Ngak’chang Rinpoche

interviewed by Ngakma Shardröl Wangmo on the subject of Dzogchen

6th of June 1994 in Llanilltud Fawr

Q Rinpoche, the first thing I want to ask about is terminology. People seem to use the terms ‘Dzogchen’ and ‘Ati Yoga’ interchangeably. Does using one term or the other term imply that someone is coming from a different angle to discuss the subject?

R No, not particularly. ‘Dzogchen’ is a bit of a buzz word at the moment – everybody seems to want Dzogchen, and to be unprepared to do any kind of preparation for it. This is a variation on the statement: ‘I know what I want and I know how to get it’. That’s to say: I don’t know what I want, but I want it now. Also, people have started using the term ‘Dzogchen’ as if it implied a stream of teaching separate from the Nyingma or Bön systems of Tibet. There are those who think that Dzogchen is something which is above and beyond Buddhism and Bönpo; but historically, this is complete nonsense. It is nonsense to talk about Dzogchen as separate from Buddhism or Bönpo, in the same way that it is nonsense to talk about Zen as if it is different from Buddhism. Zen is Buddhism. Zen is not separate from Buddhism.

Within Buddhism, Dzogchen is a vehicle of the Nyingma School. It’s the ninth vehicle, and it cannot be separated from the Nyingma School or the Lineage that goes back to Garab Dorje. I should hasten to say that this does not mean that the Nyingmapas own Dzogchen. Nor does it mean that the Bönpos own it. Anyone from any school can practise Dzogchen. There have been many Lamas from all the schools who have practised Dzogchen; in fact several Dala’i Lamas have been Dzogchen masters, such as the Great Fifth Dala’i Lama. But if you are going to discuss the origin of Dzogchen – it comes from the Nyingma Lineages. It also comes from the Bönpos.

Q So a characteristic of Dzogchen is that it’s the ninth vehicle of the Nyingma system. Is Dzogchen a vehicle in relation to Bön, or how is it classified there?

R It’s the ninth vehicle of Bön. The nine vehicles of the Bön system are similar in some ways to the nine vehicles of the Nyingma system, but only in terms of the inner Tantras; their other vehicles are different. The formative vehicles of the Bön system are shamanic vehicles, but I’m not qualified to talk about that in too much detail – I’m not a Bönpo.

Q What is your view of Bön?

R I have the greatest respect for the Bön teachings, it’s just that I am ignorant of its structure in terms of the vehicles that would equate to Sutra and outer Tantra. I have received Bön teachings at the level of Dzogchen Trek-chod and Dzogchen Togal, and find them to be in complete accord with the teachings of Buddhism.

Q Where does this idea come from that Dzogchen can be talked about on its own?

R The idea comes from the Dzogchen view of the Buddhist teachings. From the Dzogchen View we wouldn’t speak of the nine vehicles, but of the three vehicles. That is not to say Hinayana, Mahayana, and Vajrayana; but Sutra, Tantra and Dzogchen. This is because Dzogchen sees the vehicles in terms of how they relate to the three spheres of being. There is a lot of confusion around the different views of how the vehicles are categorised. The vehicles are divided in different ways according to which school of Tibetan Buddhism is describing them. The prevalent way of dividing the vehicles, uses the categories of: Hinayana, Mahayana and Vajrayana. This is particular to the Tibetan schools of Buddhism. Hinayana is actually not a stream of Buddhism that is practised by anyone as such; it’s merely a philosophical construct. Hinayana simply exists according to the Tibetan analysis of the range of Buddhist teaching. This Hinayana construct relates to the capacity of individuals, rather than referring to a Hinayana school.

Q What does it mean that Hinayana is not a stream of Buddhist practice?

R Well, no one practises Hinayana.

Q I thought that is what was practised in Thailand and South East Asia?

R No, not at all. Hinayana means ‘lesser vehicle’ and concerns the initial drives and perceptions that lead a person toward the position in which loving kindness becomes the major motivational force. What is practised in those countries is called Theravada. One should never confuse Theravada with Hinayana. No one practises Hinayana, but it’s there. It’s identified as a form of Buddhism, as an initial stage of the path in terms of what leads a person to question their situation. But no one practises it as a spiritual practitioner.

Q How does the Nyingma School see Hinayana?

R In the Nyingma school Hinayana is spoken of as being twofold, that is to say: the Shravakabuddhayana and the Pratyekabuddhayana. The Shravakabuddhayana is ‘the vehicle of hearers’. It’s a useful concept because a hearer is somebody who hears something and passes it on. They have not realised it, but they’re impressed by it – they see it as a philosophy. Interestingly enough, this applies to many people in the West today. People hear teachings; then, when they’ve heard enough, they give workshops about it [laughs]. Maybe in some very, very primitive sense this could be something like the Shravakabuddhayana.

Then there’s Pratyekabuddhayana. The Pratyekabuddhayana means the vehicle of the ‘solitary realiser’. That is someone who says: I’m going for my own enlightenment. This is in distinction to Bodhisattvabuddhayana or Mahayana practitioner who considers the enlightenment of all beings to be the fundamental motivation for practice. The Mahayana practitioner strives to generate boddhicitta; the dynamic of active-compassion. Shravakabuddhayana and Pratyekabuddhayana are Hinayana vehicles, and Bodhisattvabuddhayana is the Mahayana vehicle.

Q Are there practitioners of Shravakabuddhayana and Pratyekabuddhayana?

R [laughs] Not officially. No one practises Shravakabuddhayana and Pratyekabuddhayana these days in Tibet, or elsewhere for that matter, because all Buddhists regard the development of loving kindness toward other beings as paramount, whether they consider themselves as Mahayana or Theravada practitioners. Shravakabuddhayana and Pratyekabuddhayana exist merely as constructs which describe certain ‘takes’ on the teaching of Shakyamuni Buddha.

Q So what would you say the purpose is in knowing about Shravakabuddhayana and Pratyekabuddhayana?

R Well, it’s important to have some sense in which the other vehicles could be approached in these styles. For example, I have noticed, that many people seem to approach Dzogchen in the Shravakabuddhayana and Pratyekabuddhayana styles – and of course, when they do this, they are not actually practising Dzogchen. If you practise Dzogchen merely for your own realisation then what you are practising is not Dzogchen at all – it’s called Pratyekabuddhayana with ‘Dzogchen’ pretensions or Pratyekabuddhayana with the outer form of Dzogchen. Likewise, if a person simply studies Dzogchen without practice, and then passes on these teachings to others – that is Shravakabuddhayana with an illusory coating of Dzogchen theory. What is important here, is that it is not the form of the practice that defines the practitioner – it’s the motivation.

Q Is it possible then, merely to ‘go through the motions’ of practice and be untouched by what you’re doing?

R Certainly. That is a very, very significant problem for anyone who follows any religion. A person can seem to be doing everything ‘by the book’ and yet get nowhere at all. Some people can become very knowledgeable about the teachings, and engage in a lot of practice, but it doesn’t necessarily mean anything.

Q Could such a person actually go backwards or become more deluded than they would have been otherwise?

R Yes. That is a very real danger. That is a danger especially within the context of Tantra and Dzogchen. There are numerous stories in the Tibetan tradition of yogis – funny how it’s always men isn’t it – who ‘attain’ black-freedom, or rudra; a state of intense almost one-pointed egomania. But you don’t just find these examples in stories or in the ancient history of Tibet and India; you can find examples of black-freedom ‘adepts’ today. You can find them in the West too.

