In old Tibet, practitioners went to charnel grounds, springs, haunted houses, haunted trees, and so on, in order to reveal how deeply their practice had cut to the core of their fears and attachments. The practice of cutting through our deepest attachments and fears to their core is called nyensa chödpa. Nyensa chödpa means “cutting through the haunted dominion of mind.” It is not that I am encouraging you to go to these haunted places to test yourself, but it’s important for all practitioners to understand the view behind nyensa chödpa, because until we are challenged we don’t know how deep our practice can go.
We may be established practitioners; we may be comfortable with our practice and working with our minds; everything could be going smoothly. As my teacher Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche used to say, “Practice is easy when the sun is on your back and your belly is full.” But when difficult circumstances arise and we are completely shaken from within, when we hit rock bottom, or when something is haunting us and we feel completely vulnerable and exposed to all our neurosis, then it’s a different story.
Challenging circumstances expose to us how much we have learned from the buddhadharma, how much we have learned from the tantra, and how much we have learned from our meditation practice and the experience of our mind. But we don’t need to wait for challenging circumstances to uncover our hidden fears and attachments. We don’t need to wait for our bliss bubble to pop, for a dear one to die, or to find out we have a fatal disease. There is plenty of opportunity to practice nyensa chödpa right here in our own minds. There is plenty of opportunity because there is plenty of self-clinging.
The haunted dominion of mind is the dominion of self-clinging. It is the world of self and all the hopes and fears that come with trying to secure it. Our efforts to secure the self give rise to all the negative emotions. If we were not so concerned with cherishing and providing for the self, there would be no reason for attachment. Aggression, too, would have no reason to arise if there were no self to protect. And jealousy, which shows up whenever we think the self is lacking something, would have no impetus to eat away at our inner peace because we would be content with the natural richness and confidence of our own mind. If we had no need to shield all of the embarrassing things about the self that make us so insecure, we would have no cause for arrogance. Finally, if we were not so fixated on the self, we could rely on our innate intelligence rather than let our stupidity escort us through the activities that bring us so much pain time and time again.
So emotions themselves are not the cause of the problem. Yet until we reach down to the very root of our negative emotions, they will be there, standing in line waiting to “save” us from our fundamental insecurities. Unless we let go of grasping to the self with all its egotistical scheming to save itself in the usual manner, we will only continue to enforce a stronger and stronger belief in the solidity of the self. If the aim of practice is to free ourselves from our endless insecurities, then we must cut through self-clinging. Until we do, self-clinging will define our relationship with the world, whether it be the inner world of our own mind or the world outside of us.
From the perspective of the self, the world is either for us or against us. If it is for us, its purpose is to feed our infinite attachments. If it is against us, it is to be rejected and adds to our infinite paranoia. It is either our friend or our enemy, something to lure or reject. The stronger we cling to a self, the stronger grows our belief in a solid, objective world that exists separate from us. The more we see it as solid and separate, the more the world haunts us: we are haunted by what we want from the world and we are haunted by our struggle to protect ourselves from it.
The many problems we see in the world today, and also encounter in our own personal lives, spring from the belief that the enemy or threat is “outside” of us. This split occurs when we forget how deeply connected we are to others and the world around us. This is not to say that mind and the phenomenal world are one and that everything we experience is a mere figment of our imagination. It simply means that what we believe to be a self, and what we believe to be other than self, are inextricably linked, and that, in truth, the self can only exist in relation to other. Seeing them as separate is really the most primitive way of viewing and engaging our lives.
To see the connectedness or interdependence of all things is to see in a big way. It reduces the artificial separation we create between the self and everything else. For instance, when we hold tightly to a self, the natural law of impermanence looms as a threat to our existence. But when we accept that we are part of this natural flow, we begin to see that the entity we cling to as a static, immutable, and independent self is just a continuous stream of experience composed of thoughts, feelings, forms, and perceptions that change from moment to moment. When we accept this, we become part of something much greater—the movement of the entire universe.
