Dzogchen and Tantra

Ngak’chang Rinpoche and Khandro Déchen

question and answer session with apprentices, Fall 1999

Q     Rinpoche, you have said that Dzogchen practitioners often practice wrathful Tantric yidams as an adjunct to Dzogchen practice. Why wrathful rather than peaceful or joyous? From the view of Dzogchen why would one be more relevant than the others?

R     There is an immediacy connected with wrathful practice which is highly pertinent from the perspective of Dzogchen (rDzogs chen). There is a false assumption however, built into your question, and I need to address that before I say more with regard to wrathful practise. You are speaking as if the Dzogchen perspective existed to the exclusion of the perspectives of the other yanas for anyone who entered into Dzogchen practise.

KD     This seems to be another question of ‘truth’ – of mistaking the views of the yanas as truths.

R     Yes. The view of Dzogchen is distinct from the view of Tantra, but both are methods.

KD     And as both are methods – both can be applied.

R     And as both are methods they can have some relationship with each other based on their similarities or resonant features. You see, to ask: From the view of Dzogchen why would one be more relevant than the others? is to come from the position of assuming some sort of ‘sameness’ to be typical of Dzogchen, but this is not quite the case.

Q     Right … so … what about the idea that Dzogchen regards the gender of the Lama as irrelevant whereas in Tantra and Sutra the gender of the Lama is important?

R     [Ngak’chang Rinpoche smiles] What about that?

Q     That is correct isn’t it?

R     Yes, but one cannot therefore go on to say that the type of yidam is also irrelevant – as if Dzogchen made all other considerations irrelevant to the individual. That is the first point I would make. The second point is that we are confusing two distinct areas here: the practice of Dzogchen itself, in which the gender of the Lama is irrelevant; and, the practice of Dzogchen to which the Tantric practice of wrathful yidams is a valuable adjunct. From the practice perspective of Dzogchen, all the other vehicles of practice exist as secondary methods – including the method which comprises their distinct views.

Q     So, for a Dzogchen practitioner [interrupted]

R     You do know that there is no such creature as a Dzogchen practitioner – there are simply practitioners who may practise Dzogchen as part of their repertoire of practices.

KD     There are simply Nyingma practitioners, and they practice Sutra, Tantra, and Dzogchen according to their perception of their condition and the guidance of their Lamas.

R     One should not confuse the perspective of Dzogchen practice with the idea that a person can be designated as a Dzogchen practitioner – otherwise one falls into the error of imagining that all relative considerations are anathema. One may well, as an advanced practitioner, live a greater proportion of one’s time immersed in the view of Dzogchen, but that does not preclude the practice of other methods of view. You see, when one comprehends Dzogchen, the yanas dissolve into each other and one is left with ekayana – the solitary vehicle of reality in which all practices are seamless.

Q     Khandro Déchen, what would you say is the Dzogchen view of mantra practice?

KD     One finds the presence of awareness within the dimension of sound. One sings the mantra.

Q     So there’s no idea of accumulation there?

KD     No.

R     But that does not mean that a person who understood that view would no longer engage in the practice of mantra accumulation.

Q     So, what is the ‘principle and function’ of mantra practice?

KD     The principle is transformation. Mantra is the form quality of emptiness, and the visualisation is the emptiness quality of form. Within Tantra the two are united as a means of transforming our dimension of being into that of the yidam.

R     Mantra functions through repetition in terms of overwhelming the conceptual sphere – we become entirely engrossed with the quality sphere of the yidam in terms of light and sound.

KD     There is no room for ‘me’ there.

R     I have to let go of the ‘me project’. As soon as I let go of the ‘me project’, the yidam irradiates my experience with referenceless enjoyment in which there are no compulsory projects. One becomes the yidam and both sees and hears the world as the yidam.

Q     That’s obviously very powerful and extremely valuable, even from my limited experience. But the Dzogchen view is so different … Both views are inspiring, but they seem to counteract each other. I mean, why doesn’t the view of Dzogchen undermine the view of Tantric practice?

R     Because they do not have to occur simultaneously.

KD     You may as well ask why the view of eating doesn’t counteract the view of excreting.

R     … or why the view of loading the LeMat doesn’t counteract the view of shooting it or twirling it.

KD     It’s this question of truth again, and confusing method with ‘truth’ – methods, even methods of view, do not undermine each other; if they are understood to be methods.

Q     So … can those who think of themselves deludedly as ‘Dzogchen-style’ practitioners, who are not actually at the base of Dzogchen practice, lose their way in very essential practices?

KD     Yes – verily, even in essential practices.

Q     And … if such a practitioner did run into trouble with regard to the formlessness / freedom / openness of Dzogchen practice, what might his or her Lama do to correct the situation?

