The Poetry of Authentic Presence

A Cascading Waterfall of Nectar, by Thinley Norbu. Reviewed by Steven Goodman.

Steven D. Goodman
1 January 2007

A Cascading Waterfall of Nectar
by Thinley Norbu, Shambhala Publications, 2006; 312 pp.; $24.95 (cloth)

Reviewed by Steven Goodman

How to begin? How to describe the sense of thankfulness and wonder one feels for the life and writings of Thinley Norbu Rinpoche? Some may already know he is the son of Dudjom Rinpoche, the late head of the Nyingma lineage, and the father of Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche, the well-known Buddhist teacher and film director. Some may know him as a great artist and poet who has tirelessly displayed wisdom-kindness for over six decades and continues to transmit, in a compassionately uncompromising style, the depth and subtlety of the Buddha’s message. Now, for those already familiar with Thinley Norbu’s teachings and those new to them, a fresh feast is available. He has written A Cascading Waterfall of Nectar to alert and encourage new practitioners, and to awaken old-timers from their dogmatic slumber.

The contemporary Nyingma scholar Tulku Thondup calls Cascading Waterfall “a great original work and the enlightened vision of one of the greatest realized Nyingma masters of our age.” This publication has been eagerly anticipated by Tibetan and English audiences alike, for it is Thinley Norbu’s most extensive composition to date. He has translated his own Tibetan teachings into an idiomatic English intended to convey the living sense of the original, which was written in a style of intimate directness (upadesha). He wrote down, he says, “whatever spontaneously and naturally came to my mind on its own.”

To signal the importance of this book, for both Tibetans and non-Tibetans, the volume has prefaces by four leading scholars of the Nyingma tradition (two of them also reproduced in the original Tibetan), as well as the original Tibetan for the two texts he comments upon in English translation. (The original Tibetan commentary is to be found in volume one of his two-volume Collected Works, an expanded version of which is anticipated.)

The first section in the book is a commentary on the preliminary practices (ngondro) of the Vajrayana tradition, entitled An Easily Understood Commentary Flowing Like a Cascading Waterfall. It is destined, I think, to become a contemporary classic of the preliminary practice genre for Nyingma practitioners, taking its place next to The Words of My Perfect Teacher (Shambhala, 1994) by Patrul Rinpoche (1808-1887). It presents the practices and pith instructions on the entirety of the Buddhist path, and is suffused throughout with the Dzogchen view, which are the special teachings of the Nyingma school. The topics elucidated include: 1. how to discover and sustain the motivation to turn away from worldly fascinations; 2. how to take refuge in the Buddha, dharma, and sangha; 3. how to generate altruistic intentions for the sake of enlightenment; 4. how to purify tendencies toward spiritually wayward behavior; 5. how to offer the abundance of cosmological energies for the benefit of all; 6. how to enter into and sustain union with the guru; and, 7. how to transfer one’s consciousness at the time of death, and how to offer the gift of one’s body.

This section is a treasure trove of Buddhist practices, encompassing the foundational perspectives of spiritual confidence and refuge (Hinayana), the expanded perspectives of spiritual courage and enlightened altruism (Mahayana), and the adamantine perspectives of pure vision (Vajrayana). What makes this commentary so endearing? Could it be the palpable sweetness of “cascading nectar,” the sign of authentic presence that flows ever-fresh from wisdom mind? Ezra Pound reminds us that poetry is “news which stays news,” and, I would suggest, the poetry of authentic presence is ever-fresh. According to the Dzogchen view, authentic presence is spontaneous, not fabricated, primordially pure, open, radiant, and ever-flowing. And so it is with the poetic presence of Thinley Norbu; his elucidations have the seal of genuine transmission.

The second section of the book is entitled The Light Rays of the Youthful Sun. It’s a commentary by Thinley Norbu on The Melodious Tamboura of the Lotus, The Concise Fulfillment of the Dakinis, a text composed by his father, Dudjom Rinpoche. It is elegaic in tone and invokes the presence of playful and sublime dakinis in the context of a feast of enlightenment. As such, it encodes, in lyrical form, the entire panoply of enlivening beings in their wisdom dance, renewing our bodies and minds with their primordial presence.

Those who are new to Thinley Norbu Rinpoche’s brilliance may want to consult three of his previous works. Small Golden Key (Shambhala, 1977) offers, in a slim volume, essential perspectives on Buddhism. Magic Dance: The Display of the Self-Nature of the Five Wisdom Dakinis (1981, expanded and reissued by Shambhala, 1998), is a masterful account of how the entirety of existence, mundane and sublime, is due to the dynamics of five wisdom energies. White Sail (Shambhala, 1992), lays bare the twin failings of nihilistic and eternalistic fixations, and invites us to explore such topics as love and faith in vivid detail.

If Thinley Norbu Rinpoche lived in Japan he would most certainly be regarded as a Living Treasure. I, for one, am thankful that he continues to enliven the hearts and minds of sincere seekers, and remind us of the sublime abundance that awaits those who humbly accept the gift and challenge of being with a wisdom teacher.

Steven D. Goodman

Steven D. Goodman

Steven D. Goodman studied under the noted Buddhist scholar Herbert Guenther, receiving a PhD in Far Eastern Studies in 1984. He went on to be awarded a Rockefeller Fellowship at Rice University to study Tibetan mystical poetry. Today, he is the program director of Asian philosophies and cultures at California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco. His new book is The Buddhist Psychology of Awakening. He passed away on August 3, 2020.