What we experience as “our life” results from the interdependent relationship between the “outer” world—the world of color, shape, sound, smell, taste, and touch—and our awareness. We cannot separate awareness—the knower—from that which is known. Is it possible, for instance, to see without a visual object or to hear without a sound? And how can we isolate the content of our thoughts from the information we receive from our environment, our relationships, and the imprints of our sense perceptions? How can we separate our bodies from the elements that it is composed of, or the food we eat to keep us alive, or the causes and conditions that brought our bodies into existence?
In fact there is little consistency in what we consider to be self and what we consider to be other. Sometimes we include our emotions as part of the self. Other times our anger or depression seem to haunt or even threaten us. Our thoughts also seem to define who we are as individuals, but so often they agitate or excite us as if they existed as other. Generally we identify the body with the self, yet when we fall ill we often find ourselves saying, “My stomach is bothering me,” or “My liver is giving me trouble.” If we investigate carefully, we will inevitably conclude that to pinpoint where the self leaves off and the world begins is not really possible. The one thing we can observe is that everything that arises, both what we consider to be the self and what we consider to be other than self, does so through a relationship of interdependence.
All phenomena depend upon other in order to arise, express themselves, and fall away. There is nothing that can be found to exist on its own, independent and separate from everything else. That self and other lack clearly defined boundaries does not then mean that we are thrown into a vague state of not knowing who we are and how to relate to the world, or that we lose our discerning intelligence. It simply means that through loosening the clinging we have to our small, constricted notion of self, we begin to relax into the true nature of all phenomena: the nondual state of emptiness, which transcends both self and other.
Having gone beyond dualistic mind, we can enjoy the “single unit” of our own profound dharmakaya nature. The “singularness” of emptiness is not single as opposed to many. It is a state beyond one or two, subject and object, and the self and the world outside; it is the singular nature of all things. Upon recognizing the nature of emptiness, our own delusion—the false duality of subject and object—cracks apart and dissolves. This relieves us of the heaviness produced by the subtle underlying belief that things have a separate or solid nature. At the same time we apprehend the interconnectedness of everything and this brings a greater vision to our lives.
Cultivating a deep conviction in the view of emptiness is what the practice of nyensa chödpa is all about. Nyensa refers to that which haunts us: clinging to the self and all the fears and delusion this produces. Chödpa means “to cut through.” What is it that cuts through our clinging, fears, and delusion? It is the realization of emptiness, the realization of the truth. When the view of emptiness dawns in our experience, if even only for a moment, self-grasping naturally dissolves. This is when we begin to develop confidence in what is truly possible.
Impressed by the yogi Milarepa’s unwavering confidence in the view of emptiness, the Ogress of the Rock, while attempting to haunt and frighten him, made this famous statement, which illustrates the view of nyensa chödpa very well. She said,
This demon of your own tendencies arises from your mind, if you don’t recognize the [empty] nature of your mind. I’m not going to leave just because you tell me to go. If you don’t realize that your mind is empty there are many more demons besides myself. But if you recognize the [empty] nature of your own mind, adverse circumstances will serve only to sustain you, and even I, Ogress of the Rock, will be at your bidding.[i]
To understand emptiness conceptually is not enough. We need to understand it through direct experience so that when we are shaken from the depth of our being, when the whole mechanism of self-clinging is challenged, we can rest in this view with confidence. When challenging circumstances arise, we cannot just conceptually patch things up with the ideas we have about emptiness. Merely thinking, “Everything is empty,” does little service at such times. It is like walking into a dimly lit room, seeing a rope on the ground, and mistaking it for a snake. We can tell ourselves, “It’s a rope, it’s a rope, it’s a rope,” all we want, but unless we turn on the light and see for ourselves, we will never be convinced it is not a snake, and our fear will remain. When we turn on the light, we can see through direct experience that what we mistook for a snake was actually a rope, and our fear lifts. In the same way, when we realize the empty nature of the self and the world around us, we free ourselves from the clinging and fear that comes with it. It is essential that we have conviction based upon experience—no matter how great or small that experience is.
Without this conviction we may run up against a lot of doubts about our meditation practice when difficult circumstances surface. We may wonder why our meditation isn’t working. If meditation does not serve us in difficult times, what else can we do to rescue ourselves from the horror and fear we have inside? What about all the years of practice we have done? Were we just fooling ourselves? Was our practice ever genuine at all?
In times like these we need not get discouraged about our ability to practice. Coupled with open-minded questioning, challenging circumstances can help deepen and clarify the purpose of our path because they expose how far our practice has penetrated to the core of self-clinging. Although these experiences often shock or disturb us, they bring our attention to the immediate experience of clinging and the pain it generates, and we begin to think about letting go.
We may have had the experience of letting go of our clinging and resting in the nature of emptiness many times in the past, but have not yet developed trust or conviction in that experience. We may feel certain in the moment of seeing our ordinary confused perceptions collapse, but unless we trust that experience, it will not affect the momentum of our ordinary confused habits. Quickly we will return to believing in our experience as solid and real. However, if we are able to trust the direct experience of emptiness, we can, through hindsight, bridge that understanding with our present experience. We rely on the recollection of our direct encounter with the view to change the way we ordinarily respond to difficult situations.
On the other hand, even if we do have some conviction, it is not as if because we have let go once—“That’s it!”—we’ve let go completely and we will never cling again. Habitual mind is like a scroll of paper: when you first unroll it, immediately it curls back up. You need to continually flatten it out, and eventually it will stay. Our constant challenge as practitioners, the true focus of our practice, is reducing the attachment we have in the core of our mind.
As we approach the haunted dominion with less fear, we may actually find some intelligence in the experience of being haunted: although we continuously try to secure the self, instinctually we know that we cannot. This instinctual knowledge comes from an innate intelligence that sees the dynamic, ungraspable nature of all things. It observes things arise and fall away, both happiness and suffering and the changes of birth, old age, sickness, and death. When we cling to self and other, our mind feels deeply conflicted and fearful because clinging is at odds with our inner intelligence. Of course, we are not clinging because we want to suffer; we are clinging because we want to avoid suffering. But clinging by its nature causes pain. When we let go of grasping and turn toward our innate intelligence, we begin to experience a sense of ease in our minds and we begin to develop a new relationship with that which ordinarily haunts us.
As practitioners interested in going beyond delusion, we may find ourselves intrigued by the haunted dominion of mind. We may find that, rather than trying to avoid pain, we want to move closer to that which haunts us. Emboldened by the experience of emptiness, we can question the solidity or truth of our fears—maybe things don’t exist as they appear. In fact, each time we see through the haunted dominion of mind—when we see its illusory or empty nature—we experience the taste of true liberation. This is why the great yogis of the past practiced in haunted places such as charnel grounds. Places that provoke the hidden aspects of mind are full of possibilities for liberation. In this way, the haunted dominion—whether it is a charnel ground or the dominion of fear that results from our own self-clinging—serves as the very ground of our realization.
We don’t need to cling to the self to enjoy life. Life is naturally rich and abundant. There is nothing more liberating and enjoyable than experiencing the world around us without grasping. We do not deprive ourselves of experience if we forsake our attachments. Clinging actually inhibits us from enjoying life to its fullest. We consume ourselves trying to arrange the world according to our preferences rather than delighting in the way our experience naturally unfolds.
We can find so much appreciation of life when we are free of the hopes and fears related to self-clinging—even of all the problems we generally try to avoid and dread, such as old age, sickness, and death. The ability to appreciate all aspects of our mind really says something about mind’s magnificent potential. It shows us that the mind is so much greater than the confusions, fears, and unrest that so often haunt us. It show us that our personal suffering and the world of suffering “outside” of us are nothing more than the inner and outer world of our own delusion—samsara.
Nyensa chödpa is cutting through the mind of samsara. What could be much more haunted and fearful than samsara? What could be a greater benefit than getting beyond samsara and our own self-grasping? What could be more meaningful than recognizing that samsara—that which has made us so fearful and shaken—is by nature the nondual nature of emptiness itself? If we do the practice of nyensa chödpa in our everyday life, it is a wonderful way to live this life, and the work we do will measure up in the end.
[i]Patrul Rinpoche, Padmakara Translation Group, The Words of My Perfect Teacher, (Harper Collins, 1994) 206.