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Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences


Dzogchen (Great Perfection)

Rebel Buddha: On the Road to Freedom by Dzogchen Ponlop (Shambhala)

You might begin your analysis by bringing something to mind that the Buddha said, for example, "Although everyone believes that they have a truly existing self, that self is imaginary." Then you might think, "Although the Buddha is a reliable source and I respect his wisdom, I still feel like I have a self. It makes no sense to say there isn't a self; it's contrary to my experience. Here I am. This is me. I'm the same person I was yesterday, the day before, last year, twenty years ago, thirty years ago. In the future, I will retire and travel around the world.

If you examine this statement, then you might ask yourself, "If I'm the same self as a child, as an adult, and as a retiree in old age, then what is it that remains the same? Is my body the same? Is my mind the same? If I say that although my body is not the same, my mind is the same mind, then did my child self know everything that I know now? Is the memory of my child self the same as my memory now? from the book

There is a rebel within each person, so says Rebel Buddha. Its the part that already knows how to break free of fear and unhappiness. This rebel is the voice of ones own awakened mind. Its their rebel Buddha the sharp, clear intelligence that resists the status quo. It wakes a person up from the sleepy acceptance of their day-to-day reality and shows them the power of their enlightened nature. Its the vibrant, insightful energy that compels one to seek the truth.
Dzogchen Ponlop (1965-) (Mind Beyond Death) in Rebel Buddha focuses on the experiential aspects of Buddhism that transcend culture, in the vein of writer-teacher Stephen Batchelor's idea of Buddhism without beliefs. Ponlop guides readers through the inner revolution. He explains how, by training the mind and understanding ones true nature, people can free themselves from needless suffering. He presents a thorough introduction to the essence of the Buddhas teachings and argues that, if readers are to bring these teachings fully into their personal experience, they must go beyond the cultural trappings of traditional Asian Buddhism. We all want to find some meaningful truth about who we are, he says, but we can only find it guided by our own wisdom by our own rebel buddha within.

Ponlop is one of the foremost scholars and meditation masters of his generation in the Nyingma and Kagyu schools of Tibetan Buddhism. He is known for his sharp intellect, humor, and the lucidity of his teaching style. He is a prolific teacher and author, and an accomplished calligrapher, artist, and poet.

Meditation instructions are included in the appendix.

The traditionally educated Tibetan-American uses straightforward, informal language with fresh analogies to examine a range of basic and more advanced aspects of this wisdom tradition, such as the nonexistence of the self, compassion, and relationships with spiritual teachers.The author's practical approach is disarming, especially when applying Buddhism to the challenges of everyday life. The content is based on two lecture series on dharma and culture; tighter editing would have eased the transition between the spoken and the written word. While more concise primers for the novice practitioner exist, more advanced students of Buddhism who want to explore newer voices may find this book of particular interest. Publishers Weekly

Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche shatters old myths and sweeps away cultural baggage, presenting the essence of the Buddhas teachings in a fresh, contemporary voice. With uncommon clarity and authority, he offers a new vision for the future of Buddhism that is at once shocking and hopeful. This is a small book with a big message that is timely and important. Pema Chdrn, author of When Things Fall Apart
Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche has a remarkable ability to present the wisdom of the Buddhas teachings in a manner that is as fresh and accessible as it is profound. With Rebel Buddha, he goes straight to the core of the spiritual path, showing how the Buddhas liberating insights transcend race, religion, and culture. This book is sure to provoke, inspire, and move us one step closer to creating a thoroughly modern approach to spirituality. Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche, author of The Joy of Living
A seminal work for the growth of Buddhism in contemporary society. Fearlessly and intelligently, Ponlop Rinpoche invites the reader to make these ancient tools meaningful in our lives, without any fetishizing of someone elses culture. Rinpoches voice roars with the relaxed confidence of authenticity, and the fierce urgency of now. In Rebel Buddha, Rinpoche establishes himself as something we need now much more than a Tibetan lama: he is among the first of the American Buddhist masters. Ethan Nichtern, author of One City: A Declaration of Interdependence
This book does a wonderful job of bringing the Buddhas teachings to all of us here in the West. Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche has great insights into the workings of our minds, guiding us from delusion to clarity. Sharon Salzberg, author of Faith: Trusting Your Own Deepest Experience

Rebel Buddha is Buddhism updated, fresh, contemporary, practical, readable. If readers didnt get spiritual but not religious before, they will now.

The Great Perfection (rDzogs Chen): A Philosophical and Meditative Teaching of Tibetan Buddhism by Samten Gyaltsen Karmay (Brill's Tibetan Studies Library: Brill Academic Publishers) is a philosophical and meditative teaching. Its inception is attributed to Vairocana, one of the first seven Tibetan Buddhist monks ordained at Sarnye in the eight century CE. The doctrine is regarded among Buddhists as the core of the teachings adhered to by the Nyingmapa school whilst similarly it is held to be the fundamental teaching among the Bonpos, the non-Buddhist school in Tibet.

If you are looking for a book on how to implement Dzogchen in you Buddhist or Shamanic practice, look at some of the titles mentioned below. This book presents an historical approach to Dzogchen claims. The easiest analogy is that Dzogchen texts are like channeled texts as in New Age milieu They support interpretations of meditational experience. They support the sudden enlightenment aspect of Chan Buddhism and represents a origin of common route for both this tantric Tibetan development as well as the East Asian practice that came to be known as Zen in Japan. This study includes some translations of short ancient texts supporting the Dzogchen claims of antiquity and association with Tibetan Buddhism.