Q In the Tibetan tradition?

R Sadly yes.

Q Amongst Western people?

R Yes. Amongst Western people, and amongst Tibetans. It really is very sad, but then that happens in every religious system. It happens wherever people are involved. I feel it is very important to emphasise kindness, especially to people interested in Tantra or the teachings of Dzogchen. If a person cannot really connect to a sense of kindness toward others, then the teachings that stress the non-dual approach can simply be distorted into a method of cultivating some form of sanctified misanthropy.

Q Is the idea that bodhicitta is organically connected with enlightenment, so that you couldn’t attain enlightenment as a solitary separate person who wasn’t connected to all the other beings?

R Yes, especially from the perspective of Dzogchen in which bodhicitta or chang-chub-sem is the energy of the enlightened state. But it’s not actually possible to be disconnected from other beings. If you practise, then chang-chub-sem naturally manifests; it is inherent in every being.

Q I’ve heard that there are differences between schools as to how the vehicles are organised.

R Yes that’s true. Generally, in the West, you’ll hear people talking about Hinayana, Mahayana, and Vajrayana. We’ve discussed Hinayana and Mahayana, and all schools of Tibetan Buddhism agree that these are distinct vehicles, but when it comes to Vajrayana it’s not as clear cut. In the Gélug school, for example, they speak of Tantra or Vajrayana as part of the Mahayana vehicle. They speak of Mahayana in terms of exoteric and esoteric Mahayana. So from that point of view there are only two vehicles: Hinayana and Mahayana – with Mahayana divided into exoteric and esoteric sections. The esoteric Mahayana is Tantra.

Q Could you give a definition of what a vehicle is?

R A vehicle, thegpa or yana, has to have three aspects. It has to have a base, path, and fruit. There’s sometimes lively discussion amongst the different Tibetan Buddhist schools concerning which bodies of teaching can legitimately be said to constitute vehicles. Those who say there are two vehicles, Hinayana and Mahayana (with Mahayana divided into exoteric and esoteric phases), are making the statement that Tantra is not a separate vehicle with its own base, path, and fruit. Implicit in this statement, is the injunction that you cannot practise Tantra without first practising Sutra. That would be the case, from this point of view, because Tantra is being denied the status of having a distinct, separate, or unique base from which a path could evolve. From this view, a level of experience would have to reached before people could practise Tantra; but, it would be stated that people could not reach such a level without having practised Sutra. According to this view, Sutra is the base of Mahayana practices that include the esoteric Mahayana practices called Tantra. These esoteric Mahayana practices are arrived at after substantial practice of the exoteric Mahayana practices. Another aspect of this point of view would be that Sutra and Tantra practices could not be contradictory, especially at the external level.

But if you divide Buddhism into the three yanas of Hinayana, Mahayana, and Vajrayana, you implicitly make the statement that you can begin with Vajrayana. Once a body of teaching and practice is described as being a vehicle, it must be recognised as having its own unique base and path. And if it has a base, you can begin with it. You have to be able to begin with anything that’s described as a vehicle. Once you say Tantra is a vehicle, you must be able to begin with it, or it makes nonsense of the idea of vehicles. It is impossible to say: ‘Tantra is a vehicle but you cannot begin with it’. So either it is a vehicle, and you can begin with it, or it’s not a vehicle and therefore you can’t begin with it.

Q So this is the resolution to the controversy that appears in the textbooks; that there are Lamas who will say that Dzogchen is for everyone who wants to practise it, and yet there are Lamas who will say that Dzogchen is a practice for very advanced practitioners. That is a problem for a lot of people, as it seems to be a complete contradiction, but you’re saying that there’s a clear resolution to that?

R Yes. Exactly. Exactly the same applies to Tantra and Dzogchen. Dzogchen can either be viewed as a vehicle in itself, or as the innermost practice of Tantra. There are always contradictions when you compare the views of the different vehicles, but each view is entirely coherent within its own mode of functioning. Each view is very useful for those for whom each view is useful. There’s no right or wrong in terms of the different views of the different vehicles – there are just different views. There are different views that are useful for different people with different levels of experience and karmic connection.

For some people it might be quite harmful to practise Tantra, and for such people it’s important to practise Sutra. For other people it’s useful that they practise Tantra or Dzogchen. But for anyone practising Tantra or Dzogchen, it’s important that they are open to the practise of all the Buddhist vehicles according to the instruction of their root teacher.

Q If a vehicle can be defined as having its own base, path and fruit, and if the fruits are all the same – why would anyone practise Sutra first and then practise Tantra? Why wouldn’t they just go through the whole thing and get enlightened in the Sutric context? Why would they go on to a different vehicle? Why wouldn’t they think they’d finished when they got to the fruit of Sutra?

R Vehicles aren’t necessarily practised until the fruit is realised. In terms of going through each vehicle, one actually needs to practise a vehicle until one reaches a pragmatic point at which one can approach the next vehicle. Naturally if one followed it to realisation there’d be no point in looking at any other vehicle. But there comes a time when you can roller-skate well enough to get on a bicycle. You don’t have to be the world champion roller-skater before you look at a bicycle. You can be a proficient roller-skater and then try out a bicycle. You can learn to ride a bicycle, but you don’t have to win the Tour de France before you get a motorbike. The theoretical construct in which you need to accomplish each vehicle before going on to the next is a little too linear… it’s a little too stratified to relate to actual life experience.

Buddhism is actually very pragmatic. Buddhism is not an imposition on reality. It’s not a constructed philosophy that forces human beings to proceed according to rigid directives that take no account of the diversity of experience. To proceed through the yanas you simply have to get ‘some’ taste of the goal – you have to reach a pragmatic point for take-off into the paradigm of the subsequent vehicle. You have to pass the cycling proficiency test of Sutra, as it were; before climbing astride the Harley Davidson of Tantra [laughs] or the Vincent Black Lightning of Ati-yoga. You simply have to be able to experientially comprehend another vehicle.

There are two ways of looking at this. There’s the ‘structural theoretical point of view’, and there’s the ‘pragmatic experiential point of view’. Pragmatically, you can start practising within a vehicle once you begin to have experiences of its base. To arrive at the base for Tantra you have to have experience of Emptiness. Having experience of Emptiness doesn’t necessarily mean that you have a complete experience of Emptiness – you just need sufficient experiences to have undergone a shift in your view of reality. That doesn’t mean that every time you sit you go into the Empty state…

Q How would the different schools look at moving between the different vehicles?

R The different schools have different ways of looking at which aspects of Buddhism can be considered to be vehicles. The argument that exists within certain factions of the Nyingma School, for example, is whether Dzogchen is a Tantric vehicle or whether it exists within its own category.

Q So when someone uses the term ‘Ati Yoga’, are they using that term in order to imply that Dzogchen is the highest vehicle of Inner Tantra?

R It’s possible to infer that… but actually the terms Ati Yoga and Dzogchen are synonymous.

Q Then there’s Rig’dzin Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche’s term Maha Ati which one doesn’t see elsewhere… What did he mean by that?

