The Emptiness & Form of

The Four Noble Truths & the Eightfold Path

by Ngakma Nor’dzin Pamo

There is a dimension of the presentation of Buddhism which is both inspiring and fascinating, but which is often invisible even after years of study. How often have we heard specific subjects presented by our Lamas, and how often have these topics mysteriously evolved into explanations of other facets of Buddhism? The whole Buddhist path, as a macrocosm, can be expressed and understood through each microcosm of teaching within it.

To experience a teaching in this way is to suddenly become aware of the spontaneous word-ballet of what is being taught as if it were an elaborate musical composition.[1] This was a startling revelation for me when it all clicked into place, and one which I realised was essential if I were to be of any real help to others as a teacher in training. To fulfil the rôle of teacher, one must be capable of showing how every method or practice reflects the essence of the entire Buddhist path. For example, when Ngak’chang Rinpoche & Khandro Déchen have given teachings on Dorje Tsig-dun, the Four Naljors ngöndro of Dzogchen Sem-dé, Refuge, or the Five Elements, they then often proceeded to express the quintessence of the whole path through each individual topic. Looking back, I realise that Ngak’chang Rinpoche has been teaching in this way since I first attended his teachings at the Lam Rim Centre in Raglan,Wales, almost 20 years ago. From this inspiration, and from the amazing patterns which have suddenly become visible to me, I would like to explore the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path in terms of how they can be understood through other aspects of teaching.

Although the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path are a fundamental Sutric teaching, they can open out in great depth and subtlety in terms of each of the nine yanas. An example of this can be found in the Ulukha-mukha Upadesha Dakini Sutra[2] of the Aro gTér, which presents these teachings from the perspective of Dzogchen. Although I will not be presenting the subject from that perspective, I will refer to it throughout this essay. The semantic expression of the teachings in the Ulukha-mukha Sutra, however, is fantastically subtle, so I will concentrate mainly on taking the key principle of the Heart Sutra as a way to explore these teachings. Ngak’chang Rinpoche & Khandro Déchen have often emphasised that the essence of Buddhism is the statement made in the Heart Sutra: ‘Form is emptiness, and emptiness is form’. Every other topic in Buddhism is an expansion of this and a method of approaching this realisation. On this basis, we will look at the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path in terms of their essentials. Rinpoche commented:
There is a tremendously powerful message within the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path which the Ulukha-mukha Sutra presents as a pointing-out instruction. Reflecting on this takes us far beyond the victimised sense of suffering and the way which passes beyond suffering. The way in which the Four Noble Truths are commonly understood tends to foster the idea that release from dukkha lies beyond the body and the physical world; but the Ulukha-mukha Sutra completely reverses this misconception, and lays open the vast possibility that is inherent in every aspect of existence.

The Eightfold Path is an expression of the Fourth Noble Truth, in its application to our lives, so let us begin by looking at the Four Noble Truths from this perspective. The teaching of the Four Noble Truths was called the first turning of the Wheel of Dharma. This was the first teaching Shakyamuni Buddha gave after fully realising the non-dual state. He sat for seven weeks under the bodhi tree and then walked to the Deer Park, where he proclaimed the Dammacakkapavattana Sutra to five sages. The Four Noble Truths are: the truth of unsatisfactoriness; the truth of the cause of unsatisfactoriness; the truth of the cessation of unsatisfactoriness; and, the truth of the path to the cessation of unsatisfactoriness.

The First Noble Truth

The truth of the experience of unsatisfactoriness expresses the universal sense of unsatisfactoriness within dualistic experience – the unsatisfactoriness of the continually cycling patterns of perception and response in which no lasting happiness can be found. Ngak’chang Rinpoche says of the First Noble Truth:
It is seriously pertinent not to misinterpret the First Noble Truth as a statement which denigrates the body and the world. The First Noble Truth does not state that the body or the world are in themselves unsatisfactory, but that our experience is characterised in that way. This is quite evident in the Vimalakirti Sutra in which Shakyamuni Buddha, in answer to a question about the imperfection of human life and conditions, says that he sees no such unsatisfactory life or conditions. They are illusory. The world is perfect as it is.

