practice, from the Highest Unexcelled Yoga Tantra, the daily sadhana will be sent only to those who have a Chakrasamvara or Vajrayogini/Varahi authentic empowerment from a qualified Karma Kagyu Vajrayana master. I have received both these empowerments, several times, from the Karma Kagyu and Drikung Kagyu traditions, including Chakrasamvara from the 17th Karmapa.
Recently, I was shocked to read on social media that people were being permitted to participate in a forthcoming retreat on Vajrayogini, at a Dharma centre in the USA, without an empowerment. This goes against all the advice given on practising Highest Yoga deities by previous masters and in the Vajrayana scriptures. A couple of days ago, I expressed my concern about this directly to to the Rinpoche leading the retreat and thankfully, since then they have announced he will now give the empowerment to those registered for it.
In my humble opinion, Highest Yoga Tantra deity practice/retreat is not like a party, or social event whereby one allows one’s ‘unempowered’ friends to be invited and not feel excluded. In addition, philosophical talk about the ultimate, single essence of deities is more for completion stage/Mahamudra practice, not generation stage practice. Deities are Buddhas in Sambhogakaya forms and they have different functions, symbols and work with different negative emotions and personalities. One person organising the retreat even suggested that it would be fine to do it without empowerment as long as ‘the protection sphere was impenetrable’. My response to that was that if people were already in the mandala/retreat without empowerment/samaya with the deity, then the protection sphere had already been breached! In any case, it helped spark some debate and discussion about it and for this new article 🙂
The Essential Foundation of Highest Yoga Tantra – Common and Uncommon Preliminaries (Ngondro)
In addition, for Vajrayana practice, in particular that of a Highest Yoga Tantra deity, it is always advised (by Ninth Karmapa as well) that people should complete many recitations and contemplations of both the four common[iii], and four uncommon preliminaries before going on to practice the generation stage of Vajrayogini[iv]. The reason for that is because it is essential to have the requisite view, understanding and merit before engaging in such practice.
The four common preliminaries are contemplations on:
- the freedoms and advantages of precious human rebirth.
- the truth of impermanence and change.
- the workings of karma.
- the suffering of living beings within samsara.
The four uncommon preliminaries are generally:
- taking of refuge in the Three Jewels in conjunction with the performance of prostrations.
- cultivation of bodhicitta. In some formulations this is included under 1.
- recitations of Vajrasattva’s hundred-syllable mantra.
- mandala offerings.
- guru yoga practice.
There are additional preliminaries in Kalacakra, which includes the generation stage as one of the preliminaries. When I was translating some key texts on Kalacakra, I was told by a Jonang Rinpoche that even if a person had completed the preliminary practices for another Highest Yoga Tantra deity in another lineage/tradition, they had to do the preliminaries again for the Kalacakra deity, whoever that person was, be they a Rinpoche, Geshe etc.
In fact, in 2006, when I asked the 17th Karmapa, in a private audience, for permission to practice Ngondro, after I had received the instructions and transmission from him in Bodh Gaya, he specifically told me how important it was to first practice the four common preliminaries. These often taken-for-granted preliminaries on death, impermanence and suffering are there to ensure that the practitioner has a good and stable foundation of renunciation/wishing to emerge (nges byung) from samsara. It is said that without that strong foundation, all other Vajrayana practices will be weak and unstable and easily corrupted.
For example (as I wrote about here before) the necessity of purification with the hundred-syllable mantra of Vajrasattva is not only one of the four uncommon foundations in all lineages and Vajrayana practices but also should be practiced daily even after completing the Ngondro.
Vajrayogini forms- Naro’s Kechari and Kagyu Varahi
In terms of the visualization of Vajrayogini/Varahi, I have written about this before here. The main two forms are Naropa’s Kacheri form standing with one leg outstretched, the other bent and one hand held aloft in the air, with the other hand stretched downwards towards the earth. This is the main form practiced within the Sakya school (see image below):
The form often practiced in the Kagyu lineages, which came down from Naropa and Marpa is Vajravarahi (Dorje Phagmo) and she has two faces (one a black sow’s head – sometimes on the right, sometimes upright) dancing in a different posture, with arms positioned differently too (see image).
