For a follower of the Hinayana or Mahayana paths, there are the sutras and the shastras. The sutras contain the direct teachings of Buddha Shakyamuni, whereas the shastras are commentaries composed later by a disciple of the Buddha, such as Nagarjuna. Moreover, there are instructions on how to practice. For instance, many chapters of Shantideva’s Way of the Bodhisattva contain very clear instructions.
Studying the dharma can be compared to learning how to drive. There is a driving manual that explains what things are, how they work, the rules of the road and so on. Similarly, the sutras and shastras contain the basic knowledge you need in order to practice the dharma. When you actually learn how to drive, you receive personalized instructions based on your individual skills, your driving teacher’s style and the various practical situations you encounter. These are not necessarily presented in the same order as the information in the manual. Instructions can come in most unexpected ways.
In Vajrayana, there are the tantras as well as the pith instructions. For centuries, dharma practitioners have studied the tantras while practicing according to the pith instructions. Some students place great emphasis on the tantras, the actual texts which contain the theory of the view. Those who are intellectually or academically oriented can get quite caught up in explanations and theories. Other students who are more emotionally oriented tend to get caught up in the instructions. This was a common fault in the past and continues to be so today.
Let’s suppose you have devotion, trust and the merit of having met a qualified master. For you, a mere instruction from your master can potentially lead you somewhere, even without elaborate explanations on the theoretical aspects of the tantras. Your practice could be as ridiculous as being told to have a cup of tea every hour, but it could still untie your knot of delusion and take you to a state where you are released from all kinds of grasping and fixation. This, however, is quite risky, as our devotion is often temporary and fickle. In fact, because our devotion is most often not based on even a minimal understanding of the view, it is little more than a manifestation of our insecurity. If this is the case, our devotion can become rather unhealthy.
Moreover, the merit to encounter a true, qualified master is extremely rare. Of course, I do not wish to discourage you by any means. You can always aspire to one day meet a qualified master and develop the virtues of devotion and trust. If you have such good fortune, you don’t have to read the driving manual; all you have to do is listen to your teacher and do as he or she says. But that’s quite difficult.
Pith instructions appear in many different forms. Although we often talk about them as supplementary, the ngöndro teachings are actually pith instructions. They come directly from unbroken lineages of gurus, out of lineage masters’ experiences and visions. If you want to know why Vajrasattva, guru yoga and mandala offering work, then it’s good to study a text like the Guhyagarbha Tantra, which elucidates the ideas of equality and purity and explains why everything is pure and equal from the beginning. When applied, the tantric texts and the pith instructions complement one another.
The ngöndro contains advice to help us stop our chain of thoughts. Personally, I have found it wise to follow Jamgön Kongtrül’s suggestion to spend at least half of the session just sitting and developing a sense of renunciation by contemplating impermanence and such. Doing so actually sets the atmosphere and tunes your mind so that at least some inspiration arises to actually practice. Otherwise, as samsaric beings, we have so much to do and everything is so significant—from petty shopping lists to important meetings. If you let such mundane matters bother you, they will. But if you reflect on impermanence and the like, even for just a few minutes, your mundane, incessant thoughts will at least temporarily pause. That’s quite important.
After that, if you want to elaborate, it’s good to clear the stale air. As I said, pith instructions like this one can sometimes seem illogical. For instance, if you are oriented more toward the Hinayana or Mahayana approaches, you might wonder what the stale air is and why it is so important in the ngöndro practice. Of course it has its own enormous theory in the Guhyagarbha Tantra, but you might question why we have to subdue the gross and subtle winds [prana] and why this results in our whole perception changing.
In spite of the numerous explanations, there’s the simple fact that clearing the stale air helps us break the chain of thoughts that we are experiencing. Moreover, clearing the stale air tunes us in to renunciation mind and purifies our perceptions. Normally when we practice we don’t spend much time on these things and so our practice tends to be rather weak.
Having evoked renunciation and cleared the air through the nostrils, next be confident that the place where you’re practicing is not ordinary. You will not find such a suggestion in the other vehicles; it is exclusive to Vajrayana.
The whole purpose of dharma practice, whether ngöndro or the main practice, is to understand the great purity and equality. This is the great vastness, longchen—the vast space where everything fits. Everything! The different schools of Buddhism variously call it nonduality, the realization of emptiness, the union of samsara and nirvana, and so on. The fact that everything is nondual is not a recent invention nor a Buddhist one; it is the actual nature of phenomena from the beginning. As the Buddha said, “Whether the buddhas appear on this earth or not, the essence of phenomena never changes.” The nonduality aspect, the great vastness, is unchanging. It has never been fabricated, nor is it something that we create.
