Is there a paradox at work in the dharma? We enter practice because we want something—peace, liberation, openhearted presence. We learn that in order to get these we must do certain things. So we make effort. But we cannot really accomplish what we wish through effort. Effort can even be an obstacle.
We want the most profound, most penetrating, most efficacious practices, and we want them so much and in such habitual ways that we don’t always recognize what they are when we have them. Moreover, we tend to want them with our heads, or out of our emotional distress. Certain kinds of wanting prevent our opening to something more profound than ordinary wanting, to the kind of deep longing that makes us truly receptive.
Although this tension is natural, even inevitable, our most vibrant contact with the teachings does not occur through effort or narrow wanting. It comes when we meet the teachings in our body and being with an open heart-mind. We can’t actually do anything about this tricky setup. We can, however, sit with it and gradually allow a shift to take place. This shift is not simply a change of ideas but a shift in our being. And practice is crucial for setting this shift in motion, even if practice itself cannot make it happen.
One can look more closely at this interesting matter through noting how Dzogchen (“Great Completeness” or “Great Perfection”) traditions work with this conundrum. Dzogchen equates any type of thinking, or even the presence of a thought-image, with a conceptual mind. And all conceptual minds are, by definition, effortful. Such a mind, Dzogchen teachers emphasize, will never contact the effortless state of liberation. Yet one must begin somehow, so one begins with foundational practices, known as ngöndro. These are practices that have traditionally provided entry to, and a vital foundation for, Dzogchen and other tantric paths. Looking closely at a few elements of these practices, we find crucial clues on how to meet the tricky situation of effort and non-effort, which affects practitioners across a broad band of traditions.
Clues to the release of the apparent paradox of effort come not only in the practices designed to melt away conception, but also in profound stories about the transmission of those practices. The practices are what you do until you realize the story is true. Sometimes we are so focused on doing a practice “right” that we don’t pay much attention to what created that practice in the first place and how it was transmitted. In oral and also in written teachings in Tibet, there are always stories of how the text or instruction one is receiving first emerged. In fact these stories are usually told before the practice itself is unveiled, and then more stories unfold as further explanation is given. As I look for clues about the deep structure of practice, I find these stories profoundly instructive. They have helped me begin to untie the paradoxical knot of effort and letting be.
These stories speak deeply to the entire dimensions of body, mind and energy. Therefore, they connect directly to foundational practices. This is important to the extent that we are interested in discovering how we can meet the teachings with our being rather than with our usual wanting self. In other words, how we can absorb practices into ourselves, rather than holding them at arm’s length, which is what happenswhen we wield them with effort.
The foundational practices of ngöndro are ways to bring body, speech and mind into increasing harmony with the “great expanse” talked about in the Dzogchen teachings. This expanse is another name for reality, for mind-nature, for the state of liberation. Its vastness challenges the cramped and reified self-images that temporarily obstruct our view of the whole. Finitudes of any kind—the sense of being small, contained, an urgent rush of business, passions or plans—are simply conceptions. These conceptions are both the cause and the effect of energetic holdings in the body. The foundational practices illuminate these holdings and, finally, lead to their dissolution into that expanse. As my teacher Khetsun Sangpo Rinpoche has said, “Like a fire burning fuel, the mind consumes conception by working with it.”
In the Tibetan traditions, teaching and practice sessions typically open with a reference to the foundational practices. Every lineage has its own variations, but the basic structure and principles of ngöndro are virtually identical across the Tibetan systems. The sequence usually begins, after an acknowledgement of one’s guru or lineage and the intention to benefit all beings, with the Four Thoughts. These four are reflections on (1) the preciousness of one’s own life, (2) its fragility and the uncertainty of death’s timing, (3) the inexorable nature of karma, and (4) the impossibility of avoiding suffering so long as ignorance keeps one in samsara. In addition, there are two other contemplations: (5) the benefits of liberation compared to life in samsara and (6) the importance of a spiritual guide. These six are known as the outer foundational practices.