R Trungpa Rinpoche coined the term ‘maha ati’ in order to speak of Mahamudra and Maha Ati within a comparative context. However, I don’t think that anyone else uses that term. That doesn’t make it wrong or right; it’s just a different way of using language. One has to be flexible you know [laughs]. Anyhow… if you regard Ati Yoga as the peak of Tantra, then of course you have to practise the other stages of Tantra first. But if Dzogchen is a vehicle then you can begin with Dzogchen – if your teacher proceeds from this basis. There’s no right or wrong in this, it’s simply a question of whether you regard Dzogchen as a vehicle or not. If you regard it as a vehicle then you can begin there. If you don’t regard it as a vehicle, then of course you have to work gradually through Tantra until you come to Dzogchen.

I think it’s very important to remember that each vehicle will contain within it a ngöndro which is the method by which the base of the vehicle can be reached. So the Tantric ngöndro (the prostrations with refuge and chan-chub-sem; the khyil-khor offering; the Dorsem recitation; and, the lama’i naljor) is the method of reaching the base of Tantra. Instead of moving through Sutra in order to arrive at the base of Tantra; you can begin with Tantra. In order to practise Tantra you have to be at the base of Tantra, so if you’re not at the base of Tantra, you practise Tantric ngöndro in order to arrive at the base of Tantra. In terms of Dzogchen you would practise the four naljors in order to arrive at the base of Dzogchen. And this is why I stress the four naljors as much as I do. The main perspective from which I teach stems from Dzogchen. Dzogchen is the perspective of the Aro gTér, which is why the four naljors are so important.

Q It’s interesting that the ngöndro of Tantra, which takes you to the base of Tantra, consists of Tantric style practices. And the ngöndro of Dzogchen, which takes you to the base of Dzogchen, consists of Dzogchen style practices. How is it technically possible to do these practices – that take you to the stage where you can do these practices – when they so resemble the practices of which they are the ngöndro?

R Well, take shi-né, for example. Although it is practised in a non-dual manner within the four naljors, shi-né, is also a Sutric practice. According to the Aro gTér, which stresses Dzogchen Sem-dé very much, shi-né with form occurs in dual and non-dual aspects as the first of the four naljors. This makes it quite possible for anyone to begin with shi-né. The difference is that one is expected to progress quite quickly through the stages of shi-né. When I say ‘expected’, I mean to say that it is an expectation within the four naljors that such a thing is possible. It is taken for granted that one has the karmic connection to have met with these teachings and to have the interest to practise them. These teachings are also given with the transmission of Dzogchen Sem-dé, which provide tremendous inspiration for the accomplishment of the practice. This inspirational quality also exists within the Tantric ngöndro, in terms of enabling the practitioner to proceed swiftly through the stages of experience that prepare him or her for the practice of Tantra.

Lha-tong is also found in Sutra; and as for nyi-méd, that is found in Tantra. Lhundrüp is entirely a Dzogchen practice, but by the time you have proceeded through the practices of shi-né, lha-tong, and nyi-méd there is a distinct possibility of being able to experience lhundrüp. There are other cross-over points throughout these practices as well; shi-né for example. The reason shi-né is used in Tantra is because you have to have the capacity for shi-né in order to enter into Tantra. You find that the four naljors span the previous vehicles in very succinct form.

Q You’ve described Dzogchen very beautifully as a complete path, but if you look around the world at the different kinds of Lamas who are teaching Dzogchen and the different bodies of students who are practising it, hardly anybody seems to be practising Dzogchen and nothing but Dzogchen. It always seems to be taught alongside Tantric practices. Now what’s the background of that?

R It’s taught alongside Sutric practice too. From the perspective of Dzogchen, there’s no concept in which one doesn’t practise all the yanas. It’s very important that one is open to practising all the yanas because one finds oneself in different conditions. In a sense there’s no such thing as a Dzogchen practitioner – no such thing as someone who only practises Dzogchen. This is a modern misunderstanding. One may practise with a teacher whose main teaching perspective is Dzogchen, but one would never describe oneself as a Dzogchen practitioner; one would describe oneself as a Nyingmapa. What’s important about the idea of being a Nyingmapa, is that you’re open to the whole stream of practice. You’re open to all the yanas, and you practise that under a teacher. So you wouldn’t say: I’m a practitioner of Dzogchen, you’d say: I’m a Nyingmapa; I’m a student of Düd’jom Rinpoche, and I practise what he advised me to practise. You wouldn’t say: I’m a practitioner of Mahayoga or I’m an Anu Yogi or something of that sort – that would be a trifle ludicrous.

Q Why wouldn’t you do that?

R You wouldn’t do that, because, to say: I’m a Dzogchen practitioner means that you live at the experiential base of the Dzogchen teaching. Actually you simply practise what’s appropriate to practise under the guidance of your teacher. Your teacher might be coming from the stand-point of Dzogchen in his or her teachings; but even so, he or she will give teachings from all the vehicles. He or she will give guidance according to the particular practitioner in terms of what is required in the moment.

Q Someone asked me recently: Why isn’t Dzogchen taught openly? She didn’t mean ‘openly’ in the sense of ‘not secretly’, but in the sense of: free from some structure that involved lineage, lineage buddhas, devotion, say, to Padmasambhava and Yeshé Tsogyel. She was asking why she was being encouraged to take those kinds of things very seriously. She found that for her it was a burden. What would you say to that?

R I’d say that she sounded like a child asking her parents why she couldn’t have as much ice-cream as she wanted to eat – all the time… I think there are many different issues here. One issue is: why is she attempting to compartmentalise Dzogchen as if it were a thing on its own? Why is she imagining that she’s being encouraged to do anything anyway? She’s simply saying I want the dog’s blood, but I don’t want the dog – yet I still want it to be alive and to run around like a dog. She would see it like that of course, which makes her frame of mind rather tragic. It’s a greedy and grasping state of mind. I remember a man who once lived in Cardiff. He talked to me about his experience of Gegen Khyentsé Rinpoche. This man was involved in the practice of ngöndro and he was doing his 100,000 prostrations – which he had to do three times – and at one stage he said to Gegen Khyentsé Rinpoche: This is really difficult for me. All Gegen Khyentsé had to say was: I never asked you to do it. The young man had expressed his desire to practise, and so Gegen Khyentsé Rinpoche had given him a practice. Receiving this complete stone wall was very helpful to him.

You see, traditions exist, and if people want to participate in them… then they participate in them. If people don’t want to participate in them… then they don’t participate in them. If you say: What really appeals to me is brain surgery but refuse to learn anything about human anatomy – if you dismiss the need to study to be a doctor and a surgeon… but merely bluster about not wanting to do ‘all that stuff’: I just wanna cut some guy’s head open, y’know – I mean, I wanna get into all that wormy stuff in there, that’s the stuff that appeals to me, it looks so much like a walnut doesn’t it… What does all that nonsense mean? It means nothing. You may as well ask: Why can’t I learn it in the scout hut?, Why can’t you get a scout badge for brain surgery?

Q So you need really to look for a teacher and then follow the teaching as prescribed by that teacher?

