We are all children of the Big Bang. We come from space. Everything we see and touch comes from space. Our blood carries iron, sourced in the explosive energy of supernovas. We as individuals are not separate from this grandeur. My breath, my iron, was once in someone else’s body and will be again. Yours likewise. Connection is central to our existence, but we seldom live as if it is. We feel separate from others and from society at large, yet we don’t want to be alone. We feel separate from our greatest potential, yet we want to succeed. We feel separate from our own inner life, yet we yearn to feel more alive. Our sense of separateness is at the core of our suffering. Experientially, we long for the wholeness of deep connection even as that very wholeness eludes us. How to repair this is the essential lesson we humans need to learn.
Separateness in this sense is not difference or disagreement. And wholeness is not a call for everyone to be the same. The earth we stand on holds all. The passion for wholeness recognizes life’s inestimable multiplicity. Nothing hinders awakening to our essential wholeness more than remaining unaware of what is already ours. Buddhist views on human potential offer an optimistic yet realistic sense of possibility. To explore this, we cannot do better than consult a tradition whose very name suggests the truth of our intrinsic completeness.
In Tibetan this tradition is known as Dzogchen, Great Completeness. Dzog means complete, perfect, whole; chen means great. This all-inclusive reality teems with uncompromised variety. An ancient poem from the Bon, or Indigenous Tibetan Dzogchen tradition, expresses it like this:
Nothing, not even one thing,
does not arise from me.
Nothing, not even one thing,
dwells not within me.
Everything, just everything,
emanates from me.
Thus I am only one!
Knowing me is knowing all.
Awakening to our essential wholeness may seem esoteric or distant and unattainable, yet Dzogchen’s view is just the opposite. It tells us we are naturally primed for the open expanse of inclusivity. On a personal level, there are simple ways to feel more complete: Walking in the woods. Looking at the sky. Sitting quietly with dear ones. At their best, spiritual and psychological systems are healers of separation. They can elicit and point us toward wholeness, and that is transformative.
Loss of connection to ourselves and to a larger social contract fuels the turmoil we experience in these calamitous times as we face economic, political, and racial injustices that threaten our world. Being aware of the interdependency behind climate change, human migration, economic disparities, and other realities of life today is crucial. Recognizing interdependence can catalyze a commitment to bring about positive change for all. Acknowledging we are all in this together changes priorities. It is a natural extension of the golden rule—central to spiritual traditions around the world.
Recognizing our connectivity begins with seeing clearly into our own experience. Awareness of some kind underlies every aspect of our experience. And it is always there, through thick and thin. At its most subtle, this knowing is what Dzogchen calls our “incorruptible mind nature.” Recognizing it fully is the heart of Great Completeness practice. Such recognition fosters kindness and joy as well as other positive human qualities that can surface any time.
From the perspective of Dzogchen, there is no real barrier between ordinary and awakened states. Humans and buddhas are simply different expressions from the ground of being. Even at birth, the state of being human holds intimations of awakening. They are ready to surface, despite our habit of obstructing them.
Everything we experience is in the field of our knowing. There is no “out there” beyond that.
Serendipitous glimpses of awakening surprise us from time to time. A college semester abroad brought me a glorious taste of freedom. One evening in Brindisi, in southern Italy, friends and I caught the night boat to Patras, across the Ionian Sea in Greece. We disembarked in high spirits at dawn, the newly lit sky shining in the sea. The world felt full of possibility; I was relaxed and excited. Walking slowly along the quay, I let my senses melt into blue vistas, sky and water gleaming as far as the eye could see. I felt an intimate part of this glowing and was filled with love for all of it. Something said, This is how it really is. Never forget. It was a kind of vow. I didn’t speak of this to anyone and had no idea what to do with such an unprecedented sense of completeness. But the moment was transformative. Curiosity about this exalted feeling became a driving force in my life.
From the earliest days of Dzogchen, its practitioners explored the expansive, intimate horizon they saw as their real homeland. Over the centuries, they created a legacy of practices, poetry, and philosophy evoking innate completeness. The Dzogchen Heart Essence traditions describe a fundamental ground (spyi’i gzhi) that has not yet been divided into samsara and nirvana, into ordinary beings and buddhas. Longchen Rabjam (1308–1364), known as Longchenpa, a preeminent master in the Nyingma tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, invokes the voice of reality describing itself:
Previously, before me
there were neither buddhas nor ordinary beings . . .
Previously, before me
there was not even the name “buddha”. . .
Buddhas are born from me.
I am the ultimate meaning of unborn sheer knowing.
This voice calls out from everyone. Dzogchen teachings and, above all, its practices reveal that this ground exists simultaneously, if secretly, right here with all the limitations that create the apparent human-buddha dichotomy in the first place. The merest wisp separates buddhas and humans, but this separation from our birthright of wholeness yields pain, restlessness, and dissatisfaction. The tragedies of human history turn on a sense of separation from those we identify as not us. The not us, human or nonhuman, seem fair game for colonization, slaughter, enslavement, and general exclusion from rights of any kind. The line between friend and enemy, superior and lackey grows vivid to the extent that we forget the larger creativity from which all emerged.
In 1996, I arranged a pilgrimage to Tibet with a few friends to visit places connected with the Dzogchen lineage of Jigme Lingpa, an 18th-century Nyingma terton, or one who discovers and reveals ancient hidden texts known as terma. It is said he received, in a vision, the Heart Essence Vast Expanse cycle as well as all the teachings of Longchenpa.
It was during this pilgrimage, surrounded by the sacred caves above Samye, that I first met Adzom Paylo Rinpoche, a legendary Tibetan lama in the lineage of Longchenpa who early in life was identified as Jigme Lingpa’s incarnation. It was only the second time Adzom Rinpoche had come to Central Tibet from his native Kham. Both Longchenpa and Jigme Lingpa practiced in these caves for years.
In the small nunnery where he was staying, in between giving teachings to the monks and nuns who descended in long single-file lines from retreat caves all around us, Adzom Rinpoche raised a question that had been cooking in me since I first encountered Buddhism decades before: “Do you believe you can awaken in this lifetime?” he said. What would it be like, I wondered anew, to believe in this possibility? Not in some distant future but now. How would I have to see differently? I began slowly to grasp, in an embodied way, that this was not just an abstract theory or something I could just decide to believe. I would have to be willing to leave the safe haven of ideas for the messier arena of direct experience.
The entire Buddhist tradition, of course, starting with the practice of mindfulness, encourages familiarity with experience. At the same time, Buddhism—like the sciences and the humanities—encourages us to cognitively understand the framework in which we live. Lived experience and cognitive understanding are mutually enriching ways of knowing.
Dzogchen holds that wisdom is present in both mind and body. This wisdom is not about something external; it is pure knowing, simply knowing itself. It doesn’t gaze outward or inward but wakes up to its own nature, which is incorruptible. Everything we experience is in the field of our knowing. There is no “out there” beyond that. This is not something to take anyone else’s word for. We need to explore it for ourselves.
In Dzogchen, sheer knowing is both the essence of every experience and the support for it. The problem is that we seldom notice this. My glory moment by Patras harbor showed me something like that. In a flash, something previously invisible was suddenly as obvious as the noonday sun. There was no separation between knowing and what I knew. Knowing and known were equally part of the blue sky and water; the horizon felt as intimate as it was vast. The real secret—hard to believe but in the end impossible to ignore—is that this is the way of all knowing.
But how does this happen? How do we apprehend something that moments before was completely unknown to us?
A clue for me lay in reflecting on how I learned to read. I remembered how a cousin, not much older than 5-year-old me, casually opened a book and read it aloud to me. Instantly, I was filled with admiration and ambition. How did he do that? How could I do that? Soon enough, I was practicing at home with a book about a girl taking her first train ride. My first day, I laboriously picked out words but could not get past the opening sentence. Still, I persisted. Every day thereafter, without understanding how, I could read a little further. I already knew the alphabet, but that didn’t explain why one day I could read what I couldn’t read the day before.
There are many theories about how spontaneous learning can occur. But what I think really happened is that I learned to relax, and in doing so, I tapped into some deep awareness that knew that learning could unfold naturally, step by step. After reading that first sentence, I had abruptly stopped, unable to go on, stymied by my habitual, tight holding to fixed conceptions of myself as someone who can’t read. Making room for a new identity, even a highly desired one, is a challenge. It is not easy to interrupt a habit pattern a long time in the making. In my case, the challenge made me tense enough to be unable to continue reading. But by the next day, I saw myself as someone who could read one sentence, so I figured I could read a second. Each morning, I read further until I reached the moment when my self-sense as a reader faltered, and I froze. So I stopped, waited, and began again. I oscillated between the identities of reader and nonreader, but once I relaxed and accepted my identity as a reader, I was free to go on.
Entrenched habits do not go away immediately or because I will them to change. Even today, in learning anything new, I go through the process I followed in learning to read: I show up, get stuck, then relax enough to make the next step possible. By relaxing, our habits soften, we become more available to our deeper knowing. Moving into a new identity comes more easily. Indeed, that is the pattern of everyday life: we go back and forth between ordinary awareness and more awakened states. Longchenpa says that if we can’t relax, we will always be in ordinary thought.
In large and small ways, stress holds me back from experiencing my inherent creativity and joy. No matter how ubiquitous stress is in our lives today, being stressed is not our natural state. It causes us to withdraw, lash out, lose our expansiveness—and separates us from deeper reserves of knowing and intimacy with ourselves and others. Shedding our identification with the one who is stressed allows us to relax back and approach our inherent wisdom.
Dzogchen practices address our fears, doubt, and negative thinking as well as the potential we have to let go of unprofitable states. Confidence, trust, and commitment are essential to effect this change. The kind of confidence needed to release destructive habit patterns requires deep trust in our capacity to access something authentic in ourselves and to recognize this capacity in others. It took me a while to realize that my skepticism about the possibility of awakening was based, first of all, on not having a clear idea what Buddhist traditions meant by awakening, and also not realizing there were carefully calibrated practices for approaching it. Then, too, I couldn’t quite shed the notion that awakening lay outside the bounds of ordinary human experience—or of my experience, at any rate. Dzogchen tells us that the opposite is true. It emphasizes that awakening to our true nature is basic and intrinsic, available to everyone without exception. The key to awakening is learning to get out of our own way.
For the Nyingma, the most ancient tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, and for Bon, the indigenous Tibetan religion, Dzogchen is Tibet’s most profound and secret path to Buddhahood. The Great Completeness practices are designed to loosen the thoughts, feelings, and behavior that keep us from experiencing the radical inclusiveness of our nature. This is how our innate wholeness dissipates the separateness that ordinarily structures our experience and allows us to discover the vast expanse that is our true nature.
The Buddhist teachings that flowed from India to Tibet included an array of sutras, tantras, and other sacred texts. Tibet’s first Buddhists, the Nyingmapa, were quick to organize this body of practices and philosophical reckoning into nine pathways, or vehicles, arranged in a hierarchy that addresses increasingly subtle obstructions to the practitioner’s recognition of wholeness. The hierarchy is crowned by Dzogchen. Still, from Dzogchen’s perspective, the nine pathways are more hologram than ladder. Dzogchen is not the top rung of a vertical ascent but is present in every part of the path, in every vehicle. As Adzom Rinpoche has said, “Everything from the foundational practices through to the actual basis is itself a great completeness, a real perfection.” Rather than being just the culmination of the other eight paths, Dzogchen backlights them all.
Dzogchen is famous for its direct unmasking of ordinary mind. The more I looked into it, the more the question “Can I awaken?” started to stand on its head. For one potent moment I wondered, “How can I not?” Nonetheless, my everyday mind, ingeniously protective of the ego—the “me” that is its main devotional object—balks at undoing the identities by which I carve out my separateness. I easily forget that being different and being separate are not at all the same thing. Wholeness is compelling precisely because it embraces all difference. I long for wholeness to the extent that I feel burdened by the existential loneliness of separation and the aggressiveness, born of alienation, that often results. At the most fundamental human level, wholeness can heal.
Since the dawn of human life on Earth we have learned from one another as we traded in goods and ideas. Recognizing that this coarisen, fluid nature is truer and more beneficial than black-and-white, us-versus-them assumptions has been key to much of our social awakening. Overcoming our sense of difference, of separateness, requires persistence and patience. Yet every step forward is evidence that the divide between our ordinary selves and our ultimate best selves, even Buddhahood, is greatly exaggerated. Twoness goes hand in hand with the ordinary human mind. Dzogchen reshapes the ordinary mind through cultivating clarity about impermanence, cause and effect, compassion, and commitment aimed at reversing misleading assumptions that lie at the edge of our awareness.
In Buddhism, “ordinary mind” refers to a consciousness that reifies sense objects, but Longchenpa emphasizes that “the root of ordinary mind is found in primordial wisdom.” This is the centerpiece of Dzogchen. It means that humans and buddhas—our ordinary mistakenness and our awakened potential—are not separated by a chasm. On the contrary, the heart of awakening is the root of even the most rambunctious parts of us.
But ordinary mind is a powerful habit. We’ve relied on it for everything our entire lives. Conceding its limitations and deciding to try an alternative represents a crucial fork in the road. Confronting this step can be quite a drama for practitioners. Every part of our being must be engaged—intellect, imagination, body, speech, senses.
Experience suggests that the state of being that mystics and practitioners spend their lives cultivating is in a meaningful way natural to the human organism. All the more reason not to exoticize buddhas as too “other” to hang out with or emulate. In Dzogchen, the sliver of difference that separates awakening from present experience is how we regard our own buddhanature. If we don’t recognize it, ordinary mind takes over and our true nature is obscured. If we recognize it, we are buddhas. These states do not cancel each other: we move back and forth between degrees of clarity and obscuration regarding our nature. Both are the nature of the dharmadhatu, the source-space of everything, inseparable from the natural mind free of hindrances. In that sense, they don’t occupy different universes. Buddha was enlightened, but he was also human, not a god.
How do we recognize that we are empty in essence and come to rest in our true nature? A profound and easy way to start, as I discovered in learning to read, is with simple relaxation. To relax doesn’t mean nothing is happening. Sensations, images, or memories may in fact become clearer. But ease eases. It especially unwinds the urge to cling to our desires and thereby cling to the me that desires them.
In a more relaxed state, my obsessions relax. The supports that shore up the ego grow more transparent with practice and ease. If seeing through these obscurations is possible—if spaciousness can open up within them—then it must be possible to live in the openness that emerges right there inside the problem itself.
To recognize all practices and experiences as backlit by the sun of their own great completeness is to find a horizon that never narrows. This may not make sense to our ordinary mind, but reality doesn’t mind. Like the sun, it is simply there. Sooner or later, we’re bound to turn around and see it.
Adapted from Being Human and a Buddha Too: Longchenpa’s Seven Trainings for a Sunlit Sky by Anne C. Klein. Reprinted in arrangement with Wisdom Publications.
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