These six outer practices are combined with five inner practices, each of which needs to be repeated 100,000 times. The first inner foundational practice is refuge, which is accompanied by the second, prostrations. There are different styles of prostrations, but these variations can be summarized as “long” and “short.” Both begin by touching facing palms to heart, crown, throat and heart again. In the long prostration one then stretches full-length to the floor, arms extended; in the short prostration, one touches the ground with the “five points” of head, two hands and two knees (the two feet already on the ground are not part of this count). Once practiced, this is a very fluid motion, further animated by the rhythm of the refuge recitation
The bodhicitta recitation, the third of the five practices, is repeated so as to strengthen one’s intention to practice with a mind expansive enough to encompass the welfare of all living beings. The fourth practice is that of the hundred-syllable mantra associated with the radiant white Vajrasattva. It is said that Vajrasattva, whose name means “adamantine being,” prayed that when he became enlightened he would have a special power to relieve beings of the obstructions to their enlightenment. Fifth is the mandala offering, in which one symbolically offers up all of one’s wealth, possessions and sense of one’s world.
A special feature of the mandala offering in the Longchen Nyingthig (“The Heart Essence of the Vast Expanse,” a cycle of Dzogchen teachings) is the offering of the three buddha bodies—the enlightened dimensions of the emanation, resplendent and true aspects of enlightened beings. This in fact is an opportunity to experience the nature of reality as always offering and giving of itself. Indeed, every one of the foundational practices is an opportunity to experience some aspect of reality. Through the sheer process of repetition the mind is naturally drawn to discover new meaning behind the practice, and it is these discoveries that light the way. All these practices are also forms of Guru Yoga—they all provide opportunities to unify with the enlightened mind of the Buddha guru. Explicit Guru Yoga is also a crucial practice, and while it is not technically considered ngöndro, practitioners also accumulate recitations of the Vajra Guru mantra, ideally ten million over one’s lifetime.
The foundational practices thus combine mind-training through the four thoughts, surrendering oneself through prostrations, purification through Vajrasattva, prayers to the lineage, and above all, unification with Lama Mind in Guru Yoga. All these practices together, and any one of them individually, flow into the view of Dzogchen. Each of the inner practices offers an opportunity to allow your conceptual processes, thoughts and visualizations to dissolve into vastness. That vastness is an effortless state. Concepts and striving only obstruct it. Thus, ngöndro absorbs one’s effort and transforms it into effortlessness. It is a path of many blessings, gradually reconfiguring the energies of body, speech and mind.
The way of doing the foundational practices is also important with respect to the question of effort and effortlessness. Daily practice in the Tibetan traditions typically involves three deeply integrated elements: words, chanted melody and the energetically felt presence of enlightened beings who appear in front of you, dissolve into you or arise within you.
Instructions for meditation are chanted aloud rhythmically, for they are poetry. The words describe the deities who are present and then address them, making requests, asking for blessings, above all establishing a relationship with them and with the part of oneself that they in a sense express. The rhythmic melody opens and moves currents of energy; the chanted words describe the vivid colors, poses and ornaments of the enlightened beings with you in meditation. You are engaged cognitively, energetically, imaginatively and vocally.
These practices provide a point of departure from which we can step into space, letting go completely. Finding that point of departure, that foundation, is what these practices are about. Literally ngöndro means “that which goes before;” ngön in Tibetan means “before,” and dro means “to go.” So they are usually translated as “preliminary practices.” This might be bad press, because most of us like to think of ourselves as sophisticated people who don’t need preliminaries. It is also misleading, because it sounds like a kind of kindergarten, something you graduate from. But you never leave these practices behind, just like a house never moves off its foundation. You don’t build a foundation and then say, “Now we’ll put the house somewhere else.” Every time you walk into your house, you are standing on its foundation, and every time you do a practice, you do it from this foundation.
That is why no matter who you are, you do them. As another of my teachers, Lama Rinpoche, said, “His Holiness the Dalai Lama did them before receiving Longchen Nyingthig from Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche. I’m a tulku, and I did foundational practices five times before I received Dzogchen.” That’s what practitioners do.