R Yes. You look for a teacher. The teacher comes first, because you have to find somebody who for you exemplifies the state to which you aspire. Then you follow that teacher’s methods. Now if you get some concept in your mind, through reading books on Dzogchen or Mahamudra, and you get the idea that you want ‘this bit’ exclusively, then that becomes quite problematic. It’s impossible to find a teacher who teaches in this compartmentalised way – unless you go for some New Age breed of Dzogchenpa or Dzogchenma who cooks up their own rigpa risotto. Otherwise you go to authentic teachers and waste their time kvetching about why they don’t just teach Dzogchen on its own because: That’s what I want…

That is a completely distorted way to approach Buddhism, because you’re working in terms of your own subjectivity. You’re only working according to what you want. I suppose everyone feels that they would like to be practising the highest practice. In a sense there’s nothing wrong with that – why shouldn’t people want the best? But to become petulantly obsessed with that is to fail to grasp the point that what you actually need is something that’s going to help you evolve. If all you imagine you can use is the highest possible technique – especially when it doesn’t apply to your own level of practice – that’s utterly crazy.

Q But you do teach Dzogchen method, don’t you Rinpoche?

R Yes. I teach Dzogchen method. And I teach people who can’t possibly apply it, at the level of Dzogchen. They’ll just be practising the appearance of Dzogchen. But, I always point out to people that when they’re ‘doing this thing that’s called Dzogchen’; that it’s not Dzogchen they’re doing unless they’re actually at the base of Dzogchen. To be at the base of Dzogchen, you have to have had experience of rigpa. If someone has no experience of rigpa, then it is impossible to practise Dzogchen. I would say that in a certain sense, perhaps I shouldn’t teach Dzogchen. But at another level it’s really valuable to teach it because people are very inspired to hear such teachings and such methods. Often after hearing about Dzogchen people are much happier to struggle on with their shi-né. The methods of Dzogchen have a function whatever stage of practice you’ve reached. So my stance tends to be, that I will teach Dzogchen methods and people can use them; but, they have to understand that they’re not practising Dzogchen unless they have arrived at the base for practising Dzogchen. They’re using a Dzogchen formula as an ancillary method to help them with their shi-né. That doesn’t mean they’re practising Dzogchen.

Now in terms of invocations of lineage Lamas and all other aspects that go along with practice within a tradition, it’s important to understand that such things are designed to inculcate a sense of belonging to the lineage. That is very supportive to a practitioner, and has the function of providing inspiration to practise. In the West in particular we’re a little bit addicted to isolating the active ingredient. We do this with medicine, where it can have its own problems, but with spiritual practice it can render the isolated ‘active ingredient’ completely useless. You can’t isolate the active ingredient in terms of spiritual practice.

The older I get, and the more I deal with people who attend open retreats, the more I understand about the sociology of religion. I think, in a certain sense, the aspect of all this to which some people object is religion. They object to religion without realising the valuable function it performs. Religion has an array of functions that are useful for people. People who don’t live in a coherent culture with a religion tend to be prone to nihilism and depression. And if, within that context, you want to practise in isolation, and for your own advancement, then what you’re practising is a version of Pratyekabuddhayana – that is to say, it’s Hinayana path, but one that is probably non-functional because it is without discipline. If you have this kind of ‘Hinayana’ view… then how can you practise Dzogchen? It’s purposeless.

What’s fundamental here is to be aware of one’s actual motivation and orientation. With any religion, the orientation involves the practitioner with belonging to something greater than oneself. In the Mahayana, this involvement reaches a fantastic peak in terms of dedicating one’s practice to the benefit of all sentient beings. In Tantra, you turn that motivation inside out, and it is galvanised through devotion to the teacher and the lineage. Those are the aspects of the path that keep you practising when you become frustrated.

Practice is a pain in the arse – literally. Practice is a pain in the anatomy of your body, speech and mind, and you have to have something greater than yourself to keep you going through that frustration. There has to be some kind of energy there that is not primarily self-orientated, self-validating, or self-referencing. This is why I tell couples who are having problems that they can work on it as long as they have the energy to work on it. If they don’t have the energy to work on it any more, if they don’t actually love each other any more, how can they work on their problems? How can you let the other person have their way, and be generous to them, when you’re feeling no selflessness toward them? The same applies to practice; you have to have energy towards something apart from your own inner processes. If people merely deify their own inner processes, they’re not even ‘Hinayana’ practitioners – they’re merely ineffectual egomaniacs. That is a real problem… I would say [laughs]. So this is a very long-winded answer to your question – I’m sorry.

Q It’s really important, it opens up a very important area… Just to get back to an expression that you used about the development of the practitioner, the development of the individual, you’re opening up this whole area of existing as someone who practises and someone who has a life and part of that life is spent doing practice and part of that life is spent living. Maybe you could say something about how you or other Lamas that you know of teach people to practise and teach people to live in terms of the different vehicles. Because it sometimes seems that people are practising in terms of one vehicle and then living their lives in terms of another vehicle, and there are some interesting combinations that go on around that…

R It’s often expressed, in terms of the vehicles, that outwardly you practice Hinayana, inwardly Mahayana, secretly Vajrayana.

Q What’s the distinction between inwardly and secretly?

R Inwardly means your motivation – it should be compassionate. Secretly applies to kyé-rim and dzog-rim practices – the practices of visualisation and mantra, and the practices of the Spatial-nerves and Spatial-winds. Outer actions accord to Hinayana, which means the vinaya, ethics and discipline. Inwardly, in terms of motivation, you act according to compassion. Secretly, you live within the mandala of the Lama.

Q Doesn’t that exclude Dzogchen from the series… unless you can count Dzogchen as being part of Vajrayana?

R Yes.

Q So what of Ati Yoga?

R You could say that was the ultimate, ‘yang-sang’, or ‘most secret’ level – but this is not really mentioned within the context of that way of expressing the nature of the individual with regard to the vehicles. Outer, inner, secret and ultimate are a four-fold way of discussing practice but the ‘ultimate’ category is not commonly part of this definition. This definition is simply one way of expressing the yanas according to the ‘Hinayana, Mahayana and Vajrayana’ classifications. There are many definitions. This particular definition is geared to monastic practice.

In the Aro gTér, we approach practice from the perspective of Dzogchen – and we approach everyday life from the perspective of Tantra. This means that practice is approached according to awareness of one’s condition. What governs the style of practice in which a person engages, is what that person needs at any particular point. This is why we emphasise teaching in terms of the function of practises – how they operate at the level of the individual. People have to have a good understanding of how practices work, so then they will be able to go away and practise whatever they need to practise according to their own perception of their situation. Then, when they run into problems, they discuss it with the Lama – there’s an interaction…

The Tantric view of how one practises, is that one does a practice every day, and continues until one’s Lama advises moving on to another practice. The style we use is that one’s practices are like a toolkit rather than a set of obligations which have to be performed. The practitioner employs practices with awareness, according to the time, place, and the functioning of one’s energy. We approach leading life according to View of Tantra. We talk about emotions, and of embracing emotions as the path. We talk about experiencing everyday life as practice; and, in this context, the language of the teachings becomes pyrotechnic. When we discuss practice, the style of our language is usually fairly mild. It’s fairly even and spacious, because it comes from a Dzogchen perspective. Dzogchen doesn’t really have pyrotechnic language, because it deals with the clear blue sky, rather than the billowing cumulonimbus and the forked lightning that can ornament the sky. But when it comes to everyday life, and riding the energy of duality… the whole atmosphere becomes charged – the language becomes slightly more fierce and colourful, in terms of experiencing the texture of everyday life.

Q Do other teachers have different takes on that?

