Chökyi Nyima Rinpoche was born in Tibet in 1951. He emigrated with his family shortly before the Chinese invasion in 1959. He was brought up by his father, Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche (1920-1995), considered one of the greatest Dzogchen masters of our time.
Tulku Urgyen sent his son to study at the seat of the Sixteenth Karmapa, where he served as the Karmapa’s private attendant. Later, his father arranged for him to receive teachings from Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche (1910-1991), the highly regarded head of the Nyingma order; he received the Dzogchen pith instructions from Tulku Urgyen himself. His friendly, inquisitive, and frank personality allowed him to cultivate close relationships with some of Tibet’s greatest masters.
Since 1976, at the Karmapa’s suggestion, Chökyi Nyima Rinpoche has turned his attention to Western students. He teaches throughout Europe, Southeast Asia, and the United States. In 1981 he established a school for international students in Nepal, the Rangjung Yeshe Institute, which is similar to a traditional shedra, or Buddhist college. This is one of the few places in the world where a Westerner has easy access to a traditional Buddhist education, taught in both Tibetan and English. A five-year program for translators, for instance, can cost as little as $75 a month. Rinpoche has also led Westerners through three-year retreats. As abbot of the Ka-Nying Shedrub Ling monastery in Nepal, he has welcomed visitors from around the world to his famous “Saturday talk” for over twenty years. As one travel guide notes, “If you want to know something about Buddhism, you can go and listen to Chökyi Nyima Rinpoche talk.”
Chökyi Nyima Rinpoche is the author of Indisputable Truth (1996), Bardo Guidebook (1991), and Union of Mahamudra & Dzogchen (1986), all published by the imprint he founded, Rangjung Yeshe Publications (www.rangjung.com). Tricycle editor-in-chief James Shaheen conducted this interview on September 10, 2001, in central Massachusetts.
Does teaching Westerners present any particular challenges?
For people who grow up in a country where the Buddha’s teachings have flourished, Buddhist ideas have become second nature. For instance, these people just trust that there are consequences to one’s actions, and that they’ll form a part of their future lives; they don’t doubt that at all. For Westerners, on the other hand, this is unfamiliar ground, and they wonder, “Are there really repercussions to what I do? Does it really matter?” and also, “Have there been lives before this one, will there be more after?” Westerners are skeptical about these things. Because of their level of education in general, and because of their scientific methodology in particular, they like to intelligently scrutinize. Often, when they’re presented with the main view of the Buddha, which is shunyata—emptiness, or the essentially empty nature of phenomena—and dependent origination, which describes all phenomena in terms of conditioned causal relationships, they feel that they’re capable of understanding and accepting it precisely because it is consistent with their reasoning. The profound view of reality makes perfect sense to them. Then, implicitly, they begin to trust what the Buddha has said about other things. And, later, an understanding of what we call the Three Jewels—Buddha, Dharma, Sangha—comes slowly and as a side effect of that.
You’ve just pretty much described why many of us in the West have come to Buddhism—it all makes perfect logical sense. But in Indisputable Truth you write, “I think that getting the idea of emptiness is not difficult, it’s truly experiencing that all things are empty that’s difficult.” Many of us say we understand the concept, but can you say something about the actual experience of it?
The main view, in the sense of philosophical perspective, of how things are in Buddhism is called shunyata, emptiness, together with dependent origination. In order to understand this view, we can hold up what the Buddha said, and what enlightened masters in the lineage have said, to our own intelligent reasoning. If the two are perfectly compatible, then we can say, “Okay, now we feel convinced.” There’s some certainty of insight that can take place through first studying and then reflecting, and so the case becomes settled in our minds.
And yet this is all intellectual. In other words, we’ve got the idea, the theory of it, but that is not going to change how we are; we’re not liberated by means of the intellect. So that is why, according to the Mahayana, once you have gained a very clear understanding of shunyata and dependent origination, you need to bring it into your experience by means of the particular way of training in meditation which is entirely free of preconceived ideas. It is only through the actual experience of shunyata that our mindstream is freed. That’s Mahayana. And it is exactly the same with Mahamudra and Dzogchen. In the Mahamudra tradition, the original mind, ordinary mind, or intrinsic wakefulness, is pointed to as our basic nature. But just thinking, “Okay, that’s how it is,” speculating only, assuming that this is probably how our basic nature is, is not going to liberate us. It’s the same with Dzogchen. You may hear that the basic view of Dzogchen is one of primordial pure innate nature that is a self-existing, naked, empty awareness, but that’s also not going to do much unless you experience it.
You have written about starting study with the Theravadin teachings before studying Mahayana, and afterward Vajrayana, which includes Dzogchen and Mahamudra. Nowadays many Westerners are interested in Dzogchen and Mahamudra. But given your view of a student’s proper training, is Dzogchen or Mahamudra a good place to begin?
It has been the tradition in the monasteries of both India and Tibet that anybody who begins Buddhist studies and practice starts with the vehicle for shravakas, or Theravadin practitioners, then proceeds to Mahayana, and then to Vajrayana. If you look at the biographies of the great masters of India, the siddhas—like Tilopa, Naropa, Saraha—you’ll see that. But that is not to say that someone who has not studied shravaka teachings and Mahayana is not allowed to practice or cannot understand Dzogchen.
What do you suggest, then?
I think it would be excellent if people established some clarity about the Buddhist view by comparing what the Buddha said with their own intelligence. What I mean is that people who are interested in the view of Mahamudra and Dzogchen, the Great Perfection, would do well to gain some familiarity first with the general view of the Buddha and in particular the Mahayana view of the Middle Way. It will then be much easier for them to get a correct understanding of Mahamudra and Dzogchen.
Try to speculate about this: The view of the Middle Way is phrased like this: the nature of all things is beyond the four limits and the eight constructs. More simply, reality is beyond any attempt to formulate it in words or concepts. It does not exist; nor is it nonexistent; it is not both, nor is it neither. It doesn’t arise, it doesn’t cease; it doesn’t come, it doesn’t go; it’s not singular, it’s not multiple; it’s not identical, it’s not something other, either. That may not seem to make sense, and yet a certainty needs to be established that reality is like this. We can establish this certainty by means of our reasoning, logically, and relying on the words of the Buddha, eliminating any kind of false idea we might have. If we want to say, “This is how it is,” that’s eliminated. If we say, “It isn’t anything at all,” that’s also eliminated. There is an old saying: “If one holds the idea that reality is a concrete thing, then one is just like a cow; but if one holds the idea that reality is nothing, then one is even more foolish.”
According to Mahamudra and Dzogchen, in order for us to experience how reality truly is, what is called “the pointing-out instruction” is necessary. This particular instruction points out in actuality what the nature of this perceiving mind is: empty, awake, and free of clinging. Mahamudra and Dzogchen do this with exceptional skill. And when we experience it in actuality, when we recognize that the nature of this mind is empty, not a concrete thing, then there is no way we can hold onto the idea that it is something permanent or eternal, since it is empty. When we recognize that it’s awake and perceives, then there is no way we can hold onto the idea that it is nothing, as with the far worse nihilistic view. In other words, the experience of the view of Mahamudra and Dzogchen automatically eliminates the two extreme views of eternalism and nihilism. That’s pretty neat, isn’t it? And important, very important.
Listening to you, a question arises: your teachings are very logical. They bring us to a point, step by step, and they’re easy enough to follow. And then when you talk about the nonconceptual, I can’t find a logical argument for that, but perhaps there is something inside me that intuits that it’s true. I don’t experience it and yet I have a certain intuition that it’s correct. Should one rely on such intuition?
Very good question! You are allowed to dispute the truth of nonconceptual wakefulness, original mind, but when you cannot, then you can feel sure that it is the ultimate solution. You say it’s sneaking up inside, right?
And since you are not a stupid person, it means that you actually do understand that there is a profound point there.
Buddhism is also known under another name, which is inner knowledge. We begin with learning about something. We analyze, we inquire, we investigate, we use our intelligence to figure it out, until we come to a point where we discover that the reality, or the nature of things, in our minds is something that is truly beyond thoughts, beyond words, beyond description. But this idea that reality is beyond thought, word, and description, is not enough. It’s just an idea, you’re still articulating it. So any kind of logical or intelligent answer that we can get to through thought is still not going to cut it. A theory is not the real view of Buddhism. The real view is the experience of that which is beyond thought, word, and description.
Listen to this quote from the Indian master Shantirakshita in his praise of prajnaparamita, or perfection of wisdom:
Transcendent knowledge is beyond thought, word and description.
It neither arises nor ceases, like the identity of space.
It is the domain of individual, self-knowing wakefulness.
I salute this mother of the Buddhas of the three times.
This knowledge is the mother of all the Buddhas, the insight through which all Buddhas appear. That’s what gives birth to all Buddhas.
But it’s not enough to understand the idea of nonconceptual wakefulness; that is not what really works. You need to bring it into your real experience. That is what’s going to matter.
Can you say how that is done?
First, there has to be some sense of being wary of confused states, an acute understanding that this clinging to “me” causes nothing but trouble, endless trouble. Second, you must cultivate love and compassion for all sentient beings, develop compassion to the point where you cannot bear not to help others. And third, there has to be some sincere interest in finding the real solution, the antidote to the root cause of confused spinning around in samsara, which is the attitude of blindly clinging to ego. In other words, we need with all of our heart to be interested in the knowledge that realizes egolessness, the wish to discover nondual original wakefulness—to have it acutely on our mind. That kind of sincerity is necessary. These three things need to come together. And then, along the way, it is necessary to persevere, and to go to competent, qualified masters.
And what is meant by competent and qualified?
It means someone who is personally liberated through realization and therefore has the capacity to liberate others through compassion. When you go to such a person, you say, “Please point out this original state.” And often, in order to bring oneself to that place, there are the general Buddhist practices that remove whatever hindrances there are, that bring about a more conducive atmosphere, which are called accumulation and purification practices; and practices that develop insight. These are helped along through study and through reflection. When you have a competent master, and you have a disciple or student who has brought him-or herself to the point of being really receptive to potent, effective instruction, then, as just mentioned before, the nonconceptual wakefulness can be brought into personal experience. Clear?
So let’s say that someone really knows how to meditate correctly and practice correctly: well then, there’s no need to be told. One already knows. But take the example of a master cook, someone who gets a big job in a five-star hotel, who deserves to wear the big white hat. Does that happen without training somewhere? Is it just spontaneous insight into the art of cooking that makes people get a position like that? I don’t think so. It requires that you learn it from somewhere, so that you come out of the training knowing exactly, in an authentic way, how to cook. It’s actually like that with Buddhist training as well. When we connect with a true source, one who not only holds the authentic lineage of an intellectual understanding but also is competent in guiding one to an experience of it in a way that is truly in accordance with reality, authentic realization can spring forth in one’s stream of being. There’s no question about that. Otherwise, for sure we can be training by ourselves and meditating all alone, but I think that meditation means a little bit more than just sitting quietly with closed eyes, not moving for a certain number of minutes and thinking that this is meditation. [laughs] In the Buddhist tradition, from the time of the Buddha until recently, it hasn’t happened that people attained enlightenment without teachers. But maybe if there’s a new tradition that’s started, I don’t know. I will wait to see.
So the proof is in the pudding.
Yeah, exactly, we need to look and see.
Often we feel our everyday secular lives are in conflict with our pursuit of the teachings. How possible is it really for one who goes to work every day, has demanding familial obligations, lives among countless distractions?
Isn’t it human to pursue what is one’s main interest, whatever one considers most important, isn’t that what one often does? There’s a point connected to this I’d like to mention: A practitioner goes into the mountains secluding him or herself, lives in a cave, and at some point awakens to enlightenment. That is not so surprising because that’s what’s supposed to happen. When somebody goes to an office every day and works hard, gets a higher and higher position and finally becomes the boss, or the director of a department, that’s not so surprising, either, that’s what’s supposed to happen. Right? If somebody renounces the world, lives in a monastery, and studies the Buddhist teachings, they become learned and a very gentle, accomplished person; that’s also not very surprising. That’s their job; that’s what they spend all their time on. But if a layperson receives the pithy instructions on how to be able to practice the heart of the Buddha’s teachings during daily life situations, and then with sincerity and perseverance practices that, in every single moment, with mindfulness and with some kind of real integrity, and then achieves awakening while taking care of obligations, one’s duties, and one’s family, and so forth, that is truly surprising, because that’s difficult. And yet there are the profound instructions of Mahamudra and Dzogchen that are designed in such a way so that this is possible. As a matter of fact, there have been a huge number of laypeople in India and in Tibet who not only attained levels of enlightenment, in other words, became really accomplished, but also some who, at the time of death, left behind what is called the “rainbow body” as a manifest sign of complete enlightenment. That is surprising. That’s outstanding, as a matter of fact.
There is a saying that “the dharma has no owner; it belongs to whomever is most diligent.” [laughs] Sometimes people say, “I don’t have time to devote myself to practice, I’m doing a lot of different things and I am obliged to do them.” But honestly, it’s not that one has to go to some other place and close the door and be quiet in order to practice. That’s not the only way. It’s definitely the case that we can practice at any given moment. We can always try a little more to be kind, to be compassionate and be careful about what we do and say and so forth. And it’s not only the body and the voice that are supposed to practice; most important is the mind. How this attention, how this attitude is being employed. In other words, if we are intelligent enough to understand the instructions and if we have the perseverance, then we can remind ourselves about how to really practice at any given moment during the day. The skilled practitioner is someone who goes to work and then while working also develops spiritual qualities. And that requires reminding oneself how to practice, and then, if one understands how to practice, it’s perfectly to possible to mingle the spiritual training with everyday life activities. Especially when it comes to Mahamudra and Dzogchen. It’s not that one practices only in sessions and not in the breaks. When it comes to reminding oneself of what the experience of nonconceptual wakefulness, or the original mind, is, for sure it’s possible to practice at any given moment of the day.
What are the obstacles to such practice?
There are different kinds of obstacles. One is to be frivolous, careless; one is to be lazy; one is to be distracted; one is to be what is called disheartening oneself. Telling yourself, you can’t. And then there’s another one: postponing practice until another time. [laughs]
Rinpoche, you also mention in your writing three ways of working with “defiling emotions,” or selfish emotions. One way is renunciation; the second is transformation; and the third, which is probably very interesting to a layperson, I’m sure, is working with these defiling emotions. And yet you say the latter is very dangerous. First, could you explain a little bit about what working with the defiling emotions might be and two, why dangerous?
In Vajrayana there is a way to bring the five poisonous emotions into the path without rejecting them; they are used as part of the path, but one must be skilled enough to use them. The traditional analogy is that of the peacock, which eats certain poisonous substances but doesn’t die from doing so; rather, the poisons make the colors of its feathers even more resplendent. In this way, the peacock is able to effectively use what is poisonous. This is possible if one has already realized the view of Mahamudra and Dzogchen in actuality—not just as an idea. This doesn’t mean that we don’t have negative emotions; they still arise in our minds, but we do not have to be caught up in them involuntarily like we once were. Now there is a choice: the emotional involvement, rather than being something that disturbs the mind, can be recognized as a nonconceptual state of wakefulness. This is possible for an authentic practitioner of Mahamudra and Dzogchen. Every time a negative emotion arises it can become a moment of wisdom, original wakefulness. That is what is meant by the five poisons becoming the five wisdoms. But this is a topic that is not just a given; it is incorrect to say that because one practices Vajrayana, then it is like that. This practice is meant for very specific contexts. It is not taught that lightly.
How does working with the emotions differ then from transforming them?
When making use of the view of emptiness and dependent origination it is possible to transform the selfish emotional state into something other than what it first is. When the view of being totally free of preconceptions is also combined with original wakefulness, then the emotion becomes used as path.
I’d like to give just a little teaser: the ultimate view in Vajrayana, which is Mahamudra and Dzogchen, can be phrased in these words: “The true view is emptiness endowed with the supreme of all aspects, indivisible from unchanging great bliss and original wakefulness that encompasses all of samsara and nirvana.” That is not so easy to understand. The Vajrayana view is not so simplistic, so we need to discover its full depth; it requires some study. [laughs]
You said earlier that one does what one feels is truly important and yet so often although we sense something is important we avoid it.
Maybe because sometimes we’re a little too fond of fleeting pleasures and the spectacle of this life, so, although we are interested in being liberated or getting enlightened, we forget, get carried away. If we do what really is on our mind, then we will be like Milarepa, who practiced with one-pointed and wholehearted dedication.
Rinpoche, thank you for taking your time to speak with us. Is there anything you’d like to add?
Yes, there’s one thing: At all times and in all situations, try to keep a good heart.
For more information on the teachings of Chökyi Nyima Rinpoche, visit www.shedrub.org.▼
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