In talking this way, Lama Rinpoche was addressing a student who felt inclined to bypass the foundations. At some level, we all may have that feeling of wanting to bypass foundations. We think we are exceptional, our needs are very particular, we have certain innate qualities or experiences that put us in a different category from other people, and so on. Who among us has not had such thoughts? This is merely the pleading of ordinary, unaware mind, the one that practice dissolves—eventually.
Khetsun Sangpo Rinpoche, who taught me these foundational practices nearly thirty years ago, elaborates on them in a book of lectures given during his first visit to the United States in 1974. This book, called Tantric Practice in Nyingma, very clearly describes the chants and imagined vistas of those practices. Translated by Jeffrey Hopkins, the book is a commentary on Words of My Perfect Teacher, the beloved classic by Patrül Rinopche.
Patrül Rinpoche himself said that while some see Dzogchen teachings as profound, for him the foundational practices are even more profound. This point is very easy to miss as we focus our efforts on attaining the “highest.” In my occasional role as oral translator for lamas, I have often seen this happen to students. Mara has many clever devices, and the belief that one can judge these things by ordinary criteria is one of them.
The practices known as foundational—and too easily dismissed by the limited self as merely preliminary—are brilliantly designed to reveal that the self that grasps or disdains them is in profound tension with the awakened state from which the practices themselves emerge and to which they can open us. It is a fruitful, unavoidable tension, a blessed tension that energizes the entire path.
By examining them in more detail, we can see how the foundational practices, and the stories about their ultimate origin, contribute to dissolving the “problem” of needing effort to reach an effortless state. Let us consider how (1) mind-training, (2) the practice of Vajrasattva (which combines several elements typical of Tibetan tantric meditation) and (3) the stories of Dzogchen’s transmission contribute to such opening and to our understanding of what these traditions mean when they say we can ripen through relying on the blessings of the lineage.
The chief mind-training has to do with the Four Thoughts, which yield awareness and finally acceptance of personal impermanence. No longer needing to maintain the pretense of permanence facilitates grounding in and acceptance of this mortal body. As Patrül Rinpoche wrote in Words of My Perfect Teacher,
In your mother’s womb, turn your mind to the Dharma
As soon as you are born, remember the Dharma of death.
Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche said, “Ego is always wanting to achieve spirituality. It is rather like wanting to witness your own funeral.” Remembering the dharma of death, as expressed in the traditional contemplation above, is the opposite of wanting to attend your own funeral. It is preparing to know the vastness from which we emerge.
Life is a party on death row. Recognizing mortality means we are willing to see what is true. Seeing what is true is grounding. It brings us into the present and, eventually, into presence. It also brings us into our own bodies, especially if we combine meditation on impermanence with an energetic awareness at the base of the spine. At first, the important thing about impermanence seems to be the limited time we have in this precious life. This is crucial and foundational, and yet it is not the whole story.
The teachings on impermanence are not only about the death of the self that never existed. Understanding impermanence, Khetsun Rinpoche says in commenting on Words of My Perfect Teacher, will lead you into the natural clarity of your own mind. The ideas of a finite self, ideas which initially make us want to practice, can dissolve. To know impermanence is thus not only a path to what Dzogchen traditions speak of as unbounded wholeness (thigle nyag cig) —it is also integral to it.
The mind grasping toward wholeness at the expense of “lesser” insights is profoundly mistaken, as it will discover through trial and error. It begins to approach and sense the charisma of that reality at the point when the teachings can begin to connect with something deeper than the usual self-state. Even at the very outset, what these practices themselves contain, like that for which they provide a foundation, is beyond expression.
In this visualization practice, we find all the melodic, kinesthetic and imaginative elements that help bring all your energies to bear on your practice. Physically you are seated in meditation posture and energetically you feel the chanting vibrate through your body, connecting you with other voices in the room. With this as a support it is easy to be wholeheartedly engaged in the contemplation. You begin by reciting:
Ah! At the crown of my own head
Wide white lotus, full moon orb
White Hum Vajrasattva yields
Brilliant white, resplendent form
Holding vajra, consort, bell
Protect me and purify
These wrongs I rue and show you
I bind forever, on my life.
