Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche (1920–1996) was a master in the Dzogchen tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. Teachers of Dzogchen (the Great Perfection) regard it as the innermost essence of the Buddha’s teachings. During the last decades of his life, Rinpoche’s hermitage above the Kathmandu Valley was frequented by visitors from all over the world. Today, his many monasteries and retreat centers are managed by his four sons who are lineage holders, including Tsoknyi Rinpoche. What follows is adapted from Rainbow Painting by Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche, translated by Erik Pema Kunsang, and reprinted with permission from Rangjung Yeshe Publications.

Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche

Buddhist practice involves three steps known as intellectual understanding, experience and realization. Intellectual understanding occurs when, for instance, we hear that emptiness, meaning empty cognizance, is our nature. The mental idea we get of this is called “understanding.” In the case of experience, we are told how to recognize emptiness so that we can see exactly how this empty cognizance is. We have a taste of it, maybe no more than a glimpse, but, nevertheless, an experience of what is called “recognizing mind essence.” That is what the word “experience” means in this context. When this glimpse is followed by training in repeatedly recognizing the nature of mind and avoiding being carried away by thoughts, we gradually grow more and more used to this experience. In this case, by recognizing the empty nature we are disengaging from its expression, the stream of deluded thinking. Each time the expression dissolves back into the state of awareness, progress is made, and realization finally occurs. Ultimate realization is when delusion has totally collapsed and there is no reoccurrence of discursive thought whatsoever.

Thoughts are like clouds and can vanish just as clouds naturally disperse into space. The expression, meaning thoughts, are like clouds, while rigpa the awakened state, is like sunlit space. I use the metaphor of sunlit space to illustrate that space and awareness are indivisible. You do not accomplish or create the sunlit sky. We cannot push the clouds away, but we can allow the clouds of thought to gradually dissolve until finally all the clouds have vanished. Ultimate realization occurs when there is no trace of the cloud layers whatsoever.

clouds vanish 33 winter 1999
Dzogchen master Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche

It is not as if we need to decide, “I hate these thoughts. I only want the awakened state! I have to be enlightened!” This kind of grasping and pushing will never give way to enlightenment. By simply allowing the expression of thought activity to naturally subside, again and again, the moments of genuine rigpa automatically and naturally begin to last longer. When there are no thoughts whatsoever, then you are a buddha. At that point the thought-free state is effortless, as well as the ability to benefit all beings. But until that time it does not help to think that you are a buddha.

Listening to this explanation is merely getting the idea. We intellectually comprehend that emptiness is empty yet cognizant and that these two aspects are indivisible. It is like going to a buffet where we don’t actually taste anything, but only receive a guided tour or explanation of the different dishes: “This is Indian food, that is Chinese food. Over there is French cuisine.” Without eating anything your knowledge of the food is only intellectual understanding. Once you finally put the food in your mouth, that is experience. When your stomach is full, that is realization. Realization is the total and permanent collapse of confusion.

Empty cognizance is our nature. We cannot separate aspect of it from the other. Empty one aspect of it from the other. Empty means “not made out of anything whatsoever”; our nature has always been this way. Yet, while being empty, it has the capacity to cognize, to experience, to perceive. It’s not so difficult to comprehend this; to get the theory that this empty cognizance is buddha nature, self-existing wakefulness. But to leave it at that is the same as looking at the buffet and not eating anything. Being told about buddha nature but never really making it our personal experience will not help anything. It’s like staying hungry. Once we put the food in our mouth, we discover what the food tastes like. This illustrates the dividing line between idea and experience.

In the same way, if we have correct understanding, the moment we apply what our master teaches, we recognize our nature. That there is no entity whatsoever to be seen is called “emptiness.” The ability to know that mind essence is empty is called “cognizance.” If it were only blank, bare space, what or who would know that it is “blank” or “empty” or “nothing”? There would be no knowing. These two aspects, empty and cognizant, are indivisible. This becomes obvious to us the very moment that we look; it is no longer hidden. Then it is not just an intellectual idea of how emptiness is; it becomes a part of our experience. At that moment, meditation training can truly begin.

We call this training “meditation,” but it is not an act of meditating in the common sense of the word. There is no emptying the mind essence by trying to maintain an artificially imposed vacant state. Why? Because mind essence is already empty. Similarly, we do not need to make this empty essence cognizant. All you have to do is leave it as it is. In fact, there is nothing whatsoever to do, so we cannot even call this an act or meditating. There is an initial recognition, and from then on we do not have to be clever about it or try to improve it in any way whatsoever. Just let it be as it naturally is—that is what is called meditation, or more accurately “nonmeditation.” What is crucial is not to be distracted for even a single instant. Once recognition has taken place, undistracted non meditation is the key point of practice.

“Distracted” means that once the attention wavers and loses itself, thoughts and emotions can take place. Distraction is the return of all these kinds of thoughts, in which the continuity of nondual awareness is lost. The training is simply to recognize again. Once recognition takes place, there is nothing more to do; simply allow mind essence to be. That is how the cloud-covers gradually dissolve.

Related: Dropping Distraction

What is crucial is not to be distracted for even a single instant.

The ultimate state is totally free from any obscuration, like the short moment of recognition. However, in the latter there is still the tendency for the obscurations to return. The state of realization, complete enlightenment, means that no cloud-cover can ever return; its causes are utterly and permanently eliminated. When the clouds vanish, what else can cover the sun? That is the final or ultimate realization—when there is only brilliant, pure sunshine throughout space without any cloud-cover whatsoever. In other words, everything that needed to be removed has been removed and everything that needed to be actualized is already present. The empty sky and the brilliant sunshine are not of our making. They have always been there and are fully actualized when the cloud-cover is eliminated.

Please understand that there are three steps: recognizing, training and attaining stability. The first of these steps, recognizing, is like acquiring the seed of a flower. Once it is in your hands and you acknowledge it to be a flower, it can be planted and cultivated. When fully grown, flowers will bloom; but the seed needs the right conditions. However, we must first acknowledge that it is indeed a flower seed. In the same way, the naked awareness that has been pointed out by your master should be acknowledged as your nature. This recognition must be nurtured by the right conditions. To cultivate a seed, it must have warmth and moisture and so on; then it will certainly grow. In the same way, after recognizing we must train in the natural state: the short moment of recognition needs to be repeated many times. As the support for this training, have devotion to enlightened beings and compassion for unenlightened beings. Devotion and compassion are a universal panacea, the single sufficient technique. A famous quote says, “In the moment of love, the nature of emptiness dawns nakedly.” Both compassion and devotion are included in the “love” mentioned here.

Training is simply short moments of recognition repeated many times and supported by devotion and compassion. In addition, there are practices called the development and completion stages. All these practices facilitate nondistraction. Repeatedly training in nondistraction is how to progress in the practice of mind nature.

Training is simply short moments of recognition repeated many times and supported by devotion and compassion.

Finally comes the stage of stability. When this moment of nondistraction lasts unceasingly, day and night, what will that be like? When the three poisons are obliterated and the qualities of wakefulness become fully manifest, will we be ordinary human beings or divine? A single candle-flame can set the whole of a mountainside ablaze. Imagine what it would be like when our present experience of the wide awake moment free from thought becomes unceasing. Is there anything more divine than possessing all the wisdom qualities and being utterly free from the three poisons?

We can deduce from this that training is needed. We must grow up, just like a new-born baby. The infant born today and the adult 25 years later is essentially the same person, isn’t he? He is not someone else. Right now, our nature is the buddha nature. When fully enlightened, it will also be the buddha nature. Our nature is unfabricated naturalness. It is this way by itself: like space, it does not need to be manufactured. But we do need to allow the experience of buddha nature to continue through unfabricated naturalness.

One sign of having trained in rigpa, the awakened state, is simply that conceptual thinking, which is the opposite of rigpa, grows less and less. The gap between thoughts grows longer and occurs more and more frequently. The state of unfabricated awareness, what the tantras call the “continuous instant of nonfabrication,” becomes more and more prolonged. This continuity of rigpa is not something we have to deliberately maintain. It should occur spontaneously through having grown more familiar with it. Once we become accustomed to the genuine state of unfabricated rigpa, it will automatically start to last longer and longer.

What is meant by stability, then? First, to gain stability, we need to have recognized genuine rigpa. We should have clearly ascertained the true state. Through training, we should have gained some degree of stability in this so that we are no longer carried away by circumstances. These conditions can be either positive or negative. Negative circumstances such as difficulties, mishaps or illness, are much easier to recognize and not be overcome by. Thus, it is easier to practice during times of difficulty than it is when being successful. The worst obstacle for a practitioner is when crowds of followers begin to gather and say, “You are so wonderful; you’re such a great practitioner. You are very special. Please give us teachings. Please guide us.” Starting to have a great following causes the most difficult kind of obstacle because, unless one is the foremost type of practitioner, one will think, “Hey, maybe I am special. Maybe there is something to what they say.” Only the foremost type of practitioner will not be carried away by such “positive” conditions. When we reach the point of not being carried away by either positive or negative circumstances, we have gained some stability.

There are signs of accomplishment, such as having good health and long life or becoming famous and influential, but these belong to the superficial type of accomplishment. The true, unmistaken signs of accomplishment as established by the masters of the lineage, are to possess compassion, devotion and an acute sense of impermanence. Combined with this, thoughts grow less and less and the genuine awakened state lasts for increasingly longer periods. In the moment of unfabricated awareness thoughts do not have the power to remain, because that instant is totally free from the duality of perceiver and perceived. What we call sem, dualistic mind, is always involved in upholding the concepts of perceiver and perceived. Rigpa, however, is by nature devoid of duality. If the concepts of perceiver and perceived are not kept up, duality crumbles, and there is no way conceptual thinking can continue.

It’s not hard to gain some intellectual understanding of the Dharma; as they say, talk is cheap. Anyone can talk about it. One can easily say, “The awakened state is amazing. It is endowed with all perfect qualities, totally free from any faults. In fact, nothing can ever harm the state of rigpa. It is totally untainted.” Or it is very easy to say, “Everything is illusion. The whole world is merely an illusion. Nothing has any independent or true existence. It’s all magical trickery.” We can deliver these words from our mouths, but this is not enough to destroy the state of confusion, to make our delusion fall apart. To do this, we need the genuine experience.

Experience here, means to recognize the essence that is like space. In the moment of rigpa, any deluded state is seen as baseless, illusory and rootless. The false nature of thought becomes totally obvious, in a very immediate and personal way that is not just an idea that we have heard. At that moment we directly touch the truth of those statements. By attaining stability in this direct experience, the great masters of the Kagyu lineage could make statements like, “The rock here is totally transparent. Everything is the magical trickery of illusion.” Due to their level of realization, these masters could pass through solid rock, drill themselves into the ground, walk on water, fly through the air and so forth. This was not because they had developed some special powers through their practice or because they were very strong or stubborn, but simply because everything is unreal from the very outset. Because of realizing the insubstantial nature of things, as it is, practitioners have been able to manifest such signs of accomplishment. Otherwise, we can study the teachings and say pithy things like, “There is nothing to worry about in the bardo. Everything that then occurs is an illusion; there is nothing real about it.” But when we eventually arrive in the bardo states, we will be completely embroiled in the raging river of our fear.

Let me reiterate the three steps, intellectual understanding, experience and realization. Intellectual understanding is, for instance, to have heard about the awakened state. Theory, is, of course, important, and we should definitely know the intent of the teachings. However, we should not leave it with that. We need to incorporate all three: theory, experience and realization.

Then there is recognizing, training and attaining stability. Of these three, “recognizing” is like identifying the authentic seed of a beautiful flower. “Training” is like planting the seed in fertile soil, applying water, and so on—not leaving the seed lying on bare stone. The seed needs the right circumstances to grow in. By applying these skillful means, nothing whatsoever can prevent the plant from growing. Likewise, we need to train in, to develop the strength of the recognition of mind nature. After applying water and creating positive nurturing conditions, the plant will certainly grow taller and taller. Eventually, it will fully blossom with beautiful brightly colored flowers, because this potential was inherent to the seed. But this does not happen all at once. In the same way, we hear about the amazingly great qualities of buddhahood, such as the fourfold fearlessness, the eighteen unique qualities of the buddhas, the ten powers, the ten strengths and so forth. We then wonder, “Where are those qualities? How come they are not apparent in a moment’s experience of the awakened state! What is wrong!” It can be understood in the following way. Within a few seconds’ glimpse of the state of rigpa, these qualities are not experienced the same as when recognition has been stabilized. Although inherently present in our nature, these qualities do not have time to be fully manifest. Just as the seed is the unmistaken element for the fully blossomed flower, so the moment of recognizing the awakened state is definitely the basis for buddhahood itself.

If the flower-seed is planted and nurtured, it will without question grow. But do not expect the moment of rigpa to be an amazing or spectacular experience. Actually, there is one aspect of the awakened state that is truly amazing—the fact that conceptual thinking and the three poisons are totally absent. If we look around, apart from rigpa, what can really bring an end to thought, the very creator of samsara! We can drop a million nuclear bombs on this world and blow everything to smithereens. If that stops conceptual thinking and delusion, let’s do it! But it doesn’t. It would be fantastic if we could simply blow up all the confused samsaric realms and end them permanently, but unfortunately that’s not possible…Is there anything in this world that stops deluded thinking! Nothing other than the moment of recognizing the awakened state can truly cut through the stream of deluded thinking. That’s quite amazing.

Tsoknyi Rinpoche

The Venerable Tsoknyi Rinpoche, son of the late Dzogchen master Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche, was born in Nepal in 1966. At the age of eight he was recognized by the Sixteenth Karmapa as an incarnation of the accomplished yogi Drubwang Tsoknyi and has been trained in the Drugpa, Kagyu, and Nyingma lineages. He lived at the Tashi Jong Monastery in India until his early twenties, when he returned to Nepal to take up residence at Ngedon Osel Ling Monastery in the Kathmandu Valley, a new monastery established by his father. He is also the current president of Tashi Jong Monastery near Dharamsala, and the spiritual head of Gebchak Gompa, the largest nunnery in Tibet. For the last several years, Tsoknyi Rinpoche has been leading retreats in the Americas and Europe. His book, Carefree Dignity, was published in 1998 by Rangjung Yeshe Publications. This interview took place last September at Wisdom House in Litchfield, Connecticut, where Tsoknyi Rinpoche was leading a retreat. Questions were asked by Josh Baran, Amy Gross, Sharon Salzberg, and Helen Tworkov. Answers were translated by Erik Pema Kunsang. 

clouds vanish 37 winter 1999
Tsoknyi Rinpoche, 1999

There are now many Buddhist teachers who are introducing Dzogchen in the West, and you have expressed some concern about this.
These instructions are arriving in the West, but the ground of the Great Perfection is not arriving—it’s already here, present as the nature of mind of any sentient being. The methods are arriving in the West. The methods by which this ground can be realized—the ground of the Great Perfection. Yet what do we have here in the West: Do we have a king, a community, or some kind of council to verify exactly who has the authentic transmission? Who is a realized master? And what is the quality, the very fiber of the instructions being brought to the West right now? Do they live up to the highest standards? Buddha taught that as when you buy gold, you should check it carefully, and that in the same way you should check his teachings carefully to see whether or not they are authentic. It’s your responsibility. When the teachings were imported, so to speak, from India to Tibet, a king at that time took upon himself the responsibility of finding the most authentic, the most pure, the most genuine teachings on ground, path, and fruition. But we haven’t yet gotten to the point at which such authenticity is fully clarified, so therefore there is a certain risk.

What is actually risked?
First of all, the message of Buddhism is to state the facts, to simply tell it as it is. To say what is the nature of things, to reveal what is true. That’s what a Buddha does. But in particular, the teachings of the Great Perfection—Dzogchen—is a method of stating very clearly the basic state, the natural state of all things. So therefore it happens that people then think, “Well if that’s the case, if it’s a matter of just facing one’s nature and being natural, then what is the use of all this kind of stuff the Tibetans are doing: bowing down, making rituals, walking around things, saying mantras, doing different preliminary practices, all that kind of stuff. That’s not natural! I should just be as I am. Live as I am, and just do whatever comes naturally That is the Great Perfection.” In this kind of distorted understanding runs a great danger. Because the preliminary practices and all the methods are not “Tibetan” inventions, it’s not “Tibetan” culture. They are methods that embody the teachings. Of course there are aspects of spiritual practice that are specific to Tibetan culture. But also there are ways of practicing that are specifically Buddhist, and when people take it upon themselves to decide which is which, then the distortion comes in. The outcome of that is an incomplete Dharma path. So, therefore, it is my opinion that as the teachings arrive in the West, we need the complete toolbox, so to speak.

In terms of the whole toolbox, there are many Vipassana students at this retreat and the teachings that you presented are not the whole toolbox, but they are incredibly helpful. Is this a problem?
Let’s say that a person has already undergone many years of training in the Zen or Vipassana tradition and has laid, you can say, a solid foundation of practice that way. And because of that is open and very interested in proceeding with the Dzogchen teachings and feels very inspired by those instructions. At that point one can simply apply the instructions and hold an openness for the additional practices that come together with the Dzogchen teachings. That’s one way. On the other hand, another could be that one narrows one’s approach and says, “What I like about this, that is the real teaching. All the other is just Tibetan artificial stuff.” And one sort of “de-selects” all the practices that one doesn’t really feel comfortable for oneself. This comes from the American emphasis on individual freedom, where one can pick and choose whatever one likes. So if that kind of pattern is applied to the teachings, that is one of the dangers.

How would you describe the teachings that you’ve presented in this retreat?
My approach is first to communicate what is called the ground, the Buddha-nature, and then, when explaining what is called the path stage, its juice—the view—I try to bring the individual practitioner face to face with what is called the view of their own nature of mind. Once that has happened, there’s some kind of insight that takes place in personal experience. That is what needs to be developed and deepened. So how to go about that? Only by focusing on that and nothing else? Or to use other methods, such as taking refuge, developing bodhichitta—the resolve to attain enlightenment for the benefit of all beings—accumulating merit, and so forth. These other practices deepen compassion and other important qualities. I feel that if one combines the insight into the nature of mind together with these other practices, they help you to progress much faster. A lot of people I meet have practiced Vipassana or Zen for twenty or more years, and when they come into contact with the Dzogchen teachings, their practice and the Dzogchen teachings are mutually benefiting. The Vipassana system is a very sound, steady way of progressing, and there’s a model of slowly reaching some level of perfection. Conceptual habits begin to dissolve because of the training. The subject-object, conceptual attitude wears out, wears down, and fades away. But let’s say that if, like two-thirds of the way on that path, that person came into contact with the Dzogchen teachings, then maybe just within the next year the same progress could be made that may otherwise have taken ten more years.

Can this be further explained by an example from meditation practice?
At the outset of the Vipassana path, one is told to try to be deliberately mindful and so one proceeds that way. Then through the training of trying to be mindful, one becomes more aware, but to such an extent that it expands further and further, encompassing all situations and all moments, and finally to such an extent that trying to be more mindful and being mindful becomes one identity of just awareness. At which point there is no longer someone being aware of something. That is what is meant by the dissolving of the conceptual attitude. In Dzogchen training one is taught how to recognize that the nature of awareness is kind of baseless, insubstantial, and just to be that from the very beginning. So therefore if someone who has already gone through a lot of preparation of Vipassana training and has, you can say, accumulated a huge amount of stability, or of samadhi, when such a person is introduced in the correct way to how to recognize the nature of awareness, then this instruction and the prior training can kind of combine, and realization can take place very fast. The Dzogchen teachings and Buddha-dharma in general are guaranteed authentic. But when they are applied by the individual person, there’s never any guarantee. We have to distinguish between the Dharma as a teaching and then the Dharma as it is applied by a practitioner.

Can any Dzogchen practices be done before meeting a teacher? Can instructions be obtained from books?
Like do-it-yourself Dzogchen? To fully absorb the intent of what is being said, even intellectually, one probably needs to read a book three or four times. And even then one does not get the authentic experience of Dzogchen. To transmit the Dzogchen teachings, a proper environment needs to be arranged. An authentic teacher needs to be present, and those who come to receive the teachings need to have some sincerity and openness. Somebody just gathering answers will wonder, “Where does this belong? What country is it in? Does it come from the sky? Does it grow up from below?” That’s another danger that comes in the time we live in, because of getting piecemeals. Pieces. Fragments of teachings. “It’s very interesting, I like that, but where does it fit? I don’t know.” For the transmission of Dzogchen, you definitely need an authentic master.

Yet there are wonderful books out there, including your own (Carefree Dignity). How do you define their value?
One can get “a mental image.” We shouldn’t frown upon the importance of having a mental image of the awakened state. It is very useful for piloting ourselves in the right direction. Let’s say that there’s something to appreciate in that kind of attitude. First of all, a person has already understood that ordinary attitudes are painful and there must be some way out of that. Trying to find a way but not really knowing how. Also not really knowing what is the main cause of the problems, what is traditionally called understanding the truth of suffering, but not the origin of suffering, and not the true path either. But still trying, and trying has to get some points, even though it hasn’t reached that far. Still, there is sincerity and the lack of understanding really can’t be held against people. Nevertheless, thinking about enlightenment is not the true path. Even when one is on the path, retaining the idea keeps you in the conceptual realm. You haven’t released the concept of enlightenment. You’re still holding on to that as the object of attainment, conceptually. You can’t help that. In the West, philosophy, I’m sorry to say, is conceptual. And there is not much philosophy that is beyond conceptual attitude. So who can blame anybody for that?

What if you discover that your motivation was based on that kind of grasping, of holding onto a lofty ideal of enlightenment?
Change it. You need to change your mind. If you don’t know how to change your attitude or motivation, you need to seek help from somebody who does know. Isn’t this obvious?

I was thinking more about people feeling ashamed of how they’ve approached their practice.
Honestly, there’s nothing to be ashamed of in that. What one really should have been ashamed of is to have the attitude that “I am real. Everything is real. Everything is permanent. There is nothing beyond what I just experienced with my normal senses. There is no spiritual path for us to pursue.” Any person who holds on to that for dear life should be ashamed.

Rinpoche, we often hear that we need to let go, or dissolve, hope and fear. In the West we know that fear is a negative thing. Everyone wants to get rid of fear. But hope is often seen in a very positive light. People hope for the future, hope for enlightenment, hope for a good life. What is the problem with hope?
To make it very simple, distinguish between the meditation state of composure and then the postmeditation, after that. I am not saying that we should not entertain any hope during the postmeditation. It is only during the meditation state of composure itself that we don’t entertain hopes. Actually, I have the attitude that fear is more intelligent than hope. More justified. Fear is like a spur. Fear makes you get somewhere. Otherwise, if you had no fear of suffering, you wouldn’t bother to find out why it happened in the first place, and also how to be free. What would be the right path? Fear makes us seek a path. It makes us want to learn how to progress. If we didn’t have any fear at all we would be, what do you call it, a real loser.

Sometimes we can be so afraid of ourselves that our meditation becomes paralyzed.
There are different ways of being afraid. Pointlessly afraid, and justifiably afraid. Being afraid of thoughts and emotions belongs under “pointlessly afraid.” But there is also a necessary way to being afraid. And that is the more intelligent kind, which is that you face facts and you understand that if such and such negative action makes such and such happen, then it’s not going to go well, and you’re afraid of that, so you do your best. That’s an intelligent kind of fear. But about being pointlessly afraid of oneself, afraid of one’s thoughts, afraid of one’s emotions—that comes from not knowing how to be free. One is afraid of facing oneself, of even using a method to do so. Also afraid that even if I were to practice meditation, I would kind of ruin it.

What about the fear of letting go, the fear of annihilating your ego, which feels like dying?
That’s ego’s trick. It’s ego’s smoke screen. Whispering that by letting go of ego you will be in deep trouble. Making a smoke screen which one then believes. Ego’s trick. That’s why it’s so important to let go of all concerns. “If it goes well, or doesn’t go well, I don’t care. If I have good results from this meditation practice or if it gets painful or pleasant, I don’t care, I’ll just continue to practice.” That’s very useful. But when facing the letting go of ego, ego will immediately say, “If you let go of ego you’ll be in big trouble.” If one accepts that as being true then one is fooled by ego. You don’t have to be afraid of being incapable of functioning in this world after releasing ego. Trust me on this one; don’t trust ego on this one!

Most Westerners use “ego” differently than this; can you help clarify this?
From the Buddhist point of view, ego means not leaving the mind alone with just the quality of knowing or of being aware. In addition, there’s a claiming of ownership of this conscious quality. Something which is extra to just experiencing. Rather than just leaving well enough alone in any moment of experiencing, just letting whatever is in that experience be as it naturally is, there’s a sense of separating from that, looking at it from the outside by jumping out of the window of this room, and then looking back and forming the notion, “That is my room.” That kind of possessive attitude is what is called ego.

Is it useful to get a taste of one’s ego—in terms of discursive or dualistic mind through meditation so that the teachings on the nature of that mind become more accessible?
Definitely. The beginning point of meditation is to relax one’s attention, and be more open, and trying to be with that. This is not necessarily the same as the Dzogchen. But still it is necessary in order to become more aware of what kinds of thoughts and emotions frequent this area, so to speak. This is where the value of insight meditation—like what Sharon [Salzberg] is teaching comes in, because you come to notice exactly what is happening and what is wrong with this state of mind which one usually perpetuates. That doesn’t mean being free of it, but it means coming to know it. And then later one can apply the instructions of how to liberate that state of mind. That is why mindfulness is something very precious. But just being mindful isn’t enough, like: “Now there’s attachment, now there’s anger, now there’s a thought, now there’s no thought, and now I feel selfish, and now that is gone.” Simply knowing oneself in that way, some people feel, is the ultimate aim, to just be aware of whatever happens, mindfully in every moment, so that there is a continual awareness of what takes place. But as far as I’m concerned, that is not very profound. In addition to being aware of what takes place, there is something more, and that is knowing how to be free. To be free in the very moment an emotion occurs, and also to be free in a way in which the thought or emotion dissolves by itself. We need to learn that as well. This doesn’t mean waiting until it vanishes through impermanence, since an emotion or thought doesn’t hang out in one’s mind for eternity. That is why being immediately free is something extremely important Free upon arising.

Upon arising?
Of a thought. That as a thought arises, or emotion is formed, that it is freed as it arises. The main point is the knowing how to be free.

And the self-clinging that you have been talking about in the teachings, does that come from adding that sense of possession?
That is the clinging mind. Before that, there was a feeling of “I am separate from that.” This is called the personal identity. And then after that, “that belongs to me.” But it is possible to simply let be in a very natural way without having to separate some extra entity that then owns the experience. There is a tendency in the West to misunderstand the varied connotations of no-ego, of egolessness, as being no-knowing. It is like equating experience with ego and when hearing “no ego,” then therefore there must be no experience, no knowing quality either. That’s a misunderstanding. It is possible to know without ego—without owning the experience.

“Who” knows?
The cognizant quality. The “who” is added, as if something extra is needed in order to know. The traditional example is of a flame that illuminates a candle by itself. It does not require an extra agent, like, “please bring in a torch, otherwise we cannot see that there is a candle flame burning.” It’s not like that. This notion of self-knowing or automatic knowing may be a little foreign in the Western culture. It seems as if ego is always required in order for knowing to be. If there was an owner in any moment of experience, then there would be a real ego. But in reality nothing is really owned. Ego thinks it is very smart, but actually ego is deluded by confusion. Poor ego, it just believes. It tries to be very smart, believing that this is how it really is. But it isn’t. It’s just a delusion. It’s not really true.

Without a knower, the thought is empty of conceptual content or attributes and therefore there is nothing to cling to?
Simply put, all phenomena are free of conceptual attributes, free of that notion as well. How can you say that emptiness is this absence? Can’t even say that either. Because then it wouldn’t be true emptiness, it would just be a statement of absence. Of course there could be an understanding or emptiness as an idea, but not emptiness as an actuality. And yet emptiness as an idea can do away with all other concepts. But the concept of emptiness itself can have such a tight hold on the mind that you might think, “I cannot challenge emptiness.” But eventually this conceptual attitude grows very tired. Then it thinks, “I can’t keep this job any more. Can I be excused?” Then conceptual attitude releases its grip. That itself leaves room for emptiness, right there.

There are different approaches in Buddhist traditions. One is to inquire and inquire and inquire until conceptual attitude gives up. There’s a famous quote “As long as conceptual involvement does not cease, there’s no end to the vehicles of teachings.” In other words, there is still the process, not the arriving. As long as you’re trying to get it, there is no experience of emptiness in actuality. During meditation practice the concept of emptiness has to be let go of.

Another point is that just as it is possible to misunderstand the purpose and training of insight meditation, it is equally possible to misconstrue what is meant by Dzogchen practice. For example, the attitude, “There is nothing to do at all, I’ll just carry on in my usual way, just being natural” And that could lead straight into a training in stupidity meditation: “I don’t cling to anything. There’s nothing to do, to meditate on, just relax, let myself be. That is Dzogchen!” That’s a huge mistake. Maybe if someone trains like that for a long time, it can form the cause for being reborn as an imbecile. That’s why it is important for people to connect with true teachers and then experience what is true. And that is my wish.

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