We are all frantically chasing our tails, trying to be happy. We all want to be free of the experience of loss, pain, sorrow, and fear; in order to experience only pleasure and happiness. This is universal, but the question runs far deeper than the commonly-experienced pleasures and pains of physical existence. To truly experience the subtle nature of unsatisfactoriness, one needs to have achieved some success in terms of everyday life within the conventional parameters of dualism. Understanding of unsatisfactoriness is not the despair of a destitute failure – it is the feeling of suspicion which arises for someone who has proved themselves capable, competent and able to function within the bounds of what is possible within samsara, the social context of dualism. The niggling feeling arises that the whole thing is vaguely hollow and that nothing is quite what it seems. We have worked for the good things we have and live in a reasonable degree of comfort, yet we become aware of a sensation of unsatisfactoriness about our lives. We find that we can achieve almost whatever we set out to achieve in terms of what the world offers; yet we come to realise that these achievements are at best a pastime. Khandro Déchen has pointed out that the life of Shakyamuni Buddha can be understood from different perspectives, according the style of teaching being presented. She said:
According to the Ulukha-mukha Sutra, the emphasis is placed on Shakyamuni Buddha’s discovery of the hollowness of success. As the prince, the son of the king, he had to be the best in every field. He had to be the greatest archer, wrestler, poet, artist, and musician. He had to excel at everything, because to be second-best or to fail would undermine his position as the future king. From this perspective it was through his success that he came to view all accomplishment with suspicion. All he had left was to find what lay both beyond and within the issue of hollowness. His path was based on the unsatisfactoriness of success as a reference point, rather than on the brevity of success in terms of sickness, old age and death. It is not that sickness, old age, and death are not issues which can turn one’s attention to spiritual enquiry; it is rather that there is a more subtle level of unsatisfactoriness which needs to be perceived. This perspective which sees through the referentiality of success means that even if we were immortal, the cyclic nature of serial successes would still leave us with a sense of unsatisfactoriness. According to this interpretation of the teachings, sickness, old age, and death cannot actually be described as unsatisfactory – they are simply the play of the nirmanakaya.

The First Noble Truth, then, is awareness of the universality of the feeling of unsatisfactoriness, and the way in which it eventually undermines every achievement. The Sanskrit word mostly translated as ‘suffering’ is ‘dukkha’. ‘Du’ means worthless, and ‘kha’ means hollow. So ‘dukkha’ actually encompasses much more than the misery of life not going well, the experience of pain and personal catastrophe. It points to the illusory nature of the dukkha itself. In some way we create the unsatisfactoriness – it is not self-existent.

Shakyamuni Buddha said that where there is dualism, change is perceived as dukkha. We don’t like the good things in our life to go away, but everything changes. Always. The apparent existence of all phenomena slips away from us, especially if we try to grasp at permanence. We have to have had some success within the social context of dualism (samsara) to really understand this. If our whole life has been deprivation, aggression, loneliness, anxiety, and painful confusion, then it would be easy merely to view bad luck, parental abuse, or societal injustice as the cause of our unhappiness. So in order to actually perceive dukkha, we have to have some measure of success and pleasure in our lives and yet still experience unsatisfactoriness. It is only then that we can begin to feel the illusory or empty quality of the experience of pleasure, as well as the tangible or form quality of the experience of pain. Shakyamuni Buddha pointed out that each truth suggests the subsequent truth to us if we have truly understood. So it is valuable to reflect on the First Noble Truth as much as possible in our daily lives in order to experience the Second as a natural progression.