After a historical introduction to Tibetan Buddhism and the Bon, The Great Perfection (rDzogs Chen): A Philosophical and Meditative Teaching of Tibetan Buddhism  deals with the legends of Vairocana (Part I), analysing early documents containing essential elements of the doctrine and comparing them with the Chan tradition. He goes on to explore in detail the development of the doctrine in the tenth and eleventh centuries A. D. (Part II). The Tantric doctrines that play an important role are dealt with, as are the rDzogs chen theories in relation to the other major Buddhist doctrines. Different trends in the rDzogs chen tradition are described in Part III. The author has drawn his sources mainly from early unpublished documents which throw light on the origins and development, at the same time also using a variety of sources which enabled him to explicate the crucial position which the doctrine occupies in Tibetan religions.

But it does have some very interesting observations. For instance, you might accept the much repeated views of the Buddhist Kings of Tibet regarding religion as well as the claim that Buddhism is a peaceful and tolerant religion. Not the case points out this author. He backs up his assertions with lots of reference material too. Apparently, for example, one of the much touted Buddhist kings fanatically persecuted the Bönpos. I think this book is worth plowing through to rectify some of the highly colored views one can easily reach after reading lots of Tibetan authors.

The Philosophical View of the Great Perfection in the Tibetan Bon Religion by Donatella Rossi (Tibetan Buddhist Philosophy: Snow Lion Publications) provides some comparison and historical information concerning Bön Dzogchen vs. Buddhist (Nyingma) Dzogchen (similar to that of the erudite scholar Samten Karmay, offering more conceptual context as well as direct translations of two entire Bön Dzogchen texts: "The Twelve Little Tantras" (which is very reminiscent of Nyingma Dzogchen) and "The View which is like the Lion's Roar" (that seems to have some variations but still much in common with Buddhist Dzogchen). It also contains considerable excerpts from "The Lamp that Clarifies the View." These are lovely works though rather concise and advanced-not for a beginner. The book includes both Tibetan and English texts in one verse per page (with opposite pages in the different languages). Thus most pages take up only about half a full page. Still, it is not light reading, but worth contemplating at length, because of the close readings and critical translations.
A few quotations will provide some feel for the nature of the text/translation:
"The Lamp that Clarifies the View" a short Terma; "The Great Perfection abides (in) everything ... (it) has no duality of acceptance (and) rejection, good (or) bad...It exists spontaneously without birth and death ... (it is) without duality.
"The Twelve Little Tantras" The Pure-and-Perfect Mind is without cause, (it) is not an effect produced by causes; (it) exists without effort, like the sky... (it is) to be looked for in the mind by the mind."
"The View which is like the Lion's Roar" "In former times when I did not exist ... not even the name of enlightened and sentient beings existed. Before anything whatsoever, I appeared. (It is) I (that) created everything. My nature (is) pure. Since (it) is the primordial Nature pure from the beginning, (it) is Primordial Enlightenment itself. With respect to this doctrine of Primordial Enlightenment, there is nothing to be investigated and nothing to be protected; there is nothing to be sought and nothing to be meditated upon; there is also nothing to be done (for) the benefit (of) sentient beings. When (one) realizes the meaning in that way, (one) realizes the View which is like the Lion's Roar."
"The View which is like the Lion's Roar" -"Since the Mind-itself is naturally unaltered, (it) exists without any effort; it is generally called Clear Light. The Everlasting Mind, which (is in) that way, being spontaneously aware, doesn't seek to express (what it is aware of). (Being) without borders and centre, (it) is the All-Good. Having no outside nor) inside, it is transparent Primordial Wisdom. Having no defects (nor) virtues, (it) is spontaneously accomplished. Being without progression, (it is) without the intention of effort. Being unprejudiced, (it is) without any attachment. Having no extremes (nor) middle, (it is) without any partiality (and) inclination. With respect to (the fact that) the (Ultimate) Nature of phenomena doesn't exist outside the Mind, it is delusive to see the mind (and its) objects as two."
"The View which is like the Lion's Roar" -"Primordial Wisdom doesn't find itself: (it is) `Primordial", (since it) is without (any) assumed (way of) seeing; (it is) `Wisdom', just because (it) sees without appearances; as to the `itself', (it means that it) clearly perceives (itself) beyond examples. Whoever sees the existence (of that which is) without appearances, that (person) sees the existence of the Mind. Appearance is (in) itself delusion. The various (ways of) seeing (are) the cause (of) the imprints. Imprints are that which (creates) obstruction with respect to the Mind."
“Twelve Little Tantras”: "Like a jewel put into the mouth of a crocodile, (this) very secret, most sacred (teaching)." Though I thoroughly agree, it does remind me of how we mystify while attempting to demystify.

Heart Drops of Dharmakaya: Dzogchen Practice of the Bon Tradition by Shardza Tashi Gyaltsen (Snow Lion Publications) The introduction warns that this book is not intended as a self-help manual. The biography of the author presented before his text indicates that his was a long and arduous path. I cannot say in what way Dzogchen has helped me, if at all, only that it fascinates me.
Book 1 (Preliminary Practices) poses some questions about consciousness that do not seem at all irrational or to depend of superstition or magic. I would expect a Westerner to feel comfortable with such questions even if Western philosophy and religion are unlikely to ask such questions.
Book 2 (The Practice of Trekcho) is a more advanced study of the material begun in Book 1 and might still seem comfortable to a Westerner albeit considerably more difficult to follow than the material in Book 1. The role of a teacher is emphasized increasingly as one moves to Book 2: I suppose one needs the skill to find and identify the right teacher.
Book 3 (The Practice of Togel) seems to be more to the shamanic side of Tibetan Buddhism, involving symbolism that I find hard to follow. It may be that the teachings in Book 1 and 2, which seem more accessible, have for that reason have less lasting impact. Working one's way through interpreting difficult symbolism may be of use.
Book 4 (Phowa and Bardo Practices) describe nearly full-blown shamanic views related to what is going on for us as we approach death.
Appendix 1 gives an eye-witness account of seeing the rainbow body that is supposedly seen when a Dzogchen master dies. So here too the shamanic side of Dzogchen is foremost.
The history of the Bon tradition remains to this date still not well understood. My expectation is that unless you are a scholar working to clarify the Bon tradition, you can treat this book like any other Dzogchen presentation (but with the big plus that this book was written after 1930 and its commentator Lopon Tenzin Namdak may still be alive. The comments are at the bottom of relevant pages and are non-intrusive).
There have been recent Western efforts to reduce or remove the shamanic aspects of Dzogchen, yielding a mindfulness teaching not unlike that of Theravada Buddhism's "choiceless awareness". There have also been Western studies like Civilized Shamans. Buddhism in Tibetan Societies by Geoffrey Samuel (Smithsonian) that tackle the constructive value of shamanism to non-Western societies.
The Tibetan text is included. Overall Heart Drops of Dharmakaya: Dzogchen Practice of the Bon Tradition shows evidence of enormous care. The covers alone are striking, a blue metallic background with the front cover having a colorful Tibetan painting of deities.

