The Kind of Guru I Had

The late Dzogchen master Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche recalls the profound influence of his teacher, Samten Gyatso, and the early teachings he received from him.

By Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche

Photo by Feng Zhong.

My grandmother’s eldest son, Samten Gyatso, was my root guru and ultimate refuge. He was also, of course, my uncle. I feel a bit shy telling stories about him, because I don’t want to sound as if I’m indirectly praising myself by lauding a family member. A disciple who emphasizes signs of accomplishment, clairvoyant abilities, and miraculous powers in stories about his own guru, may—instead of honoring him—end up discrediting him. Yet though he was a relative, there is no way I can avoid praising him. I don’t mean to be crude, but I’m related to him like excrement is related to fine cuisine.

Within the Barom Kagyü lineage, Samten Gyatso was regarded as an emanation of Four-Armed Mahakala, one of the more prominent guardians of the dharma. Moreover, the second Chokling of Tsikey once had a vision of Samten Gyatso in which he saw him as an emanation of Vimalamitra.

From the time I was young, I respected my guru deeply. In his conduct, Samten Gyatso kept the monastic precepts quite purely and strictly. He never tasted alcohol nor ate any meat. In his attitude, he was always in tune with the bodhisattva trainings.

Some of us who were with him every day could be quite blind to his qualities, just like the people in Lhasa who never go to see the Jowo statue of the Buddha, thinking there is plenty of time to get around to going. But if you paid attention to his personality, it was obvious that he was fully endowed with compassion, perseverance, and devotion.

Samten Gyatso never flattered others by playing up to them or telling them how wonderful they were. He spoke straightforwardly. If something was true, he would say so; if it was not, he would say it was not, without adding or subtracting anything. He never talked around a sensitive topic.

Samten Gyatso was so learned and skilled, so trustworthy and matchless, that people compared him to Marpa, the master translator who brought the Kagyü teachings from India. Yet my guru never postured nor put on the air of high realization, like those meditators who never lower their vacant, glaring gaze to the ground and who spout random “profound” statements such as “Everything in samsara and nirvana are equal!” What do you gain from such pretense?

Samten Gyatso would move about as if he were just an ordinary person. He kept to the hidden yogi style: he didn’t flaunt his accomplishments and never behaved as if he were a grand lama. He would not bless people by placing his hand on their heads nor sit on a high seat. He didn’t even let people bow to him—if anyone tried, he would jump up and move away. He avoided ostentatious displays, like erecting impressive temples or commissioning fancy statues. He kept a low profile: he never dressed up nor wore brocade, just the robes of an ordinary monk.

I heard a wonderful story about one of Samten Gyatso’s prior incarnations, Ngaktrin of Argong. He was recognized as a tulku while still a small child and brought to Lachab, his predecessor’s monastery. One day, when he was just eight, he was having fun with his friends, as children do. An old gönla—the lama in charge of the chants for the protectors—was beating a drum and chanting while the kids were playing boisterously around him.

“You are an incarnation of a lama. Don’t behave like this,” the gönla said suddenly, berating the young Ngaktrin. “A tulku should be a noble boy, but you are a spoiled brat! Why are you doing this? What’s the use? Listen: don’t wander! Don’t wander!”

“What does that mean?” the little tulku asked. “What does it mean not to wander?”

“Don’t let your mind wander,” replied the old lama. “That’s what it means!”

“How does one not wander?”

“Look at yourself. Look at your own mind!”

When the boy heard these words—“Don’t wander; look at your own mind!”—he recognized mind nature right then and there. Despite all the great masters he met later in his life, he always said his insight occurred when he was a young child.

As I grew up, Samten Gyatso became my main meditation instructor. Though he was well aware that I was a small child and hence likely unable to comprehend all the teachings, he didn’t hold anything back. I was about eleven when he clarified the details of the principal teachings.

Until then, my meditation was guided mainly by what felt right. As a child, I would go to nearby caves and “meditate,” but what I experienced then as the meditation state and my practice right now seem to be exactly the same—don’t ask me why. I must have had some habit of letting be in the natural state carried over from former lives. Yet in those early days, I wasn’t that clear about what it was until Samten Gyatso instilled in me a certainty about the natural state. Up to that point, meditation experience had been more spontaneous, but with Samten Gyatso I could ask one question after another, and I discovered that what he was explaining was the same as what I had experienced as a child.

