Compassion & The Nine Yanas

Ngak’chang Rinpoche

at San Francisco Shambhala Centre, February 1997

Part X – refuge


Just as within Lama’i Naljor you can see this phase shifting from Mahayoga into Anuyoga into Atiyoga; these yanas are also expressed in the Refuge. Refuge is a fundamental aspect of Buddhism – to take refuge. Unfortunately, in some people’s views, refuge seems to have come to mean some kind of Buddhist ‘baptism’ or being a blessing. I have come to take refuge seriously. I only give refuge when people are actually interested in narrowing down to the practice of Buddhism.

In the Nyingma tradition we speak of refuge in four particular classes – outer, inner, secret and ultimate. The Tibetan words for these are Chi, Nang, Sang and Nang-sang. Nang-sang, or ultimate, actually means most-secret. The first, or outer, level of refuge is Buddha, Dharma, Sangha; in Tibetan, sang-gyé, chö, gen-dün. This is known as the refuge of Sutra. (I am not good at Sanskrit. When I talk about Tibetan I can actually look at the etymology of the words; so I tend to use Tibetan for my examples.) Sang-gyé means complete, open wakefulness. Usually if I am looking for refuge, I go to a smaller, darker place: I go home, I go to bed, I close the door and I go to sleep; and I lock it all out. This is not what is meant by refuge in Buddhism. Buddhism is always the refuge of no-refuge. Sang-gyé, complete open wakefulness, is different from this idea. It is complete. Refuge is not complete because it is refuge from something. This is the refuge of no-refuge; it is complete. It is open – it is not closed. And it is wakeful – it is not hiding in some way. Sang-gyé kyab-su ché: I establish confidence in the actuality of complete, open wakefulness. I usually translate refuge in this way – refuge is the establishment of confidence in the actuality of something. Buddha here is not the founder of the religion, or some kind of god. Buddha is what we are, what we can realise ourselves to be – this complete, open wakefulness. Buddha kyab-su ché: I establish confidence in the actuality of that – that I have some glimpse of that, I am inspired by that, something touches me both emotionally and intellectually about that. I have researched this thing; so I have real confidence that is not based upon wish-fulfilment or projection.

Then there is chö, or Dharma. Chö is as-it-is – not as I wish it was, as I would like it to be, as it ought to be – as-it-is. This is also the refuge of no-refuge; because I cannot say I do not like how it is and I want my money back. This is not a philosophy; this is not something created by anybody, even though people have written about it. No one who ever writes about it owns it; apart from owning it in their being. Dharma—as-it-is— we can discover how it is. This is why Shakyamuni Buddha said: You must not accept my words simply because I am saying them. You have to check these words out; you have to test them. The analogy was to test them like the goldsmith tests gold – by rubbing and burnishing and doing all the tests you can to prove that this is what it is. One has to prove it within one’s own experience. That is what is meant by chö. Chö is not something to be believed; chö is something to be discovered. Here one has to have the courage and openness to accept that what one discovers one might not like. I might not be comfortable with the reality I find in this; it might threaten me in some way. But somehow I am not going to retreat from that and create a cosier version of reality that makes me comfortable. Chö is having one’s nose pressed hard up against the reality of what is there. Then there is gen-dün, sangha. This is an interesting one – taking refuge in sangha – because quite often sangha really are the refuge of no-refuge. If we are confronted with a collection of back-biting, back-stabbing, gossiping individuals, then certainly there is no refuge there. Maybe in the West we have the best possible kind of sangha already; I do not know. I have often had sad perspectives on how Buddhists are with each other in the West. There seems to be a high level of neurosis in which people seem to be there for many different reasons; and often it does not seem to be about becoming more open as an individual. It seems to be about joining a club, being part of something where there is an in-group and an out-group where people are excluded and there are people to talk about. Obviously no refuge is offered there; it is really the refuge of no-refuge if it is like this. What is meant here is that sangha are people who are changing. These are people who are practising; therefore, they are empty people. Usually the definition of a friend is he or she who backs me up in my neurosis: I tell you about the person I have some problem with, and we both sit down and say: ‘Yes – asshole!’ This is how friends usually operate; but this is not necessarily how sangha operates. Sangha are people who are changing; their neuroses should not have such a tight bind on them as they used to have. If we live in a world where we meet sangha members, and one finds that: ‘Hmmm, he or she used to react in this way; and they don’t seem to be doing that any more,’ that is threatening. I think that sangha members feel that they have to give each other gratuitous spiritual advice. This is not what is meant by sangha, either. The only way that sangha members can authentically threaten each other is by being real practitioners. One does not have to make any comment whatsoever on anybody else. It is not even that one does not back one’s friends in the sangha up in their neuroses; it is that one is simply different about it. One does not say: ‘Oh, you should not be having those feelings.’ When one says: ‘That guy is an asshole.’ You say: ‘Maybe, yeah, but then – there are other things too.’ It is not that one has to be puritanical about that, and be ‘holy’ in some way. One is manifesting some compassion, and one ought to be able to resonate to some degree with someone’s view, even though one might not hold that view so seriously any more. A real sangha member would come from the point of view of partial support – in terms of being with this person in what they are feeling, but not really shoring it up and fuelling it. When we are with people like this, it is a little bit irritating really; because we really know that their position is a good position. We know what we want from them, and we know that we are not getting it quite as much as we would like; we know we also have no complaint about that, because we would not really want it to be any other way. That is irritating. This is completely destroyed when another sangha member tries to point out to you that you are not being a good Buddhist – because when one is criticised, one simply entrenches. Then one cannot hear or see anything; and this is really useless.

