Compassion & The Nine Yanas

Ngak’chang Rinpoche

at San Francisco Shambhala Centre, February 1997

Part VII – focus through the yanas

Narrowing and Opening One’s Focus Through the Yanas:

The Rôle of Spiritual Friend and Vajra Master:

There are many different approaches. One starts with Sravakayana with this spreading outwards of interest – one is examining, one is looking around. Then one has Pratyékabuddhayana – one narrows down into practice. Then one opens out in terms of compassion for all beings—Bodhisattvayana—into my practice being for the benefit of all sentient beings. This is not just for me; I am touched by everyone’s situation. This creates an immense energy for practice. In Tantra that energy is focused down again into the teacher. Here one has the Tantric vows, the Fourteen Root Downfalls, and these focus in on the teacher – but then the teacher is Buddha, Dharma, Sangha; the teacher is all sentient beings. Everything is realised through one’s relationship with the vajra master. The teacher becomes like a lens – the sunlight or warmth of one’s compassion for all beings is focused into this lens. The lens then focuses that back out again; or the lens focuses it back and burns a hole in the object or the subject. One has that quality of reciprocity there.

Q: First you have the paradigm of the Bodhisattva view; and then you move into focusing on the Tantric Lama. But it can also work the other way, I would think. For someone who did not maybe have a Bodhisattva view – by focusing in on the Lama, he could focus out again?

R: Yes. From Bodhisattvayana onwards – each vehicle contains each vehicle. This does not apply to Sravakayana or Pratyekabuddhayana, but from Bodhisattvabuddhayana onwards – each vehicle contains each vehicle. One can see Tantric aspects within Sutra; Sutric aspects within Tantra. One can find Dzogchen in Sutra – in the Heart Sutra: Form is emptiness and emptiness is form. This is the basis of the Dzogchen teaching; it is a nondual teaching. Here there is a great difference in how the teacher functions. At the level of Sutra the teacher is invisible. He or she is a vehicle through which the teachings are expressed; nothing of his or her personality is there. One can go to many different teachers and just hear Dharma. The teacher performs his or her task at an impersonal level; they exemplify the word as printed. The experience of being with this person has to lead us in some way to wanting more from that situation. If this person is living by this teaching; if he or she is talking about it from their own experience; if they seem highly familiar with what they are talking about – we can be intrigued at what else is possible. We get advice from this person in terms of our practice and our life; but we are always free to take or leave that information. We operate within the bounds of our own rationale. And in a similar style to the Sravakayana, we have to reach a point where we become terminally frustrated with our own rationale. We have to see how, as long as we remain within our own rationale, we are locked into a closed loop from which we cannot break ourselves out. How does one break out of one’s own rationale? Anything I do is within my rationale. If I like pizza, and I say: I am never going to eat pizza again! – that is just a reaction to my own rationale; that is just running counter to my own rationale, and it is what I want to do.

Q: Isn’t engaging in a method fully – isn’t that in a way overriding your own rationale? The nature of the practice itself is to undermine the mechanism of your rationale by practising shi-nè, by all these methods?

R: Whilst one is within the method, yes; but there is also a lot of other life there. If you just remain within the method, fine. When you have to cook a meal or walk down the street – sure, that can be shi-nè of kinds; but in terms of your life choices about what you do, how you approach things, there are many other kinds of practice in which one can engage. Then when it comes to the Tantric teacher it becomes much more specific, and the personality of the teacher becomes a vehicle of how the teachings are expressed. The vajra master is different – he or she has an evident personality and manifests that personality. The teacher also displays all the kléshas/defilements in their transformed mode, as a means of communication. The teacher manifests vajra wrath… any kind of human quality can be expressed, as a means of communication. This is different from the model of spiritual friend, where the behaviour of the teacher accords with Sutra – there is the rule book for how the teacher should be. You can say there is also a rule book for the vajra master; but it is illegible—one cannot make anything of it—it is an empty rule book. How one appraises this teacher is difficult.

