The Dalai Lama on Dzogchen

The following article is from the Spring, 2001 issue of the Snow Lion Newsletter and is for historical reference only. You can see this in context of the original newsletter here.

The Heart Essence of the Great Perfection

by His Holiness the Dalai Lama translated by Thupten Jinpa and Richard Barron foreword by Sogyal Rinpoche edited by Patrick Gaffney 272 pages, 8 pages of photos, 6x9 1-55939-157-X, $24.95 cloth Available Now

This book offers an unprecedented glimpse into one of Buddhism's most profound systems of meditation. These teachings on Dzogchen, the heart essence of the ancient Nyingma tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, were given by His Holiness the Dalai Lama to Western students in Europe and North America. He explains the essence of Dzogchen practice and addresses questions such as why Dzogchen is called the pinnacle of all vehicles, what are its special features, and what are the crucial principles of the other Buddhist paths which a Dzogchen practitioner should know. This is a book of uncommon richness, and a remarkable testimony to His Holiness' learning, insight and many-sided genius.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama brings to his explanation of Dzogchen a perspective and breadth which are unique...To receive such teachings from His Holiness is, I feel, something quite extraordinary.Sogyal Rinpoche, author of The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying

The following is an excerpt from the book.

The Ground, Path and Fruition of Dzogchen

Let us now consider the teachings particular to the Secret Mantra Vehicle of the early transmission school of the Nyingma tradition, and what these teachings say about the three phases of ground, path, and fruition. The way in which the ground of being abides, as this is definitively understood and described in the Nyingma teachings, entails its essence, its nature, and its energy, or responsiveness. In particular, the first two aspects define the ground for the Nyingma school, its essence being primordial purity or kodak, and its nature being spontaneous presence or Ihundrup.

Nagarjuna, in his Fundamental Treatise on the Middle Way called Wisdom', states:

The dharma that is taught by the buddhas,

Relies completely upon two levels of truth:

The worldly conventional level of truth,

And the ultimate level of truth.

All that is knowableall phenomena and all that is comprised within an individual's mind and bodyis contained within these two levels of truth, conventional and ultimate. In the Dzogchen context, the explanation given would be in terms of primordial purity and spontaneous presence, and this is analogous to a passage in the scriptures:

It is mind itself that sets in place the myriad array

Of beings in the world, and the world that contains them.

That is to say, if we consider the agent responsible for creating sam- sara and nirvana, it comes down to mind. The Sutra on the Ten Grounds states, These three realms are mind only. In his commentary to his own work, Entering the Middle Way Candrakirti elaborates on this quotation, stating that there is no other creative agent apart from mind.

When mind is explained from the point of view of the Highest Yoga Tantra teachings and the path of mantra, we find that many different levels or aspects of mind are discussed, some coarser and some more subtle. But at the very root, the most fundamental level embraced by these teachings is mind as the fundamental, innate nature of mind. This is where we come to the distinction between the word sem in Tibetan, meaning ordinary mind' and the word rigpa signifying pure awareness'. Generally speaking, when we use the word sem, we are referring to mind when it is temporarily obscured and distorted by thoughts based upon the dualistic perceptions of subject and object. When we are discussing pure awareness, genuine consciousness or awareness free of such distorting thought patterns, then the term rigpa is employed. The teaching known as the Four Reliances' states: Do not rely upon ordinary consciousness, but rely upon wisdom. Here the term narnshe, or ordinary consciousness, refers to mind involved with dualistic perceptions. Yeshe', or wisdom, refers to mind free from dualistic perceptions. It is on this basis that the distinction can be made between ordinary mind and pure awareness.

When we say that mind' is the agent responsible for bringing the universe into being, we are talking about mind in the sense of rigpa, and specifically its quality of spontaneous presence. At the same time, the very essence of that spontaneously present rigpa is timelessly empty, and primordially puretotally pure by its very natureso there is a unity of primordial purity and spontaneous presence. The Nyingma school distinguishes between the ground itself, and the ground manifesting as appearances through the eight doorways of spontaneous presence', and this is how this school accounts for all of the perceptions, whether pure or impure, that arise within the mind. Without ever deviating from basic space, these manifestations and the perceptions of them, pure or impure, arise in all their variety. That is the situation concerning the ground, from the point of view of the Nyingma school.

On the basis of that key point, when we talk about the path, and if we use the special vocabulary of the Dzogchen tradition and refer to its own extraordinary practices, the path is twofold, that of trekcho and togal. The trekcho approach is based upon the primordial purity of mind, kadak, while the togal approach is based upon its spontaneous presence, lhundrup. This is the equivalent in the Dzogchen tradition of what is more commonly referred to as the path that is the union of skilful means and wisdom.