R     The usual method is to suggest that the student in question eat half a pound of rotten mackerel. [laughs]

KD     No … I think a whole pound might be better; but then Rinpoche is always far kinder than I am.

R     [laughs] Correcting the situation cannot really be discussed so easily. It would depend on the nature of ‘the trouble’ into which the student had ‘run’ – as it were.

Q     What might ‘trouble’ look like?

R     ‘Trouble’ usually consists of unkindness toward others. Conceit, arrogance, and in general gross manifestations of the five elemental neuroses.

KD     There would be a tendency to be self-satisfied and smug – of looking down on those they imagined to be content with the baubles of a lower perspective.

R     Yes – and there would be the tendency to ‘space-out’ and to avoid the nuts and bolts of being a practitioner.

Q     So what might you suggest, in terms of what you’ve just mentioned?

R     Physical practices would be useful in general – and, unless the person were already too intellectually oriented we might suggest more attention to the development of a good knowledge base. Tantric ngöndro would be extraordinarily valuable. I think that would be an answer for many people. Often persons who fancy themselves as ‘Dzogchen practitioners’ are just the persons who would be benefited by a hundred thousand prostrations, a hundred thousand kyil’khor offerings, a hundred thousand recitations of the hundred syllable Dorsem mantra, and a hundred thousand completions of Lama’i Naljor. As a standard corrective measure, I can think of nothing better.

Q     Do people need more ‘form’ in their practice, in terms of rules and restrictions, rituals and texts, reference points, as they begin the path?

KD     Yes – usually, but there can be no rule about that. Each individual needs to work with their Lama and work according to what is needed.

Q     How is this addressed within the Aro gTér lineage – which, correct me if I’m wrong here, is primarily Dzogchen in its view?

R     Actually … you are correct. The major characteristic of the Aro gTér is that it approaches the other yanas from the perspective of Dzogchen – and that influences the way in which it approaches the methods of view within the other yanas as well. However, in terms of … what did you say after rules and restrictions?

Q     Rituals, texts, and reference points …

R     Mmmm … how are these things addressed? Is that what you asked?

Q     Yes …

R     Well—as you know—texts are not addressed. The Aro gTér is a non-liturgical lineage.

KD     Rituals are addressed in terms of symbolic activities such as tsog’khorlo and the use of Tantric music.

R     But as to rules, restrictions, and reference points … there are the fourteen root vows – but I would not like to describe them in those terms. They are fourteen opportunities through which one transforms one’s vision – they are practices.

Q     But they’re called vows …

R     Yes – vows of practice. The idea of rules and restrictions does not apply. The perspective from which they are understood has a visionary context. Even in terms of what could be seen as ‘ethics’ these root vows do not have the quality of ‘restrictions’ … otherwise: ‘Thou shalt not burn thyself alive in the event of having stubbed thine own toe,’ would have to be called a restriction.

Q     You said that from the perspective of Dzogchen, a practitioner makes use of practices from the other vehicles as he or she needs to, based on the relative condition they might find themselves in at that moment.

KD     Yes.

Q     How does a practitioner decide which vehicle to choose a practice from?

KD     Through their knowledge of practice. But that is like asking how a carpenter knows whether to use a saw or a chisel – if you are a carpenter you know what you are doing.

Q     So… if Dzogchen methods are such a person’s primary practices, when would the practitioner move back to Tantric practices?

R     I think you are still stuck at the level of being based somewhere. The only position in which you are based is that of being a Nyingma practitioner. From that position there is nowhere to which you could ‘move back’ in terms of practice. The whole notion of the yanas being an open tool box is a Dzogchen perspective, and from that perspective there would be no sense in moving back.

Q     How does the practitioner make sure she / he is not ‘hiding out’ in one type of practice, or choosing a particular vehicle for inappropriate reasons, or avoiding one sort of practice?

R     By checking with his or her Lama.

KD     And also by being open to the Lama’s suggestions.

Q     If one is choosing a practice from a particular vehicle because one is aware of its particular principle and function, doesn’t the ‘higher’ Dzogchen view undermine the effectiveness of the practice from a ‘lower’ vehicle?

R     What on earth would that look like? Can you write us a screen-play for this? What would that look like?

Q     For example, to practice an outer-Tantra style yidam practice one needs devotion … [interrupted]

KD     To practice Dzogchen one needs devotion.

Q     I mean in a worshipful sense, in terms of the yidam being a deity …

R     Pray continue.

Q     … is that still possible if one is approaching that practice at a particular moment from a point of view that sees the principle and function of devotion apart?

R     There would be no analysis of this nature.

KD     That would be like saying: Doesn’t the knowledge of eating interfere with defæcation?

