Thursday, September 25, 2014

Verse 2.1 — Ground, path and fruition in dzogchen

Wonder of wonders!

My nature is great completion.
Complete — all experience, patterned or free, is free of anything to discard or attain. 
Complete — the essence of all spiritual instruction is utterly natural release.
Complete — the essence of all outlook is no conceptual position.
Complete — every path of practice ends in making no effort.
Complete — all guidelines end in no do’s or don’t’s.
Complete — the essence of result is to be free of hope.
And this term “complete” is just a concept, too.

Having pointed out the ways we fall into problems no matter how sophisticated, subtle or potent a practice we pursue, Jigmé Lingpa now turns to the non-practice practice of dzogchen or “great completion”. The term dzogchen རྫོགས་ཆེན was initially translated as great perfection, but as Westerners gained more experience and understanding, they came to appreciate that the perfection described here was more a sense of completeness than a sense of an ideal. Thus, most translators now use the term completion rather than perfection.

Line 1: My nature is great completion.
Samantabhadra speaks in the first person now and describes how experiences arise for him. This is important to remember as this kind of writing is primarily descriptive, not prescriptive. Over the centuries, people have often taken it as prescriptive and turned it into instructions, philosophies and moral guidelines. In effect, they took a description of a result as an instruction in method, rather like taking "being fit" as a method for exercise.

My own reading is that Jigmé Linpga, using the literary conventions of his day, is expressing his joy and wonder at this way of experiencing life and describing how things appear to him — including, as in the first section of this poem, the folly of trying to make anything happen.

When I read passages such as these next six lines, I marvel at the richness and intricacy of this poetry. What seems like a simple series of negations actually has a definite structure that leads the reader through two carefully interwoven frameworks. The first framework is ground, path and fruition, and applies to lines 2, 3 and 7. The second framework is outlook, practice and behavior, and applies to lines 4, 5 and 6. The two converge in line 7. In line 8, in a gesture worthy of Zen, the whole idea is thrown away.

Line 2: Complete — all experience, patterned or free, is free of anything to discard or attain.
Patterned experience is a free translation of samsara — how we experience the world when we are in the grip of emotional reactions. Free experience is a similarly free rendering of nirvana, those moments when not only are we free of the grip of n emotional reaction, but our experience of life is so vivid and awake that a sense of fullness overwhelms any feeling of self or individuality. Ordinarily, I find myself trying to push away emotional reactions and hang onto those special moments, but the radical perspective of Great Completion teaching is that each moment of experience, whether reactive or not, is complete, in and of itself. In other words, everything we experience is just an experience. This is the ground of no-ground in Great Completion. In Theravadan teaching, this ground of no-ground is expressed in the phrase, “‘This is not mine, I am not this, this is not what I am.” It sounds so simple, but to live and practice this is not easy.

Line 3: Complete — the essence of all spiritual instruction is utterly natural release.
As for path, we don’t do anything. We allow experience to resolve itself. 

Put a cushion or a chair in the middle of a room or outside, wherever you choose. Sit down and let your body settle comfortably. Let your breath settle, too. And your mind. Now just sit there, and don’t do anything. Thoughts arise, of course, and they catch you. As soon as you recognize that you have been distracted, take a breath, come back and start again. A puff of wind, the sound of a siren, the pattern of light and shadow before you — these also catch you. When you recognize that, take a breath, come back and start again. Last night’s dinner with friends, a harsh word to or from your partner, a mistake at work, a pat on the back — these also catch you. Come back and start again. You feel inadequate, that you should be doing more — come back and start again. You feel utterly at peace, what a relief! — come back and start again. Experiences of clarity or bliss or non-thought may also arise. Come back and start again. They are often accompanied by a feeling that you are finally getting somewhere or other feelings of pride, achievement, relief, joy, awe, devotion, etc. Come back and start again. 

Bit by bit we find that we can experience patterns of emotional reactions — thoughts, feelings, associations — just coming and going. We aren’t caught by them, even when they are powerful or intense. Bit by bit, you can let experiences of emptiness, transcendence or immanence come and go, too. Every experience it seems, whatever it is, forms and dissolves, like a patch of mist or a rainbow in the sky. 

This is how we let experience resolve itself.