What does this mean in practical terms? Devotion is integral to being a Vajrayana practitioner. Wanting to be free of delusion implies accepting that we are deluded. Within our deluded state, we have to learn and believe that we need to create a pure reality. Here comes a pith instruction: this is why we have to think that the place where we are practicing is not an ordinary place. If we never abandon our impure ordinary perceptions of the mundane world and our mundane lives, we will never break out of our delusion. As Vajrayana practitioners we must learn right from the beginning to crack this shell open.
So, when taking refuge you must not think that the setting is ordinary, but rather that it is a pure realm. Then visualize the object of refuge in front of you. It is crucial in Vajrayana to understand that the object of refuge—the guru—is the embodiment of all the buddhas as well as of the dharma, the sangha, and the devas, dakinis and dharmapalas. Basically, all objects of refuge are embodied in the guru.
Now, unless your teacher specifically instructs otherwise, normally one does not visualize the object of refuge, the guru, in his ordinary form. I say this because many of us here have received teachings from the great Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche, and in his guru yoga he instructs us to visualize him in his ordinary form, as however we have seen him. That’s his instruction and we have to follow that. I’m sure there’s infinite purpose behind it. But generally, in most of the ngöndro instructions, you visualize the guru in the form of Guru Rinpoche or Vajradhara, not in the form of a human being. This too is a pith instruction and there are lots of reasons for it, but they all come down to the same point: recognizing the great purity and equality.
In our ordinary human, rational mind, we think that it is much easier to visualize our guru as we remember him or her. Most of us have never seen Vajradhara or Guru Rinpoche. Even if we know what Vajradhara looks like, he is still pretty impossible to visualize: a blue being with thirty-two major marks and eighty minor marks. The thirty-two major marks are incredible and inconceivable, such as webbed hands and a tongue so long it can reach across his face. Are you supposed to visualize your guru as a duck or a dog? It sounds silly, so we would rather simply remember what our guru looked like in the flesh. Besides, that’s how we got inspired in the first place. All these fanciful details go against our normal thinking pattern. Nevertheless, according to most ngöndro instructions, it is necessary to visualize one’s guru not as an ordinary being but rather as Guru Rinpoche.
Our practice is feeble and we have tarried on the path for a long time, primarily because we always see the guru as an ordinary being and not a buddha. We cannot imagine him or her as a buddha. Instead we consider him a normal person who has likes and dislikes similar to our own.
In his explanation of guru yoga, Jamyang Khyentse Chökyi Lodrö notes the importance of how you approach your guru. Usually we think, “I like him because he’s a decent human being; he’s kind, he’s compassionate and he’s a good man.” But according to Jamyang Khyentse Chökyi Lodrö, the blessing you will receive corresponds to your level of devotion, and in this case, it is not much. You too will become tolerant and a good person, but your aim is wrong. Our aim is not to become a good person or a tolerant person. Our aim is not to become a little bit better than the rest but to attain enlightenment. Enlightenment is beyond good and bad and everything.
If you have a high aim such as enlightenment, you have to change your attitude. As Jamyang Khyentse Chökyi Lodrö explains, believing your guru to be a shravaka or an arhat is much better than thinking that he or she is just an ordinary, decent human being. If you think of your guru as an arhat, then you will receive the blessing of individual liberation. If you think your guru is a mahabodhisattva on the tenth bhumi, you will receive an equivalent blessing. If you think your guru is the Buddha himself—that is, you don’t imagine it but actually see him as the Buddha in person—then definitely you will receive the Buddha’s blessings. And in Dzogchen and Mahamudra, if you realize that it is actually your own buddhanature that is manifest in the form of the Buddha or the guru, you will receive the blessing of seeing everything as the Buddha, everything as the guru.
So it is important to visualize not only the place as pure and special, but also the object of refuge, your guru, as an extraordinary being. If you think about this, you will realize that many of our spiritual difficulties are ridiculous. Many of our doubts and fears are simply due to a lack of pure perception. We try to see our guru as someone special, but not really as a buddha.