R Sometimes, yes. Maybe often – it depends on the vehicle which the Lama is using as the base in terms of his or her teachings.

Q What other combinations might you come across? I asked you about Dzogchen and Tantra before and you mentioned also Dzogchen and Sutra having similarities in terms of language.

R Yes. Dzogchen and Sutra have a similar tonal quality. But Sutra is not so much a ‘relaxed’ expression, as an expression that has equanimity of language. The language of Tantra is naturally spiky because it deals with the ambivalence of Emptiness and Form and that electricity. That is why the symbolism can often be exciting, to say the least…

Q What was the combination that was used in the Aro Gar? What was the balance or predilection that people there had in their practice life?

R The Dzogchen perspective.

Q So what of the sadhanas?

R There are no sadhanas in the Aro gTér – simply visualisation and mantra. There is no mandala aspect, in terms of every awareness-being having a retinue – simply the meditational deity. There is the awareness-being and the mantra; and the practice is self-arising.

Q In thinking of the Aro Gar and in thinking of your apprentices today, you seem to like people to get a lot of experience in practices without form. But then you also stress the idea that everyone has a lifetime Tantric practice – you also like us to get a lot of experience of particular yidams starting with Padmasambhava and Yeshé Tsogyel. What’s the particular benefit of having both, of actually working hard to get experience in both of those?

R These are the two prongs of practice, in terms of wisdom and compassion. The practice of awareness-being, of awareness-spell, of visualisation and mantra equates to the practice of compassion, or the energy of communication. The formless practices like the Four Naljors, the Four Da, the Four Chôg-zhag from the three series of Dzogchen – these are the wisdom practices. So we always practise both. It’s very important. The characteristic style amongst the yogic community was to combine the practice of Dzogchen with wrathful awareness-being practice.

Q Why specially wrathful practice?

R Because in order to practise Dzogchen, it’s considered important that one is able to work with energy in a very direct way. The wrathful practices are a method of turning up the volume on everything so that one is confronted with one’s own patterns. One is confronted with patterns in terms of motor vehicles that you want to destroy. The easiest way to destroy every duality-driven mechanism within yourself is to stamp on their accelerator pedals. The wrathful practices stamp on the accelerator peddle.

Q What happens to the neuroses then?

R They crash into the first brick wall; that’s the idea [laughs]. Karma simply collides with itself and explodes.

Q You mentioned that this is a way of working with energies very directly… Why is that a more useful method than working with liberating the energies through formless practice?

R Because when one is engaged in formless practice, everything is coming purely from within yourself. Whereas if you’re working with symbol, you have assistance.

Q From where?

R From the symbol.

Q That’s something outside yourself?

R Well it’s something that you haven’t previously found within yourself. It’s outside yourself because even though you’re engaged in self-arising you’ve had transmission of symbol. Maybe it’s the symbol known as Dorje Tröllö. The Lama describes Dorje Tröllö and gives instruction as to how you arise in this form and sing the mantra that is the vajra essence of his speech. In a sense this is outside yourself. Unlike formless practice, you’re not simply allowing anything to arise. With the practice of lha-tong you find presence of awareness in whatever arises, so there’s no imposition of anything external to you. Obviously in self-arising the symbol of ‘you’ becomes ‘you’, and is no longer external. But it still has an external origin and as such is helpful because the awareness-beings are inspirational.

We all require inspirational practice as long as we exist at the level of being symbols of our enlightened state. As long as you’re a symbol of your own enlightenment, you can make use of symbol – so it’s important to use symbol, and not to use symbol. What is important, is to recognise that one is a symbol of one’s own enlightened state. For a being who exists in that symbolic form, the practice of symbol is always valuable. You always practise Tantra along with Dzogchen. You also practise Sutra. You practise all the yanas according to the advice received from the Lama.

Q Maybe it’s time to ask you to say something about Dzogchen practices… I was going to ask you to start by saying what’s the meaning of this division of Dzogchen into the three series?

R The three series of Dzogchen equate with the three statements of Garab Dorje, the Tsig Sum Né-dek – ‘hitting the essence in three points’. These three points are: direct introduction, remaining without doubt, and continuing in the state. Sem-dé is related to direct introduction. Long-dé is related to remaining without doubt. Men-ngag-dé is related to continuing in the state.

Sem-dé means the series of the nature of Mind – Mind with a capital ‘M’. This has been wrongly translated by certain scholars as ‘Mental Series’. This is maybe not so surprising, because scholars are very literal. If you translate Sem-dé it literally does mean mental series. ‘Sem’ means small-‘m’ mind. But ‘sem’, when the word is used in Dzogchen terminology, is simply a contraction for ‘sem-nyid’, which is the nature of Mind – capital-‘M’ Mind. When we discuss Sem-dé we’re not talking about anything to do with conceptual mind. We’re not talking about conceptual mind because that’s not an issue at the level of Dzogchen. So… Sem-dé means ‘the series of the nature of Mind’. Sem-dé is the series of Dzogchen with the most explanation within it. So it’s the most detailed aspect of Dzogchen in terms of transmission through explanation. Sem-dé equates to direct introduction. It offers explanations as direct introduction and offers methods in terms of direct introduction.

Long-dé relates to remaining without doubt, and has much less explanation within it than Sem-dé. It bases itself on the fact that one has already had direct introduction and concerns itself with remaining without doubt. It concerns methods of returning to the state of rigpa through the felt texture of subtle sensation, in which one remains without doubt. Doubt is an experience. Being free of doubt is also an experience; it’s a state in itself. So Long-dé is concerned with sensation, experiential sensation. We find presence of awareness in the dimension of sensation a great deal in Long-dé. The Long-dé practices of the Aro gTér contain the practice of sKu-mNyé because it works with the zap-nyams – with profoundly subtle experience. In many different teachings of the Long-dé there are particular postures using belts and sticks (gom-tag and gom-shing or gom-ten) and supports of various kinds that have the function of pressing on certain points. These pressure points are used to cultivate sensation, in which one finds the presence of awareness. sKu-mNyé is very much like this. It utilises sensation through methods of stimulating the tsa-lung system.

Men-ngag-dé relates to continuing in the state. It contains very little explanation indeed. There are simply directions for how to continue in the state. There are many, many methods that are spoken of within the Men-ngag-dé, but their character is very difficult to discuss outside the level of experience required to understand their significance.

Q There seem to be two aspects of Sem-dé according to the Aro gTér, in terms of the four Naljors and the four Ting-ngé’dzin?

R Yes. The four Naljors are the ngöndro of Sem-dé. The four Ting-ngé’dzin are the actual practice of Sem-dé. This is a teaching that is specific to the Aro gTér, because it stresses the importance of the Sem-dé. The Sem-dé does not play a large part in the other lineages of Dzogchen – neither does the Long-dé – but in the Aro gTér the Sem-dé and Long-dé are very important as the ground of being able to relate to the Men-ngag-dé. It is specially emphasised within the Aro gTér that a great deal of time needs to be spent developing the experience of each of the Dzogchen series.

Q I thought that the three series were non-gradual?

R Yes. They are non-gradual, but they are increasingly inaccessible and increasingly direct. As long as practitioners are practitioners and not Buddhas – there will always be methods of approach.

Q What are the divisions of practice within the Long-dé and Men-ngak-dé?

