the certain Lama

a transcript of teachings on the five certainties, apprentice retreat – the 19th of March, 1993

by Ngak’chang Rinpoche

He is now no longer an apprentice. He found being shot at the door more than he could handle – even though nothing happened. He had a concept that I was supposed to be holy or something of the sort – not the sort of person to shoot you at the front door with a super glorified version of a child’s cap gun. I always let people down in this respect, because I am not holy and am never likely to be. In the sacred and profane division – I am invariably the profanity.

The Five Certainties are the Lama, the teaching, the time, the place, and the audience (kyil’khor / mandala / retinue). These five are important in the transmission of the Inner Tantras. Now when you look at the teaching of Dzogchen—or the teaching of Tantra—you find something different from teachings given at the level of Sutrayana. This is something that needs to be understood, because we usually view Dharma in its entirety as something about which we can ask questions, and therefore consequently come to understand how things are. This is a problem. Dharma does not avail itself to such understanding. I feel that it is important for you all to realise that once you depart from the field of Sutrayana, that Dharma is not necessarily intellectually communicable. Dharma is always communicable – but not necessarily via the relative codifications of the intellect. It is rather crucial to keep this firmly in you mind.

Sutrayana has what Khandro Déchen and I describe as an ‘experientially common base’. This means that if you are capable of logical thought it is possible to understand Sutrayana. All that is required is determination and the enthusiasm to follow through. There is nothing within Sutrayana that you cannot comprehend if you endeavour to persevere. Nothing is based on extraordinary or uncommon experience. Any subject within the sphere of Sutrayana is open for discussion and for explanation. You can say: Why is that, explain that to me, I don’t understand that, make sense of that for me. Within Sutrayana everything functions according to logic – so that if you have the intellectual capacity, you arrive at an understanding.

Sutrayana is based on the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path. They’re the understanding of unsatisfactoriness. Unsatisfactoriness is mostly translated ‘suffering’ – but dukkha is not ‘suffering’. Dukkha is every shade of unpleasantness from the mildest irritation to the most severe self-imposed pain. Many people would not relate to the idea of the experience of life being characterised as ‘suffering’. Some people might say: Yes that really does describe my experience of existence. Others would say: Yes, I have had some bad times, but I wouldn’t describe my experience of existence as one of suffering – there has also been a great deal of happiness and joy. Suffering is an emotive term, and one which may not convey an accurate sense of what is intended by the Noble Truths. This is why we speak of ‘unsatisfactoriness’. The sky is never quite the right shade of blue. The weather is not as I would prefer it to be. Frank Sinatra lived to be too old and kept attempting to sing. The wood-chip wallpaper is too difficult to remove because someone has painted over it with silk finish paint. Even if I have every thing I want in life it is not there forever. Or somehow there is always something that seems to be missing. There is always some kind of annoyance. There is always some kind of frustration. There is always some kind of disappointment. There is always some kind of aggravation. Even if everything is more-or-less perfect I know that I am going to die one day, and that seems to put a crimp in the whole thing. Dukkha is on-going irritation.

This is where we start. Sutrayana. The idea that whatever our experience of life appears to be, it is not actually quite what we might prefer it to be. This is a common experience. You will not find anyone other than a yogi or yogini who will say: My life is delightful in every moment. So unsatisfactoriness is a fairly solid basis from which to start. It cannot be denied. It is not an article of faith or a spiritual supposition. So we start there, with unsatisfactoriness. We start with the Four Noble Truths and the question: Why is this? Why is nothing ever quite right? And why when everything is right, does that rightness dissipate? Sutrayana is an exploration of why we experience unsatisfactoriness and how it is possible to arrive at a state where we have undermined the root of unsatisfactoriness.

This is something that Khandro Déchen and I have discussed a great deal in terms of emptiness and form – in terms of the fact that we are always questioning the nature of our existence. We question our existence because—in fact—we do not exist. We do not exist according to our own definition of existence. Our definition of existence is that we are solid, permanent, separate, continuous, and defined. Our definition of existence is that unless we are solid, permanent, separate, continuous, and defined – we cannot prove that we exist. Because this is our definition of existence, we always experience unsatisfactoriness. I always experience unsatisfactoriness because the world does not meet my definition. My body does not meet this definition. Nothing about me meets this definition. Well—occasionally it does—but that is an even more frustrating aspect of the problem. It is tantalising that these are the form qualities of emptiness which appear to meet my requirements – it is just that they are all impermanent. They are all empty. Quite often my definitions are fulfilled – but then they dissolve and unfulfil themselves.