Q     So … could this be one benefit of the yidams in the Aro gTér Lineage all being manifestations of Padmasambhava and Yeshé Tsogyel – that these were real beings and as such it is possible to have deep devotion for them as the founders of the lineage?

R     That is feasible – but every yidam of every tradition is actually the same – they are all manifestations. They are all manifestations of one’s Lama. Naropa manifested an entire kyil’khor of yidams for Marpa and asked him to whom it would be preferable to offer his prostrations. Marpa chose wrongly.

Q     He chose the … yidam?

R     You have chosen correctly.

Q     Shabkar was a ngakpa and Dzogchen master, who later in his life took monks’ vows and practised within the vehicle of Kriya Tantra. This seems so unusual?

R     Well, I would not necessarily say it was so unusual … although we do not have statistics.

KD     But again, we have to point out that Shabkar was a Nyingmapa, and therefore the entire field of Nyingma teachings and practices were open to him.

R     It is actually a wonderful example of the many, many, different ways in which practices can be interwoven. There are nine yanas and one can speak of the nine yanas from the perspectives of each of the nine yanas. This means that there are at least eighty-one possible formulations of practice. The field of the yanas is so infinitely rich and variegated. It encompasses every possible human picture of potential and gives rise to endless inspirational life stories. Shabkar was the example of Dza Paltrül Rinpoche (Dza dPal sPrul rin po che), and yet his root teacher was DoKhyentsé Yeshé Dorje Rinpoche (mDo brKyen rTse Yes shes rDo rJe). What a fabulous contrast for Dza Paltrül to be inspired by both Shabkar and DoKhyentsé Yeshé Dorje. That makes its own point doesn’t it – in terms of our discussion. That was the reality of practice – and all your questions are answered there.

Q     The ‘view’ of particular thegpas, which are themselves methods, are often presented to the student by the Lama as ‘truth’. But the ‘truth’ of the fact that these relative views are methods rather than truth, is ‘revealed’ or ‘unmasked’ by the view of Dzogchen … [interrupted]

R     That could be said of every subsequent vehicle – that is not simply the rôle of Dzogchen.

Q     Right … You said that the Aro gTér combines Dzogchen perspective in formal practice with Tantric perspective in life circumstances.

KD     Well … that is more the particular style in which we present in terms of life in the West.

Q     So, is it also possible to practise one vehicle while maintaining the view of another.

KD     Yes.

Q     Can you describe how this works? How can one practice Tantra for example from the view of Dzogchen?

KD     Simply by shifting between external arising and self-arising yidam practice according to one’s perception of one’s condition.

Q     So they are not mutually exclusive?

KD     No – that is the whole point, particularly from the view of Dzogchen.

Q     When practising within a monastic tradition, having taken monks’ or nuns’ vows based in Sutra, one can still reach the level of Dzogchen-style practice, in the Nyingma school or, for example, ‘formless Mahamudra’ in the Kagyüd school. How are the different views of these vehicles, which appear to be practised simultaneously here, reconciled?

R     [Laughs] I’m glad we’re really exhausting this subject – there will be nothing possible left to cause confusion about yanas when we’ve got to the end of this. So … to answer your question: there is nothing to reconcile. There is only need of reconciliation between different approaches when the concept of difference causes a problem. Consider this: if you were a monk engaged in silent sitting, what would be the difference between you and a ngakpa engaged in silent sitting? There is no difference during the practice.

KD     The robes are irrelevant to that practice. The hair, cut or uncut is irrelevant to the practice.

R     The Tantric samayas and the vinaya are irrelevant too, at that point. One is not continuously repeating: I am a monk. or I am a ngakpa.

Q     Even within a particular practice, for example in the Lama’i Naljor of Ma-gÇig Labdrön practised in the Aro gTér, one can move from the view of Sutra to the view of outer Tantra, then inner Tantra and finally Dzogchen. What sort of explanation is required by the Lama in order to understand and make use of this kind of practice?

R     Highly detailed explanation is required by the Lama in order to understand and make use of this kind of practice. Personal direction is also required.

Q     Is this unusual in Tibetan Buddhism?

KD     No – it’s quite standard, at least in the Nyingma tradition.

Q     Does the same process happen as one moves through the four-fold Tantric ngöndro?

R     Yes.

Q     The current ‘new-age’ trend seems to be towards techniques being practised and disseminated in the absence of a particular lineage.

R     Yes … dreary isn’t it. People always imagine that there is such a thing as a practice which can exist as separate from the quality of the person who is practising it. People forget transmission.

Q     What function does lineage play in the propagation of a non-symbolic body of knowledge?

R     The same function as it plays in any other lineage. The lineage is the continuity of transmission. If a camera comes to be used as a doorstop, then that is what it becomes – unless there is someone who knows it is not a doorstop. We live in a time of spiritual doorstops.