R With Long-dé there are the four Da, or the four symbols. These four are introduced in detail in terms of the eyes being open, the focus of the eyes, the fixation of the eyes, and the tongue (and the other physical aspects). With Men-ngag-dé there are the four Chôg-zhag, or the four methods of leaving it as it is. With the four Chôg-zhag the position of the body is whatever posture the body adopts in the moment of the chôg-zhag. The position of the eyes is wherever they’re looking in the moment of the chôg-zhag. The condition of mind is as it is, with whatever is there in the moment of the chôg-zhag. With the four chôg-zhag you cannot say that that’s not how I am at the moment: my body’s in the perfect position; my eyes are in the perfect position; and, my mind contains what it contains. That’s all correct according to the four Chôg-zhag; we all find ourselves like that, but for some reason we’re not realised. So that’s Men-ngag-dé. You can either practise it… or you can’t.

Q I don’t know what you mean by that.

R I can imagine. That is the essence of Men-ngag-dé. Aside from that, there are particular methods of Men-ngag-dé, but that’s the most essential aspect of the four Chôg-zhag.

Q To what extent is Men-ngag-dé secret?

R Men-ngag-dé is secret inasmuch as you can only practise it if you can practise it. So I talk about it quite rarely. Some Lamas, of course, would not speak of it at all – because Men-ngag-dé is not understood by people who have not experienced rigpa. I think in the West there are various takes on that. In terms of responses, people could either hear about the four Chôg-zhag and be: irritated because they didn’t understand; confused because they didn’t understand; or, there’s the personality type that simply delights in incomprehension, who might say: ‘Wonderful, I’ve never heard of such a far-out thing, that’s just so great!’

Q You seem to be describing attraction, aversion and indifference, or rather: aversion, indifference, and attraction, as a response to the teachings…

R Naturally – those are the ways in which we respond on the basis of dualism. But there are also other possibilities. One could be inspired because one was touched by something, something really powerful, and maybe transmission is possible… Which is often why these things are actually taught. They’re taught as inspirational devices, so whether one can practise Men-ngag-dé or not; hearing about it can be a great inspiration.

Q Can I return to the idea that there is some progression within the categories of Dzogchen – the way these three series seem to be connected in a somewhat sequential or hierarchic arrangement… Could you say more about that?

R Sem-dé, Long-dé, and Men-ngag-dé all have the same base, path and fruit, so in that way they cannot be hierarchic. But they appear to be hierarchic because they are increasingly non-explanatory in the way in which they are communicated. But they are simply different aspects of the same thing. They’re only sequential in the sense that they require stronger bases in terms of rigpa. Sem-dé requires flashes of rigpa. Long-dé requires moments of rigpa. Men-ngag-dé requires sustained moments of rigpa. However, they all require rigpa. They all require rigpa as the base experience for practice. The only thing that is sequential within Dzogchen is trek-chod and togal. They are sequential. There is no purpose in trying to practise togal before one has achieved some level of stability in trek-chod.

Q But for introducing practitioners to Dzogchen by having them do a ngöndro practice in Dzogchen style, would they always be introduced to the ngöndro of Dzogchen Sem-dé?

R From the perspective of the Aro gTér, yes.

Q So with the other series there is no way of practising them at the level of ngöndro?

R Yes, there’s always a ngöndro. There is also a ngöndro for togal.

Q Is that the forced shi-né using the letter ‘A’ within circles of the five colours?

R Yes, combined with exercises that resemble Tsa-rLung.

Q What then is the main reason why you’re so keen to see the sKu-mNyé taught? These are Long-dé practices, aren’t they?

R Yes, they’re Long-dé practices; and the main reason I teach them alongside Sem-dé is that the trül-khor exercises that are associated with the Sem-dé are too strenuous for most people. They also require a great deal of flexibility. Only people who are proficient at hatha yoga stand a chance of being able to practise trül-khor, so I teach sKu-mNyé because I feel that it is very important for practitioners to be doing some kind of physical exercises.

Q What is the most you could hope for those new to practice on Open Teaching Retreats, for example, who may be not even be regular meditators? What do they get out of it?

R Keeping fit.

Q So in other words, it’s because people need it as an adjunct to any level of practice.

R Yes. What I feel is important is that people need to be able to practise. If one says that it’s required that one is able to do lotus posture in order to practise shi-né then there’ll be many people who will never practise shi-né. That seems a pity. There’s a small cycle of trül-khor associated with the Dzogchen Sem-dé in the Aro gTér, but these practices all require a level of stamina and flexibility and suppleness of the body that many people do not have. I teach sKu-mNyé because there are many practices within that system that anyone can do. The significant point for me is that people are actually able to practise. I start from there. sKu-mNyé is valuable because anyone can practise it.

When one enters into retreat there’s a limited amount of time that each individual is able to sit. So if you’re going to do a week’s retreat or three week’s retreat, it’s not possible simply to sit all day, day-in day-out. It’s not possible to do that unless you’ve built yourself up to sitting for four or five hours a day anyway as part of your everyday life. But if you’re only used to practising for an hour a day, there’s no way you can suddenly go into retreat and be sitting for eight or nine hours a day. You’d be in very great pain and there’s no purpose in that. What’s important therefore is for someone to be able to enter into a short retreat in which they alternate between sitting practice and some form of physical exercise. Now sure… you could just get out the Canadian Air Force book and do those exercises. That would function. But it would seem a pity to do that when you could have some form of exercise that was linked to practice.

So these sKu-mNyé are very useful. They stimulate the tsa-lung system so they give rise to both nyams and zap-nyams. One can practise sKu-mNyé and then enter into the meditational posture that follows. The sKu-mNyé exercises are followed by meditation in the lying down position, and this doesn’t put the same strain on the body as when one is sitting. That’s another reason I consider it useful. Also if one has problems of either being sleepy or scattered, sKu-mNyé is very useful just for having a breath of fresh air. If you get stuck in your meditation, you can practise sKu-mNyé, and that will create some freshness in which you can resume your sitting. It’s valuable for people to integrate sKu-mNyé into their everyday lives, because it’s useful to be fit. It’s useful to be supple.

sKu-mNyé also functions in terms of promoting health, because it has the subsidiary function of allowing a freer movement of the rLung. Freer movement of rLung contributes to a greater degree of physical health. sKu-mNyé also relaxes some of the physical problems that arise with meditation. The sitting posture is not really a very natural stance for the body over long periods of time. The body, as a biological organism, is not really geared to remaining motionless for long periods of time. It’s not natural and because it’s not natural, the body is not always going to relate to it too well. You can find many old Lamas who are crippled from years of sitting. Now in one sense that could be a little bit of a shame, to let go of your body to that degree. Obviously if you gain realisation it doesn’t matter if you’re crippled or not, so it depends which way you look at it. But in the yogic tradition it’s seen as being important that one respects the physical form. In fact in Tantra that is quite an important statement. It’s one of the root downfalls to deprecate the physical form, because the physical form is the basis of realisation. So from that perspective you wouldn’t want to punish your body to that degree.

Q We practise the ngöndro of Dzogchen Sem-dé in connection with sKu-mNyé from the Long-dé. I just wanted to ask you how the trül-khor functions as a Sem-dé practice in connection with the sitting practices from the Sem-dé. What’s it intended to do?