The Practice of Dzogchen by Longchen Rabjam, Translated by Tulku Thondup (Snow Lion) As one of the most comprehensive works on the Dzogchen tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, this work describes the religious and scriptural context of Dzogchen tradition followed by a basic primer on Dzogchen practice and experience.

Adapted from Preface by Tulku Thondup: This book contains an anthology of the writings of Longchen Rabjam (1308‑1363) on Dzogpa Chenpo (mahasandhi). The translations are preceded by a detailed introduction based strictly on the scriptures and traditional interpretations of the innermost esoteric aspect of Buddhism.

The teachings of Dzogpa Chenpo (or Dzogchen), the Great Perfection, are the innermost esoteric Buddhist training preserved and practiced to this day by the followers of the Nyingma school of Tibet. The main emphasis of Dzogpa Chenpo is to attain and perfect the realization of the true nature of the mind, the Intrinsic Awareness, which is the Buddha Mind or Buddha‑essence. Thereby one attains and perfects the realization of the true nature of all phenomenal existents, all of which are the same in their essence.

According to Dzogpa Chenpo scriptures, all forms of Buddhist training lead to the same goal, the realization of the Intrinsic Awareness, which is taught in Dzogpa Chenpo; and further, that the essence of all the Buddhist teachings is completed in Dzogpa Chenpo meditation and its results. Many accomplished Dzogpa Chenpo meditators, in addition to their attainment of the utmost mental peace and enlightenment in this very lifetime, physically splay signs of extraordinary accomplishments at the time of death. For example, they dissolve their gross bodies without remainder or transform their mortal bodies into subtle light bodies.

Dzogpa Chenpo meditation is the method of training of utmost simplicity in order to reach the most simple state free from conceptual elaborations. But for ordinary people like us, to attain the state of utmost simplicity and ease is the hardest goal to accomplish. Thus, to prepare for the Dzogpa Chenpo training, one has to do various preliminary studies and training in order to learn the path and purify the stains of negative emotions with their traces; to generate positive energy through the force of virtues; and to realize, refine and perfect the ordinary meditative attainments taught in the common Buddhist paths. When one is ready, in accordance with the strength of one's spiritual experiences, one should be instructed in the Dzogpa Chenpo meditation by a qualified master.

For the happiness and enlightenment of beings, Buddhism works with the root, the root of gaining joy and dispelling misery, which lies in individuals; for society is a collection of individuals. For an individual, the mind is the main factor and the forerunner of all activities. So the improvement and perfection of the mental state is the primary emphasis of Buddhist training. If one has improved and perfected one's mind, all one's physical activities will be naturally perfect and one's presence and activities will become a source of true happiness and enlightenment for others. From the moment of becoming a Mahayana Buddhist, one is expected to exert oneself in the service of others. The whole aspiration in spiritual training is for the sake of others. But at the beginning, the emphasis will be on the spiritual progress of oneself, deriving from one's own mind. Without spiritual strength within oneself, trying to serve others will be as a Tibetan proverb says: "A falling person cannot give his shoulder to another falling person to rely on.

The meditations of tantra and of Dzogpa Chenpo taught and transmitted by Guru Padmasambhava are a training on the balanced path of the view of primordial wisdom and the activities of meritorious applications. They are neither a contemplation on mere view, although some interpret them thus, nor training on just meritorious activities. Guru Padmasambhava said to King Thrisong Deutsen (790‑858):

Please do not lose the view in favor of activities. If you do, being tied to existential characteristics, you will not attain liberation. Please do not lose activities in favor of the view. If you do, there arises (a situation of) absence of both virtues and vices (and one falls into the extreme of) nihilism, and (one's spiritual life) becomes irreparable. O great king, as my tantras possess extensive (teachings on) view, in the future many people who know the words [textual expression] of the view but lack the confidence of the view in their mental continuum could stray into inferior realms.

In Dzogpa Chenpo meditation itself there are numerous stages of training which must be taught and practiced step by step. Each step is taken only when the trainee is ready for it. In Dzogpa Chenpo, a subtle and esoteric meditation which transcends intellectual and mental fabrications, one doesn't study or read the teachings on a particular aspect until one is ready for that particular step of experience and for training on it. And one is definitely excluded from “instructions on experiential meditation”. If, without being ready for the particular meditative experiences, one reads about or studies them, one could just build up fabricated images of intellectual understanding about a particular meditative experience. Thereby, before having any true experience or pure realization, one could fall into the pit of mental creations. Then the trainee will find it hard even to distinguish whether it is a true experience of realization or a mentally created image. This way of introduction applies not only to Dzogpa Chenpo, but also to general tantric training. In sutric teaching, first you study and then enter into the training. But in the tantras, when you have matured through the common preparatory virtues and are ready for the esoteric training, you will receive the transmission of the realization through an Empowerment ceremony. Only then will you be introduced to the course of study and training in the tantra by using the Primordial Wisdom, the meaning of the empowerment, which is realized during the transmission of empowerment, as the means and the basis of meditation.

Some people do not need to undergo any common training but are ready for higher training such as Dzogpa Chenpo. But such people are a bare possibility in this world of ours.

