Practice overload in Vajrayana Buddhism can become a top-of-mind issue for devoted practitioners who collect many initiations. If you are feeling stressed over your commitments, if your practice is not satisfying because of “practice pressure,” then “our practice becomes worse than paying tax to Uncle Sam,” joked Gelek Rinpoche at a Vajrayogini teaching. “At least, you only have to pay that once a year. Here you have to do it every day.” 
The Dalai Lama once advised: “From my own experience I do not recommend saying lots of mantras and doing lots of sadhanas. The results from doing that are not very good. Just reading the sadhanas and repeating mantras until the words fall over each other is pointless because who is thinking. So don’t do it. I am telling you that from my own experience.”
His Holiness’ advice seemed an appropriate segue into a provocative topic that has been on my mind: “Practice Overload.”  I set out to research the opinions of as many teachers as possible on practice overload.
Gelek Rinpoche emphasizes the importance of reducing stress of practice overload: “You still have to get up very early in the morning [to practice] and you think, ‘Oh God, this is killing me!’ All of this happens because we don’t have satisfaction in our practice.” He added that “With satisfaction in your practice” you don’t mind getting up early to practice. He also pointed out, later in the talk, that most practices involve meditation on bliss/emptiness. It is difficult to feel blissful if you are stressed.
Stress: Too Many Practices or Commitments?
Part of the problem for some devoted students can be too many practices, too many yidams — and too many commitments. During a recent teaching at Gaden Choling, Venerable Zasep Tulku Rinpoche illustrated the issue of multiple Yidam practices and commitments with the story of Atisha. The great Atisha famously said, “We Indians do the practice of one thereby accomplishing all of them; you Tibetan people do the practices of so many, and so accomplish none!”
Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche spoke directly to this issue in his book, As It Is: “The trouble comes because there are so many different forms of yidams that it becomes difficult to bond to each of them individually.” As a solution, he advises: “Practice whichever yidam you like best.” 
He demonstrated with an example, “If we practice Vajrasattva, it is perfectly complete to simply practice that single yidam. One doesn’t have to be constantly shifting to different deities afraid one will miss something, because there is absolutely nothing missing in the single yidam one practices.”
Urgyen Rinpoche elaborated: “If you accomplish one Buddha, then you accomplish all Buddhas. If you attain the realization of one yidam, automatically you attain realization of all yidams at the same time. Of course, there is nothing wrong with practicing more than one. The point is, not to skip around between them.”
Tradition in the West?
Diligent practice is critical to progress on the Bodhisattva path. The issue arises when, instead of focusing on a single yidam, Westerners adopt the Tibetan tradition of taking as many initiations as possible.
Gelek Rinpoche said, “Traditionally, in Tibet, you would take three hundred or four hundred different initiations, but I’m not sure whether you really need them in the West. I don’t think you do. In Tibet, it was a matter of obtaining these teachings and nobody could really practice them all.”
Just as Atisha criticized early Tibetan practitioners for “doing the practices of many, and so accomplish none,” Gelek Rinpoche, in his Vajrayogini teaching, similarly advised his Western students. 
Unfortunately, for many of us, who have already taken numerous initiations, the problem becomes one of focus — and also our commitments to practice with our teachers.
Practice Commitments Not Necessarily Major Commitments
Gelek Rinpoche had some reassuring words for students who might feel stressed by confused by commitments: “During an initiation you don’t actually promise to say sadhanas… The real commitment is to keep the vows which you have taken.” These vows might include Bodhisattva and Tantric vows.
Another teacher, Lama Jampa Thaye, also drew upon Atisha’s teaching to put the issue of numerous initiations — and their commitments — into perspective: “It will not actually be possible to realize the qualities of any of the deities if one tries to practice too many of them. As it is said in Tibet, ‘If you try to practice a hundred deities you will not get the benefit of one. Yet if you practice effectively just one, you will get the benefit of one hundred.’ So, although we may receive an initiation, it might well be our master’s advice not to rely upon that deity at that time.”