An important facet of Sutrayana is impermanence: even though we might get what we want it does not last – or we do not last. Obtaining what we want or need is concomitant with losing what we want or need. Because what we want, how we feel about what we want, how we anticipate how we’re going to feel when we get what we want; all of this – one thing holds true: nothing quite matches up to getting what we want. We go for this thing, we get this thing, and somehow it is still ever-so-slightly unsatisfactory. We go for a situation, we get a situation, and somehow it is still ever-so-slightly unsatisfactory. We go for this person, we unite with this person, and somehow it is still ever-so-slightly unsatisfactory. This is the major question with Sutrayana. The answer—with Sutrayana—is to renouncing the wanting and the needing. Without the wanting and needing there is no unsatisfactoriness. Vajrayana has other answers which we shall explore later.

So Sutrayana is quite understandable. Sutrayana does not require faith. Sutrayana does not require unusual or paranormal experiences. No blinding light is needed – at any time on any road to anywhere. When it comes to the teaching of Tantra however – the base of this vehicle is emptiness. Emptiness is the peak of Sutrayana – so consequently emptiness becomes the base or ground of Tantra. Naturally—if you have a vehicle which has emptiness at its base—the teaching which proceeds from that is not going to be intellectually communicable unless you have had the experience of emptiness. It is surprising just how many people fail to appreciate that point.

This is why it is said in the New Translations Schools and particularly in the Gélug School that one should only really give this kind of teaching to people who have had experience of emptiness both through intellectual analysis and through experience. Be that as it may, from the Nyingma perspective everyone has experience of emptiness, because emptiness is a characteristic of all beings. So to give teachings at this level is to rely on the fact that people have intuition concerning their non-dual nature – and therefore also their empty nature. From the Nyingma point of view we all have contact with our authentic realised nature.

For a Lama to give Vajrayana teachings means that not everybody is going to relate to that Lama. Not everybody is going to relate to the same Lama – because inspiration is involved. The intuition of which I am speaking is the understanding of our primal state which sparkles through the fabric of our conditioning. We can only experience that under specific circumstances.

Q Specific circumstances Rinpoche? I wonder if you could give an example?

R This is no different from being with your partner and having the idea that you might like to enjoy each others company in a specific way. Say that you happen to be in the subway, in which case you might say; Let’s wait till we go home because the subway is not conducive for ecstatic intimacy. There are obviously different places where one can engage in different types of activity, and the subway is not useful for sensual cavorting unless you happen to be an extreme exhibitionist and don’t mind occasionally being imprisoned.

With Vajrayana specific circumstances are required. Although one could go to any Lama for a teaching and transmission—and every Lama within a School or Tradition may be a perfect master of this teaching and transmission—one cannot necessarily receive the teaching and transmission from them all. There may only be a few Lamas – or maybe only one.

Even though you might like and appreciate a Lama, transmission might not occur. It must be the right Lama—the appropriate Lama—the Lama with whom direct contact is viable. That might not be the inconsequential eccentric who sits here. I am probably the last person with whom anyone could have such a contact – and it does not really matter whether you like me or not. It does not matter whether you appreciate me. It does not matter whether the teachings make sense as I express them. It does not matter whether you are excited about the context – something more is required. There has to be the possibility of openness. The Lama you seek out could be as eminent as Kyabjé Düd’jom Rinpoche, Kyabjé Künzang Dorje Rinpoche, or gTérchen Chhi’mèd Rigdzin Rinpoche – but if you have no connection then transmission will not occur. There could also be some insignificant unknown Lama with whom transmission might occur. I have heard Namkha’i Norbu Rinpoche make this point many times within a single teaching retreat. He is always pointing out that his Tsa-wa’i Lama—Changchub Dorje Rinpoche—was no one at all in terms of the Tibetan religious hierarchy. No one had heard of him and no one but his disciples were interested in him.