On a moon disc at your heart
Hum circled by your own mantra
Which I chant, invoking you.
Lama Rinpoche, a monk who teaches mainly in Asia, observes that chanting in poetic rhythm brings in blessings more strongly. Blessings are most certainly a kind of energetic coursing through the body, and chanting helps energy move more fluidly. All the foundational practices move energy through the body; this is one element of their profundity. While tantra teaches even more explicitly and precisely about energy, all Buddhist practices affect energy in some way.
Tibetans attribute the power of their practices, transmissions and lamas to a type of energy literally known as “waves of splendor” (jin lab). The first syllable, jin, means “that which has been given or bestowed,” as in “bestowed by the king.” Jin also means “grace” or “gift” or even in some contexts “splendor.” The second syllable, lab, means wave, like the waves of an ocean. Early Tibetan kings were considered direct descendants of the gods and so these kings were imbued with supernatural qualities such as jin—pomp, splendor, magnificence. Thus, jin lab, which began as the splendor of kings, later became in Buddhist understanding the waves of grace, or surges of splendor, that are the most profound gifts of lamas. This is what comes through the mind-body in practice. This is also what is transmitted from teacher to student, and in initiation. The ultimate source of these blessings is reality itself. It is reality releasing its intrinsic energy to practitioners, until they recognize the source for what it is.
The importance of recognizing our precious human body in mind-training has already been noted. The Vajrasattva practice brings attention to the body in a different way; it is a call to connect with the blessing—the light of the radiant Vajrasattva—and to bring it into every part of our body. Vajrasattva is a purification practice. The light is felt to be eradicating all that obscures your own enlightened state. In the process of incorporating this light, you may discover some psychosomatic resistance that prevents you from fully lighting up or inhabiting the space of your own body. This resistance is an inevitable part of our way of holding to a finite self, and the more we are aware of it, the more easily it will dissolve, revealing the vast expanse.
In response to our request, light flows down from Vajrasattva through our crown, filling our body; it courses through every pore and corpuscle of our material being, and fills our entire awareness as well. In the process, our coarse material body fills with and becomes light and Vajrsattva blends inseparably with us. We glow and light up the universe, giving and receiving blessings. Then we dissolve back into radiant emptiness and are present in a different way.
This combination of chanting, vivid imagination and cognitive understanding is very powerful. There is every possibility that these will transform your body, energy and mental state. At the same time, this very possibility can lure you into thinking that the important thing is what you do rather than how you are. This means you have been deluded into thinking your real purpose lies with training your usual, thought-full mind to “do” these practices well. But ego can’t attend its own funeral any more than the ordinary self can experience enlightenment. Practice is about finding the fire that dissolves the self. It is about finding a way to leave the illusion of self behind and still be there. Illusion vanishes when, as in the Vajrasattva practice, we dissolve into the radiant expanse.
Again and again in the course of these practices, we dissolve into and arise from this expanse. Every such dissolution and emergence is an opportunity to practice and learn about empty mind-space: the way emptiness relates to form, the way unconstructed inner space relates to constructs and concepts.
Part of the genius of the tradition is to repeat these foundational practices so many times. It is not that you finish with them when you complete a hundred thousand repetitions. You do them every day, even if you are the Dalai Lama. This is a daily practice. It just grows, especially if you are able to do some of these practices in retreat. To learn them is simple, and then they have unbelievable power, an effect you could not predict based just on intellectual knowledge of them or cursory dipping into them.
This power doesn’t come through in a single session or a single day. It has a quality of unfolding, but this doesn’t mean we always and only make steady progress toward the light. Bad days come in time, especially after good days. You don’t just get happier and happier and happier. Seasoned practitioners know that. One way to conceptualize what occurs is that in practice we continually come up against who and what we are right now, and this is often at odds with the part of our being we are practicing to bring into manifestation. So I may sit down to become Vajrasattva, which is really an aspect that is always present with me, but as soon as I sit down I feel the anger or fear that is most conflated with my identity at this moment. We practice in the midst of that.