I don’t have much to brag about in terms of realization, so the clarity I am talking about has more to do with demonstrating personal confidence. The faith and devotion I had as a kid were quite natural and not imposed on me by anyone. Along with my devotion, I also had an acute feeling that mundane aims were futile. The only thing that made sense was to be a tough guy—tough like my heroes Milarepa and Longchenpa.

When I look back on my life, it seems I haven’t been very diligent; I have only been distracted day and night, letting life run out.

I remember well one particular instruction that Samten Gyatso gave me at an early age. It had to do with a teaching on the profound topic of essence, nature, and capacity. He said, “The word capacity refers to the unconfined basis for experience, as in the moment just before something takes place. Once the arising has occurred, it usually has already turned into a thought. Capacity means the basis for that to happen, an unimpeded quality of awareness.

“This unimpeded quality is extremely subtle and significant. Once you acknowledge this unimpededness, nothing more needs to be done. In this unimpededness, it is impossible to find any subject or object. The analogy for this is a bright mirror, a readiness for experience to unfold without any preconception whatsoever. So please understand very well the third of these three: essence, nature, and capacity.”

This is an example of how Samten Gyatso would teach. I feel very fortunate to have been instructed by such a master when I was young, because there are many people who misidentify capacity as being not the basis, like the mirror, but the manifestation, like the reflection in the mirror. However, the reflection means that the mind and sense object have already linked up, and the attention has already been caught up in distraction.

“One should not identify the capacity with being caught up in subject, object, and the act of perceiving,” he said. “An unconfined basis for experience means the readiness, being able to experience—just ready to be, but not yet involved in dualistic experience. If your training is in this readiness, rather than in conceptual thinking, you won’t be caught up in duality during daily activities. This capacity, in essence, is the unimpeded omniscience of all buddhas, which is totally unlike the attention that focuses on one thing while eliminating everything else.”

When I was around twenty, Samten Gyatso told me, “You appear to be someone who can give mind teachings. You are the kind of person who finds it all quite easy, not seeing how anyone could have problems understanding the nature of mind. You could end up too blasé; then again, maybe you simply will be very confident.

“Sometimes I think you assume too much. I must caution you that there is one thing you should watch out for: On the one hand, you could assume it is all so simple that everyone would understand. But then, on the other hand, that’s not the way things are. People will often comprehend something totally different from what you mean, concluding that there is nothing to gain, so that they become careless and give up.

“You feel that realizing the nature of mind is simply a matter of course,” he continued, “but I want you to understand that some people do not know the nature of mind, and there definitely is a reason for that. There are many people whose practice of ‘mind essence’ is nothing more than remaining absent-minded and unaware in the state of the all-ground.

“Nevertheless, for the time being, you should go ahead and test your confidence on a few old men and women. You might be able to benefit one or two, so it’s fine for you to teach them.”

In this way, he gave me the go-ahead to begin teaching. I started giving people advice on understanding the nature of mind because I was very talkative. I couldn’t help it; it would just slip out! When I spent time with Samten Gyatso, I listened in on whatever instructions he gave. Often it would be the pointing-out instruction and advice on how to truly meditate in the simplest way. Afterward, there might be some people outside his room who couldn’t quite understand what he had said. They would ask me, “How can it be that easy?”

And I would say, “Why do you think it has to be diffcult? It really is so easy.”

Then they would reply, “But I don’t get it.”

And I’d tell them, “What do you mean, you don’t get it? Just let be!” I had that attitude because I’d heard what my uncle had said and I’d just parrot it.

My uncle would then call me in and repeat, “It seems you are the talkative type, as well as someone who thinks that recognizing mind nature is totally easy. I think that in the future you will be like this as well—you will be both talkative and somebody who acts like it is really simple!” And he was right.

On one hand, maybe with my teaching style I’m just fooling everybody, making it too simple. But on the other hand, this is really how it is! It is the truth. What is the use of trying to sit and push and struggle, when we can allow the three kayas of buddhahood to be naturally present? Why do we have to strain and contort ourselves into an uncomfortable posture and an uptight meditative state with some hope that in the future, after lots of effort, we may get there? We don’t need to go through all that trouble and tension. All we need to do is totally let be and recognize our nature right now.