There is a chance factor with Vajrayana. There has to be a unique connection. There are aspects to this connection which are similar to the process of falling in love. You could say I want to achieve realisation for the benefit of all beings so I will receive teachings and transmissions from a Lama. I will then practice and eventually achieve realisation. That is like saying I want to get married and have children, so I will pick a man or woman from those I see or from a catalogue and proceed. That might not be practical. You cannot decide to fall in love with somebody – that has to happen of itself. The man or woman has to be more than merely attractive to you – they have to have the right personality and there has to be some sort of chemistry. You might look at some catalogue of faces and one face may stand out as attractive. Then you meet the person and he or she is not sympathetic with your tastes in music, literature, art, clothing, food, or any one of an endless list of preferences. On the other hand there might be a person who is ideal in terms of their personality, tastes, and preferences – but in respect of their appearance they are unattractive. The person could be too old or too young. You could have some body type preferences which are contravened too egregiously. I really like you as a friend but … I have heard that remark addressed to me on more occasions than I care to recall … especially before I turned 30. I would appear to have improved since then. Everyone here must have had this experience once or twice at least: everything seems to work but something is missing.

And this is really no different from relating to a Lama. Every human being is ideally qualified to be somebody’s partner. I imagine you can all think of exceptions – but fundamentally, once a person has worked through their major neuroses it might be possible for anyone to find a partner who would more-or-less suit them in most ways. Finding a Lama is maybe a little more difficult than that – in terms of transmission taking place.

Certain things are important. We should understand the Lama. We should have a valid contact with the Lama. Authentic communication must occur with the Lama. The Lama must have sufficient understanding of the quality and texture of our lives. We must receive something experientially tangible in terms of transmission. This is crucial. This is the first point or assemblage of points with regard to the Five Certainties. There is the certain Lama. Which also means that you are the certain student. Does anyone want to ask any questions about that before I go on?

Q What do you mean by openness to the Lama?

R Openness—in this context—means that you have some sense of possibility. That you have no sense of reticence, and that you see your finding the Lama as an opportunity. Once you see something is an opportunity you are prepared to take risks. So ‘openness’ means a certain preparedness to take risks – a certain preparedness to move into unknown territory. Openness means preparedness to be unusually honest about yourself. You need to feel safe. No. That is not true. You do not have to feel safe – you have to be prepared to feel unsafe. You need to feel prepared to take a risk with your sense of identity. You need to feel prepared to take a risk with your sense of direction. You need to feel prepared to allow yourself to be steered in unlikely directions. Openness. You are not holding back. You are not applying to have a safety clause. You do not want the Lama to sign a contract in which he or she promises that he or she will not bite holes in your underwear when you’re not looking. There is no contract specially prepared by your holy attorney of Western Buddhism that the Lama has to sign. That is a definition of openness.

Q Rinpoche, how does that work with the Lamas that have lots of students?

R Lamas of great capacity are capable of having many students. I am somewhat insignificant, so Khandro Déchen and I are only capable of teaching a small number. I can only really comment from my own perspective in terms of capacity. Khandro Déchen and I have a limit on apprentice numbers. 84 is our ceiling. The greater the realisation, the more students with whom you can deal – because you are able to see them instantaneously. You are able to have little contact with them and you are able to give them a few words which mean a great deal. Kyabjé Düd’jom Rinpoche was like that. If you are a person like me however, you have to spend individual time with students. Khandro Déchen and I have to find out about you. I also have the handicap of having to surround every point of Dharma with lot of whimsical nonsense and that does not lend itself to large student numbers.

Q Except maybe… because you’re so kind you actually draw people who have more problems, who need more contact …

R Kind [Laughter]. Well Khandro Déchen and I attract nice people for some reason. I am not quite sure why – but anyhow, the view I would put forward is that there are different ways in which Lamas work with people. There is one which accords with a Darwinesque process of natural selection in which the Lama attracts large numbers. There will naturally be those amongst the large number who become close disciples. That is fairly traditional.

Q Why do you call that Darwinesque, Rinpoche?

