An old dharma friend named Jonny wrote me the other day with a question that he had. We had first met in 1995 down by Mungod in south India where he was teaching English at Drepung Loseling, and I was studying with Geshe Wangchen, under the kind graces of Lelung Rinpoche who at the time was dividing his time between Drepung Loseling and Nechung Monastary in Dharamsala.
Over the years as I came to meet and study under the late Kyabje Dorje Chang Bokar Rinpoche, and my path crossed with Jonny’s and other dharma friends amidst the annual groundswell of dharma that occurs during the fall months in Bodh Gaya. It was there that I had the opportunity to introduce Jonny to this wonderful oceanic meditation master. From that point onwards that my relationship with Jonny changed to that of dharma brother, which is where we are in this moment.
After the tragic, unfortunate death of Kyabje Dorje Chang Bokar Rinpoche, most of his students were left in a place of loss and sadness. The confounding suddenness of his death created a barren confusion- I remember from my own experience that this was a terribly painful and confusing time. The loss of a teacher can be very painful. I had felt that there was an intimacy in my relationship with Bokar Rinpoche that made him feel like a father- it took a number of years to be able to return to his seat monastery in India without feeling a profound sense of loss and sadness.
Over time the, winds of karma, the great teacher that might be described as the impermanence of appearance, blew Jonny into the lap of Yangthang Rinpoche, and I into the lap of H.E. Gyaltsab Rinpoche. As our experiences arising from meditation practice change, and as we slowly try to blend whatever insights that arise from such experiences into our daily lives, we email from time to time- to check in and see where the other is.
In an email last month, Jonny wrote:
I have a question arising from the Tsele Natsok Rangdrol book I’ve just finished reading. He mentions the “traditions of practice of the different lineages – recognising the meditation from within the view or establishing the view from within the meditation”. This has provoked a lot of interest in my mind, and I keep coming back to it. As far as my very limited understanding is concerned, the first approach in this quote seems to be that of Dzogchen, and the second Mahamudra. The Kagyupas seem to talk more about meditation, while Nyingmapas focus more on the view. In mahamudra there seems to be more emphasis on shinay and then lhaktong in order to realise the view, while in Dzogchen it seems to be more about instantaneously, effortlessly seeing what is already there. And this seems to fit with what I said about the quotation above.
Am I on the right track here? Can you comment on the quotation for me? Or can you recommend a book which illuminates clearly m’mudra and dzogchen and the differences?
Upon reading this email, I put down what I was doing, and with a deep sense of joy and excitement, considered what he was asking. What an important question- what wonderful subtlety implied in this question!
At first glance I tend to feel that there is a distinct “stylistic” difference between mahamudra and dzogchen in a way. On an ultimate level, however, there is a false dichotomy between view and meditation. This is something that Tsele Natsok Rangdrol touches on in the book The Heart of the Matter. Rangjung Dorje, the 3rd Karmapa, in his wonderfully succinct Mahamudra Aspiriation Prayer, and Karma Chakme, in The Union of Mahamudra and Dzogchen support this perspective.
In the Tibetan tradition there is often a reference to the term definitive meaning (nges don) which generally translates as: ultimate meaning, ultimate truth, truth, objective meaning. Definitive meaning exists separately from relative meaning. Relative meaning refers to the comparing and contrasting between things, it is a means through which we can know and understand one thing from another. The experience of definitive meaning- ultimate truth- occurs in some combination of gaining clarity of relative truth. In the experience of resting within our mind as it arises, within our experience of the arising of phenomena/appearance, we are afforded glimpses of the definitive meaning. It is a process of familiarization, and in some cases even described as a homecoming of sorts; the reunion of the mother and the child.
I sometimes gain some clarity in viewing both mahamudra and dzogchen as something akin to mathematical sets. They are two ways to approach the realization of mind, the definitive meaning of its experience, and the various qualitative ways in which we experience “mind”. These two unique sets, mahamudra and dzogchen, are distinctive incredibly rich paths that undoubtedly lead to the experience of a definitive meaning, an inner vocabulary, of our experience of mind. This “mind” that we experience, is the same for both “systems”, and when we look at their differences, they often seem to drift into the misty edges of mind essence.
Both approaches recognize that experiencing the mind’s essential nature is an experience akin to a mother being reunited with their child; or something similar to realizing that we have been carrying a priceless jewel with us through out our life experience, but failed to notice it- until now. That noticing, that knowing awareness, and the inner confidence which arises announcing awakening. In fact, the mere suggestion of there being an awakening, or a change in our being, draws us out of relationship with the experience of mind in a definitive manner.
