Pith instructions, also referred to as heart teachings, essential instructions, or direct pointing-out instructions, are a form of concise yet rich teachings that distill the core essence of Buddhist philosophy into clear, experiential guidance. Such instructions aim to bypass intellectual complexities and lead practitioners directly to transformative insights. They cut through complicated doctrines to provide a direct and profound experience of the nature of reality and the mind. They are shortcuts to understanding and experience. It has been said that pith instructions are like a special key that opens the door to our own deeper being.
The quiet heart
is the only place
where true satisfaction can be found.
In Tibetan or Himalayan Buddhism, pith instructions are called the Vajra shortcut. They get right to the point, taking the practitioner from where they are—their point of departure, as it were—to their destination—insight or even awakening. Rather than merely indicating the general direction—like someone you meet on the road to ask for directions who waves vaguely toward the horizon—they take you straight to where you want to be. Furthermore, by implementing the pith instruction method, the practitioner is liberated from having to study every inch, every possible route. They don’t need to stumble around trying different methods before they find the right path for themselves. In other words, pith instructions are the most essential and user-friendly advice about Buddhist practice. They are usually passed from master to disciple but also from practitioner to practitioner. One of the earliest examples of the pith instruction transmitted from practitioner to practitioner is the Therigatha, the Verses of the Elder Nuns. Pith instructions tend to focus on how to apply Buddhist teachings in practice as well as in daily life. It is a very direct, very pared back, and very simple form of teaching—so pared back that the late Tibetan lama Nyoshul Khen Rinpoche used to call them “naked teachings.”
Historically, pith instructions were most often transmitted orally, but there is also a long tradition of written pith instructions dating back to the 12th century CE with the mahasiddhas of India. In Vajrayana, the dharma is commonly divided into tantras (which are the source texts), commentaries on these texts, and pith instructions (which are focused on practice). In Sanskrit, pith instructions are called upadesha, and in Tibetan, they are known as me-ngak. Other translations for upadesha and me-ngak are “crucial instructions,” “foremost instructions,” and “quintessential instructions.” One can see from these different translations that pith instructions are not merely concise. They contain the most essential and the most important advice for undertaking and realizing the Buddhist path.
No matter who you are or what you have done
there is always a place for you in the Dharma.
A practice rooted in experience
Pith instructions serve several crucial roles in Buddhist practice. First, they emphasize direct experience over theoretical understanding. Rather than getting lost in the intricacies of doctrine, practitioners are encouraged to engage in experiential practices that bring them closer to enlightenment. Pith instructions enable individuals to bypass mental constructs and connect with the essence of their mind. In theory, they can even directly introduce the practitioner to the nature of the mind beyond conceptualization, leading to the recognition of our ultimate nature.
Second, pith instructions are personalized and adaptable. Skilled teachers tailor these instructions to the needs of individual practitioners or specific communities and time periods, ensuring that the guidance resonates with their experiences and dispositions. This personalized approach enhances the effectiveness of the instructions, facilitating a deeper understanding and connection to the teachings.
Pith instructions are an essential component of the Dzogchen tradition. Dzogchen, which translates as Great Perfection or Great Completion, focuses on recognizing the innate nature of the mind and reality. Pith instructions in Dzogchen are the primary practice method for cutting through conceptual elaborations to directly experience the nature of mind, known in Tibetan as rigpa, or nondual awareness. As such, pith instructions are the most direct and immediate means to recognize our inherent enlightenment. As Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche makes clear:
“The instructions of the Dzogchen lineage are used to directly point out the nature of mind and bring the experience of enlightenment into our ordinary life and experiences. Therefore, these teachings are known as ‘pith instructions,’ the heart or quintessence of pure knowledge that cuts through all confusion and gets straight to the point. There is a saying, ‘don’t beat around the bush,’ meaning ‘get to the point.’ That is Dzogchen.”
One of my teachers, Chogyal Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche, always made it very clear that Dzogchen is a completely separate vehicle to the tantric practice of the two stages (generation and completion). Jamgon Mipham Rinpoche (1846–1912) states that the Dzogchen path does not use complex tantric methods that require significant effort, such as the subtle energy practices or purification rituals, but rather uses pith instructions to reach Dzogpachenpo, the ultimate, self-perfected natural state. Mipham writes:
“Instead, they will be able to enter this state merely by the power of the master’s pith instructions and the transference of blessings. In either case, this is the sacred fruition of all other completion stage practices. Moreover, the master’s pith instructions enable one to recognize, directly and nakedly, that the nature of one’s own mind is empty yet aware, that it is self-occurring wisdom, innately free from constructs. With this recognition, one comes to rest in a state without accepting or rejecting and without artifice or fabrication.”
A step-by-step guide to pith contemplation
How are practitioners meant to engage with pith instructions? Pith instructions are not merely for reading; participants need to contemplate the pith instructions and integrate their meaning into the core of their being. The practice of pith instructions has three simple steps: reading, contemplating, and integrating. All three of these steps are done in a single session.
When you look into the eyes of another
and see your true nature reflected back at you,
you know for certain that we are all one.
First, participants read the instruction, focusing on one pith instruction at a time. They read it closely, not in a distracted way, and with an open mind. Practitioners should be heedful of engaging with thoughts like “this is too simple to be helpful” or “this is too short to be truly profound” or even, “I already know this.” Dismissive or overly confident thoughts poison the practice and cut off any possibility for accomplishment.
Once participants have read the instruction a few times, they then sit in quiet contemplation. This means to simply be with the instruction, or rather to be with the feeling or sense that the instruction evokes. They are not unpacking the words, digging for some deeper truth, nor are they analyzing the words, trying to squeeze out every last drop of meaning. They are not engaging with the words intellectually at all. They are just sitting with the pith instruction and being aware of how it feels to them. That being said, some users prefer a more active contemplation. They might like to read the pith instructions out loud, and hear how they sound, how they resonate. They might like to silently repeat the lines to themselves. They might like to write them out. They might even want to sing them. All of these are useful ways to engage in contemplation, so long as they are primarily focused on how the instruction makes them feel.
Once a participant has done their contemplation, has spent some quality time with the pith instruction, they then sit in meditation, in simple silent sitting (or shamatha). While they are sitting in shamatha, they are not trying to dwell on the pith instruction or remember it word for word. They are simply sitting. That’s it, just sitting, still and silent, allowing themselves to rest in simple awareness and be in the natural presence of the moment.
This style of meditation, simply resting in awareness, brings the pith instruction from the head down to the heart, from the realm of words and feelings to the realm of timeless nondual awareness, where it will do its work. If one practices in this way—reading, contemplating, and meditating, all in a single session—the wisdom that the pith instructions point to will come to life for them, and in time they will awaken to their ultimate nature.
The past is dead.
The future does not exist.
The present cannot be found.
In the tapestry of Buddhist teachings, pith instructions stand as luminous threads that illuminate the path to enlightenment. Rooted in the desire to facilitate direct experiences and insights, pith instructions serve as an essential bridge between complex doctrines and personal transformation.
In the profound Dzogchen tradition, pith instructions are treasured as a direct and potent means to recognize the true nature of the mind and reality. By embodying the spirit of experiential wisdom, pith instructions guide seekers toward the ultimate goal of liberation and awakening. Indeed, according to many great masters, such as Mipham Rinpoche, the pith instruction method is a complete path in and of itself. Pith instructions offer a simple, direct method for engaging in meaningful practice that is both effective and an antidote to our already overburdened lives.
If one approaches pith instructions as merely something to read and enjoy, beautiful in their poetic simplicity, they will have some benefit, but they can be so much more. If one applies them to their practice, the benefits are literally inconceivable. The choice is yours.
Pith instruction excerpts from The Awakening Heart: 108 Pith Instructions for Buddhist Practice by Jamyang Tenphel, Timeless Awareness Publications, Copyright September 25, 2023.