To Enter the Vajrayana Start at the Beginning

It is the kindness of the buddhas to provide us with a complete path, and the preliminary practices are part of that path.

Tsoknyi Rinpoche
20 June 2018
Buddha statue.
Buddha Shakyamuni and Scenes from the Life of the Buddha, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Michael Phillips, Courtesy of Los Angeles County Museum of Art

All great teachers of the past have taught the identical message: “Gather the accumulations, purify the obscurations, and receive the blessings of a qualified master.” In the tradition I represent, the preliminary practices are very, very important. I don’t think that the buddhas and all the past masters have created them just to lead us astray. The vajrayana vehicle contains many methods and few hardships to reach enlightenment. Some of the easiest are devotion and compassion, along with the recognition of mind nature. Combine these with the preliminaries and you will progress quickly.

Dzogchen, the highest teaching of the Nyingma school, is the pinnacle of the vajrayana vehicle. It doesn’t make sense to grab at the highest teachings and reject the rest. It is pointless to invent some personal idea of Dzogchen to train in. If you do, then Dzogchen becomes something fabricated, something you have made up. Calling your own theories Dzogchen is a foolish pretense which has nothing to do with the genuine, authentic teachings.

You see, Dzogchen is not made up of bits of information that you can collect and take home. Dzogchen is about how to be free. It is not sufficient to only receive the teachings; you must apply them, live them. Right now, we are still enveloped in deluded experience. We have created a cage for ourselves out of our own emotions and duality, and here we sit, day in and day out. We can remain in this cage or we can use the Dzogchen instructions to break it open and become free.

With the openness of devotion, the blessings can enter our stream of being. When we fully let go, with deep trust, it is possible to recognize the state of original wakefulness. This practice is not some new philosophical position, a new concept that you acquire, but a way of fully letting go of all conceptual attitudes.

To arrive at thought-free wakefulness is not impossible or necessarily very difficult. However, it does require the accumulation of merit, purification of obscurations, and making a connection with a qualified master. These three are extremely important and repeatedly emphasized.

It doesn’t matter how many times we are told to drop everything and be one hundred percent uncontrived and natural, we still hold on to the letting go.

Sure, we can be told, “Sit down and let go completely, just be natural.” But can we, really? We try to let go, but actually we don’t, we are still holding on-holding on to the letting go. We hold on to something else then; again, we try to let go. We are always holding on to something, putting up some resistance. Actually, we do not really want to let go. It is against our nature, so to speak. We prefer to retain ego control and it’s a very strong habit. It doesn’t matter how many times we are told to drop everything and be one hundred percent uncontrived and natural, we still hold on to the letting go. Holding on to what we are recognizing, “Wow, now I recognize the nature of mind.” Clinging to the natural state, holding on to the concept, “This is it.”

In other words, although we try to let go, a part of us is still holding on. Therefore, it is never the genuine natural state. So something is needed to completely shatter the conceptual attitude, to smash it to pieces. One essential way is provided by the circumstance of devotion. When we thoroughly open up in the moment of devotion, it’s like all the peels of our philosophical ideas, all of the wrapping, all the concepts that we use to compartmentalize reality is totally stripped away. Being full of genuine devotion is one of the purest conceptual states. Then, if we have received the essential instruction of recognizing mind essence, we can recognize self-aware original wakefulness.

This is also possible when full of compassion. When you feel sincere empathy towards all sentient beings, such purity disperses conceptual mind. Simultaneous with that your mind becomes wide open. And again, in that moment, there is the opportunity, if you have received the essential instructions, to apply them. You can recognize self-knowing original wakefulness and arrive in the natural state, genuinely and authentically.

Otherwise, it appears that we just do not want to actually be in the natural state. Our habit is not to be and that’s a very hard habit to break. So, that is why there are many practices to facilitate the recognition of mind nature-to break the normal habit of conceptual mind and ego. However, heart-felt devotion and compassion are the foremost facilitators for arriving back in the original state.

Through the preliminary practices, it becomes easier to recognize and train in the nonconceptual meditation of Dzogchen. The general preliminaries are the four contemplations on precious human body, impermanence and death, cause and effect of karma, and the defects of samsara. The special preliminaries are taking refuge, arousing bodhicitta, the recitation and meditation of Vajrasattva, mandala offerings, and guru yoga.

If we feel that it is difficult to simply let be, the preliminary practices are a method to make it easier for us. Also, when we arrive at Dzogchen itself, we need to rely on our own intelligence. But few of us have such a capacity and so a method is required, and that is another place where the preliminary practices come in.

You need to have both-the candle and a match-together to illuminate the darkness.

Accumulating merit or using conceptual methods are like making a candle. The Dzogchen pointing-out instruction is like lighting the candle. You need to have both-the candle and a match-together to illuminate the darkness. With inadequate merit, maybe you can recognize mind essence, but instantly the recognition disappears. You cannot concentrate; you lack the candle. It is like a match in the darkness; it will quickly flicker and die. There is no way to even light the candle, if you do not have enough merit.

Many positive conditions must come together to be able to practice the dharma. Some people really aspire to practice, but their lifestyle makes it very difficult. Others wish to spend three years in retreat, but they don’t have any money. Still others have plenty of money, but cannot get any teachings. Sometimes people have a very good teacher and teachings, but their situation is complicated: they are always fighting with their spouse, with not a moment of peace in their home, or their job takes up all their time. So, you need to change your circumstances, but to do so you must have merit and for that there is no better method than the preliminary practices.

It is the kindness of the buddhas to provide us with a complete path, and the preliminary practices are part of that complete path. Often students refrain from doing them because they do not understand their purpose. Some students even think the preliminary practices are some sort of punishment. However, this is not a punishment meted out to torture people, not at all. Your laziness might say, “Oh no, the preliminary practices are so difficult. They must be meaningless. I don’t want to do them.” But you have to smash that lazy tendency. The main obstacle to practice is laziness. If you crush it from the beginning, your laziness will get scared and run away, “Ooh, I cannot go near these people; it is too much for me.” Prostrations will chop up your physical laziness and mandala offerings will chop up your attachment.

To truly progress in dharma practice, you also have to develop the proper motivation, “I want to engage in meditation to purify my obscurations, particularly my main enemy, ego-clinging, and benefit all sentient beings.” If you have that kind of motivation, you will progress towards enlightenment, not towards building up a strong healthy ego.

While generating this kind of motivation, ego might kick up a fuss and try to create doubts in your mind. Just ignore it. Ego might say, “This can’t be true. How can you help all sentient beings? How can you purify yourself?” When this happens, please be careful, do not listen. In other words, our progress is completely dependent on whether our motivation is pure. Dharma practice is dependent on mind and that means our attitude or motivation.

Often when people come to my retreats, they do so to be free of suffering. They think, “I need to be free of unpleasant emotions, so I am going to do Buddhist practice.” This is one type of motivation. Another is, “I want to help all sentient beings recognize their self-existing awareness.” That is being motivated by altruistic kindness. However, the best is to be motivated in a true unfabricated way. But as that often isn’t possible, we must instead begin by fabricating it with the bodhichitta resolve. Remember, proper motivation ensures that our actions will head us in the right direction.

These days many people have a problem of low self-esteem and normal worldly aims are not enough. Somehow, ego is tired of the ordinary and needs different fuel. If you take spiritual fuel and give it to your ego, your ego will become stronger and you can go back into worldly life. Yet, this is not the purpose of spiritual practice. Quite honestly, for many, their normal ego is already fed-up with worldly society. They want to pump up their egos, but normal fuel is not good enough. When they hear that in the mountains, there is some spiritual fuel from Tibet, then they think, “That will pump me up. If I can get some of that, then I will be better, even while walking through Times Square.” So, they head off to the mountains, to get some Tibetan fuel to pump up their egos. That attitude might be okay to bring someone into contact with the teachings, but it will not serve the true purpose of dharma.

Ego-clinging is very subtle. Everything we do seems to be another way to feed the ego. The ego bribes us into assuming a path that seems to be a genuine spiritual practice, but then our ego usurps it. Even chanting Om Mani Padme Hum can be appropriated by the ego. You sit down on your meditation cushion and assume the posture, but it’s because of ego. You light incense and prostrate before your statues in your little retreat room, but it’s still all for your ego. We need something to break free from the ego’s grip and that is the accumulation of merit and the purification of obscurations, in conjunction with devotion and compassion.

If we do not know how to initially motivate ourselves in the true way, dharma practice may be nothing more than another way of popping our daily vitamin pill, one to make “me” strong and healthy. When spiritual practice is a dietary supplement, you apply it when you feel a little low on energy or a little upset. You sit down and practice to feel better. You try to balance yourself through practice and later return to your normal activities.

They apply the gloss of spirituality to put a shine on their normal lives.

Some people have this attitude, believe me! They tell themselves that they need spirituality in their lives; after all, it is not politically correct to be totally materialistic. So they give themselves a little dose in the morning and another in the evening. They apply the gloss of spirituality to put a shine on their normal lives. This is a particular trend and some so-called teachers teach in this way. They tell their students that if they sit and meditate for a few minutes, they will be much happier. They are trying to make spiritual practice easier, more appetizing, more palatable; trying to bend the dharma to fit people’s attitudes. But that is not the true dharma, so don’t make the mistake of confusing this type of practice for the real thing.

Even if you only practice a little bit, try to do it in a genuine way, with a true view, meditation and conduct. Even if it is only for a short while, let it be real. Otherwise, it is better to give it up all together, because you may wind up using the dharma only to further ensnare yourself in confusion. To pretend to be a spiritual person and wear a rosary on your wrist is useless unto itself. If it happens naturally, fine, no problem. But if your intention is to be respected by others, to create a better image because you meditate or are spiritual, you are merely being pretentious.

Nor should you apply dharma-polish, the type of spiritual practice that can make our deluded state appear prettier, more pleasant. One can advertise the value of spiritual practice, like advertising an exercise machine: “Use it two times a day for three weeks, and your confusion is guaranteed to clear up!” It sounds nice, but it doesn’t work.

True honesty and appreciation give you confidence in life.

Really, to do dharma practice, you need to be honest with yourself and be able to appreciate what it is you are doing. True honesty and appreciation give you confidence in life. Do not cheat yourself. If your practice is only to boost your ego, then dharma becomes nothing more than a mask. You are simply fooling yourself, which is useless. You might as well not bother. But, if your motivation is pure, you won’t fool yourself.

Actually, who knows whether we are fooling ourselves or not? Karma does. Karma stays with you continuously; it never closes its eyes. Even when you are in the bathroom, karma is watching. So be careful! No matter what you do or where you are, karma never sleeps. Karma is a witness to all you do, now and in the future. Whether other people acknowledge your actions or not really doesn’t matter; karma and the buddhas will. Trust yourself; trust your pure motivation and the good actions of karma. Pure motivation is not so difficult to understand, really; take it to heart and live it. Don’t be like the person who comes to me with a cup containing water, ten spoons of sugar, ten of chili, ten of oil and many other things. They say, “Rinpoche, this doesn’t taste so good. I want it to taste better. Can you do something?”

So I say, “Sure, I’ll try.” And I start to pour some of the water out. The person jumps up, “Oh please, don’t pour any water out! I don’t want to take anything out.” So, wondering what I should do, I ask, “Can I add more sugar?” Again he objects, “No, no. I don’t want to add anything. Just make it taste good. I don’t want to change anything, except the taste.” So what is one to do? For me, it is very easy, I say, “Fine, fine, I will pray for you.” Because there’s nothing else for me to do, except pray. Actually, people like this don’t want to change, let alone let go of ego. Yet, they still want something to happen. They are waiting for a miracle which will never come, so all I can do is pray.

This teaching was compiled and edited by Marcia Binder Schmidt, with Michael Tweed, and translated by Erik Pema Kunsang.

Tsoknyi Rinpoche

Tsoknyi Rinpoche

Tsoknyi Rinpoche is a meditation master in the Kagyu and Nyingma lineages of Tibetan Buddhism and son of the late Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche. He teaches widely in the West and oversees nunneries and monasteries in Tibet and Nepal. His most recent book is Open Heart, Open Mind.