Line 7: Complete — the essence of result is to be free of hope.
For some reason, many people find this idea depressing. Perhaps it has to do with the way different languages are structured? Maybe it has something to do with psychology? I don’t know. For me, the possibility of living without hope is a freedom, because it means that I live without fear. It also means that I live in peace, because I stop wanting (hoping) things to be different from what they are. When we can just accept how things are (even if they are pretty awful), something relaxes in both mind and body, and an unnameable exquisiteness arises, even in the midst of pain, tragedy or devastation. This is one of the central principles of Buddhism, I think, because it illustrates vividly how suffering comes to end.

When I stop wanting things to be different from what they are I am more able to notice and be in the actual experience of life, right now, just as it is. In other words, I’m more likely to stop and smell the roses or just be with a friend in pain. This doesn’t stop me from working at things, such as writing this book, but the meaningfulness of any action or activity is not based in the results that might be achieved but in the fact that  life is calling for this activity right now. The challenge is to find the balance in all the different pushes and pulls that make up one’s life. For that, I have found that the best method is to open to everything that is calling to me in my life, all of it. I don’t try to sort out the flood of desires, demands, challenges, hopes, fears, aversions, longings and ideals. I just sit in the whole mess, until the next step becomes clear. This approach works for me, but I know it doesn’t work for everyone. Yet I have seen that others have also found their own way to engage just what their life is calling for, remarkably free from hope and fear. That is what counts.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Verse 1.11 deity practice — being the deity

Mind itself has no heads, hands, or regalia.
With your fixed notions you make the mistake
Of seeing what arises as a deity’s form or mistake sound as mantra,
And don’t see it through the path of great union! 

Probably no practice in Tibetan Buddhism creates as much confusion and frustration as deity practice. The problems aren’t limited to Westerners, by any means. One of my teachers, Dezhung Rinpoche, scrunched up his eyes as he mimicked intense concentration while he gave a running commentary, “Deity practice is so difficult! You imagine the heads, the arms, the legs and all the regalia, one by one. When you have one clear, the others fall out of focus. You pull them back in. You keep trying, harder and harder. Bit by bit the form becomes clearer. You have the whole deity, except for one toe. You bring that toe in and the whole image collapses. Then you have a headache!” he said, as he leant back, laughing.

A deity is an expression of mind itself, or to word it more loosely, the spiritual in us and in the world. By the spiritual, I mean a way of experiencing life that is beyond the ordinary, that is free of thinking and emotional reaction, that is clear and vivid, alive, awake and present, a way in which “I” and “other” lose their meaning. In the practice of great union (mahayoga), the spiritual is given a form. We use this representation to make a connection with the spiritual by suspending our habituated patterns and filling our minds with the symbols and magic of the deity. We transform the way we experience our lives and the world, ideally experiencing everything that arises as the spiritual taking expression in our lives. 

For example, Avalokiteshvara is the expression of awakened compassion. Rather than try to see yourself in a white body with multiple arms while arrayed in princely Indian attire from a bygone era, ask yourself, “What is it like to be the embodiment, the expression, of awakened compassion?” Immediately, everything changes — your relationship with your body, your senses, your feelings and the ordinary stream of thoughts that make up everyday experience. They don’t go away, necessarily, but their importance and influence fade and something else comes into the picture, perhaps only for a few moments. In those moments, you sense another possibility — a way of knowing that is not limited to blind reaction and conceptual thinking, a way imbued with the qualities represented in the iconography of Avalokiteshvara, a way which presents you with tremendous challenges, a way in which you are present and free. That is what you cultivate. Then you extend your practice. Ask yourself, “What is it like to see and regard others as being the embodiment of awakened compassion?” Another shift takes place right there. And you go further, again, with, “What is it like to see this person who has or is hurting me as being the embodiment of awakened compassion?” Forget any starry-eyed idealism, here. What is it like, in concrete terms, to see others that way, with all their anger, jealousy, ambition, suffering, love, joy, corruption, selfishness, generosity and care?

The form of the deity, along with all the visualization practices, being honored and initiated by buddhas and bodhisattvas, being praised and honored by all beings, sending light and offerings to all the buddhas, drawing in all their power and energy, sending millions of your own forms into every realm of existence and freeing all beings from their struggles and sorrows, etc., are all ways to instill in you a sense of being the expression of awakened compassion and what that is like in terms of your relationship with the world you experience. 

The same holds for mantra. You repeat a mantra such as om mani padme hung over and over again, until it becomes such a part of you that it replaces the stream of subtle thinking in your mind. When it does, you have a quiet mind, for that stream of thinking has gone, and with it, the tendency to be grabbed by reactive emotions. Voices and sounds you hear don’t elicit the same reactions. You hear them as sounds, pebbles falling into a still pond — there is no reaction or disturbance in you. The world takes on a magical quality and other possibilities open up. Recitation of the mantra generates energy which powers your attention. The mantra instantly cuts through distraction and disturbance. The higher level of attention it generates transforms how you experience the world.

