Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche

Crucial Instructions

The late Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, a great 20th century Buddhist teacher, offers four sets of pithy teachings on bringing the absolute nature into our path.

By Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche

Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche. Photo by Wonderlane.

Teachings by Dilgo Khyentse on Zurchung Sherap Trakpa’s1 Eighty Chapters of Personal Advice, based on Shechen Gyaltsap’s2 commentary. The lines from Zurchungpa’s root text appear in bold and Shechen Gyaltsap’s notes and structural outline appear in italics. Dilgo Khyentse’s commentary appears in roman text.

Son, there are four instructions for using things as the path.

As it is said in the Six Prerequisites for Concentration:

On account of material possessions one suffers.
To own nothing is supreme bliss.
By abandoning all its food,
The pelican becomes ever happier.

For someone engaged in a life of contemplation, possessions and material things are simply a disturbance, a cause of difficulties. To have no possessions is supreme bliss. When we have nothing, we have no enemies. We are happy because we do not have the problem of first acquiring wealth, then protecting it and trying to increase it. As we find in the saying:

Base your mind on the dharma,
Base your dharma on a humble life,
Base your humble life on the thought of death,
Base your death on an empty, barren hollow.3

So if we give up all possessions, practice becomes very easy and we will find sublime happiness, like the pelican. The pelican can collect a lot of fish in its bill, but it is prey to being chased by other birds that try to make it give up its catch. It does not get a moment’s peace until it surrenders the fish to its pursuers. But once it has done so, it is much happier. Similarly, when we have no possessions, we are free to remain comfortably at ease. On the other hand, with possessions we become preoccupied with having more, and we worry that we might lose them to enemies and thieves.


Make freedom from attachment the path, as exemplified by the pelican carrying fish.

Now, in order to actually progress on the path, we have to be free from afflictive emotions, for it is afflictive emotions that bind us in ignorance.

Since afflictive emotions can arise as primal wisdom,

Make the five poisons the path, as exemplified by the recitation of mantras over poison.

This does not refer to the ordinary emotions as they normally present themselves. It refers to finding their true nature, the ultimate nature of wisdom in the depth of these afflictive emotions. Once wisdom has truly arisen within us and we recognize the empty nature of the afflictive emotions, they cannot harm us, just as when an accomplished yogi recites a mantra over poisoned food, the poison is rendered harmless. By recognizing the empty nature of the afflictive emotions, they are liberated as wisdom and we can use them as the path. If we experience afflictive emotions in the ordinary way, they can only bind us down in samsara. But if we can recognize these emotions as wisdom, they will become helpers in our practice.

Now, afflictive emotions arise in the mind by means of the eight consciousnesses.

If we recognize the eight consciousnesses as unborn, we cut the root of existence, the notion of a self.

This idea of a self, the thought of “I,” is the very root of samsara. It is this that has to be cut. When a tree is cut at the roots, there is no need to cut the branches, leaves, and flowers; they all fall at the same time and dry up. At present we have not been able to realize that the eight consciousnesses are unborn and we have therefore been unable to cut the belief in an “I” at the root. But once we know how to get rid of this notion of an “I,” then whatever happens to us–suffering, happiness, attachment, or revulsion–it will all help our practice progress:

Make the unborn nature of the eight consciousnesses the path, as exemplified by cutting a fruit tree at the roots.

The unborn absolute nature is completely empty, like space, unstained by relative phenomena, such as the notions of permanence or nihilism that constitute wrong views. The view of this absolute, spacelike nature is unblemished by such extremes, just like the lotus flower, which grows above the surface of the lake and is unstained by mud:

As the unborn absolute nature is unaffected by relative phenomena,

Make the great purity the path, as exemplified by the lotus growing from the mud.

Showing by means of illustrations how knowledge helps the meditation.

Son, here are instructions on four things to be known.

If you are to meditate with one-pointed concentration, you need to know clearly what you have to meditate on.

All phenomena in samsara and nirvana are devoid of true existence.

At present, we perceive samsara as something we have to reject and nirvana as something we have to attain. Now while this is correct according to relative truth, according to absolute truth, the nature of the afflictive emotions and actions that we are supposed to reject is nothing other than emptiness, and the nature of the kayas and wisdoms we have to achieve is also nothing other than emptiness. When we realize the dharmakaya, which is free from true existence, we will know that all perceptions are similar to a dream or an illusion and we will no longer crave these phenomena. As it is said, “While there is attachment, there is no view.” And absence of attachment is the supreme view.

For a magician knows that the things he has created do not truly exist and he is therefore not attached to them.

When you ascertain the nature of all phenomena, everything comes down to the truth of emptiness. The entities of samsara that have to be rejected are emptiness; the qualities of nirvana that have to be attained are emptiness. Their emptiness is not of different kinds: phenomena have the same all-pervading nature, the one taste in multiplicity, the sole essence. Therefore,

As phenomena and their nature are not two separate things,

Know indivisibility, as illustrated by sandalwood or the musk deer.

Sandalwood cannot be separated from its fragrance, nor the musk deer from its smell. It is in this same way that you should recognize the essential indivisibility of samsara and nirvana.

Since there is no relying on conditioned phenomena with characteristics,

Know that relatives deceive, as illustrated by being let down by a friend.

One cannot rely on the conditioned things of samsara, like fame, wealth, rank, and so forth. There are no relative phenomena in samsara and nirvana on which one can depend. It is important to know this. If, for example, you are traveling to a distant land in the company of a friend who then somehow lets you down, you will realize you can no longer trust that friend. In the same way, you should know that attachment to relatives and friends is simply a cause of deception. Free yourself from clinging and do not rely on such things.

Since the absolute nature has been present in you from the beginning,

Know inseparability, as illustrated by a sesame seed or the flame of a lamp.

The absolute nature has been constantly present within you since the very beginning. It is not something that you have been given by the teacher’s blessings, like a gift. Nor is it something that has been changed from something else, like a square of woolen cloth that is dyed a different color. It has not been newly fabricated. Rather, it is like the oil in a sesame seed: despite the sesame seed’s tiny size, there is always oil present in it. Or like the flame of a lamp: whatever the size of the flame, the light it gives out is naturally part of it. In the same way, you should know that none of the qualities of nirvana is ever separate from your essential nature.

When one knows this, the bonds of belief in true existence and dualistic concepts are loosened by themselves, and immaculate wisdom is born in one’s mind.

Showing by means of illustrations how the crucial instructions help the meditation.

Son, there are four crucial instructions.

Although the creative power of the empty absolute nature appears multifariously, from the moment phenomena manifest, they have no inherent existence: appearance and emptiness are united.

Because everything is by nature empty, infinite manifestations can arise: from the natural creative potential of emptiness, all the phenomena of samsara and nirvana can manifest as an infinite display. Although all these manifestations arise, it is not as if they are permanent when they are there and impermanent when they are no longer there. Everything arises as in a dream or like a magical illusion. It is like a rainbow, which, though it appears clearly in the sky, is not solid. It is apparent yet empty. But its emptiness and its appearance are not two separate aspects. It is not that the rainbow being present is one aspect and its being empty is another. The rainbow is simultaneously apparent and empty, and there is no other emptiness than the rainbow itself. The same is true for all the phenomena of samsara and nirvana: they are empty from the very moment they appear.

You need the crucial instruction that shows how to make a clear-cut decision regarding the unobstructed nature of appearances, as illustrated by a clean silver mirror.

Take the example of a mirror. If you take a silver mirror and polish it thoroughly, many images will arise on its surface. But though they appear clearly on the surface, they are not in the mirror nor are they sticking to the mirror’s surface. We cannot say that they are inside the mirror or outside. How then do they arise? It is simply the conjunction of there being, say, someone’s face in the front of the mirror and the mirror being there. As a result of these different conditions, an image appears. Now, anyone can understand that although all sorts of images appear in a mirror, they do not exist in any solid way. But we have to understand that the same is also true for all the infinite manifestations of samsara and nirvana.

The emptiness and the manifestation are indivisible: the emptiness cannot be separated from the manifestation. When we speak of emptiness and appearance, this does not mean that there are two things in the same way that we talk about the two horns of an animal. It means that there is no emptiness besides the manifestation and there is no manifestation besides emptiness. Once we are free from clinging to this sort of duality, our concepts of existence and nonexistence will naturally fall apart. It is important to have a clear understanding – free of doubts – of this unimpeded manifestation.

When one is not bound by clinging to what is not two as being two, phenomenal characteristics are freed by themselves.

You need the crucial instruction on not being bound by characteristics, as illustrated by a prisoner who has been released.

A prisoner who has just been set free is very concerned not to do anything wrong that might put him back in jail again. We should be similarly mindful and vigilant so that we are not bound by concepts of existence, nonexistence, eternalism, or nihilism; otherwise, we will be seriously tied down by ignorance.

What is the crucial point here? It is to know the meaning of the unborn nature of the mind. The mind does not have a color, shape, location, or any other characteristics. So although there is nothing solid and no characteristics on which to meditate, once you have gained stability and confidence in the realization of the unborn nature of mind, do not stray into distraction and wander from that recognition, even for an instant. Simply remain in the state of nongrasping, which is free from mental activity.

Although there is not even an atom to meditate upon with regard to the unborn nature of your own mind, do not be distracted for an instant. Be free from mental activity and conceptualization:

This is the crucial instruction you need on not being distracted from the unborn nature, as illustrated by shooting an arrow straight at the target.

By aiming an arrow very straight, one is certain to hit the target. Likewise, when the realization of the unborn nature is aimed at the target of grasping at a self, it is impossible for it not to hit the mark.

With the realization of the triple space, do not move from the inseparability of the absolute space and awareness.

There are three spaces: the outer space, the blue sky, which is like an ornament;4 the inner space, which is the nature of the mind; and the space in between, the space in the eye channels that connects the outer and inner spaces. When these three spaces are blended together, one realizes the inherent union of the empty aspect, the absolute expanse, and the clarity aspect, one’s awareness. Do not waver from that understanding.

You need the crucial instruction on resting in one-pointed concentration, as illustrated by an ophthalmic surgeon.5

When people with an eye disease that is making them go blind find a doctor who can treat them, they listen carefully to the doctor and do everything necessary for the treatment to succeed. As a result of the treatment, their eyes open and they can see the mountains and all the other beautiful things in the universe. If we listen in the same way, with one-pointed attention, to our teacher’s instructions and practice them exactly as he tells us, one day our eyes will open and we will see the absolute nature just as it is. All the deluded perceptions of samsara and nirvana will clear by themselves, for they are, after all, groundless by nature, unborn, and empty. Then all our dualistic concepts of existence, nonexistence, and so forth will naturally fall apart.

By this means, deluded perceptions, being groundless, are cleared away and phenomenal characteristics fall apart by themselves.

Personal advice on how to cut conceptual constructs regarding mental and extramental phenomena.

Son, there are four “cuts.”6

Whatever dualistic thoughts arise, there are none that are anything other than the absolute nature.

Cut the stream of the arising of dualistic thoughts and the following after them, taking the example of a tortoise placed on a silver platter.

Of the many thoughts that arise in our minds, good or bad, none of them move away and separate from the absolute nature for even a moment. They are like a tortoise placed on a silver platter: it finds the feeling of the smooth silver surface underneath it so pleasurable that it does not move at all. So if we never depart from the absolute nature, even when thoughts arise in our mind, there will be no way the chaining of delusion can occur. Normally, when we think of something in the past, it leads to another thought, which again leads to the next thought, and we project into the future, creating an uninterrupted chain of deluded thoughts, with each thought triggering the next. If we follow such chains of thoughts, they will never stop. But if, whenever a thought arises, we remain in the absolute nature without wavering, the flow of these thoughts will naturally cease.

Whatever appears, nothing has moved from the absolute nature.

Decide that nothing is extraneous to the absolute nature, taking the example of gold jewelry.

Once we know how to remain in the absolute nature, the manifold thoughts that arise in the mind are no different from gold jewelry. One can make all sorts of things out of gold, such as earrings, bracelets, and necklaces, but although they have a variety of different shapes, they are all made of gold. Likewise, if we are able to not move from the absolute nature, however many thoughts we might have, they never depart from the recognition of the absolute nature. A yogi for whom this is the case never departs from that realization, whatever he does with his body, speech, and mind. All his actions arise as the outer display or ornament of wisdom. All the signs one would expect from meditating on a deity come spontaneously without his actually doing any formal practice. The result of mantra recitation is obtained without his having to do a large number of recitations. In this way everything is included in the recognition that nothing is ever extraneous to the absolute nature.

In that state one does not become excited at pleasant events or depressed by unpleasant ones. Everything,

The whole variety of joys and sorrows is one within the state of awareness.

Decide on its indivisibility, taking the example of molasses and its sweet taste.

We usually think of molasses as one thing and sweetness as another, and we therefore have two names and concepts for these. But in fact it is impossible to separate the sweetness from the molasses itself. If we reach a similar clear-cut understanding that all phenomena in samsara and nirvana, all happiness and suffering, are included in the absolute nature, then

All of samsara and nirvana arises from the creative display of the spontaneous primal wisdom.

Decide that it is naturally manifesting awareness, taking the example of the moon in the sky and its reflection in water.

When the moon shines on a lake, it is reflected on the water and the moon appears in its reflection exactly as it appears in the sky. Similarly, when we have a glimpse of awareness, it is what we call the illustrative wisdom: it is an image of the actual wisdom, something that we can point to as an example of it. Even though it is only a glimpse, it is still of the same nature as the absolute wisdom, a true likeness of it. Through the recognition of this illustrative wisdom, one is led to the recognition of the absolute wisdom, which is like the moon in the sky. Both arise by themselves, and we should understand clearly that there is no basic difference between the illustrative wisdom and the ultimate awareness or absolute wisdom. Rather, it is a question of one’s realization becoming vaster, of one becoming more skilled in one’s recognition. Just as there is no difference in nature between the moon seen in the water and the moon seen in the sky, so it is with the illustrative wisdom and the absolute wisdom.

Showing how dealing properly with samsara and nirvana helps the meditation.

Son, there are four views.

The essential nature being union, its display is arrayed as an ornament.

View thoughts and appearances as the ornament of the absolute nature, taking the example of a rainbow adorning the sky.

As we have already seen, the essential nature is the intrinsic union of emptiness and appearance. All the infinite manifestations of samsara and nirvana arise spontaneously as the creativity of the absolute nature. They arise as its ornament and not as something different and separate from the absolute nature or as something that interferes with it. When a rainbow appears in the sky, beautiful and multicolored, the sky is empty but the rainbow appears in it like an ornament. Similarly, for a yogi who has realized the wisdom of the absolute nature, all manifestations appear as its ornaments. All thoughts appear as ornaments of the absolute nature, and there is nothing – no meditational defect such as dullness or excitement – that can obstruct it.

When one knows thoughts to be the absolute nature, attachment and aversion are put to death,

and one no longer accumulates karma.

View thoughts as the absolute nature, taking the example of tempering and honing a sword.

With a sword that has been tempered and carefully sharpened, one can cut the toughest branches and even the trunk of a tree. Similarly, if the mind is tempered with the absolute nature, any thoughts that arise will be severed by themselves. As a result,

There are no traces accumulated as habitual tendencies,

and the tendencies of good and bad karma will not be perpetuated.

View thoughts as leaving no trace, taking the example of birds flying in the sky.

With a bird that flies all over the sky, this way and that, it is impossible to point out exactly where it has flown, for it leaves no trace of its flight. For a yogi, too, the many various thoughts, good or bad, that arise in his mind leave no trace, because as soon as they arise they immediately dissolve in the absolute nature. Thoughts related to attachment, aversion, and bewilderment may well arise in his mind, but since they dissolve as soon as they arise they do not leave any trace. As a result, they do not lead to the accumulation of karma and suffering. Good thoughts also, like faith, devotion, and compassion, may arise but immediately dissolve in the absolute nature and therefore do not lead to pride or attachment developing in the mind.

Phenomena are freed in the absolute nature.

View existence as untrue, taking the example of waking from a dream.

In a dream, one dreams of all sorts of things, good and bad; but when one wakes up, there is nothing left of them. Just so, the whole display of the universe and beings continues to manifest infinitely; but once we have realized the absolute nature, we do not cling to notions such as good and bad, and we view all these manifestations as being without any solid existence.

1 Zurchung Sherap Trakpa, also known as Zurchungpa, lived from 1014 to 1074.
2 Shechen Gyaltsap (1871–1926) was Dilgo Khyentse’s first principal teacher.
3 In other words, die alone in a remote place where there are no disturbances.
4 The “ornament space” is the blue sky, which is conventionally considered as a “thing” as opposed to space, which is defined as the absence of anything.
5 “Eye-opening doctor,” one who removes cataracts.
6 In the first instruction the Tibetan word bcad (meaning “to cut”) is used on its own and in its literal sense, but in the other three instructions it is employed in the compound word thag bcad pa, meaning “to decide.”