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

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.

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