This is important. This is the functioning of compassion. When one can see someone being really irritated and angry with someone else, the best thing to do is not to say: ‘Oh, you shouldn’t be feeling like this; this is not a good Buddhist thing to feel.’ You can say: ‘Yeah, I can see why you’re irritated.’ You have to resonate a little bit; otherwise you are cut off from this person. You cannot say: ‘I don’t have such feelings.’ All you can say is: ‘Yes, I have them; but I try not to take them too seriously, because that’s not going to help in the end.’ This is refuge of no-refuge, because there is no refuge for our neurosis here. This is what is called the outer refuge.

The inner refuge is Lama, Yidam and Khandro/Pawo. Usually when we speak of refuge, in the Tibetan system we talk about a fourfold refuge which is Lama, Buddha, Dharma, Sangha; this is a hybrid between the outer and the inner refuge. Lama is always put there first because without the Lama, Buddha, Dharma and Sangha do not exist. This is because someone has to exemplify the path. A path is all well and good; but if you cannot see anyone who has lived that, if you cannot see anyone who in some way exemplifies the fruit of that path, then what inspiration is there? There are all kinds of books about how to be a better, taller, more intelligent, more everything person – self-improvement. Exercises to get bigger breasts, larger penis – anything you can imagine – you can get it out there. Improve yourself. You have to see someone who exemplifies this, and have some appreciation of their life and think: ‘Yes, that is really impressive.’

There is always a quality around the teacher of push and pull, of attraction and aversion. There has to be, because one has attraction and aversion for one’s own state of enlightenment. In the same way we are both horrified by our own mortality and seduced by it. This is why when you pass a car accident, you get people gawking – because you think: ‘That squashed individual – that could happen to me!’ People are hypnotised by death; they are horrified by it at the same time. There is this frozenness of: ‘I can’t not look, but I don’t want to look.’ That is a bit like the relationship with the teacher – there ought to be something of that there: That this is a possibility that I want; but on the other hand, I’m really not so sure about that. This should be there, when one looks at one’s teacher. Lama, Buddha, Dharma, Sangha. This is an aside – but it is important to explain why refuge is portrayed in this way.