The Second Noble Truth

The truth of the cause of the experience of unsatisfactoriness is suggested to us through experiencing the form & emptiness of unsatisfactoriness. We realise that there is something about both the way we in which we view phenomena, and how we experience phenomena, which causes unsatisfactoriness. In the Sutric texts, the causes of the experience of unsatisfactoriness are said to be karma and klésa. Karma is described as cause & effect, which means that through distorted perception we respond inappropriately and create the cyclic patterns of our neurotic conditioning. Ngak’chang Rinpoche says of karma:
It is crucial not to confound cause & effect with some kind of mechanism inherent in the fabric of reality. The root of karma is the dualistic mind. When the dualistic mind is not present, then karma is also not present. If karma is seen as independent of the individual experiencing karma, then we have a form of fatalism which has more in common with the eternalism of popular Hinduism. The Ulukha-mukha Sutra discusses karma in terms of perception & response rather than cause & effect but the essential meaning is the same. If the cause which is our perception perceives a focus of attraction, aversion, or indifference, the effect will be the response to that cause. There is no sense in which the actual circumstances of our lives are preordained according to a system of rewards & punishments for our previous actions. This is a primitive misconception, and one which would make enlightenment dependent upon karma.

Klésa are the perceptual distortions of attraction, aversion, and indifference which maintain the cyclic patterns of our neuroses – the distorted experience of our fivefold elemental nature. We hold to the idea that we exist as solid, permanent, separate, continuous, and defined beings, and that insubstantiality, impermanence, inseparability, discontinuity and lack of definition deny our existence. This means that whenever we perceive insubstantiality, impermanence, inseparability, discontinuity and lack of definition we experience dukkha. We experience dukkha because we attempt to divide form & emptiness. But once we have touched the idea that we create our own unsatisfactoriness through dualistic preconception, the possibility of allowing our view to change suggests itself. We can let go of the form of unsatisfactoriness.

The Third Noble Truth

The cessation of the experience of unsatisfactoriness is the truth that if there is a cause of dukkha, then there must be a way in which we can stop creating the cause of dukkha. We can cut the cause at the root. We actively create samsara by continually defining our existence according to form ideas of how things should be. We refuse to let the ebb & flow of our existence be what it is. But we can stop ‘doing’ samsara and allow a view and experience to emerge in which form & emptiness define each other. This completely alters our perception of pleasure, as Khandro Déchen points out:
Within the non-dual perspective of Dzogchen, pleasure ceases to be regarded as problematic simply because of its temporary nature. Its temporary nature is simply its empty quality. We do not have to renounce appreciation of pleasure simply because it manifests as emptiness & form.

We can then discover that our ordinary lives really do afford glimpses of real happiness because empty experiences naturally occur. There are times when we are one with the moment, or times of exhaustion when we let go and give up the effort of creating samsara for a while. Understanding the possibility of this view and experience inspires confidence that there is a state which can be attained where we are able to exist without the distorted perceptions of dualism. We may be fortunate enough to meet Lamas who appear to experience their lives as satisfactory whatever occurs; and who direct us toward the fact that our own enlightenment sparkles through the fabric of our self-created conditioning.

We are all beginninglessly enlightened, and because of this our own non-dual state points to itself through the experience of dukkha. Through understanding that unsatisfactoriness is something we create, we can undermine this creation and allow the sparkling through of our enlightenment to illuminate the knowledge that there must be methods by which this opening can be continually facilitated.

The Fourth Noble Truth

The path of the cessation of the experience of unsatisfactoriness is the Eightfold Path. It is important to notice the word used here. We are not talking about a remedy or a cure - it is a path. The word ‘path’ suggests something which has been found or laid down by someone who has gone this way before. A path is something which has been trodden and tested. It is purposely designed to get us from where we think we are to where we actually are. It is the path of the middle way: free from referential extremes; free of the four philosophical extremes;[3] and free of addiction to self-justification or self-denial. The path is taught as eight stages, but the totality of Buddhist method can be extrapolated from this simple structure. The fruit or destination of the path is the experience of non-duality.

The Eightfold Path

The Eightfold Path comprises of:

  1. Right view or understanding;
  2. Right intention or motivation;
  3. Right speech or communication;
  4. Right action or conduct;
  5. Right vocation or livelihood;
  6. Right effort;
  7. Right attention or mindfulness;
  8. Right presence or concentration.

The word ‘right’, in the Sutric presentation of the teachings, is often understood in the sense of the ‘best’ or ‘most correct’.[4] But ‘right’ can also be translated as ‘whole-hearted’ or ‘appropriate’ – it is the most wholehearted, totally committed involvement. There is nothing half-hearted or wavering about right – you stand on the edge, and you jump. You are totally there.