Yidam Deities Not External To Our Mind
Venerable Zasep Tulku Rinpoche helps put this in perspective: “The deity is a mirror. You visualize the deity outside of you, but it reflects the you inside.” 
Venerable Choje Lama Phunstock also emphasizes that Yidams are not separate from our mind. “Meditating a Yidam deity is central in Vajrayana. It is crucial for Vajrayana practitioners to know that Yidam deities are not external to one’s own mind, rather they are images that help us work with our own mind. Yidams are the unblemished reflection of the primordial and innate true nature of our mind that manifests in specific forms and colors. The purpose and goal of our practice is to attain perfect Buddhahood, which manifests in three aspects or forms at fruition – the Dharmakaya, Sambhogakaya, and Nirmanakaya. It is important to know that the three kayas are indivisible.”
He continues: “The manifestation of Yidams, which are an expression of enlightenment, are free from the necessity of appearing in a specific form or in a certain color, rather every Yidam is a reflection of our personal wants and needs. Being an image of people’s various capabilities and inclinations, some Yidams appear white in color, like Noble Chenrezig, others are blue, yellow, red, or green and have different forms. In truth, Yidams are the display of the immense compassion of the Buddhas.”
Why Take So Many Initiations?
So, the obvious question to ask is why do people take many initiations despite Atisha’s advice?
Some students do take multiple initiations “as a blessing” said Zasep Rinpoche . For others there are generally two reasons: Lama Jampa Thaye explains: “The first reason is that it is beneficial to take initiations because they renew one’s vows. If there have been breakages of vows or the samayas of previous initiations, these are purified by each initiation one takes. The second reason for taking initiations is that one might well need to rely on this deity at some time in the future, even if it is not appropriate now.” 
Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche advised students to practice the “yidam they liked best… There are no essential differences between the yidams. You cannot say that there are good or bad yidams… People’s individual feelings do make a difference in that some people want to practice Padmasambhava as their yidam, while some want to practice Avalokiteshvara or Buddha Shakyamuni or Tara. The preference varies from person to person… The reason is that all yidams are essentially the same; they differ only on form, not essence.”
“No Reason Yamantaka can’t say Om Mani Padme Hum”
Alexander Berzin reinforces this idea in his commentary on Six Session Yoga: “[We] have to remember that a Buddha – meaning ourselves when we become a Buddha – can manifest in any form, in any appearance. So we shouldn’t think of these Buddha-figures as being mutually exclusive. As Serkong Rinpoche, my teacher, said: Yamantaka can recite Om mani padme hum. There isn’t any reason why Yamantaka can’t say Om mani padme hum and is restricted to saying only his mantra. It’s not that he’s forbidden from saying anything else. And Yamantaka could also appear as Avalokiteshvara, as Vajrayogini, or as anything. We work with what we feel most comfortable with.” 
Neglecting a Practice is a State of Mind?
Understanding the issue of neglecting a practice and “too many deities” can also be thought of as dependent on your a state of mind. In an interesting insight from the blog “Tinfoil Ushnisha” the writer explained his teacher Khenpo Kathar’s perspective on this top-of-mind issue: “By thinking you are neglecting the practice of other deities, you are in fact neglecting them. If you think that by practicing one deity you are only practicing this one deity and not caring about the others, that produces the problem of picking and choosing. If you realize that the practice of any one deity is all-inclusive, you avoid the picking and choosing problem.”  In other words, your own thoughts and perspective are critical.
Related story on Jewel Collection Refuge:
Picking and Choosing?
Lama Jampa Thaye of the International Association of Sakya and Karma Kagyu Tibetan Buddhist Centres puts it this way: “[We] could substitute Kalachakra, for instance: the teacher is Kalachakra, ourselves as Kalachakra. This is the way it is done in the Kalachakra version. Similarly, we could visualize both as Yamantaka or whatever figure we are practicing. It doesn’t matter. Vajrayogini. Whatever you want. It doesn’t matter. It’s similar to the fact that the hundred-syllable mantra for purification has many forms: There is the straight form of Vajrasattva – that’s the Guhyasamaja system. There’s Herukasattva – that’s the Chakrasamvara and Vajrayogini systems. There’s Yamantakasattva – that’s the Yamantaka system. Just changing a few syllables. They’re all totally equivalent.” 