R Because it is often the survival of the fittest. The fittest become the inner circle and the outer edge of the outer circle falls away. Maybe that is unnatural section – I would not like to say. Anyhow Khandro Déchen and I have a different take on this. We only accept a limited number so that our inner circle is also our outer circle – and people only fall away through disinclination to participate. In respect of ‘natural selection’ Khandro Déchen and I have a certain awareness that there are various peculiar ways of ending up on an inner circle. One of those ways is having a private income. We were a little worried about this in respect of evolving our own sangha. If we were to take all comers – how would we select an inner circle? How would we treat people fairly? Our choice therefore has been to say: If you want to be an apprentice, you can be an apprentice. You can only be an apprentice however if you commit to the apprentice programme. Then – once a person commits to the apprentice programme they know they are an apprentice because there are a host of formalities. A wide variety of information opens up and a wide circle of contacts is made available. An apprentice attends apprentice retreats and there is no sense of exclusion. This is a modern formulation which we have evolved in order that you don’t have to have a private income to be a close student.

Being an apprentice however does not guarantee that you become a close student either. It depends whether this is really your home. If this is really your home then you will find yourself engaged in the activities with which you would become engaged if you owned a house: if the roof starts to leak you either repair it or have it repaired. If you rent the house you call the landlord and have no great concern unless the water is dripping onto your personal property within the house. So those who become close become close because they are close. We see more of such apprentices because they work on projects. Khandro Déchen and I work all the time and therefore those apprentices who work with us get to see more of us. It is as simple as that. There is no way to get close without being involved. Also – it depends on how you function and whether we can actually become close. Not every body wants to become close – even though they have ample access.

Some people find after a while that they cannot work with us. We had one Apprentice in Britain whom I seemed to offend all the time for some reason or other. He was always turning up late – not just normally late – he would sometimes be several hours late. I got used to him being late all the time and simply accepted it. I accepted it in an attempt to give him space and a sense of allowance. I felt that he has authority issues and so I took the fight away and offered no resistance. It was a mistake. Anyhow, at that time somebody in America—I do not know whom—sent me a muzzle loading Confederate Colt copy. It was an antique. Rig’dzin told me I could insert percussion caps and makes it bang without shooting any form of projectile. That sounded fun, and it was. It does not fire bullets – it just makes a loud noise. Anyhow – I was expecting the aforementioned apprentice one day and he turned up at the door about six hours late. He was supposed to come for lunch and he turned up after dinner. The doorbell rang during the evening and I somehow knew it was the gentleman in question, so I went to the door with the revolver in my hand. He had never seen it or heard of this old revolver so it came as a surprise to him. I opened the door and said: You’re late again Colin – and this is the last time. BANG! He did not enjoy that a great deal – and exhibited no discernable humour in respect of the event, even though he suffered no harm apart from—possibly—a slight dent in his self esteem. He is now no longer an apprentice. He found being shot at the door more than he could handle – even though nothing happened. He had a concept that I was supposed to be holy or something of the sort – that is to say not the sort of person who would shoot you at the front door with a super glorified version of a child’s cap gun. I always let people down like in this respect, because I am not holy and am never likely to be. In the sacred and profane division – I am invariably the profanity.

Q Rinpoche, could you say a little more about working with people in terms of keeping the numbers down – I find this extremely important because I have previously been involved in a large sangha and never felt as if anyone knew I was there.

R I would not like to make judgement in particular – but in terms of numbers – Khandro Déchen and I only find ourselves capable of working with a small number of people. We also like to get to know people. I guess the only way I am going to find an answer to this is by asking some Lama who has hundreds or maybe a thousand students, what they actually do to make contact with individuals. I would say that in order to handle large numbers you would need the siddhi of brief but meaningful contact. I would also say that it depends on the style of teaching. If it is largely Sutrayana that is being taught, then you can handle many more people. There are distinct rules. There is the vinaya. The teachings have no personal content and so there is nothing to ask beyond clarification of the texts. The higher the level of teaching however, the smaller the student / teacher ratio has to be – because the rules become more and more amorphous. More contact is needed the further one delves in terms of the Tantras. In Vajrayana the Lama needs to monitor what is taking place. Khandro Déchen and I certainly have to monitor the apprentice situation quite carefully and continuously.