Both mahamudra and dzogchen describe the freshness and immediacy of our experiences- they are now. Not something planned for the future, not based upon trying to recreate a past experience. This experience is often described as clear, blissful, and empty. These four words are translations from the Tibetan, and what they truly mean for us within our own experience, is unique to our own particular journeys. Some experience more of the illusory aspect of mind, others experience the mind’s clarity, and still yet others experience the bliss associated with resting within definitive meaning.
Bliss can be very dangerous and seductive, not to mention hypnotic. I have spent much time with patients who have been admitted to locked in-patient psychiatric facilities who struggle with bi-polar disorder and schizophrenia; people who in the throes of their mania exert phenomenal enthusiastic energy in trying to convey the perfect experience that they feel. Oh, how the bliss lit their soul ablaze in a way that nothing else could. The feeling that I am often left with when with such patients is that of awe and respect- I find it very compelling to be allowed to witness the expression of their experience of blissfulness that often occurs within the experience of mania. I have often found myself hypnotized while in the presence of such people, dazzled by the passionate feeling of blissful unity- and yet I am left feeling a profound sadness that I experience while trying to chaplain patients who appear addicted to a sense of bliss that disconnects them from the rest of the world.
Bliss arises, and we are taught to not be attached to it- it is one of the many things that we may experience.
And yet, bliss is important.
Similar shadows exist around the experience of mind as illusory. Indeed, the profound experience of the emptiness of all phenomena as experienced through our interface with the illusory appearance of every moment- a joining with the totality of what arises as empty of all characteristics and the awareness of the interplay between ourselves and this field of experience- holds the danger of being overly reductive. It’s shadow may be a depressive state.
Bliss, emptiness, and clarity/luminosity- these are three ways that we experience mind.
Yet, mind is mind is mind is mind…. and yes, just as there can be distinct aspects of the mind that we relate with, or experience, and just as there is a particular style, or even flavour, that is distinct regarding dzogchen and mahamudra, we must remember that these distinctions arise from mind. We feel and think, and yet from where do these feelings and thoughts arise; these created worlds, what is their source? We interface with different aspects of mind, but they are temporary appearances, waves lapping at the edge of a lake- no two are the same, and there is no end, they just happen. To hold onto the distinction may be problematic.
I tend to wonder if we can say that these distinctions have more meaning outside of our personal experience of mind, than say, as opposed to within our individual experience of mind. The three masters that I refered to above, Rangjung Dorje, Karma Chakme, and Tsele Natsok Rangdrol all occupied places within their practice traditions as Kagyu/Nyingma masters and the two former masters were recognized as tertons in their own right. All three were able to hold both: mahamudra and dzogchen. They were able to come into direct relationship with mind. From this place, I wonder if all distinctions around how practice is described, or how mind appears/in experienced is secondary. While I feel that it is safe to say that individually we may all exhibit a predilection towards experiencing glimpses of the definitive experience of mind somewhere within the traditional nomenclature of bliss, emptiness, or clarity, with one aspect perhaps feeling more “natural” than another, it seems important to recognize that our experiences change, and that it is possible to form an attachment to the way we experience mind-essence.
For example, usually our relationship with our yidam has something to do with the way in which we interface with the experience of awakening as each yidam offers a model/modality through which we can act seated within our experience of buddha-nature. I marvel sometimes how much we really become our yidam (or they become us)- in many ways it seems that there is a profound transference of quality and of action within the modalities of expression through body, speech, mind, and essence. At our best, there is an experience of natural simultaneity, a natural ease and effortlesness in which we are the yidam- in moments where practice feels forced and contrived, we get hung up on the details, on experiencing things only one way, that there is a specific way in which we have to practice, a way that we have to interface with appearance. All of the sudden we are working to get some where, to be something, or to induce a particular experience. In yidam practice there are handy “tricks” through which we return to focusing upon the implements or mandala of the buddha of our practice, or a quality, or the transparency of our visualization so that an antidote of sorts is applied to falling out of relationship with our experience of the yidam; that which is no other than us.
Similarly, in approaching mahamudra from the perspective of shinay, lhaktong, and their union, a structural path laid out by the polymath Jey Gampopa, and as passed on from him down to the 9th Karmapa, Wangchuk Dorje in the Ocean of Definitive Meaning as well as Kyabje Bokar Rinpoche in his essentialized distillation of Wangchuk Dorje’s seminal work, entitled Opening the Door to Certainty, yes, there may be more emphasis placed upon “establishing” or perhaps “easing” into the view through meditation. This approach to mahamudra, sometimes termed the Path of Liberation, or sometimes refered to as sutra mahamudra, is methodical and graded- often a gradual path, but not always so. And I feel that much thought must be inserted here. As dharma practitioners, or anyone really who follows a particular spiritual tradition, textual exegesis is vital to the maintenance of tradition- it is what connects us to the group, to our lineage. And yet, we must realize that the exegesis that we interface with surrounds the way we experience mind, which ultimately ends up being a relatively individual experience. That the Path of Liberation can only be said to be a gradual path ignores the fact that the possibility of “instantaneous” realization is always a present- in fact instantaneous insights do occur. Karma Chakme spends time treating this particular “problem” as it were. For him spontaneous realization is always a possibility, no matter what the practice may be.
Then there is the Path of Means, often refered to as mantra mahamudra, or the approach to mahamudra through the six yogas and or inner and secret yidam practice. In these approaches there is often a more instantaneous type of resting in the view, something that I feel offers a similar feeling of sudden realization that dzogchen often refers to. I guess you could say the Kagyupa have bridged both sudden and gradual; Gampopa introduced the first Lam rim literature into the Kagyu lineage and from that point in time it appears that Sutra and Mantra mahamudra was presented as separate approaches to realizing the mind’s essential nature. Peter Alan Roberts in his recent book entitled Mahamudra and Related Instructions, describes just how distinct Gampopa’s work was in codifying the Kagyupa approach to mahamudra, and how often the delineation between gradual and instantaneous approaches, especially in the associated forms of sutra and mantra approaches was made along the lines of monastic and lay. As the first person to translate much of the core essence of the early kagyu lineage into a monastic tradition, a split had to be made between some of the tantric practices that challenged the conduct maintained by the monastics and his lay followers.
I suppose what I am trying to stress is that I’m not so sure that looking for the difference between the View as described within the context of dzogchen and that of mahamudra is as helpful as modulating between both Views within our practice. The View helps keep meditation fresh- it is necessary to be familiar with the View (how the mind arises). Meditation, the process of developing familiarity with the View (putting it into practice and actualizing it) prevents the View from becoming a concept that appears more real and rigid than perhaps it ought to be. There is a binary relationship that we need to maintain, a relationship that shifts and eventually blends into a naturalness in which there is no longer any applied effort- we just are. Some of us have been lucky enough to meet people who manifest being in this way- they are indeed buddhas.
The false dichotomy lies within the fact that there is no real difference between meditation from within the view and the view from within the meditation. The View is mind-essence, the mind as it arises, as it appears, and how we relate to appearance. Meditation is resting within that experience of mind. Even the practice of shinay carries all of the aspects of mind. What is the stillness? What is it that we are we focus upon in a single pointed way? Where is the stillness? True, asking these questions is similar to lhaktong, and indeed may be, but that knowing, that awareness, is always there while we do shinay- it is not necessarily something that we add to the mix. As far as literary exegesis is concerned there is a lineal distinction between the approach to mind as we find in mahamudra, dzogchen, lamdre, and other forms of practice, however when we look at the works of great realized siddhas we find descriptions that offer resounding clarity. For example, Rangjung Dorje says:
Free from being mind-made, this is mahamudra;
free of all extremes, it is mahamadhyamaka;
this contains all, and so is “mahasamadhi” too.
Through knowing one, may I gain firm realization of the meaning of all.
Great bliss with no attachment is continuous.
Luminosity without grasping at characteristics is unobscured.
Nonconceptuality that goes beyond intellect is spontaneous.
May unsought experiences occur without interruption.
Preferential grasping at experiences is liberated on the spot.
The confusion of negative thoughts is purified in the natural expanse.
Natural cognizance adopts and discards nothing, has nothing added or removed.
May I realize what is beyond limiting constructs, the truth of dharmata.
And Tsele Natsok Rangdrol follows:
The Middle Way, the unity of the two truths beyond limitations,
Mahamudra, the basic wakefulness of the uncontrived natural state,
And the Great Perfection, the original Samantabhadra of primordial purity-
Are all in agreement on a single identical meaning.
This mind that is present in all beings
Is in essence an original emptiness, not made out of anything whatsoever.
By nature it is unimpeded experience, aware and cognizant.
Their unity, unfathomable by the intellect,
Defies such attributes as being present or absent, existent or nonexistent, permanent or nothingness.
Spontaneously present since the beginning, yet not created by anyone,
This self-existing and self-manifest natural awareness, your basic state,
Has a variety of names:
In the Prajnaparamita vehicle it is called innate truth.
The vehicle of Mantra calls it natural luminosity.
While a sentient being it is named sugatagarbha.
During the path it is given names which describe the view, meditation, and so forth.
At the point of fruition it is named dharmakaya of buddhahood.
All these different names and classifications
Are nothing other than this present ordinary mind.
With these words as a guide, we find our way, succeeding and failing to realize the nature of mind- working to familiarize ourselves through practice with mind and with phenomena. As we settle into natural awareness, an effortlessness in being, I wonder where all the words go. Perhaps they too, dissolve into the soft edges of graceful wakeful knowingness.