R Trül-khor is another system of working with the tsa-lung. Trül-khor is like a variety of hatha yoga and pranayama combined with movement. You move from one posture to another, linking the movement with breathing. This is a practice which cultivates natural breathing. The quality or condition of the sem depends on the quality or condition of the rLung. When the rLung is disturbed, then the sem will be disturbed and sem-nyid will not be apparent – the practitioner will be caught up in the experience of sem as totality. Experiencing sem as totality is reflected in unnatural breathing. To practice Sem-dé you need to be able to breathe naturally – that is really quite important.

‘Khor’ means cycle or circle, and ‘trül’ means apparitional manifestation. It’s an imposition on the breathing. Trül-khor in its etymology has some connection with ‘mechanism’. You’re using your body as a mechanism that harmonises energy. The practice of trül-khor facilitates the harmony of energy at the level of rLung, with regard to the achievement or realisation of natural breathing. Working with the tsa-lung system at the level of Long-dé is different – there you’re encouraging various subtle phenomena, whereas the practice of trül-khor is allowing the rLung to enter into its natural condition in order to become more relaxed – more naturally peaceful. However sKu-mNyé will also have the effect as a secondary function. sKu-mNyé really is such a valuable practice – I cannot emphasise it enough.

Q I think Lama Namkha’i Norbu Rinpoche translates the term trek-chod as ‘cutting’ in the sense of cutting apart a bundle, something that’s been a bundle of things that’s been tightly constricted together and then cutting it apart so that the elements in the bundle simply drop down, relax, where they happen to be, into their natural condition. So when you’re practising the trül-khor, is it a similar process of encouraging or allowing the elements to relax into their natural condition along the same lines?

R Yes. The practices are very similar. In fact if you look at the practices throughout the Buddhist vehicles you can see how each level of practice is a subtler version of the one before.

Q Could you explain what trek-chod is?

R I translate trek-chod as ‘exploding the parameters of conventional reality’, or you could translate it more simply as ‘blasting through’ or ‘cutting through’ or ‘exploding the state’.

Q I’ve always been aware of the way that you’ve very deliberately chosen a more dynamic translation of that than the one that’s traditional and literal. So it’s not just a question of cutting something apart, cutting a tape and then something falls down – not just cutting it but actually blowing it away. Can you explain how that works in terms of things relaxing into their natural condition? Where does the explosion come from in trek-chod practice?

R From the use of syllables such as ‘Phat’ or ‘Ha’ – they explode the state. The symbol of cutting the cord that holds together a bundle of sticks, which then just fall wherever they fall… there’s more dynamism in that explanation than you imagine. If the bundle is very tightly bound and it’s cut… the sticks could fly! They might collide with each other and spin in the air before they land on the ground. When they land on the ground, fwap, then they’re simply where they are… but they might do a few somersaults on the way. It’s a bundle of sticks that’s spoken of, not a little package of feathers. We’re not discussing a handful of tampons that bounce gently on a shag pile carpet…

Q So it’s quite important when we’re sitting, that wherever we find ourselves, that we’re aware of your explanation of it in terms of exploding. What we’re really trying to do is to generate a state that can be exploded.

R Yes.

Q So, that is really what trek-chod is all about, getting into a state where explosion can be effective.

R Imagine what it’s like receiving a shock… For example; maybe someone sneaks up behind you and shouts. At first you’re shocked, but then there’s a feeling of relaxation when you know it’s just a friend who was out to play a trick on you. If you can feel the relaxation that comes from suddenly tensing up, but realising that there’s nothing to be tense about… there’s a moment of space there. There’s a space in which conceptuality is not particularly active. You can let go of everything. You can just relax into the sensation of whatever is there.

Q So the game is partly tricking ourselves out of the illusion of unenlightenment? How is this the ngöndro of togal?

R It’s not. The ngöndro of togal, is something different again. You have to stabilise trek-chod, or achieve some stability in trek-chod before contemplating togal ngöndro.

Q What would stability in trek-chod be?

R Stability in trek-chod means that you can enter into the state of rigpa. And that it’s not merely a flash in the pan every other year. Basically, you have to know rigpa. You don’t have to be in the state of rigpa continually, but rigpa has to be a facet of your practice. If you don’t know rigpa, you can’t think of practising togal or togal ngöndro.

Q What about all the Western people who go into dark retreat?

R Who can say… maybe they’ve all established the knowledge of rigpa… I would guess that it might actually be a meaningless experience for most people. When I observe the outer actions of some of those who’ve gone into dark retreat… I met one woman in New York who attended a teaching that I gave. She told me she’d just had a week in dark retreat and she said: Boy a lot of stuff came up for me.

Q What did you reply to her?

R I said: I bet it did, that must have been quite an experience for you [laughs]. And she said: Yeah, yeah it really was. And I said: Well thank you for telling me. It seemed rather sad really. If you’re at the level where a lot of ‘stuff’ is coming up you should be with a therapist, rather than attempting dark retreat. You may as well say: I had sex last night, and it was really painful, I sat there beating my genitals with a steak tenderizer… What would you say to a person who said that? I guess you could say: Yes, that must have been quite an experience! I don’t want to appear negative with regard to Western people engaging in advanced practices, because I believe that we are actually capable of such things with sufficient practice. But why waste time sitting in the dark unless you are really prepared for it?

In a way it’s a shame even to know about these practices. It’s far more inspiring when you hear about a practice for the first time, and you’re actually capable to entering into it. Then it’s very fresh! Then there’s some authentic excitement about hearing the teaching and instruction for the first time. Then actually going into dark retreat might mean something. But if all you do is go into this black place and come out at the other end as screwed up as when you went in. If you’re getting divorced and you’re full of acrimony about your partner, or you’ve got this problem with this person and you burst into tears about that person… what has this got to do with stability in trek-chod? If you have knowledge of rigpa then you’re not likely to be emotionally incontinent. That doesn’t make any sense at all.

Q My experience is that Tibetan Lamas are highly delighted to meet Western people who are humble and don’t pretend to be doing the highest practices.

R Yes… But on the other hand I don’t really like to encourage people to be too humble either. To be too humble or to be arrogant are both problematic. Maybe it’s just fine to say: I’m a Nyingmapa. I was asked once, if there were students with whom I couldn’t work. I answered: People who want to be enlightened. And the more intensely they want to be enlightened, the less I can work with them. People with whom I can work are people who want to be Nyingmapas – people who obviously want to cultivate their experience but who are not hung up about some sort of rapid advancement. I feel that’s really very important at the level of how these teachings can actually be integrated into Western society. If we become a group of people who are obsessed with achieving exalted states, then Tibetan Buddhism will always be a cult. That’s actually one of the hallmarks of a cult: that one group of people have special experience that other people don’t have.

Q You mentioned the value of being a member of a religion earlier; could you say a little more about that?

R Being a member of a religion has aspects that are very healthy. It can also have aspects that could be very unhealthy, but I don’t think I need to say much about that, do I?

Q No, Rinpoche, I think most people reading this interview would have a clear idea about that.

R Good… well… maybe good, who knows. Anyhow, being within a religious framework gives you purpose in your existence. It demarcates times of day, times of the week, times of the month, and times of the year. It gives you a name which has meaning. It gives you a history to which you can relate, and which gives you perspective in terms of where you are and how you fit into the picture. It provides you with meaningful and fulfilling activities with which to engage yourself according to your interests, skills, and abilities. These are all aspects of spiritual culture that promote emotional well-being in people. These are all aspects of spiritual culture that promote a sense of belonging. Now obviously [laughs] these things are not ultimate – not Dzogchen [Rinpoche accentuates the word in a peculiar way].