The Buddha realized that different beings have various capacities. So out of great compassion and skillful means, he gave an assortment of teachings, each right for different individuals. Although the essence of all teachings of all enlightened ones is to simply let be in recognition of one’s own nature, the Buddha taught a wide variety of complex instructions in order to satisfy people at their own level. Another reason the Buddha and the great masters taught the nine vehicles [yanas] is not just that they couldn’t leave well enough alone, but to make everybody happy. It seems to be human nature to love complication, to want to build up a lot of concepts. Later on, of course, we must allow them to fall to pieces again.

The great variety of teachings that exist doesn’t change the fact that the very essence of the dharma, the nature of mind, is extremely simple and easy. In fact, it’s so simple and easy that sometimes it’s hard to believe!

The general tradition for giving the pointing-out instruction to the nature of mind holds that we need to go step by step. First, we complete the reflections of the four mind-changings. Next, we go through the preliminary practices, and after that the yidam practice of deity, mantra, and samadhi. And indeed, these are all still necessary, even if we have already received teachings on mind essence. Don’t get the idea that suddenly all the practices taught by the enlightened ones are unimportant. On the contrary, they are incredibly important.

Since it’s not so easy nor very common for someone to ever have the opportunity to receive mind teachings, I felt that I should speak up and give it. Please remember that we can easily receive the other important teachings from various masters, so don’t ignore them. Please be diligent in practice. In truth, perseverance makes the difference between buddhas and ordinary beings.

There is a story from Kham in which an old guy says to a lama, “When you talk about the benefits of recognizing mind essence, it’s certain that you have no problem; in fact, even this old sinner will probably be safe from rebirth in hell. But when you talk about the consequences of our actions, there’s no doubt I will end up in hell. In fact, I wonder if even you might not be in trouble, my lama!” A phony meditator might be able to fool others while alive, but there’s no doubt he’ll be caught unprepared when facing the bardo [the intermediate state between death and rebirth]. I am quite certain that, in the long run, the greatest benefit comes from simply trusting in the three jewels. Of course, if one also has authentic experience of mind essence, then, as the Kagyü saying tells us, “Though death is regarded with so much dread, a yogi’s death is a small awakening.”

I also feel that even if one still hasn’t reached the splendid heights of experience and realization, some simple, sound comprehension is extremely beneficial. An understanding, even intellectually, of emptiness—the empty and awake quality of mind—will surely help you cross over to the other side in the bardo. When sentient beings pass on, it is their own mind that becomes bewildered—and it is their own mind that needs to come to their rescue, since no one else is going to do it at that time.

Therefore, a sound understanding of mind essence could become the reminder that liberates in the bardo. The most essential benefit, however, comes from actually training in mind essence while you are alive; this is the only thing that will ensure true success. First, liberate your own stream of being through realization, then liberate others through your compassionate activity. Proceeding in this way makes a human life meaningful.

When I taught, some understood and others didn’t, but I kept at it just the same. This bold attitude has stuck with me and is now my style. I don’t know if it helps others much. The teachings on mind essence may be the most precious and secret. They may also be “liberation through hearing,” so that whoever hears them will be benefited. So I feel it’s acceptable to give them from time to time. I don’t claim that everyone to whom I explain the essence of mind recognizes and trains in the genuine experience. There are many different types of students. Those who don’t recognize are inevitably preoccupied by fleeting phenomena and will get distracted. But even if they have not recognized the natural state of mind, anyone who has heard the essential teaching, even once, will slowly grow closer to realization—so long as they don’t abandon the attempt entirely but continue to practice. Those who have recognized, and so have some trust in mind essence, cannot give up the dharma, even if someone tells them to. This springs from confidence in their personal experience.

Like others, tulkus obviously have emotions too. Just look at Marpa, the translator, with his incredibly strong emotions, blazing like flames. But the moment an experienced meditator looks into the nature of mind every thought and emotion vanishes like snowflakes falling on a hot plate. At that moment a meditator is truly free of any attachment. Marpa may have treated Milarepa with a lot of abuse, harsh words, and beatings—but that was totally unlike the anger of an ordinary person, in that there wasn’t even a shred of selfishness involved. You can’t only judge people by their behavior.