In inner refuge we have Lama, Yidam and Khandro/Pawo; this is called the Tsa Sum, the three roots of Tantra. The Lama is the root of knowledge. The yidam is the root of power/energy – this is the Lama manifesting in visionary form as the method of practice. It is from the Lama that we receive the wang, the transmission of the practice; this is yidam. Then we have khandro/pawo – dakini/daka. This is usually expressed as Lama, Yidam, Khandro; usually pawo is not mentioned. That is because it is presented from a male perspective; but for women it would be Lama, Yidam, Pawo.

This is a thing that is widely misunderstood in the West. Because pawo is not really referred to much, especially in the current material we have available in the English language, some people have evolved the view that somehow the practice of dakini is associated with women. This is a completely erroneous view. The practice of dakini or khandro is there for men; because it is all about realising the inner khandro. Women are khandro; they do not need to realise khandro. They need to realise pawo, this inner male quality. Accurately it should be expressed as: Lama, Yidam, Khandro/Pawo or Pawo/Khandro.

Q: I thought it had to do with some kind of female angel, but now it sounds like you are talking of anima and animus?

R: I am not so sure about anima and animus; having never studied Jung, I could not concur. There seems to be some similarity; but I would not like to go much further than that. I will explain those terms a little more. The real meaning of pawo and khandro is the inner method-display and the inner wisdom-display. Tantra views men and women as manifesting their duality in a specific way, in terms of manifest and unmanifest or outer and inner; along with the ideas of wisdom and compassion. Wisdom is female; compassion is male. This idea follows throughout the Tantras. This gom-tag I am wearing, the meditation strap that is worn around one knee a little bit like Milarépa wears – this is in three colours: white, blue and red. This represents the channels: the lunar (male) channel, the solar (female) channel and the central (spatial dimension) channel. In terms of Tantric language, when we speak about bodhicitta we are talking about the dynamic of maleness and femaleness – the red and white bodhicittas. This is how the terminology is used there; you find that in each level of Tantra, the word bodhicitta is being used in different ways. This is the same word that is linked with compassion; one speaks of the mixing of the red and white bodhicittas – which is compassionate activity – which relates with sexuality. It is compassionate because it is sensory, it is communicative; it is ecstatic because compassion is ecstatic. Once one understands the language, all the links make fluid sense. Here the idea is that when men and women enter a dualistic state, they manifest that dualism in terms of losing contact with their inner qualities.

Q: Is dakini ever used as a class of beings?

R: Also, yes. The whole field of Tantra is confusing if you imagine that the same word always means the same thing. The term khandro is also used as the Lama’s wife; it is used in many different ways. In this context khandro and pawo mean inner qualities – but more specifically here, the circumstances of the path are described as pawo/khandro. This is the Lama manifesting as the circumstances of the path and the circumstances of relationship. There is a psychology of relationship that is based on this form of imbalance that exists – that men and women exist out of balance with themselves, and therefore out of balance with each other.

Q: Could you give an example of the dakini/daka principle? Is dakini activity the same thing?

R: With wisdom display, the dakini/khandro, one is looking at amorphous qualities – spatial qualities, wisdom qualities. When one is looking at method display or pawo, one is looking at compassionate activity in terms of how it is mechanical and linear, how it is momentary, how it fits circumstances, how it intermeshes with things for periods of time and then moves. One is talking about a form of dynamism – a linear form of dynamism, rather than a dynamic field. What is important to understand is how male-female relationship takes its form through one’s estrangement either from one’s own inner method or inner wisdom. When men lose contact with their inner wisdom display, they become prone to distorted method display – distorted method display is aggression, dominance, fixity in terms of linear form. When women lose contact with inner method display, they tend to manifest decorativeness, and an amorphousness of being that attaches to distorted method display in search of its own lost method display. Instead of gaining that method it becomes dominated by that method; and the method that goes looking for its lost wisdom and finds it in the distorted external wisdom display, loses it as soon as it finds it. This is because wisdom display is only wisdom display when it is free; as soon as it is dominated, it ceases to be wisdom display. Yet the only way to get it, from that perspective, is to dominate it. That is a contracted version – one could talk about that in great detail.