Then something else can happen: magic. Often it comes after the most terrible moments. We don’t always know why one or the other arises, but we do come to see that it’s a process. The wisdom of these practices is that we just do them. We just do them without focusing on whether we feel like it or not, or whether it is sufficiently “advanced” for us or not. It’s a practice; it’s a commitment, an unbreakable connection with the transmission. You’re tired, and you do it. You’re too busy, and you do it. You don’t feel like it, and you do it. You keep that solidity of practice there, no matter what. That becomes a powerful thing.
In principle, these foundational practices are themselves sufficient. They contain blessings connecting us to the ultimate source, the primordial buddha known as Samantabhadra, who personifies naked reality. They contain elements of sutra, tantra and Dzogchen; and for one who has received insight, they themselves are Dzogchen practices. They provide us with a basis to receive mind-nature instructions and a foundation for all the explicit Dzogchen teachings of Yeshe Lama, the sequence of practices bestowed upon students when they complete the foundational practices. Above all they provide us with a way to connect directly, daily and continuously to the living blessings, the “waves of splendor” that are the Heart Essence of the Vast Expanse, or whatever one’s lineage might be.
The story of how Dzogchen is transmitted is itself an introduction to reality. This does not mean we understand every story literally; however, it does mean we are open to receiving through them an understanding as yet unknown to the ordinary mind seeking those very teachings.
One dimension of reality is pure radiant truth, known as the dharmakaya, the true body or dimension of enlightened beings. Khetsun Rinpoche says that this dimension is like glass, and the light streaming through it is like those fabulous-looking buddhas known as Resplendent Dimension, or Sambhogakaya, buddhas.
The teachings about these things are communicated in one of three ways: through mind-to-mind direct transmission, through the use of symbols, or through words. All these represent different stages of manifestation from naked truth. Of direct transmission there is little one can say, but examples of symbolic and oral transmission indicate the fluid line of transmission that connects them, and us, with the inexpressible source.
As Patrül Rinpoche puts it, from the primordial buddha Samantabhadra emerge infinite magical displays of compassion that arise as ubiquitous buddhas and their pure lands, starting with Vajrsattva. Samantabhadra’s “circle of disciples is not different from himself.” This is a token of confidence for practitioners, since it indicates that enlightened reality is everywhere. It cannot be lost. The ordinary mind may have forgotten it, but the ordinary mind will never find it either. Practices let the fire of reality itself consume that ordinary mind.
There are many astounding stories of transmission. Fantastic sounding as they are, especially to secularized Westerners, they present a vision of wholeness that, while inexpressible, is passionately, tangibly and kinesthetically experienced. It doesn’t require effort to hear these stories, and you can be so drawn into them that you forget to make the kind of effort that divides you from the real nature you seek. In Words of My Perfect Teacher, Patrül Rinpoche displays this (and more) most ingeniously in a story of how the pith instructions of Dzogchen came into the world. Here are a few abbreviated scenes from this tale:
Adhichitta, living in the heavenly realms, has a vision. All the Buddhas
of past, present and future come before him and invoke Vajrasattva:
You who possess the jewel of miraculous means,
Open the gate to all that beings desire.
Vajrasattva, who as we already know emanates directly from primordial reality, responds to this invocation just the way he does in the foundational practices—light pours out from his heart. In this case, however, the light becomes a brilliant, jeweled wheel offered to Sattvavajra, the lettered reflection of Vajrasattva’s own name, and also a name for Vajrapani, the bodhisattva of power. It’s a revelatory moment—one expression of the primordial nature requesting teachings from another who equally mirrors it. This teaching is seen here less as a path to reality than as the play of reality’s presence. Practice invites us to join in the game; that is, we are beckoned to consciously and joyously participate in a game we have never left.
Receiving this gift, Sattvavajra promises to teach. Drawing on the wisdom of all Buddhas in all five Pure Lands, those same Pure Lands which we already know are expressions of Samantabhadra, the “distilled essence of all the Conquerors’ wisdom.” He transmits all these riches without a word, through symbols. Adhichitta, uniquely capable of comprehending them, then becomes a symbol himself. He instantly transforms into the letter hum, seed syllable of enlightened beings. Emerging from the hum state in yet another guise, he brings these teachings into the human realm of writing and speech.