Therefore, in this book I have tried to avoid including any "instructions on the stages of experiential meditation," since one should get them individually from a true master in person, stage by stage, according to one's own experiential abilities. I have tried to present here only, or at least mainly, the teachings on view, the outline of the meditation, and the result of Dzogpa Chenpo.

Nowadays, as the cultural context of the traditional teachings is changing, the tantric teachings and even the Dzogpa Chenpo teachings are being given in public to many people who may have little belief, who have done no preliminary training or have received no introductory empowerments. The main focus of attraction and the goal of many so‑called masters and disciples unfortunately have become worldly or sensual attributes. On the other hand, there are mate serious Dharma people who wish to study Dzogpa Chenpo teachings out of pure Dharma interest, and who are prepared for such teachings through preliminary study and training. But the lack of instruction and reading material in Western languages is preventing them from making much progress on this path. In this situation, it is a serious decision whether or not to write and translate such teachings and to make them public. Realistically, in this modern age, there is no way that these teachings could be preserved and practiced traditionally only by those who are ready for them. So the alternative is to consider what will be the best possible way to present the teachings to the public so that they will be of most benefit to the people whom they will reach.

After all these considerations, I reached the conclusion that I would attempt to translate and present these original scriptures, the very words which came from the wisdom minds of the Enlightened Ones, unstained by the contemporary intellectual thought of this modern materialistic world of ours.

I have translated and written this book not because I am an authority on such an esoteric teaching as Dzogpa Chenpo. I feel proud of having the courage to admit it without trying to create stories that I was born with wisdom or that I absorbed an ocean of scriptures in no time. But as a Tibetan proverb says: "The behavior of a servant of a cultured family will be better than that of the head of an uncultured family." I was fortunate to grow up at Dodrup Chen monastery, a famous institution of learning and enlightenment drawing upon hundreds of years of spiritual tradition. There, although I became neither a scholar nor a sage, I lived with the wisest and most peaceful spiritual masters, such as Kyala Khenpo Chochog (1893-1957), and I heard the true Dharma words that came from the depth of their most pure and enlightened minds. As the blessing of having been at such a great institution, I always feel traces of the strength of courage and the light of wisdom which enable me to see and respect the pure teachings and their true traditions as they are, without any need of adjusting them to the dimensions of my own intellectual judgment or using them as tools to glorify my ego. It doesn't matter where I go or live, in the academic, materialistic or spiritual worlds.

For Dzogpa Chenpo teachings,first there are many original scriptures, called the tantras of Dzogpa Chenpo. Unfortunately, they are very difficult to understand, and most of them do not have any commentaries and are in need of interpretation. So, if I were to translate such texts, it would become unavoidable for me to indulge my own interpretations, and these could be very wrong.

After the tantras, there are the texts and commentaries on Dzogpa Chenpo tantras written or discovered by great adepts of the Dzogpa Chenpo lineage. Of these the writings and discovered texts and commentaries of Longchen Rabjam are respected as the most detailed, much clearer than the tantras, and as authentic as the tantras without any dispute throughout the Nyingma world since the fourteenth century. For all these reasons, I have produced this book, an anthology of Longchen Rabjam's writings on Dzogpa Chmpo.

This book has two parts. The first part is the introduction, and in it I have tried to present the whole scope of Buddhism in such a way as to show that the common Buddhist teachings are the basis of Dzogpa Chenpo doctrine and that Dzogpa Chenpo is their essence. I have also tried to explain the similarities of Dzogpa Chenpo to some other Buddhist schools of thought as well as its unique distinction from them. For each point I have extensively quoted tantras, texts, and commentaries written by the greatest Nyingma writers to present the true traditional views and values.

The second part provides a complete structure of Dzogpa Chenpo teachings in the words of the Omniscient Master Longchen Rabjam, from the delusions leading to Samsara through the attainment of liberation. It is organized in three sections: view, meditation, and result.

To develop trust and inspiration in the teachings, it is important to know about the author, his scholarship, and his realization of the teachings on which he is writing. So I have written a detailed life of Longchen Rabjam gathered from his various biographies. I have also quoted his writings extensively to illustrate his view of nature. As a poet he depicts nature in images of beauty, joy, and peace; as a common trainee of Buddhism, he sees them as the demonstration of impermanence and as false reflections; and as a Dzogpa Chenpo philosopher, he views all in the sameness of utmost peace, the Primordial Awareness.

My main aim in preparing this book is to provide the following clarifications: (a) The common Mahdyana Buddhist views are the basis of Dzogpa Chenpo teachings. (b) All the essential aspects of Buddhist training are condensed in Dzogpa Chenpo, and Dzogpa Chenpo is the essence of Buddhist teachings. (c) To become a Dzogpa Chenpo trainee one needs to train through the common preparatory studies and meditations. As Dzogpa Chenpo is the highest and the most simple training, it requires earnest preparation and meditation. 

Dzogchen: The Heart Essence of the Great Perfection: Dzogchen Teachings Given in the West by Dalai Lama, translated by Geshe Thupten Jinpa and Richard Barron, edited by Patrick D. Gaffney (Snow Lion Press) Recently His Holiness the Dalai Lama published highly edited transcripts of four empowerments he gave into the traditional Nyingma teaching of Dzogchen or Great Perfection. Both Dzogchen and Mahamudra represent important indigenous developments of Tantric teachings in Tibet. Like all wisdom traditions, Buddhism rests upon the transmission of heart-essence realization and dharma from one generation to the next. Dzogchen, literally "great perfection," is the primary teaching of the Nyingmapa school of Tibetan Buddhism, having been carried to Tibet in the eighth century by Padmasambhava, who is recognized as a "second Buddha." This actualization of what Dzogchen is is sent out through this collection of empowerments given from 1982-1989 by the 14th Dalai Lama. Sogyal Rinpoche (The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying) requested these teachings, and His Holiness the Dalai Lama obliged with emphasis on the 5th Dalai Lama’s visionary receipt of Dzogchen teaching, which is summarized simply by the verse:
"Ema! Phenomena are, without exception,
Perfect within the continuum of self-arising rigpa."
Ema is an expression of wonder and astonishment. Whereas rigpa is a technical term for root single awareness that illuminates all; whereas ordinary awareness is that but as refracted into various experiences of subject and object, so that the unity becomes a secret, except for those who are aware of the nature of the root awareness then everything is the root awareness. To attempt to understand enough so that one can cut through the veils of separations that is usually the habit mind. Of course the development of habitual indwelling in non-divisive bliss might be more fun than reading hundreds of books. But as the verse say there is no difference at the root or in the stem and branch or such preferences seeming important.

Empowerments are a principle way the Tibetans are bringing Buddha dharma to the west. An empowerment is the oral recitation of the teaching with impromptu commentary for the audience. It is done with a ritual format so that there can be prayers, chants and other meditation aids going on but the most important aspect of the empowerment is that the teacher and his assistants as well as the whole audience is speaking at the time from within the nondual realization of what is being taught. In other words the Dalai Lama and his retinue are all within a state of actualization of the reality to which the teaching refer. As the audience is also so attuned the psychic contagion can be intense and experiences can quickly and deeply cut through the fog of our surface consciousness.

Now this volume is likely to be popular among student of Buddhism but, except for the Appendix: Compassion, the Heart of Enlightenment; the texts would confuse the novice. Because of this I recommend several other texts that provide more systematic accounts of the Dzogchen traditions and how it fits in with the wider traditions of Buddhist practice. The Golden Letters: The Three Statements of Garab Dorje, the First Teacher of Dzogchen, Together With a Commentary by Garab Dorje, edited and translated with a commentary by John Myrdhin Reynolds (Snow Lion Press) In many ways the best guide to Dzogchen teachings. Includes explanations that were previously thought too secret to publish. Mipham's Beacon of Certainty: Illuminating the View of Dzogchen, the Great Perfection by Mi-Pham-Rgya-Mtsho Nes Ses Rin Po Chei Sgron Me edited and translated with commentary by John W. Pettit (Wisdom Publications) offers the necessary links between Madhyamika and Dzogchen. And as a relatively easy introduction the The Crystal and the Way of Light: Sutra, Tantra and Dzogchen by Chogyal Namkhai Norbu, edited by John Shane (Tibetan Buddhist Philosophy: Snow Lion Press) provides a useful introduction.

Foreword by Sogyal Rinpoche; Preface
Part One: Ground Path and Fruition Paris, 1982; The Background; The Pure Visions; The Ground, Path and Fruition of Dzogchen
Part Two: Hitting the Essence in Three Words London, 1984: The Background; Liberation Upon Contact; The Special Teaching of the Wise and Glorious King
Part Three: Dzogchen and the Buddhadharma Helsinki, 1988: The Background; Four Truths, Four Seals and Dzogchen
Part Four: The Pinnacle of All Yanas San Jose, 1989: The Background; The Primacy of Mind; Mind is Devoid of Mind; Questions and Answers; The Nature of Mind is Clear Light
Afterword: A Gift to the World; Appendix: Compassion, the Heart of Enlightenment; Notes; Glossary; Bibliography; Acknowledgements; Index


The empowerment I am going to give today is in response to a request I received some time ago from Sogyal Rinpoche. He asked that when I came to Europe I might consider visiting some of his centers to give empowerments, particularly from the cycle known as Sangwa Gyachen—`Bearing the Seal of Secrecy'—and I agreed that I would, as long as time permitted. Now, since my travels have brought me to Europe and to France, I have been invited once again by Sogyal Rinpoche to teach in Paris. From all the possible empowerments within the Sangwa Gyachen cycle, I have decided to bestow the empowerment for the "mind sadhana" known in Tibetan as Tukdrup Yang Nying Kundü—`The Union of All the Innermost Essences', as I think this will be the most appropriate of them all.

    As many of you know, this Sangwa Gyachen cycle forms part of a larger tradition, the Secret Mantra teachings of the Nyingma or Ancient school of Tibetan Buddhism. The rituals and practices of this school are transmitted in three ways—the extensive lineage of kama, the shorter lineage of terma, and the profound transmission through pure visions—dak nang. The Sangwa Gyachen cycle consists of transmissions which have their origin in these pure visions.

    Now pure visions can be considered from two points of view. First, there are meditative experiences of a more ephemeral kind, known in Tibetan as nyam. Then there are the pure visions in which a master actually experiences receiving the transmission from a deity in a pure realm, and this is considered to be quite different from a meditative experience. This cycle of pure visions of Sangwa Gyachen comes down to us from the fifth Dalai Lama. What is remarkable about these visions is that, far from being simply meditative experiences that arose during practice, they were received on occasions when the fifth Dalai Lama actually went to pure wisdom realms, and was given the transmissions encoded in these empowerments. To a yogin of his stature, who is able to perceive directly enlightened forms or kayas, and realms of wisdom, the pure visions that occur will naturally belong to this category.

    In the case of the `Great Fifth' Dalai Lama, the predispositions from his previous lifetimes awakened in him at a very early age, and this allowed him to experience any number of such pure visions throughout his life. The most extraordinary of these are contained in the Sangwa Gyachen cycle, which is composed of twenty-five sections dealing with distinct visions. The accounts of the pure visions experienced by the fifth Dalai Lama can be found in his secret autobiography.

    Among these twenty-five sections, the principal one focuses on the Kagyé, or `Eight Commands', where all the deities appear in a single mandala. Individual practices also exist for each of these deities. The whole cycle of Sangwa Gyachen contains a number of empowerments, blessings, and permission ceremonies for different deities, both peaceful and wrathful, out of which I have chosen today to perform the empowerment of `The Union of All the Innermost Essences'. This empowerment is based on the mandala of the guru as the vidyadhara. It is an empowerment which is easy to perform, and yet which at the same time transmits enormous blessing and the potential for great spiritual attainment. Generally speaking, very profound teachings can often take a considerable amount of time for a teacher to confer and for students to assimilate. The advantage here is that this empowerment is quite short and easy to transmit, and yet it does possess that profound depth. But even in saying that, I am aware of the fact that normally it would take some three or four hours to perform, if we had the time. This afternoon we only have an hour or so available, so we will be going even faster than would normally be the case.

    The master from whom I received the transmission for this extraordinary Sangwa Gyachen cycle was Taktra Rinpoche. The main sadhana from this cycle that I have practised myself is the one associated with the mandala which unifies the eight deities of the Kagyé. I have also focused on several of the other practices to a certain extent, such as Vajrakilaya, Hayagriva, and Avalokitesvara. Generally speaking, if you are going to transmit empowerments for a given cycle of teachings in the Nyingma tradition, you should ideally have completed retreats on all the deities of the three roots for that cycle. However when I received these empowerments from my teacher, I also received permission from him to give them to others if there was benefit for them in my doing so. In addition, it was explained to me that the Kagyé practice is the principal focus of all the twenty-five sections of the Sangwa Gyachen cycle, and so to complete a full retreat on this particular practice constitutes the minimum requirement for a vajra master to confer the empowerments on others. So, while I have not had the opportunity to accomplish a more thorough practice of the other sections of this cycle, I have completed the Kagyé section and am therefore in a position to offer the empowerments of Sangwa Gyachen. 


As for empowerment in general, what does the term wang, or empowerment, signify? To begin with, our fundamental nature—what we term `the buddha nature', or tathagatagarbha, the very nature of our mind, is inherently present within us as a natural attribute. This mind of ours, the subject at hand, has been going on throughout beginningless time, and so has the more subtle nature of that mind. On the basis of the continuity of that subtle nature of our mind rests the capacity we have to attain enlightenment. This potential is what we call `the seed of buddhahood', `buddha nature', `the fundamental nature', or `tathagatagarbha'. We all have this buddha nature, each and every one of us. For example, this beautiful statue of Lord Buddha here, in the presence of which we are now sitting, is a representation that honours someone who attained buddhahood. He awakened into that state of enlightenment because his nature was the buddha nature. Ours is as well, and just as the Buddha attained enlightenment in the past, so in the future we can become buddhas too.

    When, at some future point, we do attain buddhahood, that subtle continuum of our awareness will awaken to a state of omniscience called dharmakaya. The nature of mind at that point is what we term svabhavikakaya. The fact that it is totally pure by its very nature is one aspect of the svabhavikakaya—that of total and natural purity. The fact that adventitious obscurations have been removed and no longer obscure that true nature of mind is another aspect of the svabhavikakaya—that of being purified of adventitious obscurations.

    In any case, there dwells within us all this potential which allows us to awaken into buddhahood and attain omniscience. The empowerment process draws that potential out, and allows it to express itself more fully. When an empowerment is conferred on you, it is the nature of your mind—the buddha nature—that provides a basis upon which the empowerment can ripen you. Through the empowerment, you are empowered into the essence of the buddhas of the five families. In particular, you are `ripened' within that particular family through which it is your personal predisposition to attain buddhahood.

    So, with these auspicious circumstances established in your mindstream, and when you reflect on what is taking place and maintain the various visualizations, the conditions are right for the essence of the empowerment to awaken within you, as a state of wisdom which is blissful yet empty—a very special state that is the inseparability of basic space and awareness. As you focus your devotion in this way, it allows this special quality of mind, this new capability, as it were, to awaken. There are three circumstantial factors that support this—the ritual objects that are employed on the outer level, the mantras that are repeated by the vajra master, and the vajra master's own samadhi, or meditative absorption. When these three factors come together, they form a basis on which the mind can focus, and so become ripened.

    As these three factors are so important, we should examine them a little more closely. The outer ritual objects, such as the vase and so forth, have already been arranged on the shrine, and are all in place. As for the mantras, while I cannot claim to have read them all in pure Sanskrit, I have done my best while reading and reciting them. So what is most important during the remainder of the empowerment is meditative absorption. For my part, I will be doing what I can to maintain a state of samadhi, and so at the same time each of you should focus your minds, step by step, on the explanations I will give, and rest, as much as possible, in a similar state of samadhi meditation.



Let us now consider the teachings particular to the Secret Mantra Vehicle of the early transmission school of the Nyingma tradition, and what these teachings say about the three phases of ground, path, and fruition. The way in which the ground of being abides, as this is definitively understood and described in the Nyingma teachings, entails its essence, its nature, and its energy, or responsiveness. In particular, the first two aspects define the ground for the Nyingma school, its essence being primordial purity or kadak, and its nature being spontaneous presence or lhundrup.

    Nagarjuna, in his Fundamental Treatise on the Middle Way, called `Wisdom,' states:


The dharma that is taught by the buddhas,
Relies completely upon two levels of truth:
The worldly conventional level of truth,
And the ultimate level of truth.


All that is knowable—all phenomena and all that is comprised within an individual's mind and body—is contained within these two levels of truth, conventional and ultimate. In the Dzogchen context, the explanation given would be in terms of primordial purity and spontaneous presence, and this is analogous to a passage in the scriptures:


It is mind itself that sets in place the myriad array
Of beings in the world, and the world that contains them.


That is to say, if we consider the agent responsible for creating samsara and nirvana, it comes down to mind. The Sutra on the Ten Grounds states, "These three realms are mind only". In his commentary to his own work, Entering the Middle Way Candrakirti elaborates on this quotation, stating that there is no other creative agent apart from mind.

    When mind is explained from the point of view of the Highest Yoga Tantra teachings and the path of mantra, we find that many different levels or aspects of mind are discussed, some coarser and some more subtle. But at the very root, the most fundamental level embraced by these teachings is mind as the fundamental, innate nature of mind. This is where we come to the distinction between the word sem in Tibetan, meaning `ordinary mind' and the word rigpa signifying `pure awareness'. Generally speaking, when we use the word sem, we are referring to mind when it is temporarily obscured and distorted by thoughts based upon the dualistic perceptions of subject and object. When we are discussing pure awareness, genuine consciousness or awareness free of such distorting thought patterns, then the term rigpa is employed. The teaching known as the `Four Reliances' states: "Do not rely upon ordinary consciousness, but rely upon wisdom"? Here the term namshé, or ordinary consciousness, refers to mind involved with dualistic perceptions. Yeshé, or wisdom, refers to mind free from dualistic perceptions. It is on this basis that the distinction can be made between ordinary mind and pure awareness.

    When we say that `mind' is the agent responsible for bringing the universe into being, we are talking about mind in the sense of rigpa, and specifically its quality of spontaneous presence. At the same time, the very essence of that spontaneously present rigpa is timelessly empty, and primordially pure—totally pure by its very nature—so there is a unity of primordial purity and spontaneous presence. The Nyingma school distinguishes between the ground itself, and the ground manifesting as appearances through the `eight doorways of spontaneous presence', and this is how this school accounts for all of the perceptions, whether pure or impure, that arise within the mind. Without ever deviating from basic space, these manifestations and the perceptions of them, pure or impure, arise in all their variety. That is the situation concerning the ground, from the point of view of the Nyingma school.

    On the basis of that key point, when we talk about the path, and if we use the special vocabulary of the Dzogchen tradition and refer to its own extraordinary practices, the path is twofold, that of trekchö and tögal. The trekchö approach is based upon the primordial purity of mind, kadak, while the tögal approach is based upon its spontaneous presence, lhundrup. This is the equivalent in the Dzogchen tradition of what is more commonly referred to as the path that is the union of skilful means and wisdom.

    When the fruition is attained through relying on this twofold path of trekchö and tögal, the `inner lucidity' of primordial purity leads to dharmakaya, while the `outer lucidity' of spontaneous presence leads to the rupakaya. This is the equivalent of the usual description of dharmakaya as the benefit that accrues to oneself and the rupakaya as the benefit that comes to others. The terminology is different, but the understanding of what the terms signify is parallel. When the latent, inner state of buddhahood becomes fully evident for the practitioner him or herself, this is referred to as `inner lucidity' and is the state of primordial purity, which is dharmakaya. When the natural radiance of mind becomes manifest for the benefit of others, its responsiveness accounts for the entire array of form manifestations, whether pure or impure, and this is referred to as `outer lucidity', the state of spontaneous presence which comprises the rupakaya.

    In the context of the path, then, this explanation of primordial purity and spontaneous presence, and what is discussed in the newer schools of Highest Yoga Tantra both come down to the same ultimate point: the fundamental innate mind of clear light.

    What, then, is the profound and special feature of the Dzogchen teachings? According to the more recent traditions of Tibetan Buddhism, collectively known as the Sarma schools of the Secret Mantra Vehicle, in order for this fundamental innate mind of clear light to become fully evident, it is necessary first of all for the coarser levels of ordinary mind, caught up with thoughts and concepts, to be harnessed by yogas, such as the yoga of vital energies, pranayoga, or the yoga of inner heat, tummo. On the basis of these yogic practices, and in the wake of those adventitious thought patterns of ordinary mind being harnessed and purified, the fundamental innate mind of clear light—`mind' in that sense—becomes fully evident.

    From the point of view of Dzogchen, the understanding is that the adventitious level of mind, which is caught up with concepts and thoughts, is by its very nature permeated by pure awareness. In an experiential manner, the student can be directly introduced by an authentic master to the very nature of his or her mind as pure awareness. If the master is able to effect this direct introduction, the student then experiences all of these adventitious layers of conceptual thought as permeated by the pure awareness which is their nature, so that these layers of ordinary thoughts and concepts need not continue. Rather, the student experiences the nature that permeates them as the fundamental innate mind of clear light, expressing itself in all its nakedness. That is the principle by which practice proceeds on the path of Dzogchen.

The Golden Letters: The Three Statements of Garab Dorje, the First Teacher of Dzogchen, Together With a Commentary by Garab Dorje, edited and translated with a commentary by John Myrdhin Reynolds (Snow Lion Press) In many ways the best guide to Dzogchen teachings. Includes explanations that were previously thought too secret to publish. The Golden Letters is a fine translation of one of the most succinct and profound Dzogchen texts, by the early Tibetan master Garab Dorje, with commentary by the great 19th century master Patrul Rinpoche. Reynolds has produced a scholarly yet highly readable translation of this important text and commentary, and has added a very helpful and insightful introduction and commentary of his own. For anyone seriously interested in practicing Dzogchen, one of the most profound Tibetan Buddhist methods for realizing the nature of the mind, this book will be a great treasure.
Mipham's Beacon of Certainty: Illuminating the View of Dzogchen, the Great Perfection by Mi-Pham-Rgya-Mtsho Nes Ses Rin Po Chei Sgron Me edited and translated with commentary by John W. Pettit (Wisdom Publications) This study and translation of one of the more advanced texts on Madhyamika in the Nyingma school is a welcome relief amid the overabundance of geluk-oriented material on the subject. Written by arguably the most influential philosopher and master practitioner of the last 200 years of Nyingma history, the translated text alone makes this a valuable book. Add to that the highly readable analysis and background information, as well as the translation of another, shorter text by Mipham Rinpoche written from a contrasting point of view and you have a very well-rounded read certain to leave you with some enlightening and decidedly Nyingma perspectives.  Lama Mipham was one of the most extraordinary thinkers and meditators of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. In his Beacon of Certainty he illuminates some essential points of Madhyamika philosophy according to the view of the Great Perfection (Dzogchen). In the grand spirit of Buddhist debate, 19th century Buddhist philosopher Mipham wrote Beacon of Certainty, a compelling systematic defense of Dzogchen that employs the very logic it was criticized as lacking.  Dzogchen--the oft-misunderstood Tibetan meditation practice--is dissected in great detail here, revealing the buried rational origins and interpretation of this spiritual practice.
 John Pettit's translation and in-depth presentation is a major contribution to the field of combining Madhyamika and Dzogchen studies, which that remains largely unexplored.

AUTHORS WORDS: Large, comprehensive, and all-too-human". I am very grateful to the many reviewers who have had kind things to say about my book, Mipham's Beacon of Certainty. But I would like to put a human, and hopefully honest, spin on this material.
First of all, the book evolved -- and only a little bit -- from a doctoral dissertation. I spent about five years of intermittent, and often emotionally difficult, periods of research and writing under the guidance of Robert A. F. Thurman, my dissertation advisor at Columbia University. I worked mostly in upstate New York in various idyllic places -- Annandale-on-Hudson, Germantown, Tivoli, Pine Plains -- before moving to Rye, and then to a small room in Manhattan, where most of the final editing and translating was completed. I mostly worked alone, and was not able (or maybe just not willing) to consult very much with Tibetan scholars. While many of my friends did meditation retreats, or found good jobs, or made babies, I stayed home, behind a computer screen. It was lonely and sometimes deeply depressing -- a "dark night of the soul".
I mention all of this because I find it somewhat amusing how different my own writing process has been compared to that of my subject, Mipham Rinpoche. Most of what Mipham wrote was done with minimal editing. He quoted scriptures extensively from memory. He wrote because he saw it would be of benefit to others, or because tutelary deities appeared to him in visions, or because his own teacher told him to do so. He wrote because it came naturally to him, and because he had the confidence of being free of any ulterior motives for his personal benefit.
I wrote this book because I had to. I had to write it because without finishing it, I would never have finished my graduate degree, and I would have fulfilled my own advisor's prophecy (delivered to a few of our mutual acquaintances) that I would probably not finish. I had to write it the way I did because my advisor, Professor Thurman, saw I was capable of more than I was willing to give, so he pushed me and pushed me, and I though I resented it deeply at the time, now I am grateful because he never let me get away with anything shoddy. I wrote it in a piecemeal fashion, sometimes with no idea where I was going.
In fact, I never thought I knew where the book was heading until it was almost done; and even now, I don't really think it has arrived. It is still a work in progress, but rather than let it hang over my head for the rest of my life, I thought it might be better just to publish and be done with it. The result -- if it has any value -- will help other scholars and meditators find a sense of direction. Like Wittgenstein's ladder, they should leave it behind once they get to the next stage of their learning. This is no gospel or authority. In a very roundabout way, it is a call for seekers to find their own authoritative voice within.
I also wrote about Mipham because I thought what he has to say -- about the nature of valid knowledge, the role of intellect in the spiritual path, and about the point where all Buddhist teachings converge in the Great Perfection -- were important. Important, not just for scholars who like the sound of their own voices, but for true seekers on the spiritual path. I think Mipham's message is important especially for those of us whose faltering efforts at Buddhist spirituality resemble nothing so much as shots in the dark, whose religious-minded gestures often become a mere display, or a self-deception, because we have such shaky confidence in our true nature. Making this book has been a humbling yet inspiring process, because Mipham's writings, like those of all great spiritual geniuses, are a mirror which simultaneously shows who we are, and who we are capable of being.

The Crystal and the Way of Light: Sutra, Tantra and Dzogchen by Chogyal Namkhai Norbu, edited by John Shane (Tibetan Buddhist Philosophy: Snow Lion Press) Chogyal Namkhai Norbu examines the spiritual path from the viewpoint of Dzogchen. Within Tibetan Buddhism, there is a little-known understanding of Buddha dharma known as Dzogchen, the turbo path to liberation. Usually the path to liberation is conceived to extend over lifetimes of diligent practice, but Dzogchen represents an accelerated way to achieve perfect enlightenment. After many years of formal study, Chogyal Namkhai Norbu was initiated into this less-formal practice, which is one of the highest yet most accessible of Tibetan Buddhist teachings. Namkhai Norbu eventually made his way to Italy to teach, where John Shane transcribed and translated Namkhai Norbu's lectures, putting together what is now one of the most popular books on Dzogchen. Namkhai Norbu makes it clear that these teachings are not a handbook for practice but rather an overview of Dzogchen, notably its three divisions: the base, the path, and the fruit. The ultimate and immediate goal is to achieve the primordial state of non-dual awareness, the one taste, and to maintain it. With colorful anecdotes from his own experience (finding an ancient text manifested in a dream, for example, and visiting eccentric cave yogis), Namkhai Norbu's teachings illustrate that Dzogchen is not just theory but the way to a new, and  incomparable  way of being aware here and now.

The Cycle of Day and Night: Where One Proceeds Along the Path of the Primordial Yoga: An Essential Tibetan Text on the Practice of Dzogchen by Namkhai Norbu, translated by John Myrdhin Reynolds (Talman) is a practical guide to a fundamental practice of the Dzogchen system of Tibetan Buddhism, presented in a clear and direct manner. An acknowledged contemporary master of that ancient tradition writes it. Central to Dzogchen, the "Great Perfection", is contemplation -- the immediate experience of the primordial state of the individual, the unconditioned nature of the mind. This nature of the mind transcends the specific contents of mind, the incessant flow of thoughts reflecting our social, cultural, and psychological conditioning. Based on the teaching by Garab Dorje, the first human master of the Dzogchen lineage, The Cycle of Day and Night gives a translation of the author's Tibetan Text, together with a commentary drawn from the author's extensive oral explanations. Actual methods are given for entering into contemplation and integrating it with our activities during the twenty-four hour cycle of day and night.

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