Q: What was the female counterpart to the male aggression?

R: Being the Barbie yidam. These are extreme caricatures; we do not have such caricatures here, but we are all on a continuum with them. Those caricatures go for each other; and the more extreme the caricature, the worse the consequences of it.

Q: Iconographically speaking, what or who is the pawo?

R: You do not usually see pawo. In the Francesca Freemantle and Trungpa Rinpoche translation of the Tho-dröl, there is a thangka painting he painted that depicts pawos. They are often shown carrying banners and beating a drum, which is activity. The archetypal khandro is shown with one leg raised, holding a grigug and skull bowl. You see pawos, just not often, because the dominant aspect of the path was that it was practised by males; so the dakini/khandro came to be the prevalent form. There are many kinds of pawo—Takdong, tiger-headed pawo—that are practices, like the khandro practices.

Q: Is this based upon our physiology—that we have male and female bodies—it doesn’t have so much to do with personality types or whether one is androgynous or not?

R: No. This is why whatever you do to yourself, however you get operated on, you are always male or always female—you cannot alter that—on the level of pawo/khandro.

Q: Sometimes I’ve heard of inner refuge as Lama, Deva, Dakini. Deva?

R: Guru, Deva, Dakini – that is the Sanskrit. That is the inner refuge which equates with outer Tantra, or with the phase including Mahayoga – it is loosely spoken of as outer Tantra. Then we have the secret refuge, which is thig-lé, rLung and Tsa; in Sanskrit – bindu, prana and nadi. It is called ‘secret’ refuge because it is secret; not secret because you cannot talk about it, but secret because you cannot understand it unless you can understand it. If you have no experience of these things, then it is secret; and whatever you say about it is simply information. Thig-lé, rLung and Tsa are the energetic bases of realisation. This is the structure of being in terms of the elements; this is the primal mandala – the arising of earth, water, fire, air and space out of Dharmata. The thig-lés are the spatial essences. rLung is the movement of that; and Tsa is the pattern of that movement. As well as the central, lunar and solar channels, there are Tsa all over the body. Mind or consciousness moves in these Tsa; or these Tsa are comprised by the eddies and currents of these movements.

Q: Is that what to-gal practice is for – working with that?

R: No, to-gal is beyond that; but there is a connection. Here we are dealing with thig-lé as an energetic dynamic, rather than as a spatial dynamic. (In togal) it is much more spatial; it relates with the body, through practices like spatial heat yoga, or phowa – the transference of consciousness. These are Tsa rLung type exercises contained mainly within Anuyoga.

Q: Why can’t inanimate objects experience this residual energy of the movement from Dharmakaya into sambhogakaya manifested in the thig-lé’s? Shouldn’t that be in all pre-atomic matter?

R: I have a certain problem with that myself. I have never been convinced that stones have no consciousness; it is just that I am not aware of it – put it that way. There may be no such thing as an inanimate object – I do not know; my experience runs out there. I am afraid I cannot answer that question. You would have to ask an animist about that. I remember once I was in Switzerland with Kyabjé Rinpoche. This man was having a discussion with him about the possible sentience of plants. Kyabjé Rinpoche loves arguing with people, especially if he can find someone who will really argue with him. This person was not a Buddhist, and so he felt safe arguing with Kyabjé Rinpoche. I was sitting there listening, and keeping safe. He looked at me and said: What do you think? And I said: Oh, I think it is a difficult subject. He said: You one big diplomat, which he said to me on frequent occasions. Anyhow, you Tantric man. You must have opinion. I said: OK, I would say they have consciousness. Why you say this? I answered: Well, for the reasons he’s given: You torture one plant, and the others go ‘Whoa!’ It seems they are reacting; there must be something. He said: Yah, but you can say this of machine: You switch it on; it goes ‘Rrrr’. You push it off, it doesn’t. I said; Yes, but someone made that machine. That’s why when you switch it on it does that. But like you said, I Tantric man; I don’t believe in god. You have to have a god to make plants non-sentient. If there is no god, then it must be sentient. I don’t believe in god; so the plant must be sentient. And he grinned. The Swiss man said, So is there sentience or non-sentience? We both burst out laughing, and that was the end of it. Thereafter he decided they had sentience; but we did not discuss stones. Whether they put electrodes on stones and beat one up and the others do something, I do not know.