Even though his kindness was boundless, Samten Gyatso could be quite wrathful at times. Once in a while, I saw him slap one of his attendants. Sometimes I even had to bring him the cane and that scared me too, because even one whack would hurt—it was big! Occasionally, he gave more than a little tap. He could give a real thrashing, especially to his attendant Dudul, who often had it coming.

“With this guy, there is no other way,” Samten Gyatso once said. “He’s too dense, and a slap of the stick gets through to him; it’s effective for at least five or six days.” Afterward, Dudul would act like a real human being, bright, and gentle—at least at first. Then he would start to be argumentative again, finding fault and loudly complaining about every little thing.

“Why don’t you just let it drop?” I often told him, “Nothing is that bad. Don’t you remember what happened to you last time?”

But the story would always end with Samten Gyatso sending me to fetch the cane one more time. Oh my! Once, Samten Gyatso smacked him so many times I thought he wouldn’t be able to walk the next morning, but when I met Dudul afterward, he was carrying on with his duties as if nothing had happened. The story often repeated itself, but he just wouldn’t listen. Once, I asked him about it and he said, “That was nothing. I don’t care that much. It hurts for a moment and then passes.” He too had a lot of devotion for Samten Gyatso.

Shortly before Samten Gyatso died, I spent many evenings with him. He would lie in his bed and I would sleep on the floor beside him. One night, as we were talking, Samten Gyatso began to speak, for the first time, about his innermost realization.

“I never had special experiences,” he told me, “but as the years passed by, my trust in the authenticity of the dharma has grown. I am now confident in the truth of the three kayas. At the age of eight, I recognized the nature of mind and since then I have never forsaken it. Of course my diligence varied and I got distracted at times, but mostly I kept to the practice of mind’s natural state.” I heard him say this only once. Other than this, he never discussed such personal matters.

No matter where he was, Samten Gyatso had a certain influence on people. There was no small talk; he didn’t leave any room for superficial conversation, just sincere questions about practice, for which he never lacked an answer. When he gave instructions, Samten Gyatso would foresee how his words would end up—whether they would be put to good use or not.

To laypeople, whose main aim was mundane success and raising families, he would give the mantra of Avalokiteshvara—Om Mani Peme Hung—and teachings on trust and devotion. But he gave special attention to people who had dedicated their lives to deepening their experience and realization. With a sincere practitioner, he would truly share his heart.

In either case, whenever someone left an interview with him, they were deeply inspired and full of admiration.

Many old ngakpas [tantric yogis] lived around Lachab monastery and whenever they heard that Samten Gyatso had come home, they would immediately flock to his room to receive teachings on the Dzogchen view. Sometimes they stayed throughout the night, not leaving until morning. These meditators, his closest disciples, marveled at the clarity of his teachings—and such seasoned meditators were very hard to impress.

These old ngakpas loved Samten Gyatso and felt that his mind was completely unimpeded. In fact, anyone who had a chance to discuss their meditation practice with him always came out amazed—no matter who, no matter how learned. Even knowledgeable scholars who had oceans of learning behind them became humbled on the topic of meditation experience in any discussion with Samten Gyatso. Finally, their initial air of self-assurance would dissipate altogether and they couldn’t help requesting teachings from him, asking one question after another.

As Samten Gyatso imparted the essential meditation practice, his majestic presence would shine through ever stronger, intimidating even the most learned khenpo. The more anyone talked with Samten Gyatso, the more clearly they discovered how invincible his self-confidence was. This unshakable assurance signifies profound practice and personal experience.

That’s the kind of guru I had.

Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche

Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche (1920–1996) spent thirty-three years at Nagi Gompa Hermitage—twenty of those in retreat—and established six retreat centers and monasteries in Nepal, including Tergar Osel Ling Monastery in Kathmandu. He was recognized as the reincarnation of both the Chowang Tulku and Nubchen Sangye Yeshe (one of Padmasambhava’s principal students). His teachings have been published in the two-volume As It Is and in the new Vajra Heart Revisited, published this year to celebrate the hundredth anniversary of his birth.