However, often we take the instructions too literally. If the deity is Avalokiteshvara (Chenrezi) for instance, we try to see everyone as having clear radiant white bodies with four arms, draped in silk and jewelry, beautiful and graceful beyond the imagination. We try to see ourselves in the same way. We do the same with mantra, trying to hear all sound as the mantra. But this is to miss the point, utterly and completely. When we focus on the form and iconography of the deity, or even on the symbolism, we are unlikely to connect with the qualities the deity represents. With Avalokiteshvara or White Tara, you are awakened compassion. With Hayagriva, you are the awakened energy that simply incinerates emotional reactions. With Vajrakila, you are the awakened wrath that expresses the fury we feel when we see how suffering destroys the souls of people and kills their spirit.


This verse concludes the first section of this poem. In these ten verses, Jigmé Lingpa has set out ten different paths, beginning with ordinary life and the way of the conceptual philosopher through the first eight spiritual paths according to the Nyingma tradition. All of us, at one time or another, have taken each of these paths of practice. Sometimes we ignore the possibilities of giving expression to the spiritual and just revert to ordinary life. Sometimes we seek the spiritual anywhere but in our own knowing. Sometimes we think about things too much and get trapped by our conceptual systems. At other times we are too self-reliant, or too concerned with truth or purity or symbols. Jigmé Lingpa points out one of the traps in each approach. When we can recognize these traps and step out of them, we are in good shape to practice the non-practice of the great completion, and that is what Jigmé Lingpa turns to next.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Verse 1.10: energy transformation

When you let go of the effort and work of cultivating seeds,
You experience pure being: the result becomes the path.
Then the practices that breathe life and vitality into mind, channels and energy seem so complex.
How tiring, you followers of supreme philosophy! 

In this verse, I am stumped as to how to express the technical vocabulary of the first two lines in natural English. The second line works, sort of, but I’m open to suggestions for the first.

Here is what is going on. (I’ve included a few Tibetan words as a couple of people have asked for the technical terms in Tibetan.)

The Nyingma tradition distinguishes between approaches based on the cultivation of seeds or potentials (rgyu’i and approaches based on giving expression to the results (‘bras.bu’i 

The former refers to the paths described in the sutras and earlier texts in which one cultivates the seeds or potentials of attention, compassion, patience, wisdom, etc. These seeds mature into the experience and qualities of awakening. The usual translation of this approach is “the causal path”. This, to me, is a serious mistranslation because the use of the word “causal” or “cause” in English has quite a different meaning from the term rgyu in Tibetan or hetu in Sanskrit. In English, philosophers are the only people who would ever say, “The cause of an oak tree is an acorn,”  or “Oak trees are caused by acorns.” “Genesis” is a better word but that doesn’t work in this context, and that’s why I’m stumped.

The latter, “the result path”, refers to vajrayana and is usually described as using the result of practice as a path of practice. In this approach, we start with some experience of awakening, however fleeting. That experience may come through an empowerment or transmission, it may have arisen naturally or it was precipitated by some special circumstance. We then let that experience take expression more and more fully, first in our practice and then in our lives.

Again, there are a couple of different approaches. One is to identify with a symbolic representation of awakening, i.e., a deity, and give it expression through what are essentially sorcery techniques until the identification transforms how we experience life. In the Nyingma tradition, this approach is called great union practice and Jigmé Lingpa talks about it in the next verse. Another approach is to transform energy in the body to generate similitudes of the experience of being awake. The level of attention thus created penetrates the projections of thought and emotion and opens the possibility that we just fall into the experience of awakening. This is supreme union practice and Jigmé Lingpa comments on it in this verse. 

Although both these approaches are classified as “result path”, we are still working at a remove from the experience of being awake — on the one hand by imagining it in symbolic form and on the other by generating similitudes through energy transformation.

Energy transformation practices transform the energies of the body, of sensations, of emotions or other elements of our experience so that those energies become available to power attention. The practices use meditations and physical exercises based on energy channels and vital essences in the body. They are present in traditional yoga, many forms of martial arts, medicine and healing arts, as well as spiritual disciplines. Because they work with the basic energies that sustain our lives and well-being, they are inherently dangerous. Yet, when practiced properly, they open up possibilities that are not ordinarily available to us. Helpful and useful as these practices are, people can and do get caught up in the generation of higher and higher levels of energy and the experiences of bliss, clarity and emptiness that accompany them. What was intended to help them find freedom becomes, instead, a form of enslavement, if not addiction.

