A Beginner's Guide to Tibetan Buddhism

Book coverA most extraordinary event took place at the Orgyen Dorje Den center in San Francisco in the summer of 1994. Venerable Gyatrul Rinpoche, a most accomplished meditation master, was teaching an amazingly deep and detailed meditation manual on how to recognize and stabilize buddha-nature. He was assisted by the translator B. Alan Wallace, a brilliant scholar and serious practitioner.

Rinpoche taught throughout the weekends, giving profound instructions. On Wednesdays we had a question-answer section, sometimes with a short sitting.

Rinpoche eventually canceled the Wednesday session. Very few people had been asking genuine, meaningful questions based on their own experience. It was a terribly sad missed opportunity.

I began teaching at the center soon after. Most of my students were people who had attended Rinpoche’s teaching. I was appalled to learn how little my friends understood of the context of that summer’s teachings or of the correct protocol for questioning and learning from a master.

The greatest advantage to living in Asia is, of course, the proximity and accessibility of so many great teachers. While living there, it is quite easy to form a close, ongoing relationship with a high lama and from him learn how to go about understanding buddha-nature. Since I had had that wonderful opportunity in Asia, and since it had become apparent that many Western Buddhists did not have a similar experience here in America with their teachers, one of my highest priorities as a teacher and Dharma friend has been to explain to students how buddha-nature is apprehended through the close guidance of a master.

In the first chapter, I talked about buddha-nature as ground, the basis of our being and the force that propels us into a spiritual life. In chapter 4, I talked about empowerments as a way to gain further or deeper insight into our true nature. But by now you may be wondering, “I never really glimpsed the ground before I started. Nothing much happened to me during the empowerment. What’s he really talking about anyway?” Or you might feel, “Isn’t understanding buddha-nature too advanced for me? Don’t I need many years of strict practice, many years of philosophic studies, even to approach this subject?”

Actually, no. In fact, there are several traditions or styles for introducing the student to the nature of the mind. In one tradition, yes, lots of study is necessary. In another, deep meditative absorption is considered necessary. But there also is a third tradition where the introduction can be made early in the practitioner’s career, and this one may be the most appropriate for the propagation of Tibetan Buddhism in the West. This tradition seems to be in accord with prophecies made centuries ago about the spread of the dzogchen teachings. It is in this tradition that I’ve been trained and it’s from that perspective that I’m writing this book.

I’m not going to describe the nature of the mind to you. It’s beyond my ability as a teacher. There are many excellent books in English on mahamudra and dzogchen. Great lamas are freely spreading these teachings. What I am trying to do is to help you relate correctly to your teacher. I hope to help you avoid a missed opportunity like the one I just related. Although I’ll be writing in the context of receiving the pointing-out instruction, the teaching that reveals buddha-nature, what I will be saying will be of general use in getting instructions from your teacher on any topic. So please read the following with both purposes in mind.

How does this pointing-out take place? Sometimes a teacher will give you the introduction directly. That is, you’ll be with him either alone or in a group, and he will do something to make you experience your buddha-nature on the spot. It could happen while taking an empowerment, especially during the fourth empowerment, as I’ve previously related.

There are more spontaneous, less ritualized ways for this transmission to happen. We’ve all read Zen stories of the disciple who attained satori when struck by his master. This has also happened frequently in the Vajrayana tradition. Naropa became enlightened when Tilopa beat him with his sandal. When this happens to an advanced practitioner, the experience could be permanent; the disciple is enlightened from that moment on. For the beginner the experience is most likely fleeting. After it fades, it is the student’s life-long job to learn how to access and recreate that experience. As beginners we are granted these glimpses so that we can access them later in our practice so that we know what we are looking for.

We can’t sit around waiting for the introduction to happen. The most common way for one to be introduced to the nature of the mind—that is, buddha-nature or rigpa—is simply through instruction, hearing teachings from your master on how the mind really is. It’s up to you to clear away doubts and arrive at genuine experience.

For example, your teacher may say, “The nature of the mind is empty.” Figure out what that means. Does it mean free from thoughts, blank? Does it mean nonexistent? Look carefully at your own mind. What does emptiness really mean? Try to experience it. Is it like space? Is it completely calm? Remember all the other teachings you’ve had on the nature of the mind, emptiness, or buddha-nature. What kind of experience are they pointing to? Do you have only an intellectual understanding? Even on that level, is your understanding consistent with all the teachings you’ve heard? If you’ve had some experience, is it consistent with all that you’ve previously been taught?

At this point in the process, one begins to form a mental image of what the experience might be like. Then, we try to actualize that experience. If we are able to do that, then we can see how it compares with what’s been described. We have to continue checking and inquiring.

Are you starting to understand what’s involved here? We have to assume that the lama didn’t give this teaching just because he loves to talk or show off his own deep understanding. And I don’t think you are any more stupid or less developed than anyone else in the audience.