Q Rinpoche, I would like to ask a question but I am not sure exactly how to … so maybe I can just tell you what it is and just kind of open up a dialogue on it? People—including me in the past at times and to a smaller degree now—have a tendency of going and looking for a Lama and when they see that they disagree in certain ways with the teacher, what he does or what he teaches, they feel that that’s unacceptable and they go off and they look for another Lama… and what I feel, is that they’re looking for themselves as a teacher. They’re looking for someone who’s going to agree with them in every way, which basically doesn’t exist except for themselves. So… is that what happens, do you think?

R Yes. Khandro Déchen and I have observed this quite often.

Q And so … how does someone as a student deal with that? When they discover that this happens?

R It is no different in a sense from how you cope with a relationship of any kind. If you have a relationship with a person in which they confront you with how you are; if they argue with you and pick at you – are you prepared to stay with this person? It is often some kind of balancing act. You might say: Yes I want to stay with this person. He or she picks at me but they’re highly attractive, outrageously good in bed, outstanding in their field – so … so I’ll stand in their field with them.

Q ?

R Out – standing in their field – so … so I will go out and stand in their field with them. It was one of my attempts at humour. Anyhow – there is the deranged concept that I accept this aspect of the person because I desire another aspect. It’s a degraded trade off. In a sense—in terms of the distorted approach—the relationship with the Lama can be little different. Everyone who follows a spiritual path has a deep commitment to confusion. We all want to stay almost precisely where we are. We are seduced by the concept of change – but we do not really want to change. We are tickled by the idea of gaining liberation – but we are also afraid of disappearing. These two impulses exist side by side.

Q So the relationship with the Lama is intrinsically dishonest?

R And intrinsically primordially honest at the same time. It oscillates between the two – and which of the two gain the ascendancy at any one point rather depends upon the excitement factor. Or the lust factor. Or the love factor. Or—in terms of a human relationship—the infatuation factor.

Q And in the relationship with the Lama?

R In order to be confronted … there has to be authentic reciprocation – something that feeds you in some way. The Lama feeds your impetus towards liberation – through the fabric of your conditioning. If you really find a Lama with whom you can have a good relationship, confrontation and supportiveness need to be in balance. [pause] At the start.

Q … and where they go later is another question, because you might enter into some kind of Damtsig or vow about that at some period where whatever happens you stay.

R Yes … but that vow itself has to be based on complete confidence. If you have a girlfriend or boyfriend for long enough, it is likely that you will get engaged. Then you get married. Then you have children – or that’s what happens – traditionally speaking. At these stages—initial interest, engagement, marriage, etcetera—you are saying: I want to move on to a higher level of commitment. What is that based upon?

Q In a relationship it’s based on attraction and trust; getting your needs met …

R So with the Lama then … ‘getting your needs met’ means something particular. You have to know what that is. You have to ask yourself what it means to get your needs met. Is it my need for confusion or my need for liberation? Is it my need for a mother or father figure in my life – or is it a need for someone who can break through my conditioning? How is that to work? We have to question our honesty in terms of what we authentically want – and that becomes tricky. There is a question of inspiration. There is a question of making some kind of leap – but it is no different from the kind of leap you make when you ask: Will you marry me? That is a great leap of trust and respect.

Q So, you draw the comparison there because it’s important to look at relationships and what we get out of them.

R Certainly. If you think that you are looking to the Lama purely in terms of offering some route to liberation – then this is some high percentage of dishonesty going on.

Q Right … What one actually wants is a mixture of things. One wants support, one wants some kind of excitement, one wants all kinds of different things.

R And so there is a challenge. I think we have to explore that. We have to recognise that if we want to follow the excitement and support—if that’s always what we are going for but we’re not prepared to accept challenge—then …

Q … it’s stupid, this is not what it’s about.

R Because the Lama is going to support me in this way and challenge me in some other way. Support and challenge are essential.

Q So you can try one Lama after another and get supported in different ways according to the personality of the Lama but eventually you’re going to have to settle for some kind of challenge.

R Quite so. In the same way you can try various versions of Mr. Right and Mrs. Right to whom you might get married – but eventually you choose this man or this woman.

Q And this man or this woman will have some kind of issue going on, and there will be some kind of friction there.

R Quite. So you choose your friction. You choose your balance of challenge and support – but somehow there has to be inspiration with that friction, just as there has to inspiration in the support. Support cannot merely be co-dependency – and challenge cannot merely be the endurance of neurosis. When you find inspiration in both, in both the challenge and the support, then you have found your Lama, your certain teacher.

Q That’s interesting, that’s helpful … The only other thing is, I am not sure what you mean by the need for confusion. And the second thing is, if I can ask you, is it alright then to disagree with your teacher at times? It doesn’t make sense to me that you would have to absolutely always agree with him 100%. It would almost be like you were lying to yourself.

R It rather depends what kind of teacher you’re talking about. With the Vajra master, your disagreement is your neurosis. With the spiritual friend, you can disagree – but even then you need to be open to hearing what the spiritual friend has to say in support of his or her Sutrayana point of view.

Q2 With the Vajra master it is not a question of presenting your disagreement but a question of presenting your incomprehension.

R Quite so. So—for example—I never disagreed with my Tsawa’i Lama about anything. I simply would ask: Can you help me understand how my idea is wrong. That is how I would express it to him. I would never say I disagreed – because I never did. My own view of any idea I ever had was that it was an expedience – a temporary measure. If it had not been like this—in Vajrayana terms—it would have been a definition of not having a Vajra master and not being in Vajra relationship. To disagree is to say: I have an idea that is at least as good as yours. This would be fine with any other human being, but if you enter into Vajra relationship, it can only be the point at which you have decided: I trust this person to override my rationale.

Q But I mean before Vajra relationship…

R Before vajra relationship it is different – but even before, if you are exploring the possibility of vajra relationship, disagreement needs to be approached in an explorative sense rather than a confrontative one. To argue with any teacher is actually rather ridiculous. You can argue with lecturers or schoolteachers – but even with a spiritual friend you don’t argue; you inquire further. You may end up saying: I cannot comprehend what you are saying; it does not match my experience. Even then however, you do not batten down the hatches on your idea. You accept it as a temporary impasse.

Q Can I return to the idea of recognising our need for confusion. Is it that if we did not have a need for it we would be realised?

R You could posit that, yes. I think it is fundamentally important to acknowledge that we have a vested interest in unenlightenment. That is why we are here. And that what is important is to acknowledge that our seeking for liberation is a vast con. It is a vast con because we don’t really want to get there; we want to get almost there, and on the edge of it we want to turn round and admire ourselves for almost having got there.

Q And what we hope is that we are going to slip on the edge, and fall over into realisation, and we also hope that we are not going to slip. We hope we are going to remain there on the edge forever – being ambivalent?

R Quite so. We both desire liberation and we desire confusion. That is the nature of the path – that push-and-pull. That is why Tantra explores ambivalence. Ambivalence is duality and the threshold of non-duality. The illusory split between emptiness and form pans out into simultaneously wanting confusion and wanting liberation. If you realise you want both equally – you have a creative situation.

Q And if ever you say: I don’t want confusion, I just want liberation.

R Then you’re lost.

Q And probably not likely to get anywhere because it is just not true – ’cause if you really wanted liberation that much you would be there?

R Precisely. So I think honesty is crucial.

Q Rinpoche is that the crux of the student’s bringing both honesty and dishonesty into the relationship with the Lama? Are there other aspects too?

R There is play. The rôle of the Lama is to play with the honesty and dishonesty of the student – or to conjure with that ambivalence.

Q Rinpoche, is there a kind of student that you really don’t like to take on?

R Yes. Anyone who says they are burning with desire for enlightenment. Khandro Déchen and I have no interest in working with anyone of that type. For us that is a huge obstacle.

Q Is it alright though if someone admits that they want confusion and they want liberation but they want liberation more than confusion?

R [laughs] Are you a lawyer? I have categories of that kind. Khandro Déchen and I simply avoid people who are spiritually intense – or intense in any way. We work with ordinary people who have ordinary lusts. People who have to be special, rarefied, or refried find us rather humdrum. Beyond that … this is just part of talking about the Lama and who the Lama is, so there has to be the certain Lama.