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A while ago I attended a Tibetan Buddhist group. They were very nice but I just couldn't get on with the visualisation practices. I find it reasonably clear how mindfulness of breathing becomes an insight practice and metta bhavana. But I just couldn't see how an intricate visualisation practice would lead to an understanding of conditioned existence, suffering, no fixed self or any of it really. How do visualisation practices relate to insight?

Additional detail - the practice involved the Buddha in a bright blue sky on a throne and I remember there were snow leopards under the throne and light was going out of the Buddha.

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My answer does not rely on scriptures. I am a practitioner of Tibetan Buddhism too, doing Ngöndrö, so I have to visualize a lot. In fact visualisation "repels" me first from Tibetan Buddhism (I was in Zen a long time.) Now I value it:

1.) Visualisation strengthen your concentration. It does not exclude breathing meditation. Both are strengthening each other. And sometimes visualisation prevents you from dullness. It also may strengthen your mental capacities like memory. -> So it helps you, to gain insights indirectly.

2.) In some books about the Bardo – I think it was one from Ponlop Rinpoche – visualisation helps you to stay concentrated, when you are losing your sensual experiences, because of dissolving - dying. (Sorry, for not being eloquent enough to make it sound less weird.) -> So it helps you to stay on your path.

3.) I also think it helps to understand some more philosophical topics like "Form is emptiness. Emptiness is form" - because you are going to construct an image out of a "light" form of emptiness. ("Light" like "Light Cigarettes" not like "illuminating".) -> This is directly related to the insights you mentioned. But this is not an argument I've heard from a kind of authority. It's my own thought.

5.) Personally I "feel"/"see" movements of my mind better before the backdrop of a mental image. -> Which makes you know your mind better, which obviously is good for Buddhists

All points are highly subjective. Except 2. Imagine to stay calm etc. without a sensual anchor like breathing. So it makes sense for me to train visualisation meditation as preparation for dying.

Best

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1)
Ultimately, the "core" of Tibetan Buddhism is the Mahamudra system of practises, where they also include the Samatha and Vipassana systems/methods as described in the Theravada texts.

The practise of visualizing "Buddha on a levitating throne flanked by snow lions" (paraphrase) is an overly-promoted for-absolute-beginner entry practise mainly because it could be taught under 15 minutes. Having said that - under the guidance of a qualified teacher, it can lead to results similar to those of the kasina practises.

For a variety of psychological reasons, most individuals find it more exciting to visualize some made-up super-beings instead of pieces of earth or colour discs.

2)
The Visudhimagga prescribed and recommended different Samatha meditation objects depending on the individual's intellectual and habitual dispositions. While anapanasati works for most people, kasina works for the others. In a meditation retreat, the teacher may not prescribe the same practise for everyone.

3)
Samatha meditation practises is not unique to Buddhism, and they have been around even before the historical Buddha. The main difference is that the Theravadin's Samatha practises are stripped of all mysticism (incantations/rituals/super-entities) - leaving only what truly matters.

4)
Vipasana is what sets Buddhism aparts. It is vipasana that leads to genuine insights and liberation from dukha. The Theravada texts tell of bikkhus who obtained final liberation just on vipasana practise alone, but the same texts strongly recommended the cultivation of Samatha skills to support and to "supercharge" the practitioner's vipasana experience.

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I don't know so much about Tibetan Buddhism but I just wanted to share some informations about visualisation and related meditation methods.

Ven. Yuttadhammo talks about Samatha and Vipassana meditation:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GDDY4gOexVA

Visualisation is a Samatha meditation object. If a person can completely focus his/her mind to that concept(visualisation) then the mind enters to a trance state and become tranquil, peaceful. Also the person then naturally is capable to have magical experiences like seeing the past lifes, astral projection, reading other people's minds, seeing the future etc. If the person decides to look to the nature of the reality with that clear and sharp mind then gaining insight and letting go would be very easy. So some people start with Samatha meditation to gain tranquility first to make the insight meditation easy. But just doing Vipassana meditation is more practical.

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