Here, Jigmé Lingpa is saying that when we stop trying to make anything happen, when we stop trying to develop such experiences, then another possibility opens up — we are just there. That “there” is the groundless open clarity of pure being. This is another technical term, chos.nyid or dharmata, usually translated as “innate nature, true nature of reality, real condition of existence, reality, isness, etc. 

To experience just being this way is no small matter. Jigmé Lingpa may make it sound simple, but one should not confuse simple with easy. It often takes years of effort, years of preparation to build up the necessary capacities, then years of letting go and letting go and letting go. The point here is the difference in approach: working in your practice to build up abilities and capacity or working at letting go and just being. In today’s world, many people just want to let go. Most of the non-dual traditions of practice take that approach. Yet many people practice fruitlessly for years because they have not developed sufficient stability and clarity in attention to experience what arises without being swallowed by confusion or disturbance. On the other hand, other people wear themselves out building skills, abilities and energy. They never learn how to let go of control and just allow experience to open on its own.

Verse 1.9: deity practice, working with symbols

No outside, no inside and nothing between — that quality of attention is
Mind itself, free from conceptual distortions.
When you think in terms of symbols, what is profound and clear is distorted.
How ineffective, you followers of union philosophy!

Over and over again we are told that all experience is mind, but many people have difficulty understanding what this means. 

Take sight, for instance. We see a flower. Ordinarily, we experience the flower to be outside us. It’s “out there”. Then we study Buddhism and we run into lines such as “When you look at an object, there is no object, you see mind.” And we try to figure out how to experience everything as mind.

A monk had studied for many years and felt that he had come to a good understanding. One day, he went to his teacher and said, “I’m ready to leave — to go wandering and to test my understanding with other teachers.” 

The teacher nodded and said, “Very well. I’m not so sure, but I’ll see you to the gate.” 

At the main gate of the monastery, they said their farewells. Then, as the student was about to set out on his way, his teacher asked, “Do you see that big boulder over there? Is it in your mind or outside your mind?” 

The student, confident in his studies, replied, “It’s in my mind.” 

“Ah,” sighed his teacher, “You are going to get tired very quickly if you have to carry that boulder on your journey. Perhaps you should stay and practice a bit more.”

The confusion here is about perception. One way to dispel the confusion is to turn attention from what is seen to the seeing itself. When you look at a flower, you see the flower. When you look at a boulder, you see the boulder. In either case, where is the seeing?  

When you look at the seeing itself, it’s very difficult to say where it is. It  doesn’t seem to be outside, and it doesn’t seem to be inside, either. It’s definitely not in between because you can’t figure out where that would be at all. These categories just don’t seem to apply. It’s very curious. We have the experience of seeing, but we cannot say where that experience takes place. (One might argue using a neurological explanation and say the seeing takes place in the brain. But that view is beside the point because we do not experience seeing taking place in the brain.)

When you look at the seeing itself, what has happened? Perhaps you noticed that when you look this way, thinking stops. You are just looking. If you have sufficient stability in your attention, you can rest in that looking. As long as you are looking at the seeing, there is no thinking. There is just knowing. This knowing is in the direction of mind itself — a knowing free from the conceptual distortions of thinking.

Union tantra (yoga tantra) is the transition from an external form of practice (working through ritual and behavior) to an internal form of practice (working directly with what arises in your experience). In order to facilitate this transition, the profound and clear openness or emptiness of mind is given symbolic expression as a deity. You form a connection with this openness through a set of practices (a sadhana or method of practice) based on your identification with this deity. This connection is experiential, not conceptual. You experience being the deity, appearance in form that arises vividly and clearly out of absolutely nothing and dissolves back into nothing, like a cloud in the sky.

Jigmé Lingpa points to a problem that often arises in this approach. Explicitly or implicitly, we come to believe in the magic of the deity and forget that it is an expression, a symbol, of what we are. That subtle attachment keeps us in the conceptual realm and renders our efforts ineffective. 

The way out is exactly the same as the way out with the flower or the boulder. Periodically, shift attention from your sense of being the deity to asking, “Where is this experience?” Thinking, even subtle thinking, stops right there and you find you are holding onto nothing — nothing whatsoever.