Innumerable Practices, Varying Propensities
Venerable Choje Lama Phuntsok, in a broader discussion on Yidams, discusses the reason for “innumerable practices. Since followers and practitioners have a huge amount of varying propensities and inclinations, there are a great number of Yidams in Vajrayana, starting with their various colors and forms. The great number of Yidam deities in Vajrayana can be compared to a menu in a big restaurant – every guest is free to choose the meal they prefer having. Vajrayana is like that too, seeing one’s practice is enhanced if the Yidam one creates accords with and satisfies one’s preferences and needs. There are practitioners who prefer meditating Noble Chenrezig, others feel more comfortable meditating Arya Tara; others want to meditate Sangye Menla, who is Medicine Buddha. Yet other practitioners want to meditate Buddha Amitabha.”
Different Forms, Same Result
Venerable Lama Phuntsok explains: These deities appear in different forms, but, irrelevant of the outer form, every practice is beneficial and leads to the same result. There are many disciples who prefer meditating wrathful Yidams, such as Vajravarahi or Chakrasamvara or Kalachakra or Mahakala, and these practices bring the same result as meditating a peaceful deity. There are disciples who fear practicing Mahakala, for example, whereas other disciples really like meditating Mahakala, and this is what is meant when speaking about individual propensities and inclinations. In any case, Vajrayana practice consists of identifying with a Yidam, which is an extraordinary method when compared to practices taught in other vehicles.” 
Reassurance for the Overloaded Practitioner
Another way to think of this was expressed by Karma Chagme: “It is profound to unite all yidams into one deity and one mantra.” 
Venerable Gelek Rinpoche, founder of Jewel Heart, during Vajrayogini teachings, put it this way: “That is why you don’t have to think ‘Yeah, I have Lama Vajrayogini here, but I have forgotten Shakyamuni, I forgot the Medicine Buddha, I forgot Tara there. What has happened to my refuge?’ You don’t have to worry about it. You have to think a Buddha is all Buddhas, all Buddhas is a Buddha.”
Zasep Rinpoche reassures overstressed students in a different way: “Do not think your practice is no longer worth the effort just because you have broken your commitments; do not abandon your commitments and daily practice; just pick up where you left off. My kind teacher, the most holy Tara Tulku Rinpoche said, “If you forget to eat breakfast, you don’t give up there and then. The next day, you go ahead and eat breakfast. Simple.” 
 “Mind is the creator of our own happiness or suffering” Buddha Weekly.Teaching was at Gaden Choling Toronto.
 Lama Jampa Thaye, Denchen International Association of Sakya and Karma Kagyu Tibetan Buddhist Centres Frequently Asked Questions web page.
 “Too Many Deities, Too Little Time — a Vajrayana Dilemma”
 “Commentary on An Extensive Six Session Yoga” Alexander Berzin
 Vajrayogi Extensive Commentary, Gelek Rinpoche
 “Yidam Deities in Vajrayana” Venerable Choje Lama Phuntsok
 “Broken Commitments: Breaking Buddhist Vows or Promises Carries Heavy Karma, But What Do We Do About It?” Buddha Weekly feature. http://buddhaweekly.com/broken-commitments-breaking-buddhist-vows-promises-carries-heavy-karma/
 As It Is, Volume 1: Essential Teachings from the Dzogchen Perspective, Tulku Urgyen Rinoche Paperback: 224 pages
Publisher: Rangjung Yeshe Publications (June 29 2004)
Product Dimensions: 15.3 x 1.6 x 22.8 cm
Shipping Weight: 340 g
 Part of an extensive three hour interview with Venerable Zasep Tulku Rinpoche with Buddha Weekly. Full interview to come.
 Quoted from “Vajrayogini” by Gelek Rinpoche from Jewel Heart
 Quoted from our earlier feature: Broken Commitments: Breaking Buddhist Vows