When the fruition is attained through relying on this twofold path of trekcho and togal, the inner lucidity' of primordial purity leads to dharmakaya, while the outer lucidity' of spontaneous presence leads to the rupakaya. This is the equivalent of the usual description of dharmakaya as the benefit that accrues to oneself and the rupakaya as the benefit that comes to others. The terminology is different, but the understanding of what the terms signify is parallel. When the latent, inner state of bud- dhahood becomes fully evident for the practitioner him or herself, this is referred to as inner lucidity' and is the state of primordial purity, which is dharmakaya. When the natural radiance of mind becomes manifest for the benefit of others, its responsiveness accounts for the entire array of form manifestations, whether pure or impure, and this is referred to as outer lucidity', the state of spontaneous presence which comprises the rupakaya.

In the context of the path, then, this explanation of primordial purity and spontaneous presence, and what is discussed in the newer schools of Highest Yoga Tantra both come down to the same ultimate point: the fundamental innate mind of clear light.

What, then, is the profound and special feature of the Dzogchen teachings? According to the more recent traditions of Tibetan Buddhism, collectively known as the Sarma schools of the Secret Mantra Vehicle, in order for this fundamental innate mind of clear light to become fully evident, it is necessary first of all for the coarser levels of ordinary mind, caught up with thoughts and concepts, to be harnessed by yogas, such as the yoga of vital energies, pranayoga, or the yoga of inner heat, tummo. On the basis of these yogic practices, and in the wake of those adventitious thought patterns of ordinary mind being harnessed and purified, the fundamental innate mind of clear light-'mind' in that sense becomes fully evident.

From the point of view of Dzogchen, the understanding is that the adventitious level of mind, which is caught up with concepts and thoughts, is by its very nature permeated by pure awareness. In an experiential manner, the student can be directly introduced by an authentic master to the very nature of his of her mind as pure awareness. If the master is able to effect this direct introduction, the student then experiences all of these adventitious layers of conceptual thought as permeated by the pure awareness which is their nature, so that these layers of ordinary thoughts and concepts need not continue. Rather, the student experiences the nature that permeates them as the fundamental innate mind of clear light, expressing itself in all its nakedness. That is the principle by which practice proceeds on the path of Dzogchen.

The Role of an Authentic Guru

So in Dzogchen, the direct introduction to rigpa requires that we rely upon an authentic guru, who already has this experience. It is when the blessings of the guru infuse our mindstream that this direct introduction is effected. But it is not an easy process. In the early translation school of the Nyingma, which is to say the Dzogchen teachings, the role of the master is therefore crucial.

In the Vajrayana approach, and especially in the context of Dzogchen, it is necessary for the instructions to be given by a qualified master. That is why, in such approaches, we take refuge in the guru as well as in the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. In some sense, it is not sufficient simply to take refuge in the three sources of refuge; a fourth element is added, that of taking refuge in the guru. And so we say, I take refuge in the guru; I take refuge in the Buddha; I take refuge in the Dharma; I take refuge in the Sangha. It is not so much that the guru is in any way separate or different from the Three Jewels, but rather that there is a particular value in counting the guru separately. I have a German friend who said to me, You Tibetans seem to hold the guru higher than the Buddha. He was astonished. But this is not quite the way to understand it. It is not as though the guru is in any way separate from the Three Jewels, but because of the crucial nature of our relationship with the guru in such practice and teachings, the guru is considered of great importance.

Now this requires that the master be qualified and authentic. If a master is authentic, he or she will be either a member of the sangha that requires no more training, or at least the sangha that still requires training but is at an advanced level of realization. An authentic guru, and I stress the word authentic','must fall into one of these two categories. So it is because of the crucial importance of a qualified and authentic guru, one who has such realization, that such emphasis is placed, in this tradition, on the role of the guru. This may have given rise to a misconception, in that people have sometimes referred to Tibetan Buddhism as a distinct school of practice called Lamaism', on account of this emphasis on the role of the guru. All that is really being said is that it is important to have a master, and that it is important for that master to be authentic and qualified.

Even in the case of an authentic guru, it is crucial for the student to examine the guru's behaviour and teachings. You will recall that earlier I referred to the Four Reliances.' These can be stated as follows:

Do not rely upon the individual, but rely upon the teaching.

As far as the teachings go, do not rely upon the words alone, but rely upon the meaning that underlies them.

Regarding the meaning, do not rely upon the provisional meaning alone, but rely upon the definitive meaning.

And regarding the definitive meaning, do not rely upon ordinary consciousness, but rely upon wisdom awareness.

This is how a student should examine a teacher, using these four reliances. Our teacher, Lord Buddha, said,

O bhiksus and wise men,

Just as a goldsmith would test his gold

By burning, cutting, and nibbing it,

So you must examine my words and accept them,

But not merely out of reverence for me.

All of the foregoing comments have been my way of introducing you to the background to this empowerment. What is most important during an empowerment of this nature is that: as Buddhists, we place great emphasis on taking refuge; as Mahayana Buddhists, we place great emphasis on the bodhisattva vow and arousing bodhicitta; and, as Vajray- ana practitioners, we lessen our fixation on perceiving things in an ordinary way, and rely upon pure perception. This is how you should receive an empowerment, ä_æ

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