In this traditional teaching, revered master and scholar Patrul Rinpoche (1808–1887) distinguishes one form of meditative awareness from another, placing clear emphasis on which, in his eyes, is most superior. As a lineage holder in the Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism, Patrul Rinpoche describes the meditator’s ultimate goal as that of Dzogchen, the “Great Perfection,” which is both the fully manifested enlightened mind as well as a philosophical guide for Nyingma students.

Dzogchen builds on the relaxed focus that is attained through shamata, or “calm-state meditation.” Patrul Rinpoche says that shamata practices—like counting the breath or body scanning—can stabilize the practitioner’s mind temporarily, but karmic thoughts will eventually return, entangling one’s awareness with delusion-based distraction. In Dzogchen, a practitioner combines the calm of shamata with insight into the emptiness of all phenomena, including thought. The aim is to cut through the delusional perception of a concrete self. As such, one “liberate[s] thoughts just as they arise” and is disburdened of their karmic imprint.

The Crucial Points of Practice

I take refuge in the guru.

I bow down before the Omniscient One,
Spiritual father, sons, lineage holders,
And my illustrious master,
Who taught me the meaning of Dzogchen,
The inconceivable naked essence,
Primordially free.
The total integration of view and meditation practice­—
Beyond cultivating good qualities
And eliminating bad ones—
Is continuously to remain in wakefulness,
Naturally free, in this very immediate presence
Of awareness, just as it presents itself,
Unaltered, uncorrected.

To know a bit about meditation practice
Without knowing how to set thoughts free
Results in the meditative absorptions of the gods.
Gaining certainty in one’s realization
Comes with gaining skill in
How to set thoughts free just as they’re arising.

Focusing wandering mind through calm-state meditation
May muffle negative mental states for a while.
But as soon as circumstances change,
Ordinary discursive thoughts will just rear up again
Like poison that’s lain dormant,
Until you’ve really understood the subtle crucial point—
How thoughts are set free just as they arise.

Like ripples on water,
Ordinary discursive thoughts
(Wanting this, not wanting that)
Pop up, all of a sudden.
But once you’ve learned how to liberate
Thoughts just as they arise,
They cannot take hold, and so they vanish.
This is a vital point that must be understood.

When “bad” thoughts arise, they will not accrue bad karma,
Since discursive thoughts
Set free just as they arise
Have not yet taken hold.
Who is helped or harmed by a mere flash of thought?

Until you master this crucial point—
How to set thoughts free just as they arise­—
Your habitual mental chatter,
The constant undercurrent of thoughts,
Grows into a flood of negative emotions.

If you merely notice thoughts with mindfulness,
Positive thoughts keep creating hopes
Negative thoughts keep creating fears.
By doing this, you keep accruing and compounding karma;
This process is the true source of samsara.

This is why an instant of awareness
That sets thought free in its own condition
Is superior to a thousand calm-state meditation experiences.

Since primordial liberation, spontaneous liberation,
Liberation upon arising, direct liberation, and the rest,
Are each and all the crux of view, meditation, and action,
Develop meditation by practicing this crucial point:
Freeing thoughts into their own condition.

Apply this crucial point and there is no need
For any other view nor any other meditation.

As all beneficial thoughts arise,
You are free of attachment to them;
Though still striving for virtue, you are free of conceit.

As all negative thoughts arise,
They become unraveled naturally,
Like a tangled snake unwinding.

Should even the five poisons [desire, anger, ignorance/delusion, pride, and jealousy] arise,
In an instant they are released into their own condition.

Neutral thoughts, too, self-settle naturally
Subsiding into the expanse of awareness.
Set free just as they arise, they leave no more imprint
Than the flight of a bird through the sky.

Deluded thinking is the very root of samsara.
Once you are certain how to bring discursive thought
Onto the path, through this self-liberation,
That is “freeing samsara and nirvana in the absolute expanse.”
Until you master this vital point—

Becoming certain about this method of
Self-liberating discursive thoughts
And thus bringing all circumstances onto the path­
Though you may be able to blather on about emptiness,
Your “realization” is mere theory.
Your hidden negative qualities will be naturally exposed.
In the end, the five poisons will prevail
If you mistakenly regard their apparent solidity to be real.

Why? Only from the error of not knowing
How to liberate thoughts just as they arise.

Therefore, the most important point
About view, meditation, and action,
Which brings about the confidence of realization,
Boils down to mastery of this way
Of self-liberating [thoughts just as they arise].

Applying this in all circumstances of your life,
Keep bringing everything onto the path toward realization.

Even though I myself have not yet mastered this,
Inspired by the words of the omniscient master, the very Buddha,
I have written down these words.

Take these words to heart, since
This is the most crucial, essential point of practice.

May all be auspicious!

From Enlightened Vagabond: The Life and Teachings of Patrul Rinpoche by Matthieu Ricard © 2017 by Shechen Publications, Inc. Reprinted in arrangement with Shambhala Publications, Boulder, CO.

To learn more about Dzogchen and Tibetan Buddhist philosophy, sign up for “The Essence of Awakening,” Tricycle’s online course with Tibetan Buddhist scholar and teacher John Dunne.