So at this point one of two things may have happened: You’ve had some experience that you think or hope is the experience, or you haven’t. If you haven’t, you can report, “Rinpoche, I’ve been trying to meditate on what you said when you said, ‘Mind is empty.’ But nothing has happened. I don’t understand—I have no idea what you’re talking about! Can you give me one word of advice on how to proceed?” Then you take that advice and start all over. A word of caution: he may not answer you straight away. He might say that you have to do some other practice, such as the preliminary practices, to clear away obstacles to your understanding. Complete these practices to his satisfaction then report back for further clarification and instruction, for however long it takes. At this point you’ll know that your practice is proceeding in the right direction.

If you had some experience, report back for confirmation. Don’t assume you’ve understood. There are countless ways to get it wrong, and if you do, it will make the rest of your practice wobbly, since it will based on a wrong view. It would be like building a house on a rotten foundation.

When you report back, you can say, “Rinpoche, in your teaching you said that mind was empty. Since then I’ve been trying to meditate on your words and I’ve had the following experience...” It’s very difficult to put these kinds of experiences into words, but please try; it’s really worth the effort. Study helps here—it provides you with the vocabulary to explain yourself. So you might ask, “Is this really it?” He might ask you several questions, often to discern whether you’re talking about a real experience or mostly mixing it up with what you’ve read or heard. If he says “no,” “not quite,” etc., then you go back to the beginning. If it’s a definite “yes,” then ask for further clarification, some instruction on how to proceed. Even if you have recognized and your teacher has unequivocally confirmed your recognition, there’s still much more to learn. First are the techniques for repeating and stabilizing the recognition. (This is, of course, many lifetimes of work!) Second, there will be doubts, and you’ll have experiences you’re not sure how to categorize. “Was that last experience really rigpa? Perhaps it wasn’t empty enough.” This can go on for a long time. The doubting and questioning can start to become problematic after a while, but it’s very necessary in the beginning to make sure you have it right.

There’s a more elaborate and systematic form of introduction wherein the teacher asks the student questions and the student is expected to meditate until he reaches a definite conclusion. The teachings I mentioned at the beginning of this chapter were of this form.

The lama might ask, “What color is your mind?” You are expected to come up with an answer. You might say, “Blue,” or that you were unable to find any color or whatever. The lama will then give you the next instruction in the form of another question such as, “Where in the body does the mind abide?” If you are diligent, eventually you’ll begin to have experiences. This is the point. You can reply, “I was trying to ascertain the shape of my mind, when I had the following experience...” and then it’s as described above. The questions are simply to get you to look deeply into yourself in a way that you probably never have; consequently, the questions, which were relatively straightforward at the beginning (I know that my mind has no color), become deeper and more difficult as you proceed.

Please don’t lie to your teacher or try to impress him. What’s the point? The worst thing that can happen is that he’d believe you. Try to forget what you’ve read. When looking at your own experience, formulate it using your own words; try not to use Buddhist jargon. Don’t say, for example, “I’ve experienced emptiness,” but rather something like, “I’ve had an experience in which my mind became vast and spacious.” Don’t assume anything. Don’t assume you’ve understood. Don’t assume the lama can read your mind and knows for sure what you’ve experienced, and so on. It is not that the lama doesn’t understand or know what you are really experiencing; rather, it is that your assumptions make it difficult for you to be open and receptive.

This dialogue can go on with more than one lama, especially among those who have a similar approach to introducing you to your nature. This can happen in the West, where you are receiving guidance from various lamas as they pass through. Remember the three approaches to introducing buddha-nature that I mentioned in the beginning of this chapter? If you can, stick with teachers who share the same approach or you can become confused. If one lama says, “Mind is empty,” and you meditate on his words and then later ask a lama who favors the philosophical approach, he might say, “You can’t possibly understand the empty nature of the mind! You haven’t studied enough yet. Learn Tibetan, study these texts, and this will lay the ideal foundation for you. Otherwise, you can’t possible understand and you’ll go astray.”

The opposite can also happen. You can be developing deep concentrative absorption under one teacher. He has said, “You can’t possibly understand rigpa while you have a monkey mind. Your chaotic thoughts obscure your true nature, and if you try to understand, you will waste your time.” When you report to another lama, perhaps a simple yogi, he might say, “Concentrative states are still dualistic and conceptual. They will only keep you in samsara. Go straight for the main point!” Very confusing, eh?

If you remember that there are these three main styles for introducing the mind’s nature, you won’t get confused. When receiving teachings from a lama, ask yourself into which one of these three approaches his teaching mainly fits. If you recall, they were introduction through philosophical study, introduction through progressing through the stages of meditation, and the more direct style of introduction. Of course, this is a general guideline, and lamas are also capable of being quite flexible; they can often accommodate more than one style. In the beginning, however, it’s probably better to discuss the mind’s nature with lamas who have similar approaches.

From “Path Buddha-Nature: Instruction and Practice,” A Beginner’s Guide to Tibetan Buddhism by Bruce Newman.

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