Interestingly, I also recently attended the online Vajrayogini empowerment at the Drikung Kagyu centre in Munich, Germany. The empowerment text used described the first Naro Kechari form, yet the image used during the empowerment (and in the sadhana practice) was the Dorje Phagmo form. When I asked the centre staff and translator about this and why they were different, no response was given. Again, it would be good to know the reason for that.
The fourth, uncommon preliminary guru-yoga section of this Ngondro text involves visualising oneself as Vajravarahi, as Kongtrul writes:
“You now emerge out of emptiness, looking like Vajra· varahi (Dorje Phagmo) and standing on a corpse, red lotus and sun. As you have not yet purified all your obscurations, performing the Guru· Yoga as your ordinary self would not net you any blessing. But performing it as the yidam will facilitate quick and easy receipt of blessing. Thus, (when practicing the Guru-Yoga], you should focus your attention on the yidam who appeals to you. Vajravarahi is the mother who begat all Buddhas. She is essentially Mahamudra, appearing in the form of Sahaja. She belongs to a family of yoginis who are especially warm-hearted toward sentient beings. Hence, through her, blessing may be quickly received. It is especially propitious (to visualize yourself as Vajravarahi while you practice this meditation] since she was the secret yidam of Lords Marpa, Mila and Dagpo. Do as they did!”
The 6th Zhamarpa daily sadhana is the Vajrayogini form, there is no specific mention of a sow’s head. The Karma Kagyu disciple told me that Tai Situ Rinpoche had taught her that without a full empowerment of Vajrayogini, then one could not visualise and practice the Varahi form.
Author of the text, the Sixth Zhamarpa
“Chokyi Wangchuk was born in Drikhung area of Central Tibet and the Ninth Karmapa enthroned him as the Sixth Shamar incarnation. From an early age, he followed and studied with the Ninth Karmapa and received the full transmission of the Kagyu lineage. He became one the most renowned Panditas of the time, in Sutra and Tantra, composing many commentaries.
His debating skills were so extraordinary that he was known as the “Pandita of the North, the Omniscient Shamarpa in whom Manjushri delights”. Famed for his deep insight, he had memorised fifty volumes of sutras and tantras by the age of seventeen, and was later to write ten texts explaining both the sutra and tantra traditions. He was the teacher of Desi Tsangpa, who ruled Central Tibet at that time. While he was travelling in east Tibet – successfully playing the mediator in a regional disturbance – that he recognised and became the teacher of the 10th Karmapa, Choying Dorje. He rebuilt the monastery in Kampo Neynang. He also traveled extensively to China and Nepal. He taught Buddhism in the original Sanskrit to the king, Laxman Naran Singh, in Nepal and to other devotees. He eventually passed away in the mountains of Helambu, Nepal near a cave in which Milarepa, Tibet’s great yogi, had once meditated. He passed on the lineage teachings to the Tenth Karmapa.” From https://kagyuoffice.org/kagyu-lineage/the-golden-rosary/chokyi-wangchuk/
The Zhamarpa is considered an emanation of Amitabha Buddha and known as the Red Hat Karmapa following after the Black Hat Karmapa. According to HAR, this painting composition above is part of a larger set of paintings depicting the Mahamudra Lineage of the Karma Kagyu Tradition.
[i] The full title of this text in Tibetan is sgrub brgyud karma kaM tshang pa’i phyag chen lhan cig skyes sbyor gyi sngon ‘gro bzhi sbyor sogs kyi ngag ‘don ‘phags lam bgrod pa’i shing rta zha
[ii] This text is published by KTD Publications and being sold on: https://www.namsebangdzo.com/Torch-of-True-Meaning-p/9781934608524.htm
[iii] The four common preliminaries are the four thoughts that turn the mind to Dharma. I remember when receiving the transmission of this text at the public teachings of HH 17th Karmapa that he said these four common preliminaries are an essential foundation and should be practiced until one has gained a real revulsion and wish to emerge from samsara (nges byung), often translated as ‘renunciation’.
[iv] The common preliminaries are contemplations on 1) death, 2) impermanence, 3) karma and 4) the nature of suffering. The uncommon preliminaries are generally 1) refuge and prostrations 2) developing bodhicitta, 3) offering mandala, and 4) Guru Yoga.