Q: Kyabjé Rinpoche said that stones had a consciousness, a slow consciousness. And he said he could see that stones were beings that were wrapped up like this…

R: It is a view; but like most things, I will believe it when I see it. It is possible; I would not say it is not. It is all thig-lé – whether there is something there. I think it is a nice view, whether true or not, because it encourages one to treat everything with respect. That is a nice thing about the native American tradition – how one respects everything – that is important. I have no personal experience of that, so I cannot comment, but I have a friendly disposition towards the idea. Ultimate refuge is Ngo-wo, Rang-zhin, and Thug-jé. Ngo-wo means essence; rang-zhin means energy or nature; and thug-jé is translated in many different ways – as energy, as compassion, as manifestation. Most-secret or ultimate refuge is based on Atiyoga. (break in tape) …It is all pervasively compassionate, all-pervasively ecstatic, all-pervasively lustful, all-pervasively communicative. Thug-jé, in terms of a subject, is unbridled communication, referenceless appreciation. From this perspective, the more we can appreciate the better. We should always regard it as problematic if there is something we cannot appreciate. I remember my friend Gyaltsen Rinpoche, who had not heard from me for a long time, once discovered that someone had a big batch of letters they had not given him for about eighteen months. He wrote to me saying: ‘I found this hard to appreciate.’ This person had not given him all my letters that had been stacked up. I would be writing: ‘I haven’t heard from you in a long time;’ and I would get one from him saying: ‘Why aren’t you writing to me?’ I found this hard to appreciate. I thought this was a nice way of expressing it. That is a way in which we can practice compassion in our lives. Feelings of sympathy towards people, feelings of empathy, kind acts, generous acts, selfless acts – these are all important; but also appreciation is important. One cannot really proceed in terms of cultivating bodhicitta if one has no appreciation. This extends in unlikely ways in terms of Tantra; for example, in terms of how one dresses – one’s appreciation for one’s own clothing, how one puts it on, the care one takes. It permeates every aspect of existence. The Tantric view is the one that I tend to centre on a great deal in how I teach with regard to everyday life. I tend to speak of practice from the view of Dzogchen, and everyday life from the view of Tantra. Here I like to emphasise this Tantric quality within life – of appreciation. It is sad when people who have become Buddhists feel that they can no longer say they enjoy things. You are not able to tell your Buddhist friends that you lust after this shirt in the JPeterman catalogue. People cramp themselves; if you cramp yourself, and you do not enjoy life, then you become a person who cannot allow others to enjoy life either. One develops a kind of ‘critical being’ – some kind of fossilised sanctity creeps into people – which is unhealthy and destroys compassion. It is nice for people to share in other people’s enthusiasm. Even if someone wants something you do not want; if you listen to them enthuse about it, and actually enthuse with them about it and try to enter into their view, this is an important key in terms of compassionate activity. You can resonate with another human being.

Q: But you don’t mean attachment?

R: Shhhhew! Not attachment?! That’s a terrible thing! Attachment..?

Q: Like someone wanting something so much that if they can’t have it they become upset? Grasping?

R: No, I am just talking about humorous lust. As a practitioner – if one is getting upset that one cannot have a thing, one is not a practitioner. What I am talking about is looking at something and saying: ‘Oh! I like that! That’s good. All the juices are moving here, towards that thing, and I’d really like to have that. How can I get that thing?’ You say to your friend: ‘Hey, look at that! I want that!’ This can be humorous – it is humorous because you know that that is not the answer; but it is at the moment, and that can just be funny. It can be open, honest and funny – and you can still try to get it anyway. Then you can have it: ‘Yah, here it is. I’m going to enjoy this; but somehow it’s already a tad less than it was in the shop window already.’ That is funny. I read an article once in some Buddhist journal in Britain that a woman had written about the experience of her husband’s death; and how on one occasion when she was crying, members of her Buddhist group had reminded her of the problem of attachment. I thought: ‘This is brutal stuff.’ Buddhism is not to inflict pain on others; there are other ways of responding. It is certainly sad when somebody dies. This is sad – full-stop – it is sad. I do not have to build on that. I have a relationship with this person and now that relationship is different; I cannot speak with this person anymore – that is gone. There is a disconnection there, and that is going to be an experience of sadness. Marpa cried when his son died. This confuses people who assume that being Buddhist means you snip all your emotions off. What is meant by attachment is how we build objects, people, places, things, and ideas into reference points: ‘This means I exist.’ That is what is meant by attachment; not that I like this, and I am sad that I have lost this. The thing about attachment, especially from the point of view of Tantra, is: ‘How does this function beyond my pure appreciation of it? Does it function as a reference point, to prove my existence?’ People can get upset about the loss of a thing they have not looked at for a couple of years; and then it starts becoming important. You think: ‘What is this? You did not even appreciate it, and now it is gone. It must have had some other function there.’ One should never use this idea of attachment as a means of cutting-off. If one cuts off from pleasure, one cuts off from appreciation; then one also cuts off from compassion. One cannot do that – it does not work. You find that if people try to live life as if they have no attachment to anything, they actually become quite hard and brutalised in their relation with others – they are unable to respond to people who are experiencing loss. It is usually because they are terribly afraid of loss, and have retracted from connection in order to protect themselves. I have seen this among Western Buddhists – it is even more a male propensity to be emotionless and to remind people about attachment if they ever seem to be exhibiting emotion.

Q: Once somebody was saying that they had cried at their parent’s death; and a Gélug Lama who was there seemed to think that that was a bad thing – not in terms of attachment, but for the dying process, the journeying on. Is that so? If one of my parents was dying, and I sat there and wept, that that would be detrimental?

R: It would not be helpful. When someone is dying, they do not need that tie: Oh, my son is there suffering. That is a tie they can do without.

Q: Would it be good to repress..?

R: Yes. Someone who is dying needs you to be there, being strong for them, not falling apart for them.

Q: But if you had great attachment to your mother, and you were with her, it would be…

R: Maybe you could alternate – whip out to the comfort station and cry, and then come back again. It is good to have a certain degree of control; one can do it. For someone who is dying, those last moments are important; so it is worth a little bit of repression. Repression is not all bad – that is important to understand – repression has got bad press recently. There are times when to repress something is useful. It is just that when it is the dominant mode… To express or repress – that would be a time to repress; to say: ‘I am not going to do that now.’ Otherwise you are sending this person off with all this hell going on around them – people suffering – and that is not a useful way to have your elements dissolve. That would be the principle of what he was talking about.

Q: In the Nyingma Tradition, are there lineage holders or students who can realise the ultimate refuge without passing through yidam practice? Are there people who can directly hear Dzogchen teachings and manifest Dzogchen view – stabilise within that view – without passing through formal practice of the yidam?

R: Yes, that is considered possible; but I have never met any practitioner of Dzogchen who does not practise yidam. It is considered that as a Dzogchen practitioner, one has to be open to the practice of all the vehicles. Every Lama I have ever known who was primarily Dzogchen in orientation, has always practised yidam – mostly wrathful yidam as part of wrathful practice. The famous Lama Shabkar Rinpoche, had a balance of practice which was Dzogchen and Kriyatantra, which is more unusual. Dzogchen was his practice; yet he was vegetarian, did not drink alcohol, and spent his life building chörtens and engaging in many forms of meritorious activity. That was his combination. He was initially ordained as a ngakpa, and then he took monastic ordination; so he remained celibate, too. This is an unusual way round to do things; but I think it is a nice example, because it shows there are so many different ways that one can combine areas of practice, according to one’s individual propensities.