Obviously these things may be derided by some people. But they do have a function – and what’s important is that one is able to take advantage of such functions in terms of one’s own existence. I’ve found that people who insist on attempting to adhere to some ultimate view tend to get depressed. You could say: Everything’s the same, there’s no need for symbol, there’s no need for outer form. Of course that’s true: there is no need for symbol – unless, of course, there is a need for symbol. Ultimately there’s no need for symbolic practice. But if you’re not actually experiencing in terms of the ultimate state then you must be experiencing at the level of symbol; in terms of being a symbol of yourself. If you are unenlightened, if you are living at the level of dualism, then you’re a symbol of yourself… in which case… there is a need for symbolic practice.

Q That’s the perennial Western argument: ‘Why do we have to do all this stuff?’ I’ve heard that very often.

R Yes… And the answer is: ‘Ultimately you don’t… but relatively… you do’. It’s simply whether or not you are actually in the ultimate position. If you’re not, then you need the relative practices that correspond to your relative condition. The proof of this can be found just by looking at people who tell you that they only practise Dzogchen… I mean how are such people with each other? How are such people in their lives? Are they cheerful, easy-going, happy, interpersonally functional, well-adjusted people? Or… are they people who may be in need of therapy? If someone says, I’m a Dzogchenpa and you see a person who’s in need of therapy; what sense does that make? It doesn’t make any sense at all to me.

Q The lady who I referred to earlier, who asked me why can’t Dzogchen be taught openly and all this stuff, she’s actually someone who used to suffer from severe depressions. She even attempted suicide not so long ago.

R I’m sorry. Depression, of course, is buddha family neurosis. Buddha family neurosis or Space element neurosis is very intelligent. It’s very open to the ultimatist view… so that’s quite understandable. Unless ultimate view accords to your real experience, it’s merely an ‘ultimatist point of view’ – and that is in itself depressing. It’s depressing, because you’re abandoning things that might, on a relative level, be very helpful.

Q I’ve asked about your own methods of teaching; and I’ve asked about what went on in the Aro Gar – but I also wanted to ask you about how Dzogchen is transmitted. What are the different methods by which these teachings get passed on?

R With Dzogchen the methods of transmission are either oral, symbolic or direct. Direct means Mind to Mind.

Q Could you explain exactly what ‘Mind to Mind’ means?

R Mind to Mind transmission means that nothing has to happen at any observable level, in terms of any of the sense fields.

Q Including thought?

R Including thought.

Q So you don’t necessarily know it happened until afterwards?

R Mmmm… say more.

Q Well… you might say: What was that? or: What just happened?

R Yes… that’s possible. Anything else?

Q So it’s a completely indescribable experience.

R Yes… What else could it be?

Q It’s an experience without content… it’s something which is not conceptualised, occurring at any moment… Is it happening now?

R It’s what it is. It’s how it describes itself: Mind to Mind – sem-nyid to sem-nyid – nature of Mind to nature of Mind. [pause] Nature of Mind to nature of Mind… There is reflection. Reflection means instantaneous sparks of awareness. It might last. It might not last. Mind to Mind transmission means that the nature of the teacher’s mind and the nature of the student’s mind are identical in that moment.

Q And any moment of Mind to Mind transmission would be identical to any other moment of it? It’s the same experience every time it happens?

R Yes. It’s the same experience whenever it happens – to whomever it happens. People may well express this in different ways, but in the style of their expression there will always be something that communicates itself to anyone else who has experienced transmission.

Q Could you say something about what happens with symbolic transmission?

R Symbolic transmission, in terms of Dzogchen, can exist in two forms. There is the formal symbolic transmission, and the informal symbolic transmission. The formal symbolic transmission has more association with oral transmission, and the informal symbolic transmission has more association with Mind to Mind transmission. So these two types of symbolic transmission create a bridge between oral transmission and Mind-to-Mind transmission. In the formal style the teacher might hold up a symbolic object, such as a crystal or a mélong. Say it was a mélong. The teacher would hold up the mélong and say: Mind is like the mirror; its natural capacity is to reflect. Whatever appears in the mirror simply appears – it cannot condition the reflective quality of the mirror. But how do you see the mirror? You see it by virtue of its reflections. The reflections are not the mirror but you can’t take them away from the mirror. The reflections are not separable from the mirror. The teacher speaks in such a cryptic way about the mirror. If the teacher spoke at too great a length about the mirror, the transmission would cease to be symbolic transmission, and become oral transmission. If the teacher answered a question about the mirror, the transmission would cease to be symbolic transmission, and become oral transmission. Just to say something very brief and poetic about the mirror is called formal symbolic transmission. Then there’s informal symbolic transmission; which is illustrated in a story I tell a lot of times about Dza Paltrül Rinpoche and his teacher Do Khyentsé Yeshé Dorje and the way he throws Dza Paltrül Rinpoche on the ground and pulls him around by his hair. That is ‘informal symbolic transmission’… That can exist in anything the teacher does or says.

Q So is it that the actual transmission experience is the same as the Mind to Mind experience but it just happens through something rather than nothing?

R Yes. You could say that.

Q In formal symbolic transmission, there are three symbols: there’s the mirror, there’s the faceted crystal, and there’s the crystal sphere. I get the impression that all these sets of three tend to overlap. Are these also connected the way the Dzogchen series are connected, the way the Tsig Sum Né-dek are connected?

R Yes. You could say that as well.

Q So they’re not hierarchical either…

R No. That’s right, they’re not hierarchical either.

Q And in oral transmission, it’s in the process of hearing the explanation that the student experiences the state that’s being explained?

R Yes. And in these three methods you just get a larger window or longer opening in which transmission can occur.

Q So oral transmission is the largest window?

R Yes… or the longest in duration.

Q I get the feeling that it’s not the case that large windows are better, but it would seem preferable to have more oportunity for transmission… There seems to be some kind of contradiction in how I am understnding this.

R Yes [laughs]. There’s a space in which you can receive transmission, and that space is created by the Lama. The Dzogchen master provides the possibility for a tear to occur in the fabric of dualistic perception. He or she provides that simply through being there. Although longer opportunities, or larger windows, provide greater openings for transmission to be recognised; they somehow contain the transmission. With direct transmission the opening for transmission to be recognised does not contain the transmission – the transmission is uncontained, and vastly more powerful.

Let’s look at each of the forms of transmission and elaborate on them a little. In the case of oral transmission, the space in which transmission might occur could last for the length of an explanation – like the gradual appearance of a window. If it’s formal symbolic transmission, the space in which transmission might occur could last for less than a minute – like a momentary window that lasts until the moment in which you observe it. If it’s informal symbolic transmission, the space in which transmission might occur is just a flash that happens in relation to a specific event – like some kind of flickering window that appears and disappears unpredictably. If it’s direct transmission… then it’s a windowless window. Or, you could say, the concept of ‘window’ simply ceases to apply. It becomes a question of ‘window’ being vast expanse, or limitless window. When everything is window there is no need of windows. When you realise that everything is window then there is no more need for transmission – the vast expanse of everything as window becomes continuous transmission of itself.