In the command transmission, the guru or teacher commands one of the protectors or one of the protector's attendants to take care of the student.
What is a protector? How do they function? I'll write more about protectors and protector practice the future, but for today, it's sufficient to say that protectors are representations of how the direct awareness that is our human heritage acts in our lives to create conditions conducive to practice and to clear away conditions that undermine practice.
That sounds beneficial, right? We have a big powerful force on our side. Beneficial perhaps, but not necessarily benign.
In today's world, almost everyone, students and teachers alike, relate to practice in terms of the horizontal dimension, that is, of how practice can improve our lives or resolve psychological or social issues. For example, I recently received an email asking if I wanted a review copy of a book by a couple of well known Buddhist teachers. The email described the book as "an eye-opening book that addresses the problem of how to become rich and powerful while doing good." This is straight materialism. It's not even spiritual materialism.
The horizontal dimension focuses on our lives in society, our relationships with others and our identity and sense of who we are in the world. In my own training however, practice was always about the vertical dimension, understanding what we are (which means going beyond our identity in society) and experiencing life directly or, at least to the extent possible, free from the distortions of conditioning (karma), habituation (samsara) and conceptual knowing.
The work of protectors is to bring this vertical dimension into our lives. As expressions of the non-conceptual knowing that cuts through culture and conditioning, they are not particularly gentle. First your phone rings. If you don't answer the call, there is a knock on your door. If you don't open it and start your journey, the door is broken open. If you still don't go, your home is destroyed. And so it proceeds. Your life is steadily taken apart until you start relating to the direct awareness that has been calling you. This is but one way the protectors create conditions conducive to practice and clear away conditions that undermine practice.
In his introduction in The Great Path of Awakening, Jamgön Kongtrul says that Mind Training in Seven Points "contains limitless instructions that stand firmly in the sutra tradition yet have some connection with the tantra tradition." A good example is Tokmé Zongpo's enigmatic prayer:
If it is better for me to be ill,
Give me the energy to be ill.
If it is better for me to recover,
Give me the energy to recover.
If it is better for me to die,
Give me the energy to die.
This prayer is clearly is not about how to make your life better. It is about how to be in your life completely and how to receive and be with whatever life brings you. In this way, it definitely has a vajrayana or tantric flavor.
Dogen, the founder of the Soto Zen tradition, points to something similar when he writes:
To study the Buddha Way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be actualized by myriad things. When actualized by myriad things, your body and mind as well as the bodies and minds of others drop away. No trace of enlightenment remains, and this no-trace continues endlessly.
This is the vertical dimension. It is at right angles to any effort to improve your life or become a better or happier person.
To return to the command transmission, when the teacher commands the protector or an attendant to look after you, your teacher is introducing you to the vertical dimension. In receiving that transmission, you are taking on the spirit of Tokmé Zongpo's prayer: put me in touch with whatever will bring me into the direct experience of life itself, free from culture and conditioning.
Such an intention, of course, means that you are prepared to face the deepest and darkest areas within you, those patterns and beliefs that developed in the course of your life to insulate you from the shocks and terrors you could not face at that time. You are prepared to question and see through the fundamental beliefs from which the fabric of society is woven. You are prepared, or at least willing, to step beyond the only kind of knowing that you know into a mystery that you can experience directly but never put into words.
Thus, when you consider practicing vajrayana, do so not because you think it will bring you understanding and capabilities that will make you or your life better, but because it is a calling, a calling that you must answer -- whatever it brings you, wherever it takes you.