Q: And monks in a Sutric system? Even though they may not have a personal teacher to override their rationale, because they are monks they live almost completely within the method. In a way, isn’t their rationale overridden, because their life is totally immersed in the structure?

R: Yes, but their rationale is overridden in a way they can comprehend. Your rationale becomes the same as the Vinaya. You can see it; there is nothing unpredictable there, there is nothing scary about that. You know the Vinaya before you take it – you read the book, there it is; you make the choice. In terms of the difference between kalyanamitra and vajra master, with kalyanamitra you can always say: ‘Why? Why am I doing this? What would be the benefit of doing this?’ With the vajra master there is this possibility that he or she might say: ‘Right. This is what you do next.’ You say: ‘Why?’ and the vajra master says: ‘Never mind. Just get on and do that,’ or puts you through a series of situations for which you cannot find any coherent explanation whatsoever; like ‘Don’t practise; stop practising for a year’ – no explanation. How does one generate things that are outside one’s rationale? ‘I know what: I’ll think of an idea I’ve never thought of – what about the idea of not practising for a year?!’ Is there a book of unexpected shifts you can look up, and say: ‘Let’s open the book to this page. I’ll pick #63. What is it? Oh! ‘Shave your head.’ Right.’

There is no book of unpredictable events to which you could refer. The vajra master is the book of unpredictable events – or they might be completely predictable; they might be unpredictably unpredictable. I am sure that anyone here who has worked with a teacher for long enough, will have had experiences to recount where something has happened that was completely strange, but from which they derived great benefit. And they could not possibly have set such a situation up for themselves. One thing I remember vividly about one of my teachers, Kyabjé Chhi’mèd Rinpoche—whom I describe as unpredictably unpredictable—was when he was once giving a long empowerment. He was chanting from a lengthy text in front of about two hundred people. Suddenly he stopped and said: Someone told me I smelled once. Do you think I smell? and then he continued. I sat there thinking: ‘Did I just see that? Did I just make that up… did I go to sleep for a moment? Or…’ That was such a profound shock, that it took me a long time to start thinking about it. I was just staring at him. It was interesting. He has never done anything like that before or since; just that one occasion. If he was always doing that at wangs, you could say: ‘Oh, he’s going to do this some time. He’s going to pull a face, or he’s going to fart to disturb people. I know it is going to happen.’ No, you could never tell what he was going to do; so you would always be caught by surprise with it.

The kalyanamitra does not act in this way. When one moves into a relationship with a teacher, where his or her personal phenomena are part of the teaching, this is obviously powerful and scary. One has to have a real sense of how one chooses such a teacher. It is not possible to move into relationship with the vajra master until one has hit a certain level of practice; one has to have an appreciation of this person from that perspective. This is a question of evolution. Because Tantra is based on emptiness and moves toward form, compassionate activity is manifested through many aspects of behaviour that you were previously trying to renounce. The teacher is a manifestation—through personality display—of many different things. It is not that every Vajra Master is outrageous; because that would be predictable. Some are; some are not. One vajra master might be a perfect monk or a perfect nun in every respect. There is no way that one can define what is called ‘personality display’.

Taking the Three Kayas of the Lama as the Path:

From the perspective of Dzogchen, an important practice is taking the three kayas of the Lama as the path. These are the three displays: presence display, personality display, life-circumstances display. This word ‘display’ becomes a bit like the word ‘vajra’. The word is used to show that there is teaching available from these; and it is also empty – there is nothing there. This is display. So one has the presence of the teacher which is Dharmakaya – the Lama is simply there. Then there is personality display, Sambhogakaya – the things that the Lama does, his or her interests in life, their preferences – whatever you would find in a personality. Life circumstances display is Nirmanakaya; and this will be whether the Lama gets a parking ticket, or gets cancer and dies, whether the Lama’s husband or wife leaves, whether their house falls down in the earthquake, or whatever happens – life circumstances display. It is the way the teacher manifests the teachings through each of these. If one is able to see these displays, then one can enter into real vajra commitment.