You would not necessarily expect it to be so difficult to think of your guru as the Buddha. I’m slightly more fortunate than most of you because I have seen numerous great masters. Many of you, especially the younger ones, are quite unlucky because you have to put up with teachers like us. It’s very understandable if you have difficulty thinking that we are the Buddha. But if you find it difficult to think that we ordinary lamas are the Buddha, it is actually because you lack understanding of the great vastness of purity and equality. With the view of great equality and great purity, you can slowly learn to see all ordinary beings, such as many lamas these days, as buddhas. This is quite important to do.
It’s actually the same when you take refuge. What you are declaring is, “I accept that I have the buddhanature. I accept that I can be purified. I accept that my being is the great equality and great purity.” This is essential as the foundation not only of Vajrayana, but also of Buddhism as a whole. Otherwise, we are taking a very theistic approach to our refuge practice. We consider the Buddha, dharma and sangha to be saviors—a panacea of sorts—and we take refuge with the expectation that they will solve all our problems, whether mundane or spiritual. That is a very theistic slant.
Refuge can be understood on many different levels. However, I repeat, do not forget to apply pure perception, especially in Vajrayana. Think, “This place is not an ordinary place but a pure realm. My guru, my object of refuge, is not an ordinary being but a buddha.” When you say this there is a tendency to think that you are imperfect, due to seemingly unstoppable habitual patterns. But as Jamyang Khyentse Chökyi Lodrö said, “Never forget that this guru who is sitting in front of you, whom you are trying to think of as a buddha, is not an ordinary being but in fact the manifestation of your own buddhanature.” It is a very beautiful path, you know.
Usually when we take refuge there’s a sense of being lower than the object of refuge. You, a pathetic being, need to be saved and you take refuge in this very wholesome, omnipotent being. Refuge usually feels like that. But you will know they are not separate at all if you understand the great vastness and the prana, nadi and bindu,[i] and the guru, deva and dakini of the bigger picture.
A brief summary is in order. Tune your mind, clear the stale air, and think that you are sitting in a pure realm. Next, visualize your guru with all of his or her retinue. When you start you usually invoke your guru as the human being for whom you have to buy the plane ticket to fly here to see. I guess it can’t be helped, but then try to think that this ordinary form is your own perception. In reality this being is not what you see with your eyes and hear with your ears; he is Vajradhara or Padmasambhava, depending on the text you are using. Finally, think that your guru, as Vajradhara or Padmasambhava, is actually a reflection of your own buddhanature. By doing so, you complete the circle of taking refuge, from the most ordinary level to the highest, which has such a great benefit. It actually makes you familiar with this idea of the great purity and equality, which is the whole purpose. It’s really incredibly important.
Nowadays, many people think that the guru is like a dictator, which is a big misunderstanding. Of course, I’m sure that some gurus do act like dictators but that has nothing to do with the true notion of a guru. Moreover, the Asian concept of a master as a father figure, like Confucius, is also incorrect. I’m bringing this up because I think that as the East and West are now so closely connected, Western Vajrayana students might tend to think guru yoga is another system supporting the roles of master and servant. Superficially, guru yoga can appear almost criminal: whatever the guru says is right, and even if he says something wrong, you should think that it is right. If you see him do something impure, it is due to your lack of pure perception. My goodness, there is no justice at all! So it is really important not to forget the great purity and equality. This becomes extremely clear at the end of the practice when you dissolve with the guru. Confucius never said the servant and the master should dissolve into one. That’s a big difference. The whole purpose and very essence of both the ngöndro and the main practice is to mingle your mind with the guru’s.
When we say dissolve, it does not mean that you are like a bag and the guru’s mind dissolves and pours into you. That would still be hierarchical. Instead think of a pot. Inside the pot there is space, and if I break the pot, the space inside it and the space outside it become one. So whether it’s your mind mixing with the guru’s mind or the guru’s mind mixing with your mind, it’s basically the same. That is the Vajrayana approach. Vajrayana students should never forget this.
At the end of your session there is the dissolution stage. This is where we become indivisible from the guru. We know that everything is nondual, that everything is equal and pure from the beginning. When we talk about equality, we are talking about the equality and purity of samsara and nirvana, along with that of the guru and disciple. We can grasp intellectually that the guru is a perception resulting from our merit, devotion and so on, but when we practice we can’t help actually thinking that the guru is out there.
Even at the beginning of the Longchen Nyingtig ngöndro there are many stanzas taken from the various tantras and sutras reminding us of why a spiritual companion or master is so important. After that there is Calling the Guru, a beautiful composition by Jigmey Lingpa, invoking the guru from the heart. It clearly elucidates that the guru is not an ordinary human being out there, nor is the guru someone who is going to dictate how you should live your life. It’s not like that at all.