This fluid movement bringing primordial reality into expression through symbols and words suggests the flowing movement of “waves of splendor” through the body of practitioners. The best of these practitioners carry Dzogchen expression forward in time, into history and into the minds of new practitioners. The spontaneous arising of the teaching from the natural dynamism of naked reality mirrors the effortless spontaneity of realization. Opening to the stream means releasing the effort that, perhaps, brought one into initial contact with it.
For example, the Heart Essence of the Vast Expanse, one of the most widely renowned Dzogchen lineages, emerges from the visionary writing compiled by Jigme Lingpa. Jigme Lingpa (1729-1798) was considered an incarnation of both Trisong Detsen, the religious eighth-century king of Tibet, and Vimalamitra, a great master of Dzogchen during the same period. Going to bed one evening, Jigme Lingpa’s heart was heavy because he was not in Guru Rinpoche’s direct presence. Praying deeply, he went into luminous clarity in which he, while flying over the stupa at Boudhanath, encountered a Sky Woman, a dakini, who entrusted him with a wooden casket in which he found yellow scrolls and crystal beads. Swallowing these, as yet another dakini instructed him, he had, in Tulku Thondup’s words, “the amazing experience that all the words of the Heart Essence of the Vast Expanse cycle with their meanings had been awakened in his mind as if they were imprinted there.” He had received a profound symbolic communication. His further special gift was to transpose this into words. But those words did not come to him through training and straining his ordinary mind, like the writers of ordinary words will do. The words flowed to and through him effortlessly.
Jigme Lingpa became extremely learned, not through study, but through the visionary transformation of his practice. His luminous, voluminous writings are a testament to the power of reality and nonconceptual vastness to express itself in words through the power of blessings. No effort could produce, or even permit, the clarity that he experienced. Yet, he practiced intensely for years before revelation came to him. In this story, he models the transition from effortful striving to artful endeavor.
Practicing with ease means easing away from the ordinary mind with its tightly knotted purposes. Every focus, however useful, limits us in some way. We practice in this way until concepts and images dissolve into a space that is limitless, offering no center on which to focus. No focus, therefore, for effort.
The words and symbols of the transmission, carrying the blessings of their source, are closer to the fire of wisdom, closer to “the original,” primordial buddha, than our far less vibrant concepts. So long as the smoke of our effort obscures them, we cannot fully appreciate the full splendor that is their source and ours. Finding effortless ease means burning these purposeful thoughts. We wait in simple awareness for the fire to consume them, thereby disclosing the presence that is our nature. We respond to words and symbols that have until now receded before the effortful creation of finite realities.
In 1974, in Charlottesville, Virginia, Khetsun Sangpo Rinpoche concluded his teaching on Jigme Lingpa’s foundational practices by saying, “My own hope is that any among you who would like to begin these foundational practices will do so. In that case I will return and teach you the paths of Dzogchen.” He did indeed return nearly a half dozen times. At the age of eighty-three he is about to visit once more in order, he told us on the phone, to “say Tashi Deleg” (farewell, or best wishes) to his friends and students. He, like the tertön in Tibet, like great lamas everywhere, is for students the embodied expression of the stream of transmission emanating from the primordial field. This stream is what students receive from teachers. Even in a student’s simple act of requesting this, the mind of chatter and distraction is invited to subside and so reveal what ordinary mind can never know. As Jigme Lingpa explains in his foundational practice text:
Praying from my heart center
Not just mouthings, not just words
Bless me from your heart expanse
Fulfill my aspirations.
With strong resolve that never weakens
May Lama’s blessed mindstream enter me.
All are from the first highest pure lands
Gods, mantras, True Bodies ever pure
With no work of “do this don’t do that”
Radiant true-mind past thought or knowing
May I see reality nakedly
In rainbow space where thoughts are freed, may
My visions of spheres and Buddhas grow
Full true-mind display, Buddha Pure Lands.