Aro tsok and the Three Displays

Yeshe Tsogyal wearing sambhogakaya ornaments

Yeshe Tsogyal wearing sambhogakaya ornaments


Tsok is probably the most important Vajrayana ritual practice. (It is also called “feast practice,” tsog, tshogs khor lo, puja, ganapuja, ganachakra, or variants of these.)

Tsok literally means “community.” The ritual expresses the sacred bond among members of the sangha. The generosity of this bond is then extended to everyone and everything, everywhere. Within tsok, we view ourselves, each other, and all beings as Buddhas. We view all things as infinitely sacred—even those that are conventionally impure or disgusting. This vision is the essential practice of inner tantra—made especially explicit in tsok.

The details of tsok vary from lineage to lineage. Typically it includes singing, dancing, a feast, the reading of a liturgy (ritual text), mantra recitation, the creation of a physical and visualized mandala, and offerings.

The Aro tsok is our lineage’s most elaborate ritual. It includes all the elements I’ve listed above. The liturgy is based on the three kayas: the modes of existence of Buddhas. The dharmakaya is the mode of enlightened potential. The sambhogakaya is the mode of visionary energy. The nirmanakaya is the mode of flesh and blood, physical existence. The Aro tsok liturgy is a poetically inspiring explanation of ways we can “live the view” and manifest the three kayas in reality.

The Three Displays

In Tibetan paintings, Buddhas are shown in different dress according to the kaya they represent. These are called the “Three Displays.” Dharmakaya Buddhas (such as Kuntuzangpo and Kuntuzangmo) are shown entirely naked. This expresses the beautiful simplicity of emptiness, unadorned with characteristics. Nirmanakaya Buddhas (such as Padmasambhava) are shown clad in resplendent garments. This expresses the glorious intricacy of form and the physical world. Sambhogakaya Buddhas (such as Vajrayogini) are shown wearing “tantric ornaments.” These are mainly strings of beads, worn without clothes. They express the fact that sambhogakaya is the dynamic communication between emptiness and form, and shares the nature of each.

Practicing the Displays

In the picture at the top of this page, Yeshe Tsogyel is shown wearing sambhogakaya ornaments. She is universally regarded by Tibetans as a nirmanakaya Buddha, but is often shown in sambhogakaya form. This expresses the fact that she practiced and accomplished tantra by visualizing herself as a sambhogakaya Buddha.

Visualizing oneself as a Buddha is one of the most important practices of Buddhist tantra. Physical aids are helpful. In many rituals, Tibetans dress as the Buddha they visualize. They dance in a style that enacts the enlightened nature of that Buddha. This is commonly misunderstood as a “colorful folk festival.” There is an inner dimension to the dance, however. Wearing the dress of the Buddha helps one discover that one is, in fact, not different from a Buddha. From the perspective of Vajrayana, we are all beginninglessly enlightened.

In modern public performances, sambhogakaya ornaments are always worn over clothing. Naked bodies are generally seen as shameful, disgusting, and impure in Tibetan culture. In India, where Vajrayana originated, this is not true. Even today, sadhus who wander naked through busy city streets are granted great respect.

Nakedness is also less of a problem in the West. In the Aro tradition, we sometimes find it useful, when practicing privately, to adopt the dress of dharmakaya and sambhogakaya Buddhas as they appear in paintings—without clothes.

Participants may optionally adopt sambhogakaya or dharmakaya appearance when tsok and the empowerment ritual are practiced within the close community of apprentices, on apprentice-only retreats. In tsok, we view everything in the universe as pure and sacred—and that includes our bodies. We view each other as nirmanakaya, sambhogakaya, or dharmakaya Buddhas, according to the way we are each dressed.

Sambhogakaya and dharmakaya displays can be difficult for some new apprentices. The West is not free from taboos. Some students are initially uncomfortable due to worries about how their bodies will be perceived by others. However, the practice of tsok is to view everyone present as a Buddha. There is no judgment about anyone being unattractive. The ceremony is unlikely to be found erotic by anyone. It is respectful, not lewd; joyful, but not wild.

For some apprentices, this experience has profoundly changed their relationships with their own bodies. Acceptance in tsok has healed body-image fears, and has revealed a courage and self-confidence that students did not know they were capable of.

Is this, like, some California New Age thing, or what??

In ancient times, tsok was normally practiced unclothed. It also appears that ritual sexual intercourse was originally part of the practice. That is not true of the Aro tsok (and never will be).

About a thousand years ago, Buddhist tantra became “closeted” in Tibet, to make it socially acceptable. Since then, unclothed practice has been mainly hidden. As far as I know, the Aro tradition is the only one that is currently “out of the closet” about this. However, I know of ethnically Tibetan lamas who quietly practice tsok in this style today.

I have found two mentions of this in the open literature. This first is in this discussion of the tantric root vows. The thirteenth vow concerns tsok, and here Kunzig Shamar Rinpoche mentions “dancing nakedly” as something that one should not hesitate to do.

The second mention concerns Khenpo Gangshar (also spelled Kangshar). He was a famous scholar and widely respected orthodox lama. Then, in 1957, he foresaw the disaster of 1959 Chinese invasion. He declared that this meant that the business-as-usual attitude of institutional Buddhism had to be replaced with urgent meditation practice—by everyone. There was no time left for elaborate rituals, for tantric ngöndro, or indeed for anything other than direct realization of the essence of Buddhism. He actively broke down the traditional barriers between laypeople and monastics, between men and women, and between the various sects. He taught Dzogchen—the ultimate practice of Tibetan Buddhism—openly, to everyone. And he taught tantra “literally,” as it was by the Indian mahasiddhas, rather than in the highly indirect, sanitized form common in monasteries.

Here’s the quote:

Khenpo Kangshar was there, giving his disciples a direct introduction to the nature of mind . . . During these teachings, the master suggested that the students remove their garments. Everyone except Dezhung Rinpoche and one senior lama of the karma Kagyü tradition, the Sangyay Nyenpa Trulku (the brother of Dilgo Khyentse), did so. The master had at first turned to Dezhung Rinpoche and politely suggested “If you wouldn’t mind just removing your robes . . . ” Dezhung Rinpoche removed his upper shirt and sat waiting, and this was enough for Khenpo Kangshar. Later Dezhung Rinpoche said, “If he had given me a further direct command, of course I would have obeyed.” Dezhung Rinpoche had studied the Guhyagarbha Tantra under Khenpo Kangshar the previous year and viewed him as the Buddha. He could not disobey his order. (A Saint in Seattle, page 214.)

“Direct introduction to the nature of mind” is the core teaching of Dzogchen. “The nature of mind” is enlightenment, which is often referred to as “naked mind” in Dzogchen. Freedom from moralistic prohibitions against nakedness is a symbol of the ultimate freedom of enlightenment.

Considerably more is known about Khenpo Gangshar’s unconventional style of teaching. It was similar to Aro teaching in some unusual ways. I find it massively inspiring. Unfortunately, most information about him is not yet public.