The first stanza of this song invokes the guru from your heart. It is a very beautiful and poetic metaphor: the guru dwells within your own heart. This is totally different from our ordinary perception, whereby we think that the guru is external and separate from us. The heart refers to buddhanature. And one of the infinite manifestations of buddhanature is faith, and as a reflection of this, devotion. For instance, when passionate people look at another being, because of their passion, they see a beautiful object. When aggressive people see another being, because of their aggression, they see an ugly enemy. When devoted people see through the devotion manifested from their buddhanature, they see their guru or spiritual companion.
Jigmey Lingpa says, “From the blooming lotus of faith in the center of our heart, kind guru, our only protector, please arise to protect us from misfortunes. We are tormented by intense kleshas and karma; please remain on top of our head.” We invoke the guru from our heart and place him above us as if he’s a higher, superior being. But please never forget that in all the Vajrayana practices, and especially the Anu and Ati Yoga practices, one always dissolves the guru, or merges with the guru. This is called receiving the empowerment (abhisheka) or initiation from the guru. Light radiates from his forehead, then from the throat and next from the heart, and this light dissolves into you. Finally, you or the guru dissolve into the light and the two of you merge and become indivisible.
I think this aspect should be emphasized because many of our practices seem to have gone a bit off course. We exert ourselves in visualizing the guru in front of us, praising him, supplicating him, begging for his blessing and so on. But we are content with doing the dissolution and merging for only a minute or two. Instead we should spend an equal amount of time, if not more, on the dissolution phase. My father, Thinley Norbu Rinpoche, emphasized this a great deal. He told some of his students in Bhutan to practice receiving each of the four empowerments for a year. I think this is good advice because we tend to spend so little time on the dissolution stage.
Dissolve the guru into yourself, like water dissolving into water, then remain in that state of oneness as long as you can. If you prefer, you can visualize the guru instantaneously and repeat the process over and over. In fact, that’s encouraged, especially if you have received any Dzogchen instructions from your masters. If you have recognized, of course, train in rigpa, the nature of mind. But because of our habitual tendency, as soon as we watch the nature of the mind, or the state of merging our mind and the guru’s mind, we drift into all kinds of distractions. Therefore, it is often helpful to “fence in” the mind. If you have a flock of sheep or herd of cattle that you want to lead in a certain direction, you build a fence so that they go where you want them to go. Likewise, continuously visualizing the guru in front of you, dissolving into him and watching that state of mind is called fencing.
It is very easy for us to say, “Rest in the nature of the mind.” But who knows whether we really are doing so or are simply in a coma? Are we in the state of experiencing the all-ground (alaya), which is like complete numbness? Or are we totally distracted, making plans for the future or rushing after the past? Are we so completely distracted that we don’t even realize it? If we continue in that vein, it’s all a big waste of time. Instead, a wise approach would seem to be repeatedly visualizing the guru and dissolving him into you while watching your mind. As Longchenpa said in the Treasury of Pith Instructions, “Again and again, meditate in short periods but many times.” And when finishing the session, of course, never forget to dedicate the merit.
Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche was born in Bhutan in 1961 and was recognized as the main incarnation of the Dzongsar Khyentse lineage of Tibetan Buddhism. He has studied with some of the greatest contemporary masters, particularly Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche. From a young age he has been active for the preservation of the Buddhist teaching; he supervises his traditional seat of Dzongsar Monastery and its retreat centers in Eastern Tibet, new colleges in India and Bhutan, and centers in Australia, North America and the Far East. Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche also directs films under the name Khyentse Norbu. He directed the highly acclaimed The Cup; his new film is Travellers & Magicians.
[i] According to advanced yogic understanding, in the illusory body, mind-consciousness rides on the prana (literally means wind), which travels through pathways, nadi. The bindu (drop, as in dew-drop) is understood as mind’s nourishment. When these three are impure, it signifies that one is caught in the duality of subject and object. When they are purified, body, speech and mind are completely synchronized and emerge in their indestructible (vajra) nature.
From Dzogchen Essentials: The Path That Clarifies Confusion. Compiled and edited by Marcia Binder Schmidt, with Erik Pema Kunsang. Introductory teachings by Tsoknyi Rinpoche. Published by Rangjung Yeshe Publications. @ 2004 by Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche.