Forum with Marcia Schmidt, Ron Garry and Mingyur Rinpoche on the view, teachings, and challenges of Dzogchen.
Sometimes the Buddhadharma forum asks people from different traditions to discuss a common Buddhist principle, like karma or the kleshas, or to explore issues that challenge the Buddhist community as a whole, such as how we can extend a helping hand to the world. At other times, we take a fly-on-the-wall approach, and listen in as members of one particular tradition discuss the nature of their path and practice. In this forum, we’ve brought together several noted practitioners of the Vajrayana tradition of Dzogchen to discuss this profound path of simplicity, which seems both utterly accessible and inaccessible all at once.
Dzogchen is called the Great Perfection (Skt., Mahasandhi) and is regarded as the highest tantric yogic discipline (Skt., atiyoga). It is the principal teaching of the oldest school of Tibetan Buddhism, the Nyingma, but it is also taught, studied, and practiced by students and teachers from the other schools. Dzogchen’s adherents claim there is no higher teaching or attainment in the Buddhist firmament. In fact, Dzogchen is supposed to transcend teaching and attainment. Its poetry and realization songs repeatedly stress the folly of trying to learn something, to gain anything, or to get anywhere at all—and yet the great Dzogchen master acts with fearsome or gentle power, as the situation demands.
This paragon of engaged no-big-deal can remind one of the last of the Zen oxherding pictures, where the notion of destination is extinguished yet one continues onward nonetheless. When one looks at the lovely and arresting lohan (arhat) sculptures, they also convey an intensely focused couldn’t-care-less quality. The descriptions of the ultimate from the major Buddhist traditions have different flavors but they sound awfully similar.
The seventeenth century metaphysical poet George Herbert had it right, though, when he said that all comparisons are odious. True, by having a name that implies superiority, Dzogchen begs for comparisons. But as our panelists suggest, that’s not a worthwhile tack to take in trying to understand Dzogchen and appreciate it for what it is: who can really say how Dzogchen compares to the paths and practices of other systems? Spiritual claims are not empirically testable. The proof of their pudding is in the tasting.
Once we have made some judgments about whether a path and its teacher make sense for us, there is still an element of faith. Those who say that Buddhism doesn’t involve faith should take a glance at Dzogchen, because as our panelists passionately emphasize, this path does not work unless one puts all one’s faith in a teacher and a lineage of teachers. There is no Dzogchen in the abstract. There is only Dzogchen as embodied in people.
Dzogchen sounds highfalutin, but because it is so human and ordinary and intimate, its practitioners end up at some point behaving in a very ordinary way, and they end up emphasizing the basic teachings common to all practitioners.
Why is the teacher so important? It seems that what Dzogchen calls the “natural state” strains utterly the ability of language, which by its very nature is bounded by subject and object. Poetry, metaphor, symbol, ritual, and gesture approach but never fulfill the expression of “the natural state,” which is vast like the sky and minute as an atom, simultaneously. The teacher reveals this to the student in the intimate way that can only happen person to person.
Dzogchen sounds highfalutin, but because it is so human and ordinary and intimate, its practitioners end up at some point behaving in a very ordinary way, and they end up emphasizing the basic teachings common to all practitioners. The need to get honestly in touch with our humanity, how we are actually behaving—not the fancy things we are striving for—is the beginning and the end of the path.
Dzogchen, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche once said, is the place where we finally, thankfully, get off the high horse of our spirituality and just plain be. At that point, he said, the value of all the paths, and all the different types of beings who tread them, are appreciated equally. One finds no need for comparisons of any kind at all.
Buddhadharma: It would be helpful to begin by defining Dzogchen and trying to distinguish it from other forms of Buddhism. What is Dzogchen and what is unique about it?
Mingyur Rinpoche: Generally speaking, the whole Vajrayana project must include all three of the yanas, or vehicles – Hinayana, Mahayana, and Vajrayana – and these subdivide further. So there are nine yanas in all.
To complete Dzogchen practice, you must begin with all the usual preliminaries – taking refuge, generating bodhicitta, and so forth. Then, the main project of Dzogchen is to look directly at the nature of mind, rigpa. Rigpa is not our ordinary, everyday mind. It is not conceptual mind. It is the mind that is beyond concept, the mind that is free from subject and object.
Since rigpa, the natural state of awareness, is our innate nature, not the result of a process, there are many ways to enter the Dzogchen path. In fact, Dzogchen is the essence of all the paths and all the practices.
Buddhadharma: Why is Dzogchen called “the Great Perfection”?
Mingyur Rinpoche: Because everything is there. It is the condensed meaning of all the paths and the essence of everything, samsara and nirvana both.
Marcia Schmidt: As the pinnacle of the nine yanas, Dzogchen is a part of the total path, and you cannot extract any element of it and isolate it. It requires working directly with a master qualified in the Dzogchen tradition. It is through the kindness of one’s teacher, and through the kindness of all the lineage gurus, that one is able to enter the Dzogchen path.
Even though Dzogchen is sometimes referred to as a path of simplicity and doing nothing, that describes just the isolated moment of remaining in a nonconceptual awareness. We all would love to think that we can practice Dzogchen and be able to remain for long periods of time in the nature of mind. But for some reason we can’t. So it is not a path for someone without diligence. There’s actually quite a lot to do to really be a Dzogchen practitioner. The complete path includes: purifying the obscurations – those things that prevent our mind from being in the natural state; gathering the accumulations, or merit – the many necessary positive circumstances that allow us to practice intensively; and working closely with a qualified teacher.
Ron Garry: From my perspective as a student, Dzogchen seems very much like everything else that most of us do in the world. It follows the same kind of process we would follow to become successful in the arts, our work life, sports, music, or what have you. If you’re going to become a musician, you first learn scales and you practice intensively. Eventually, after many years of going through a process, it becomes effortless. I think we’ve all had that experience in whatever we’ve become good at. My experience with dharma is very much the same.
When that lineage blessing combines with a very strong effort from ourselves, we can become enlightened. We can recognize natural mind. – Mingyur Rinpoche
Mingyur Rinpoche: It is important to emphasize the role of the teacher. Do-it-yourself Dzogchen is impossible. You need the lineage, and since everything is interdependent, you also need many other causes and conditions. We must rely on this power of interdependence, not simply our own power.
However, when you practice Dzogchen, you do not get the rigpa from someone else, or from somewhere else. It exists within all sentient beings; it’s already present within us. We are buddha, but we are obscured by bad karma, by the negative causes and conditions that give us the illusion of subject and object, that cause us to experience impure body, speech, mind, and an impure world.
The power of interdependence is what makes it possible to remove the illusion. If we want to plant a flower in our garden, we need soil, water, air, sun, and seed. If we’re missing one of them, the flower will not grow. The seed alone cannot grow the flower. The sun alone cannot grow the flower. The power of interdependence is the general rule of phenomena. It is also the general rule of Dzogchen. The teacher and the lineage are the soil and the water. When that lineage blessing combines with a very strong effort from ourselves, we can become enlightened. We can recognize natural mind.
Buddhadharma: How does the teacher help us to experience the nature of mind?
Mingyur Rinpoche: The teacher’s role is to point out. There are many stages of development and many experiences that can be quite similar to or confused with rigpa. For example, the practice of formless or objectless shamatha – resting the mind without an object of meditation – can be similar to Dzogchen practice, to rigpa, but it is not the same. Similarly, one may experience a kind of dullness of mind that has very little conceptualization, which we call alaya, the base consciousness. Many people think that alaya is the essence of the mind, but that’s not really Dzogchen. So the teacher keeps pointing out the natural mind, so you can see very clearly the difference between conceptual mind and natural mind, between alaya and rigpa, between objectless shamatha and rigpa.
Ron Garry: In my experience, traveling the path always involves working with my various states of mind, and that’s why it’s so obviously critical to have a wisdom teacher. Quite often I might feel that I’m having an experience of awareness, but more likely my experience is connected with consciousness. It’s only through the blessings and the connection with my teacher that I’ll be able one day to slowly come to an experience of awareness, my true nature, beyond consciousness. Based on this, my focus is more on preliminary practices and the ngondro practices of refuge, prostrations, Vajrasattva mantra recitation, mandala offering, and guru yoga. Through those practices, and through faith and devotion in my teacher, I feel I am protected from getting caught up in false states of spiritual experiences, like mistaking dull mind for rigpa.
Marcia Schmidt: The teacher can help us even when we get tripped up by the terminology, or by the translations used in the instructions. Shamatha and vipashyana, terms used in the lower vehicles, are the same terms used in the higher vehicles. My teacher, Tulku Urygen Rinpoche, Mingyur Rinpoche’s father, taught that even though the words are the same, the meaning becomes more exalted as you go through the different stages. The vipashyana, or clear seeing, practice of the lower vehicles is actually a form of shamatha, stillness or calm abiding, from the perspective of Dzogchen and Mahamudra. It is not the same, but people often think it is the same.
One of the very famous phrases in this tradition comes from Milarepa: “In the gap between two thoughts, there’s the possibility to recognize rigpa.” Many people just focus on a gap and think, “That’s rigpa,” but they forget that there’s something else. There’s awakeness, awareness, and that’s what contrasts with the dullness, which is a kind of nonconceptual state we’re all in pretty much continuously, when we’re not mixed up with being angry or being attached.
Buddhadharma: What is the difference between objectless shamatha and rigpa?
Mingyur Rinpoche: In objectless shamatha, the instruction is not to meditate, not to be distracted, just to rest. Just resting is good, but just resting alone does not become rigpa practice, because you don’t have recognition. The main difference between objectless shamatha and natural mind is recognition. You get that recognition from the pointing-out instruction from the teacher, and then you can cultivate it further.
To cultivate the recognition of natural mind, one can hold the gap between first and second thought. But if you wait for the gap, that is a big mistake, because you don’t have to wait for natural mind. Rigpa is always present. It is spontaneous presence. People are always thinking that to meditate on rigpa, natural awareness, means you have to extinguish thought and emotions. They think, “I … have … such … openness … and … spaciousness,” but what they have is strong grasping for spaciousness, openness, and rigpa. Their meditation becomes tiny, because they are focusing on having something to practice and something to abandon.
People think like that because they have been told that rigpa is beyond subject and object. Since thoughts and emotions are tied up with subject and object, they think they have to block them to experience rigpa. But rigpa doesn’t do anything with thought and emotions; it lets them be there. If you recognize natural clarity, then everything is transformed. Although something might look like an emotion, it is not a real emotion. That’s why rigpa is not impermanent. But of course, that’s why it’s not permanent, either.
Buddhadharma: Would the modern-day Western student’s experience of the Dzogchen path be different from those who practiced in Tibet for many hundreds of years?
Marcia Schmidt: Tulku Urygen gave teachings to both Westerners and Tibetans, and I was able to sit in with both of them. He taught people exactly the same thing. Some people call it Tibetan Buddhism, but it’s not exclusive to the Tibetan people. There are cultural norms – salted tea, tsampa, and so forth – that are Tibetan but have nothing to do with the Buddhist teachings. To practice Dzogchen, you just have to be a sentient being.
But while the teachings are the same, there is a different level of diligence between us and practitioners of the past. We have the Internet and the five hundred channels, and our culture doesn’t support people being practitioners so much. It’s a different kind of value system. There is also a difference in our openness. Tibetans just do things with blind faith. They don’t question and examine as much. There’s a good side to blind faith, but for us it just doesn’t happen. It’s not our culture; it’s not something we’ve grown up with and are encouraged to practice.
It’s helpful to recognize that there have always been two main approaches: the path of the scholar and the path of the simple meditator. Which avenue you follow depends upon the type of person you are. -Marcia Schmidt
Ron Garry: Fundamentally the Dzogchen we study and practice is identical, because we’re all humans. At the same time, there are some adaptations based on our culture and our upbringing, on what makes us tick. Some teachers are more familiar with our culture and others are less familiar. The actual dharma teaching is not really different, but if you’re more comfortable with a lama who can really speak to our culture, you may want to find a teacher like that. The style of communicating can be different. One may sound more traditional and one may speak more to our culture, but the actual teaching isn’t different. It’s the very same path.
Marcia Schmidt: It’s helpful to recognize that there have always been two main approaches: the path of the scholar and the path of the simple meditator. Which avenue you follow depends upon the type of person you are. The end result can be the same. The pandita, the scholar, goes through all the philosophical vehicles and works a lot with their mind in an analytical way. This is often a very good approach for Westerners, given the propensity to investigate and examine that I talked about. You question, discuss, debate, and engage in intellectual methods of reaching understanding.
The kusulu, the simple meditator, may be someone who doesn’t have the time or the inclination to study all the philosophical texts. He or she is someone who can receive pith instruction, gain certainty in that pith instruction, and go out and practice. That was how Tulku Urgyen had been taught. Following the kusulu approach doesn’t mean that you don’t study. You always need to study everything you are practicing. But you don’t need to study all the philosophical views.
Ron Garry: Whatever approach you take, when you learn from a Dzogchen master, it speaks directly to your experience. Everything is a practice. Everything you learn points directly to your own experience – jealousy, envy, anger, and so on – and how to free yourself right on the spot. These teachings deal with the fact that you are a human being.
Buddhadharma: A lot of wonderful Dzogchen literature is now available in English, and in these works one can read profound descriptors for natural awareness – “the stainless face,” “the clear light,” “the original ground” – or statements such as “like the sky, realization is changeless” and “rigpa is self-manifest.” Furthermore, rigpa is said to be ever-present and immediate, not far away, and you attain it by not trying to attain it. This makes for lovely and inspiring reading, but how helpful can it be? Does it not cause us to grasp for experiences in the way that Rinpoche talked about?
Ron Garry: Once again, it is the teacher who makes the difference. When most of us are first connecting with spirituality, we go through a process of searching. We find books that are really inspiring and teachers whose writings move us. That’s what happened to me. What I read lit a fire within me. It motivated me to look for a pure lineage and a pure teacher, because that’s what you need to do to go beyond the book-reading level.
At the same time, when I think back to the state I was in, I wonder how in the world I could tell the difference between a pure teacher and one who is not. I don’t have a definitive answer for how one sorts that out. I just found that the more I looked at my motivation and my intention as I went through the process, the more I tried to let go of intentions and motivations that were not so pure. As a result of letting go of these lesser motivations, it became more likely that I would find my own motivation reflected in a pure teacher.
There are texts that talk about how to find a teacher, but in the end it is based on your motivation. What you are after will influence what you connect with. It’s very easy for someone to speak all these beautiful Dzogchen words, and if they’re charismatic, very articulate, and maybe kind of funny, they can fulfill our desire to be entertained. But will we receive genuine teaching from them? We need to look at our own motivation carefully. If our motivation is pure, we will connect with what’s pure.
In the West, we fall in love first. We go wild and get inspired, then a year later, we start checking out the teacher more closely. -Ron Garry
Buddhadharma: So, you relied on an intelligent kind of doubt that helped you examine your own experiences and motivations?
Ron Garry: Yes. It’s important to do that. I try to call everything into question in myself, and I recommend that one consider doing that. Likewise, if something a teacher says doesn’t make sense, we need to really look at that. If a teacher does something, we can ask, does that work for me? It could be a great teacher, but maybe you just don’t have a match.
In the West, we fall in love first. We go wild and get inspired, then a year later, we start checking out the teacher more closely. The texts counsel the reverse: first check out the teacher. And if you’re the teacher, first check out the student. Then, when you’re certain, you make the commitment. Once you make the commitment, you stick with that.
Marcia Schmidt:Exactly. You need to apply critical mind. Only then choose whether to follow a path or not, because once you’ve chosen to do it, the traditional analogy says that you are like a snake in a bamboo tube. There’s no turning back. So you should make careful, discerning discriminations beforehand. Because once you’ve committed, there’s not much choice anymore.
The Western mind of materialism thinks in terms of getting something, not in terms of committing to something. And it always wants the best, the supreme, the crème de la crème. That’s why many people are attracted to Dzogchen. But we have to reach, to stretch, to the level of Dzogchen, instead of just making it another material object we’re going to get, one that has value because we want it. Dzogchen is a path we need to engage in and utilize. We see its true value when we apply it.
Mingyur Rinpoche: The authentic Dzogchen teaching has to be received with proper timing. Some teachings you have to receive first, and some teachings you have to receive later. If you receive the later teachings too early, that is not good for your practice. You will not get the real taste of the teaching. It becomes just an idea to try. If you receive the teachings step by step, then you can really feel the meaning of the teaching. You can get to the heart.
That’s why we keep the high Dzogchen teachings secret, because if you explain them everywhere and everyone can get them, then if you really start the practice at some point, the practice might become very dry, not alive. We also keep the innermost teachings secret to protect the lineage blessing. The general idea of what Dzogchen practice is can be shared with everybody, but the real pith instruction is very secret and must be received through the lineage blessing.
Buddhadharma: What does “lineage blessing” mean?
Ron Garry: Lineage blessing means that Dzogchen is something living and it comes from a real-life teacher who is a living embodiment of that nondualistic awareness. They live it every day. That is the source of everything. The fancy words are just indications, ways of communicating with us about that living essence. So, when Dzogchen words get out into the general public, people start thinking that they have had that realization, and the power gets watered down. It’s just Dzogchen words coming from dualistic minds. Then there is no lineage anymore.
The authentic lineage is something intimate and direct for the student. It is about being in the presence of buddha mind. If the teaching isn’t coming from there, if it’s just on paper or it’s being transmitted by someone who is imitating, then even though it may be called Dzogchen, the lineage blessing has been cut at that point. People who are drawn to Dzogchen are drawn to it partly because of its live and very human quality. If we publish everything, it impersonalizes and dehumanizes the tradition. It is not a book on a shelf or a TV program. You need human interaction.
Marcia Schmidt:You do not just receive the teaching from the teacher sitting in front of you at that moment of transmission. It comes from all the other teachers stretching back thousands of years and their disciples, in an unbroken line. When we use the word “blessing,” we are talking about this huge array of teaching and practice that comes from the transmission of the lineage.
It comes as a complete package that has built-in protection. This protection includes samayas, sacred promises, that all people involved in the tradition respect; protectors whom we ask to protect us from misusing and damaging the teachings; and the empowerment to teach.
The lineage is stabilized in the practice. Although all of the teachers may not be fully enlightened, they have a lot more realization than us to pass on. Tulku Urgyen used to say that having some recognition of rigpa is like having a candle in your hand, but if you have not stabilized that and you try to pass it on, you will hand the candle over to someone else and end up in darkness yourself.
Mingyur Rinpoche: There’s a big difference between real experience and experience that is pointed to, although they may have many apparent similarities. For example, if you are standing in front of a big mirror, there’s a reflection of you in the mirror. The reflection and you are very similar – the same complexion, same hair, same everything. But there’s a big difference. The reflection doesn’t have the bones and blood that you have. That’s the difference between an authentic recognition of rigpa and an apparent one, between using the words of Dzogchen and getting the meaning, the realization, of Dzogchen.
Buddhadharma: Many people have heard of both Mahamudra and Dzogchen and even seen advertisements for programs about them. We have the general idea that they’re similar yet different. Both are considered ultimate teachings from some perspective. What distinguishes these two Tibetan practice traditions?
Mingyur Rinpoche: The meaning of the two is not different. They come from different angles and use different terminology. For example, in Mahamudra we talk about ordinary mind and in Dzogchen we talk about natural awareness. Mahamudra is more focused on the meditation, from the experiential point of view, and on the minute details of stillness, movement, emptiness, appearance, and so forth.
That is the style of Mahamudra: the many ways of approaching ordinary mind in meditation. Dzogchen has more emphasis on the view. You make the distinction between conceptual mind and rigpa at the level of the view, and then you have to practice. The meaning is not different, but there is a different angle and therefore different words and different styles.
Marcia Schmidt: There’s a famous quote from Tsele Natsok Rangdrol that says, “Mahamudra and Dzogchen, different words, but not meaning. The only difference is Mahamudra stresses mindfulness, while Dzogchen relaxes within awareness.” For the practitioner, it has to do with the approach you take, and which path we travel will depend on the karmic propensities we have.
The path of Mahamudra is very kind. It goes through the four yogas of Mahamudra [one-pointedness, simplicity, one taste, and nonmeditation] and their various degrees and stages. The teacher takes the student through them step by step and works within the context of the student’s experience to get closer and closer to the recognition of mind nature.
Dzogchen starts right from the beginning to introduce the student to natural awareness, rigpa. There is immediate recognition, which Tsoknyi Rinpoche, Mingyur Rinpoche’s brother, calls “baby rigpa.” It’s a baby, and that baby needs to be nurtured – not in a conceptual way, by adding something to it, but it needs to be trained, developed, and strengthened. It is abrupt, but it’s unstable. Not unstable in itself, but unstable with respect to one’s ability to remain there. We would all like to believe that we are proceeding directly, Dzogchen style, but most of us in fact are proceeding in a gradual way.
Buddhadharma: All of you have stressed the difficulty of Dzogchen and the need to go through a progression, a path, in order to be fully engaged in Dzogchen. So then Dzogchen is not really a shortcut in the way it is sometimes discussed.
Mingyur Rinpoche: It’s the very best shortcut! It’s the number one shortcut.
Buddhadharma: How can it be both a shortcut and a path with many stages?
Mingyur Rinpoche: In Vajrayana, we have development-stage practice, involving visualization and mantra, and completion-stage practice, which involves working with the energy channels – prana, nadi, and bindu. Dzogchen gets right to the heart. It’s more direct than any other method. You need preparation and various kinds of support, but the practice itself is direct. Even if you have a shortcut, there still needs to be a road there to travel on. Otherwise, you can’t use the shortcut.
Marcia Schmidt: Dzogchen is a shortcut because you’re taking the fruition as the path. One’s nature can be pointed out and then you can recognize and use that nonconceptual state through all practices, through every stage along the way. Even though it is revealed, we still have to go through the path. Yes, we’re told it’s the effortless great perfection, that there is nothing to do and that it’s your inherent nature. That’s true in the absolute sense. But in the relative sense, we’re not necessarily connecting with our absolute nature. We have lots of discursive thoughts, we have very little bodhicitta. So we have to be honest and ask ourselves, what’s going to change that? If we do that, we can receive the training and make use of these sublime methods that have a very good track record. Then they will be a shortcut for us. But we can’t avoid the path.
Buddhadharma: Is rigpa exclusive to Dzogchen? Is it possible that a practitioner of another tradition may attain the quality of natural mind, rigpa?
Mingyur Rinpoche: Rigpa is already within us twenty-four hours a day. It doesn’t matter who we are – human being, animal, part of a tradition or not. But recognition is the key. If you want to practice rigpa recognition according to Dzogchen, you need all the causes and conditions from Dzogchen. Otherwise, you cannot recognize rigpa according to Dzogchen. If you miss one component – no lineage or no real pith instruction – then there is no Dzogchen, and no recognition of rigpa according to the Dzogchen tradition.
Buddhadharma: Is there any point in comparing formless meditation experiences and terminology across traditions?
Marcia Schmidt: I don’t think it’s necessary. I don’t understand why other people in other traditions would try to mix in Dzogchen terminology with their path. Their path is perfectly complete within itself. Why do you have to think that it’s the same as another path? There are similarities, but they are not the same. That’s why there’s Zen, that’s why there’s the Vipassana tradition, that’s why there’s Dzogchen. The essential meaning may be similar, but the whole path and training is what defines a tradition. If you’re a good practitioner, you need to have confidence that whatever you’re practicing is suitable for you. Don’t go looking for something because you think it’s superior. It may not be. You might not have the karmic connection to it.
It’s good to have lots of literature and lots of teachings. Different teachings and different teachers will inspire different people. – Ron Garry
Buddhadharma: Could you nevertheless derive inspiration from studying a Dzogchen text, even if you are not a full-fledged Dzogchen practitioner?
Marcia Schmidt: If you consider a book like Wisdom Nectar: Dudjom Rinpoche’s Heart Advice, the songs of realization in there are meant to inspire you. It’s not ordinary language; it is realized wisdom mind speaking. It is truly the nectar of the wisdom. And of course, that can be beneficial for anyone to read. It can indeed inspire you, open you. By reading the sublime literature, the divine words, you can come closer to meeting with the realization of pure beings. As part of the Dzogchen tradition, however, it is important to make the aspiration, to offer prayers, to connect with the true teacher, the true path, and the true teachings. Then, you can carry out what you were inspired to do.
Ron Garry: It’s good to have lots of literature and lots of teachings. Different teachings and different teachers will inspire different people. I look for inspiration wherever I can find it, and I bring that to my path and my practice. It’s rejuvenating.
Buddhadharma: Under what circumstances would people of another path benefit from a Dzogchen intensive?
Mingyur Rinpoche: People who are genuinely practicing in other paths, Theravada and Zen, for example, have a very good foundation for engaging in Dzogchen practice. Many practices are shared in common. If they decided to take part in Dzogchen practice, that could be helpful for them, because the real Dzogchen is within the mind. In order to engage in Dzogchen practice, you don’t have to change your Buddhist path. Your Buddhist path would be brought to the Dzogchen.
Ron Garry: From where I sit as a student, Dzogchen is part of an organic whole, a total path, and sometimes we tend to think of it externally like another item we would pick up at the supermarket. “How are the apples today? Oh, there’s a watermelon.” Sometimes I can get caught up in that getting-something kind of thinking, but when I relax a bit, I realize Dzogchen is an entire tradition. The whole concept of going to workshops is very different.
If I were a Zen practitioner, I would focus fully on the practices my teacher had given me. And if I felt a special connection to something else, I would pursue that. For example, if I became interested in Dzogchen, I would eventually go through all the processes we discussed earlier. I would start at the beginning, find a teacher, and so forth.
Many friends of mine are really attracted to Dzogchen, to the high tantras, the inner tantras, but they tend not to be attracted to the four thoughts that turn the mind to dharma [the preciousness of human rebirth, the inevitability of death, the cause and effect of karma, and the great suffering of samsara] and the preliminary practices. At the same time, they will say that tantra is missing something that they need to fill in with psychotherapy. But what’s missing, what we all try to jump over, is the preliminaries.
The preliminaries are really juicy and really wonderful. Studying the four thoughts, from a text like Words of My Perfect Teacher, is very powerful, because it relates directly to my experience in my daily life. I have to be with my experience now, not with some far-off thing to be attained. Then I can benefit from instruction from the teacher. So, it’s a whole path, not something to do on a weekend.
Before I discovered the power of the preliminaries, I was somewhat blinded by teachings on the view. I was doing practices but I didn’t know how it all fit together. Now when I hear a Dzogchen teaching on the view from a master, it tells me where I’m headed; my eyes are opened, and I can bring that into my practice of the four thoughts and the preliminaries. It’s not a matter of “I can’t wait to get through all this stuff so I can get to the Dzogchen.”
Marcia Schmidt: Recognizing the nature of mind is not something you have to set aside while doing the preliminary practices. It’s a support for preliminary practices. You can recognize your innate nature and practice prostrations and the other preliminaries. It’s not a separate thing. It enriches the preliminary practices. On the other hand, one of the criticisms on Amazon.com for a book I did said, “She says this is Dzogchen, but actually she’s telling us all this other stuff that’s not related.” They were talking about the preliminaries and developing bodhicitta. That is a common misconception that completely misses the point. If there is a huge separation between dharma and the real life of the people around you, then you will have dry Dzogchen, a nonconceptual state that has no bodhicitta. As Tsokyi Rinpoche says, it has no juice. Loving-kindness, compassion, and devotion are what make the Dzogchen path juicy and vibrant. Then, when people come in contact with practitioners, they will feel that this is a person who is honest, direct, and has some signs of practice.
Ron Garry has a Ph.D in Indo-Tibetan Buddhism and has completed the traditional three-year retreat. He translated Wisdom Nectar: Dudjom Rinpoche’s Heart Advice.
Marcia Binder Schmidt is an editor and cofounder of Rangjung Yeshe Publications, which has published many books on the teachings of dzogchen masters, including her teacher, the late Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche.
Mingyur Rinpoche is a master of the Karma Kagyu and Nyingma lineages of Tibetan Buddhism. He is the son of the late Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche.