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Dzogchen: The Self-Perfected State

Dzogchen: The Self-Perfected State

by Namkhai Norbu, John Shane (Translator), Adriano Clemente (Editor)
Clear explanation of the Dzogchen teachings and practices that reawaken and establish us in our true nature.


Clear explanation of the Dzogchen teachings and practices that reawaken and establish us in our true nature.

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Penguin Group (USA) Incorporated
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7.00(w) x 5.00(h) x 1.00(d)

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Chapter One


Someone who begins to develop an interest in the teachings can tend to distance themselves from the reality of material things, as if the teachings were something completely apart from daily life. Often, at the bottom of all this, there is an attitude of giving up and running away from one's own problems, with the illusion that one will be able to find something that will miraculously help one to transcend all that. But the teachings are based on the principle of our actual human condition. We have a physical body with all its various limits: each day we have to eat, work, rest, and so on. This is our reality, and we can't ignore it.

    The Dzogchen teachings are neither a philosophy, nor a religious doctrine, nor a cultural tradition. Understanding the message of the teachings means discovering one's own true condition, stripped of all the self-deceptions and falsifications which the mind creates. The very meaning of the Tibetan term Dzogchen, "Great Perfection," refers to the true primordial state of every individual and not to any transcendent reality.

    Many spiritual paths have as their basis the principle of compassion, of benefiting others. In the Mahayana Buddhist tradition, for example, compassion is one of the fundamental points of the practice, together with the knowledge of the true nature of phenomena, or "voidness." Sometimes, however, compassion can become something constructed and provisional, because we don't understand the real principle of it. A genuine, not artificial,compassion, can only arise after we have discovered our own condition. Observing our own limits, our conditioning, our conflicts and so on, we can become truly conscious of the suffering of others, and then our own experience becomes a basis or model for being able to better understand and help those around us.

    The only source of every kind of benefit for others is awareness of our own condition. When we know how to help ourselves and how to work with our situation we can really benefit others, and our feeling of compassion will arise spontaneously, without the need for us to hold ourselves to the rules of behaviour of any given religious doctrine.

    What do we mean when we say, "becoming aware of our own true condition"? It means observing ourselves, discovering who we are, who we believe we are, and what our attitude is towards others and to life. If we just observe the limits, the mental judgments, the passions, the pride, the jealousy, and the attachments with which we close ourselves up in the course of one single day, where do they arise from, what are they rooted in? Their source is our dualistic vision, and our conditioning. To be able to help both ourselves and others we need to overcome all the limits in which we are enclosed. This is the true function of the teachings.

    Every kind of teaching is transmitted through the culture and knowledge of human beings. But it is important not to confuse any culture or tradition with the teachings themselves, because the essence of the teachings is knowledge of the nature of the individual. Any given culture can be of great value because it is the means which enables people to receive the message of a teaching, but it is not the teaching itself. Let's take the example of Buddhism. Buddha lived in India, and to transmit his knowledge he didn't create a new form of culture, but used the culture of the Indian people of his time as the basis for communication. In the Abhidharmakosha, for example, we find concepts and notions, such as the description of Mount Meru and the five continents, which are typical of the ancient culture of India, and which should not be considered of fundamental importance to an understanding of the Buddha's teaching itself. We can see another example of this kind of thing in the completely novel form Buddhism took in Tibet after its integration with the indigenous Tibetan culture. In fact, when Padmasambhava introduced the Vajrayana into Tibet he did not do away with the ritual practices used by the ancient Bon tradition, but knew just how to use them, incorporating them into the Buddhist tantric practices.

    If one doesn't know how to understand the true meaning of a teaching through one's own culture, one can create confusion between the external form of a religious tradition and the essence of its message. Let's take the example of a Western person interested in Buddhism, who goes to India looking for a teacher. There he meets a traditional Tibetan master who lives in an isolated monastery and knows nothing about Western culture. When such a master is asked to teach, he will follow the method he is used to using to teach Tibetans. But the Western person has some very big difficulties to overcome, beginning with the obstacle of language. Perhaps he will receive an important initiation and will be struck by the special atmosphere, by the spiritual "vibration," but will not understand its meaning. Attracted by the idea of an exotic mysticism he may stay for a few months in the monastery, absorbing a few aspects of Tibetan culture and religious customs. When he returns to the West he is convinced that he has understood Buddhism and feels different from those around him, behaving just like a Tibetan.

    But the truth is that for a Westerner to practice a teaching that comes from Tibet there is no need for that person to become like a Tibetan. On the contrary, it is of fundamental importance for him to know how to integrate that teaching with his own culture in order to be able to communicate it, in its essential form, to other Westerners. But often, when people approach an Eastern teaching, they believe that their own culture is of no value. This attitude is very mistaken, because every culture has its value, related to the environment and circumstances in which it arose. No culture can be said to be better than another; rather it depends on the human individual whether he or she will derive greater or lesser advantage from it in terms of inner development. For this reason it is useless to transport rules and customs into a cultural environment different from the one in which they arose.

    A person's habits and cultural environment are of importance to that individual to enable them to understand a teaching. You can't transmit a state of knowledge using examples that are not known to the listener. If tsampa with Tibetan tea is served to a Westerner, he or she will probably have no idea how to eat it. A Tibetan, on the other hand, who has eaten tsampa since he was a child, won't have that problem, and will right away mix the tsampa with tea and eat it. In the same way, if one does not have a knowledge of the culture through which a teaching is transmitted, it is difficult to understand its essential message. This is the value of knowing about a particular culture. But the teachings involve an inner state of knowledge which should not be confused with the culture through which it is transmitted, or with its habits, customs, political and social systems, and so on. Human beings have created different cultures in different times and places, and someone who is interested in the teachings must be aware of this and know how to work with different cultures, without however becoming conditioned by their external forms.

    For example, those who already have a certain familiarity with Tibetan culture might think that to practice Dzogchen you have to convert to either Buddhism or Bon, because Dzogchen has been spread through these two religious traditions. This shows how limited our way of thinking is. If we decide to follow a spiritual teaching, we are convinced that it is necessary for us to change something, such as our way of dressing, of eating, of behaving, and so on. But Dzogchen does not ask one to adhere to any religious doctrine or to enter a monastic order, or to blindly accept the teachings and become a "Dzogchenist." All of these things can, in fact, create serious obstacles to true knowledge.

    The fact is that people are so used to putting labels on everything that they are incapable of understanding anything that does not come within their limits. Let me give a personal example. Every now and then I will meet a Tibetan who doesn't know me well, and who will ask me the question, "Which school do you belong to?" In Tibet, over the course of the centuries, there have arisen four principal Tibetan Buddhist traditions, and if a Tibetan hears of a master, he is convinced that the master must necessarily belong to one of these four sects. If I reply that I am a practitioner of Dzogchen, this person will presume that I belong to the Nyingmapa school, within which the Dzogchen texts have been preserved. Some people, on the other hand, as has actually happened, knowing that I have written some books on Bon with the aim of re-evaluating the indigenous culture of Tibet, would say that I am a Bonpo. But Dzogchen is not a school or sect, or a religious system. It is simply a state of knowledge which masters have transmitted beyond any limits of sect or monastic tradition. In the lineage of the Dzogchen teachings there have been masters belonging to all social classes, including farmers, nomads, nobles, monks, and great religious figures, from every spiritual tradition or sect. The fifth Dalai Lama, for example, whilst perfectly maintaining the obligations of his elevated religious and political position, was a great practitioner of Dzogchen.

    A person who is really interested in the teachings has to understand their fundamental principle without letting him or herself become conditioned by the limits of a tradition. The organizations, institutions, and hierarchies that exist in the various schools often become factors that condition us, but this is something that it is difficult for us to notice. The true value of the teachings is beyond all the superstructures people create, and to discover if the teachings are really a living thing for us we just need to observe to what extent we have freed ourselves from all the factors that condition us. Sometimes we might believe we have understood the teachings, and that we know how to apply them, but in practice we still remain conditioned by attitudes and doctrinal principles that are far from true knowledge of our own actual condition.

    When a master teaches Dzogchen, he or she is trying to transmit a state of knowledge. The aim of the master is to awaken the student, opening that individual's consciousness to the primordial state. The master will not say, "Follow my rules and obey my precepts!" He will say, "Open your inner eye and observe yourself. Stop seeking an external lamp to enlighten you from outside, but light your own inner lamp. Thus the teachings will come to live in you, and you in the teachings.

    The teachings must become a living knowledge in all one's daily activities. This is the essence of the practice, and besides that there is nothing in particular to be done. A monk, without giving up his vows, can perfectly well practice Dzogchen, as can a Catholic priest, a clerk, a workman, and so on, without having to abandon their role in society, because Dzogchen does not change people from the outside. Rather it awakens them internally. The only thing a Dzogchen master will ask is that one observes oneself, to gain the awareness needed to apply the teachings in everyday life.

    Every religion, every spiritual teaching, has its basic philosophical principles, its characteristic way of seeing things. Within the philosophy of Buddhism alone, for example, there have arisen different systems and traditions, often disagreeing with each other only over subtleties of interpretation of the fundamental principles. In Tibet these philosophical controversies have lasted up until the present day, and the resulting polemical writings now form a whole body of literature in itself. But in Dzogchen no importance at all is attached to philosophical opinions and convictions. The way of seeing in Dzogchen is not based on intellectual knowledge, but on an awareness of the individual's own true condition.

    Everyone usually has their own way of thinking and their own convictions about life, even if they can't always define them philosophically. All the philosophical theories that exist have been created by the mistaken dualistic minds of human beings. In the realm of philosophy, that which today is considered true, may tomorrow be proved to be false. No one can guarantee a philosophy's validity. Because of this, any intellectual way of seeing whatever is always partial and relative. The fact is that there is no truth to seek or to confirm logically; rather what one needs to do is to discover just how much the mind continually limits itself in a condition of dualism.

    Dualism is the real root of our suffering and of all our conflicts. All our concepts and beliefs, no matter how profound they may seem, are like nets which trap us in dualism. When we discover our limits we have to try to overcome them, untying ourselves from whatever type of religious, political, or social conviction may condition us. We have to abandon such concepts as "enlightenment," "the nature of the mind," and so on, until we are no longer satisfied by a merely intellectual knowledge, and until we no longer neglect to integrate our knowledge with our actual existence.

    It is therefore necessary to begin with what we know, with our human material condition. In the teaching it is explained that the individual is made up of three aspects: body, voice, and mind. These constitute our relative condition, which is subject to time and the division of subject from object. That which is beyond time and the limits of dualism is called the "absolute condition," the true state of the body, voice, and mind. To enter into this in experience, however, it is first necessary to understand our relative existence.

    The body is something real for us; it is the material form which limits us within the human realm. Externally it finds its reflection in our whole material dimension, with which it is closely linked. In tantrism, for example, one speaks of precise correspondences between the human body and the universe, based on the principle of there being only one single energy. When we think of ourselves the first thing we think of is our body and our physical being. From this arises the sense of an I, our attachment, and all the concepts of ownership which follow from this, such as, my house, my country, my planet, and so on.

    Through the material dimension of the body we can understand its energy, or the "voice," the second aspect of the individual. Energy is not material, visible, or tangible. It is something more subtle and difficult to understand. One of its perceivable aspects is vibration, or sound, and therefore it is known as the "voice." The voice is linked to breathing, and breathing to the individual's vital energy. In Yantra Yoga, movements of the body and breathing exercises have as their aim the control of this vital energy.

    The relationship between voice, breathing, and mantra can best be demonstrated through the way mantra functions. A mantra is a series of syllables whose power resides in its sound, through the repeated pronouncing of which one can obtain control of a given form of energy. The energy of the individual is closely linked to the external energy, and each can influence the other. Knowledge of the various aspects of the relationships between the two energies is the basis of the Bon ritual traditions, which until now have been rather overlooked by Western scholars. In Bon, for example, it is considered that many disturbances and illnesses derive from classes of beings who have the capacity to dominate certain forms of energy. When an individual's energy becomes weakened, it's like leaving a door open through which disturbances from such classes of beings can pass. Thus great importance is given to maintaining the completeness of the individual's energy.

    Working from the other way round, it is possible to influence the external energy, carrying out what are called "miracles." Such activity is actually the result of having control of one's own energy, through which one obtains the capacity of power over external phenomena.

    The mind is the most subtle and hidden aspect of our relative condition, but it is not difficult to notice its existence. All one has to do is to observe one's thoughts and how we let ourselves get caught up in their flow. If one asks, "What is the mind?"—the reply might be that it is the mind that asks that question. The mind is the uninterrupted flow of thoughts which arise and then disappear. It has the capacity to judge, to reason, to imagine, and so on, within the limits of space and time. But beyond the mind, beyond our thoughts, there is something we call the "nature of the mind," the mind's true condition, which is beyond all limits. If it is beyond the mind, though, how can we approach an understanding of it?

    Let's take the example of a mirror. When we look into a mirror we see in it the reflected images of any objects that are in front of it; we don't see the nature of the mirror. But what do we mean by this "nature of the mirror"? We mean its capacity to reflect, definable as its clarity, its purity, and its limpidity, which are indispensable conditions for the manifestation of reflections. This "nature of the mirror" is not something visible, and the only way we can conceive of it is through the images reflected in the mirror. In the same way, we only know and have concrete experience of that which is relative to our condition of body, voice, and mind. But this itself is the way to understand their true nature.

    Truly speaking, from the absolute point of view, there really does not exist any separation between the relative condition and its true nature, in the same way that a mirror and the reflections in it are in fact one indivisible whole. However, our situation is such that it is as if we have come out of the mirror and are now looking at the reflections that are appearing in it. Unaware of our own nature of clarity, purity, and limpidity, we consider the reflections to be real, developing aversion and attachment. Thus, instead of these reflections being the means for us to discover our own true nature, they become a factor that conditions us. And we live distracted by the relative condition, attaching great importance to everything.

    This dualistic condition, which is the general situation of all human beings, is called "ignorance" in the teachings. And even a person who has studied the most profound concepts relating to the "nature of the mind," but who does not really understand his or her relative condition, can be defined as "ignorant," because the "nature of the mind" for that person just remains an intellectual knowledge. Understanding our real nature does not necessarily require the use of the mental process of analysis and reasoning. A person who has an intellectual knowledge of the nature of the mind will remain attracted, just like any other person, by the reflections which appear and will judge them as beautiful or ugly, allowing themselves to become caught up in the mind's dualism.

    In the Dzogchen teachings the term "knowledge" or the "state of knowledge" denotes a state of consciousness which is like a mirror, in that its nature cannot be stained by whatever images are reflected in it. When we find ourselves in the knowledge of our true nature, nothing can condition us. All that arises is then experienced as part of the inherent qualities of our own primordial state. For this reason the fundamental point is not to abandon or transform the relative condition, but to understand its true nature. To this end it is necessary to clear away all the misconceptions and falsifications which we continually apply to ourselves.

    We have a material body, which is extremely delicate, and which has many needs we have to respect. If we are hungry we need to eat, if we are tired we need to rest, and so on. If we don't, we can develop serious health problems, because the limits of our bodies are real for us. In the teachings, overcoming attachment to the body is something spoken of a great deal. But this does not mean one should abruptly break all its limits and deny its needs. The first step to overcoming this attachment is understanding the condition of the body, and thus knowing how to respect it. This is also true with regard to the functioning of our energy. When one is ignorant of it and tries to struggle with its natural limits, the resulting disturbances can easily spread to the areas of body or mind. In Tibetan medicine, for example, some forms of madness are considered to be caused by the circulation of one of the vital subtle energies in places other than where it usually should flow.

    Problems of the energy are very serious. In modern times we are living through a period in which there is an ever greater spread of illnesses, such as cancer, which are linked to disorders of the energy. The official forms of Western medicine, even if they have identified the symptoms of such illnesses, don't know what their fundamental cause is, because they don't understand how energy functions. In Tibetan medicine these types of disturbances, as and when a course of medical treatment proves ineffective, are cured through the practice of mantra, which can influence and coordinate the condition of the patient's energy through sound and breathing. Besides this, in Yantra Yoga, there are body positions, methods of controlling the breathing, and mental concentrations which can be used to restabilize disorders of the energy.

    The Dzogchen teachings advise one never to force the condition of one's energy, but always to be aware of its limits in all the various circumstances one encounters. If at times one does not feel like sitting down to practice then one should avoid setting up a struggle against oneself. It could be that there is some problem of our energy that we don't know about behind our feeling like this. In such situations it is important to know how to relax, and how to give one-self space, in order not to block the progress of one's practice. Problems of loneliness, of depression, of mental confusion and so on, also often derive from an unbalanced condition of our energy.

    The mind influences the condition of both the body and the energy, and at the same time depends on them. Sometimes the mind is totally enslaved by the energy and there is no way to balance it without clearing up the disorders of the energy first. It is very important to understand the relationship of interdependence between mind and energy. In all Buddhist traditions, when one is taught to meditate, it is explained that the breathing must be slow and deep, in order to favour the development of a calm state of mind. On the other hand, if we observe a nervous person whose mind is in an agitated state, we will notice right away that his or her breathing is rapid and hurried. Sometimes it is impossible to calm the mind through meditation alone, and it is necessary to practice Yantra. Yoga movements and breathings in order to re-coordinate one's energy.

    The image of a cage is often used as an example to represent our relative condition. An individual is said to be like a little bird closed up in and protected by a cage. The cage here is a symbol of all the limits of our body, voice, and mind. But the cage in the example is not meant to indicate some especially horrible abnormal situation; rather it is meant to describe the normal condition in which a human being lives. The problem is that we are not aware of the situation we actually find ourselves in, and are in fact afraid to discover it, because we have grown up in this cage since we were little children.

    Let's consider the way a child enters into these limits. During the first months of life, when the child doesn't yet know how to reason or speak, its happy parents cradle it in their arms and whisper sweet words to it. But when the child begins to walk and wants to touch something they say, "Don't touch that! Don't go there!" Then as the child grows, it is obliged to limit more and more its way of expressing itself, its way of sitting at table, its way of eating, and so on, until it becomes a model child. The parents are then proud of it, but the truth is that the poor little thing is being made to enter completely into their way of thinking. It, too, is learning to live in a cage. And then, at five or six years of age, it begins to go to school, with all the resulting rules and expectations. The child will have a few difficulties to overcome, but it will gradually get used to this additional cage. Nowadays it takes many years to complete the cage that is indispensable to us to enable us to live in society. Then there are many further factors of conditioning, such as political ideas, religious beliefs, the ties of friendship, of work, and so on. When the cage is sufficiently developed we are ready to live in it, and we feel protected. This is the condition of every individual, and we have to discover it by observing ourselves.

    When we are aware of our limits there is the possibility of overcoming them. A bird which lives in a cage gives birth to its children in the cage. When they are born, the little birds have wings. Even if, in the cage, they can't fly, the fact that they are born with wings shows that their real nature is to have contact with the open space of the sky. But if a bird that has always lived in a cage suddenly escapes from behind its bars, it could encounter many dangers, because it doesn't know what to expect out there. It may be devoured by a hawk, or caught by a cat. So it is necessary for the bird to train a little, flying about a bit in a limited space, until, when it feels ready, it can definitively take flight.

    It's the same for us: even if it is difficult for us to over come all our limits in an instant, it is important to know that our real state is there, beyond all conditioning factors, and that we really do have the possibility to rediscover it.

    We can learn to fly beyond the limits of our dualistic condition, until we are ready to leave it behind altogether. We can begin by becoming aware of our body, voice, and mind. Understanding our true nature means understanding the relative condition and knowing how to reintegrate with its essential nature, so that we become once again like a mirror that can reflect any object whatsoever, manifesting its clarity.

Six Yogas of Naropa

By Tsongkhapa Lobzang Drakpa
Translated by Glenn H. Mullin
Edited by Glenn H. Mullin

Snow Lion Publications

Copyright © 1996 Glenn H. Mullin. All rights reserved.

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