The key to the path is the cultivation of right view. Initially this will only be the intellectual understanding that the causes of dukkha can be severed. As we travel the path, our view will become increasingly subtle and profound. We take the view that we can undermine our fixation with judging every focus of perception in terms of attraction, aversion & indifference. We have an intellectual understanding that we are not solid, permanent, separate, continuous & defined beings; and through that we try to cut these habitual patterns of response. We develop a degree of openness in our view and attitude toward others and to the particulars of our environment. We become less fixed and sure of our opinions about how things appear, and start to look a little more closely at the way we function.

From view, intention arises. Ngak’chang Rinpoche’s essentialised comment on this is:
From the empty space of understanding, in which awareness and view are indivisible, Mind moves towards form and view emerges as intention.

To express this at a mundane level, I could say: ‘The idea (view) arises that I want an ice cream, so I (the motivated) arise to go and buy an ice cream’. Through our intellectual understanding of the causes of unsatisfactoriness, we cultivate the intention and desire to remember that we are not solid, permanent, separate, continuous & defined – rather we are the ebb & flow of existence & non-existence. We try to become aware of when we lapse into selfishness, irritation and dullness. We try to become aware of when we indulge in obduracy, aggression, obsession, paranoia and depression. We try to remain true to the intention of living the view, in terms of ceasing to create the causes of the experience of unsatisfactoriness.

From this basis, our communication with the outside world begins to reflect our intention. We avoid communicating rigid preconceptions and expectations. We try to keep our communication open and fluid without judgements and expectations. We try to be direct, and refrain from being devious or manipulative in our interaction with the world. Through our attempts to maintain right view and right intention, our communication at all levels reflects this. It begins in terms of externals and becomes increasingly subtle.

Our interaction with the world at the level of conduct or action reflects our attempt to maintain right view, right intention and right communication. We are direct and open in all our activities. We don’t attempt to manipulate people or our experiences of them. We respect others as beings who have the capacity for liberation, and we take responsibility for ourselves. We do not allow ourselves to be lazy or slovenly so that we cause more work for others, whilst also respecting our own needs for relaxation and rest. Right view and intention permeate our conduct, so that we act appropriately as practitioners. We are modest, but do not allow ourselves to be abused. We have fun but not at the expense of other people. We live life to the fullest, but not to the detriment of our more formal spiritual practices. In effect we live by the Five Precepts. This is right conduct.

Right livelihood or vocation is the extension of right communication and right conduct to include our whole environment. Our lifestyle reflects right view, and our sense of respect and responsibility extends into our environment. We recognise and embrace our interconnection with all beings and things. We understand that it isn’t appropriate for a practitioner to live at the blatant expense of others, but also acknowledge that it is impossible to live our lives without harming other beings inadvertently. We avoid adopting a stance or artificial spiritual personality, continuing in the attempt to keep our view and intention open and fluid. Khandro Déchen says of right vocation:
When we speak of right vocation, we need to get away from ideas of political correctness. We’re not dealing with spirituality at the level of green politics, recycling tampons and abandoning disposable nappies. Right vocation has more to do with being real in the world. This is not a matter of utopianism; but rather, a matter of essential kindness – a kind of caring which includes the broad picture. It’s not a matter of refusing to drive cars because of pollution, nor of being oblivious to pollution. It is the recognition that attempting to take a purist stance is essentially devoid of compassion. It is instead a matter of increasing one’s sense of connection with everything – with those whose livelihood depends upon the car industry as well as with those who suffer because of it. Right vocation is the acceptance of being utterly and passionately compromised by one’s situation and not looking for a get-out clause which allows us to be clean whilst others might be dirty. Right vocation is being able to do what needs to be done or die in the attempt. It’s letting go of all comfort – even the dubious comfort of a spiritually Spartan régime.

Maintaining right view, right intention, right communication, right conduct and right vocation in our everyday lives requires effort, application, and enthusiasm. We try to be total in our activities, engaging and participating whole-heartedly. We do not approach tasks with a half-hearted, ‘good enough’ attitude. We throw ourselves completely into whatever we are doing and do it to the best of our ability, whether it’s our meditation practice, or a mundane task like laundry. We aspire to maintain right view and right intention.

Shakyamuni Buddha taught that there are four great efforts:  the effort to develop; the effort to avoid; the effort to maintain; and the effort to overcome. In terms of the four great efforts; we develop the depth and scope of our understanding and experience of view and intention. We avoid, or let go of, unhelpful habits and neurotic patterning. We maintain our practice and try not to fall back into old patterns. We actively work to overcome our neuroses. Once our effort has become realised manifestation, then these four efforts become the four Buddha-karmas of enriching, pacifying, magnetising & destroying. Khandro Déchen comments: ‘Each of the nine yanas can be expressed in terms of each of the nine yanas, and that viewing the four great efforts as the Buddha-karmas is the perspective of the Mahayoga Tantras.’

Wholehearted effort in the practice of right view, right intention, right communication, right conduct and right vocation creates a sense of spaciousness. With this more spacious experience our attention becomes naked and direct. We start to find it easier to maintain our attention in all situations and experiences. We gradually find greater ease in bringing our attention back to the present moment and remaining there. It is not possible to be mindful of the present moment if we are always daydreaming or dull. Right effort, right view, and right intention help us to keep our minds alert and focused.

The Sutras teach that there are four stations of mindfulness: body, sensation, mind, and mind-objects. We attend to our awareness at the levels of body, energy and mind at all times to ensure that we continue to cut the causes of samsara and create the causes of nirvana. But ultimately it is possible to go beyond this as well. As Ngak’chang Rinpoche has said, in a teaching on the Ulukha-mukha Sutra:
When we find the presence of awareness within the dimension of the spheres of body, energy, and mind there is no need to cut the causes of samsara or create the causes of nirvana. Finding presence of awareness in itself is the causelessness in which samsara and nirvana are non-dual.

The final stage of the path is right presence or right concentration. Once achieved, this is the fruit of the path. Ultimately, finding presence of awareness in the dimension of the moment is the experience of rigpa – the non-dual experience of emptiness & form. Within this experience, all manifestations become the ornaments of rigpa and are experienced as purely appropriate, natural, spontaneous, and free. Karma as a cause of dukkha no longer exists. Spontaneous enlightened perception manifests as simultaneous spontaneous enlightened response. We are freed from our neurotically patterned responses of attraction, aversion & indifference; and our responses manifest as ornaments of rigpa. We are no longer tossed about on the stormy waters of hope & fear, expectation & preconception. The completion of the path leads us from an intellectual understanding of right view to direct intuitive experience, and the achievement of the cessation of dukkha.

Approaches to the Eightfold Path

The Eightfold Path can be looked at in many different ways. It is common for it to be presented in a linear way[5] in which we develop the view of wishing to end the causes of the experience of dukkha for ourselves and others. In the Nyingma tradition of Tibetan Buddhism there are nine vehicles.[6] A vehicle is a body of teachings and practices which take us from the base of the vehicle to its fruit. These nine vehicles are the sravaka yana (hearers), the pratyékabuddha yana (solitary realisers) and the bodhisattva yana (those who vow to work for the realisation of all being through developing active-compassion); plus the six Tantric vehicles, divided into Outer and Inner Tantra.[7] The experience of these vehicles relates directly to the personal process of growing spiritual awareness from the very earliest stage of interest, but this is often obscured by the sense in which they are seen as separately codified religious approaches.

Let me give an example of this process, in terms of my own experience. When I first became interested in Buddhism, I read a great deal. I was fascinated by the ideas and methods I studied, but that was all I did for several years. I heard the words, but did not identify their relevance in terms of doing anything with what I was hearing and studying. This was sravaka yana. Then something prompted me to actually try out the methods and receive teachings directly from a Lama. At this stage I had been touched by the First Noble Truth and was beginning to believe that the suffering I experienced had a cause, and that the suffering could cease. I had developed confidence that Buddhism could provide methods by which I could travel the path to happiness. It was my experience of pain and suffering which prompted my actions. I wanted to end my pain and suffering, so I began the path of the solitary realiser I started to practise for my own benefit. However, once I started to practise with a greater level of commitment, I began to see the benefits in my life, and the changes in my state of mind. Conscious of this, I become increasingly aware that there were many people, and many other beings around us, who were also finding their experience of their lives less than satisfying. At this point I realised that I could not disconnect myself from others, and that it wasn’t actually possible to be truly happy when others around me were so obviously unhappy. In this way I naturally began to move toward some experience of the mind of bodhicitta. This development in my view made me want to live my life so as to do as little harm to others as possible and, hopefully, to benefit them in some way.

Ngak’chang Rinpoche & Khandro Déchen explain that the six levels of Tantra can also be viewed in terms of how they reflect human psychological development from infancy to adulthood. Dharma is a natural system. It is not fabricated, and therefore it reflects every nuance of human experience. Although Tantra is advanced view, method, & behaviour, we can make analogies with developmental psychology and also with the experience of approaching the spiritual path. Everything within dharma speaks of everything else and when dharma is understood then everything else begins to speak about dharma.

The Eightfold Path can be viewed as a way to develop bodhicitta and mindfulness in order that we don’t hurt others. Our motivation is to refrain from harm and to attempt to help those around us. The other stages of the path link in with this motivation. The first Noble Truth is the base of the Sutric path, and the Eightfold Path can be seen as the path of renunciation which leads to the realisation of emptiness. In the Sutric view, the Eightfold Path is split into three aspects of development: wisdom, virtue, and concentration. Right view and right intention are connected with the development of wisdom. Right speech, right action, and right livelihood are connected with the development of virtue. Right effort, mindfulness and presence are connected with the development of concentration. In this way the Eightfold Path represents the entire Sutric path. Ngak’chang Rinpoche & Khandro Déchen comment:
The way in which the Eightfold Path encapsulates the entire spectrum of Sutric teaching is brought out with delicious grace in the Ulukha-mukha Upadesha Dakini Sutra. There we find that the Eightfold Path describes Tantra and Dzogchen as well. The Owl-faced Dakini of this teaching guards the knowledge that dharma is self-defined, inasmuch as each expression explains and interprets every other expression in such a way that the nine yanas are dissolved into Ekayana – the solitary vehicle of Dzogchen.

Renunciation[8] arises from understanding the truth of dukkha, its cause, and the possibility of the cessation of its cause. From this arises the motivation to help all beings. Then the path of virtue is trodden with right communication, right conduct, and right vocation. Finally the training and concentration of the mind is developed through right effort, right mindfulness and right absorption. At this point emptiness, the fruit of Sutra, can be realised.

Another way to look at the path is one in which there are eight strands of a rope woven together. The rope cannot function as effectively if it loses a strand or if some strands are weaker than others. We can focus on different strands at different times, so that gradually each strand can be strengthened until the separate strands merge into an undivided experience. There may be times in our lives in which we are only able to spend small periods of time in formal practice but if we continue to live the view in our daily lives, we shall continue to progress until such time as we are able to increase our formal practice again. In this way, we can gain a concrete sense in which each of the strands of the eightfold rope supports the others.

Tantra is the path of transformation rather than that of renunciation. Tantra works actively with the form of our experience from the perspective of emptiness. The base of Tantra is emptiness, the understanding of the illusory nature of all appearances, and of one’s perceptions of appearances. This is understood through the experience of emptiness, and through realising the truth of the empty nature of dukkha and its cause. From this realisation arises the motivation to transform the energy of dukkha into the energy of liberation through the use of non-dual symbol. As Ngak’chang Rinpoche & Khandro Déchen explain:
The term ‘non-dual symbol’ points to the fact that Tantric symbol is regarded as empty form. Symbolism in Tantra is an interface between a master - a realised perceiver of non-duality – and his or her disciples. The yidams are neither real nor unreal. They are neither existent nor non-existent.

The Tantric path works with emptiness & form and, as such, explores paradox & ambivalence at the levels of right speech, right conduct, and right vocation, in order that we are able to practise the transformation of our everyday experience into the mandala of the yidam. Then through effort and meditation we come to experience the non-duality of emptiness & form.

The path describes movement through the three spheres of being: emptiness, energy & form – chö-ku, long-ku & trül-ku. View arises within chö-ku, the empty ground of our being. Intention & communication are the initial movement of Mind into the sphere of energy or intangible appearance. Within the sphere of long-ku, action & vocation are movements into form. Within the sphere of trül-ku, effort & attention dissolve back into the energy and intangibility of long-ku. Then presence returns us to emptiness and unconditioned potentiality, in chö-ku. Khandro Déchen describes this movement as ‘endless mudra’ and, with this in mind, the potency of the lotus mudra of form & emptiness performed in empowerments represents a profound intuitive opportunity.

The Eightfold Path can also be seen as circle. It can be viewed as a continual turning of the mind, in which the view deepens and strengthens with every turn. The path then becomes a spiral, as view changes subtly with each rotation opening our view and experience.

Considering the eightfold path as circular, it is no wonder that the phrase ‘turning the wheel of dharma’ is used. Circling round the path can be understood in terms of the varying speeds at which these cycles manifest. It can be looked at as a cycle of a lifetime, or as a path of moment-by-moment turning. The differing approaches to the path as a circle will dictate differing views of the speed of the circling. The more we are able to circle around this path, encouraging congruency at each stage, the more we potentiate our capacity to live the view. This path then becomes the basis from which living the view becomes a reality, and from which all other methods flow. As long as view continues to deepen, the spiral continues to open. However, if view becomes constricted or distorted, the energy and concentration which have been developed through practice can cause us to fall or crawl into a constricting spiral of increasing neurosis. In this state our neuroses continually feed back upon themselves, creating a closing, narrowing spiral of paranoia and aggression.

With these linear views of the Eightfold Path it can be seen how important it is to continually return to motivation, inspiration and understanding of view. We need to continually check that the lessons of the Four Noble Truths are being maintained. This is why so many sadhanas begin with Refuge and the generation of bodhicitta, and end with dedication. It is important to continually renew our contact with inspiration and openness and not become blinkered or obsessed. We must continually remember unsatisfactoriness and its cause and the cessation of unsatisfactoriness and its method.

It is possible to get stuck in a groove in which we appear to be living the view and practising the path, but in which we are not really continuing to open the spiral. It is a little like getting stuck at sleepy shi-nè but believing we are stabilising shi-nè. This is why at a certain point a Lama becomes essential. The Lama can keep gently pushing us back into an expanding view, and out of the groove of our patterning. The Lama can trip us up as we return to preconception and habitual neurosis. The Lama encourages us to continually renew our connection with view in its most essential sense according to the teaching of Dzogchen.


From the perspective of the Ulukha-mukha Sutra, all aspects of the path are instantaneously realised through the spontaneous arising of view. In terms of Dzogchen, view is non-dual recognition. Emptiness & form are undivided in the experience of rigpa.

Direct introduction to view enables the path to manifest.
Remaining without doubt is the qualification of that manifestation at the levels of intention, communication, activity, vocation & effort. So all activity becomes self-accomplishing.
Continuing in the state self-manifests with attention and presence, integrating rigpa with whatever arises. In this perspective we abandon the linear view of the Noble Eightfold Path and recognise that all eight aspects of the path are present simultaneously. View inevitably encompasses all seven of the other aspects of the path. Congruent effort is inevitably also congruent attention, motivation, conduct, etc. Congruent intention simultaneously manifests as congruent communication, action, presence, etc. The eight aspects of the path cannot exist separately, but only as a simultaneous expression of the Dzogchen path of self-liberation.

In his booklet ‘Certainty’, which draws on aspects of the Ulukha-mukha Sutra, Ngak’chang Rinpoche called the Four Noble Truths the Four Fundamental Certainties, and the Eightfold Path the Path of Alignment. The Four Noble Truths are certainties upon which we can rely, as the source of our aspiration and as the foundation of our practice. As fundamental practices, it could be easy to see them merely as preliminary and as something we move beyond; but they are a source of inspiration and renewal of Refuge at any stage of our life as practitioners. The Eightfold Path constantly aligns us with method and view. Awareness, understanding, and active memory of the path enables us to check ourselves. It expresses the entirety of the Buddhist path, whether our focus is that of Sutric, Tantric, or Dzogchen practitioners. It expresses the entirety of the Buddhist path when we move between the vehicles, as appropriate to how we find ourselves. The Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path are a simple and direct teaching which we can authenticate for ourselves at an experiential level in order to be sure that we are working towards realisation for everyone and everything everywhere.

This article by Ngala Nor’dzin Pamo first appeared in vision, summer 1998.


1. Those who have read ‘The Glass Bead Game’ by Hermann Hesse may be intrigued by the similarity to what is being discussed here.
2. The Ulukha-mukha Upadesha Dakini Sutra or Heart Essence Sky-dancer Sutra of the Owl-faced Protector, is henceforth referred to as the Ulukha-mukha Sutra. In Tibetan this text is entitled Ug-dong Nying-thig Khandro Do (‘ug gDong sNying thig mKha’ ’Gro mDo’).
3. The four philosophical extremes are: monism, dualism, nihilism, & eternalism – see ‘Wearing the Body of Visions’ by Ngak’chang Rinpoche.
4. Ngak’chang Rinpoche & Khandro Déchen use the word ‘congruent’ rather than ‘right’, in the sense that what is being described is congruent with the realised state. This way of discussing the Eightfold Path stems from the Ulukha-mukha Upadesha Dakini Sutra.
5. As in the Sutric path of renunciation and the development of bodhicitta
6. The Aro gTér speaks mainly of the three vehicles: Sutra, Tantra, & Dzogchen. This perspective on the vehicles is one which is common to the Dzogchen teachings in which the Aro gTér is based.
7. Kriya Tantra, Upa or Carya Tantra, & Yoga Tantra are the three Outer Tantras. Mahayoga Tantra, Anuyoga Tantra, & Atiyoga are the three Inner Tantras.
8. Renunciation here refers to renunciation of referentiality in terms of attempting to validate one’s existence as: solid, permanent, separate, continuous & defined.


Notes from personal discussion, letters, & e-mail; and transcripts of recorded interviews 1981-1998.
‘Certainty’ , Ngak’chang Rinpoche, Sang-ngak-chö-dzong, 1982.
‘Confidence’ , Ngak’chang Rinpoche, Sang-ngak-chö-dzong, 1983.
‘Kindness Mind’ , Ngak’chang Rinpoche, Sang-ngak-chö-dzong, 1985.
‘Rainbow of Liberated Energy’ , Ngak’chang Rinpoche, Element Books, 1986.
‘Journey into Vastness’ , Ngak’chang Rinpoche, Element Books, 1988.
‘Wearing the Body of Visions’ , Ngak’chang Rinpoche, Aro Books, 1995.
‘Spectrum of Ecstasy,’ Ngak’chang Rinpoche with Khandro Déchen, Aro Books, 1997.
‘The Buddhism of Tibet and the Key to the Middle Way,’ Tenzin Gyatso, George Allen & Unwin.
‘The Graduated Path to Liberation’, Geshe Rabten, Mahayana Publications.
‘The Significance of the Four Noble Truths’, V. F. Gunaratne, Buddhist Publication Society.
‘The Four Noble Truths’, Francis Story, Buddhist Publication Society.
‘Basic Buddhism’, Christmas Humphreys, Buddhist Society Publication.
‘Certainty’, ‘Confidence’, and ‘Kindness Mind’ were limited-edition booklets which are no longer available. Their contents will reappear in enlarged & revised form as part of a book on the Ulukha-mukha Upadesha Dakini Sutra, along with the chapters on the chörten from ‘Rainbow of Liberated Energy’. ‘Rainbow of Liberated Energy’ and ‘Journey into Vastness’ are out of print. ‘Rainbow of Liberated Energy’ has been revised and rewritten in an expanded form and published by Aro Books as ‘Spectrum of Ecstasy.’ ‘Journey into Vastness’ has also been rewritten and expanded, and has been published by Shambhala Publications in 2002 as ‘Roaring Silence’ .