Dzogchen: Ordinary Experience
"Who you are is simply the unobstructed, spontaneous arising of awareness without origin."
Vajra Regent Osel Tendzin
When we speak of dzogchen we are talking about “ordinary experience.” What is ordinary experience? It is the experience of things as they are. In this case, it refers to seeing directly that awareness and what arises in awareness are indivisible and actually are of the same nature.
Awareness is “knowing.” When we examine our awareness as ordinary experience we see that our actual awareness of this moment has no beginning – no point of origin—that we can put our finger on. Nor does it have an end. In the same way, our memories of the past are just thoughts and our hopes or anxieties of the future are also simply thoughts arising in our awareness.
This understanding is referred to as the view. And when we talk about dzogchen practice it is extremely helpful to understand this view.
Traditionally ordinary experience, dzogchen, is spoken of from three perspectives: the view; the practice; and the activity.
The view is simply the way things are in terms of our direct experience. So when we look at our experience we see objects of perception and we have a sense of the unfolding experience of these objects. Western science, philosophy and theistic interpretations of spirituality always split this experience into subject and object – the perciever and the object percieved-- the creator and his creation. This is also our habitual way of attempting to find solidity and meaning and permanence. That is, we react habitually to our projections. This dualistic approach to reality always fails to provide solidity, security and meaning which is the message of the Buddha's first turning of the wheel of Dharma and teachings on dukkha. Direct experience or naked awareness is nondual in the sense that whatever arises as objects in the mind are inseparable from mind which percieves them.
It is actually impossible to truly establish that the objects of experience have any objective reality whatsoever. This is not simply a nihilistic post-modernest view of reality -- it is the way things actually are. We have all experienced dreams and felt during the dream that that dream-reality consisted of outer objects and a subjective experiencer. This is the same experience that we have while awake. In both circumstances the main point from the dzogchen view is that they are both manifestations of “awareness" and this awareness is "nondual”, which simply means that both awareness and the object of awareness demonstrate the same nature-- this nature is basic "knowing." It is "not two" to use a Zen phrase. The "mirage" of duality comes about because we are carried away by discursive thought and conflicting emotions which are really just fragile attempts to establish a permanent point of reference through the habit of projection and fixation on the objects which arise in awareness. This always fails because the object is actually not solid -- ultimately it is space or awareness attempting to split itself in two into a subject and a point of reference outside of that subject. This is known as "co-emergent ignorance." A moment of forgetfulness. Forgetting that this awareness is where everything is happening.
So from the point of view of dzogchen practice the important element is to resolve this fresh, present awareness – which in Tibetan is called rigpa. The ultimate meaning of our precious human birth is to recognize mind's true nature and not be deluded by what arises as experience.
"All experience is your own mind, and this mind, free from arising and ceasing, is the identity of the trikaya guru. This guru is indivisible from your natural awareness. It's cognizant radiance encompasses all that appears and exists."
Tsele Natsok Rangdrol
The way we resolve this is by practicing meditation which for a kusulu or simple meditator means sitting in a room where nothing is happening, doing nothing. And when we start to do something recognizing that we are doing something and coming back to doing nothing again. This "doing nothing" is simply being nakedly aware. The “doing” is without any extra involvement. Even when thoughts arise or we hear sounds outside or have sensations in our body—we allow these objects of perception to arise as they are with no extra involvement of our habitual mind. When it happens that we are “carried away” by a memory or future projection, at some point we wake up out of that reaction and come back to this present awareness through the basic techniques of shamatha/vipshashyana meditation.
"Since all of appearance and existence is the magical display of this single expanse of awareness, the 'ultimate view' is to see your mind in utterly naked naturalness. 'Meditation training' is to remain in this continuously. 'Ensuing cognition' is when a thought is projected. 'Post-meditation' is to recognize that projection. 'Conduct ' is to mingle walking, sitting, and all other activities with the state of awareness."
Tsele Natsok Rangdrol
An aid to this practice – what we might call "dzogchen shamatha/vipashyana"—is to sit in a room where very little is going on. We sit very still with the body, not fidgeting or moving around. We keep our eyes and ears open – not blocking perception particularly. It is recommended to use the outbreath as a neutral reference point. The breath is not something we concentrate on in order to block the arising of thoughts , or something we focus on to enter into a trance state-- that is a big misconception about meditation. The outbreath is a neutral event in the sense that we don't react to it with habitual hope and fear. Yet it is something which is continually happening and is very subtle and close to us. Flashing momentary awareness on the outbreath and then letting that go is the key training for knowing experience directly and nakedly which is rigpa. Once we recognize what that feels like then that knowing expands into other areas of our experience. This allows us to leave what arises "in its own ground", as in Padmasambhava's root instructions:
"Whatever occurs in the realm of the mind-- such as thoughts of the five poisons-- one should neither lead nor follow. Just let it remain in its true state and reach the liberation of Dharmakaya."
The key point in doing this practice is to understand the view that whatever arises in the mind is simply the movement of awareness itself. It can be left as it is without further embellishment. And it should also be understood that what arises in the mind is not an obstacle to this realization at all. It is coemergent wisdom.
The more thoughts the more dharmakaya.
Mahamudra Pith Instructions
This entails not reacting with body, speech and mind which is the discipline of learning how to rest in nowness. In order to engage this practice it is important in the beginning to be guided by a competent, authentic guru-- someone who manifests the blessings of the lineage-- with some face to face engagement. It is not enough to read books on the subject or attend online classes. The reason why it is important to have an authentic guru and lineage is because it is so easy to substitute our assumptions based on our conceptual ideas of science, happiness, psychology, etc. for the real view -- which is beyond conceptual mind. It is like having a map in our pocket of a country we have never visited and arguing with a person who lives there about what it is like.
"The experience of true insight is the simultaneous awareness of both stillness and active thoughts. According to the Maha Ati teaching, meditation consists of seeing whatever arises in the mind and simply remaining in the state of nowness. Continuing in this state after meditation is known as "the post-meditation experience."
Jigme Lingpa trans. Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche
This instruction can be accomplished in many ways. At DMC we simply create an environment of practice and discipline similar to the environments that Chogyam Trungpa developed for his direct students during his life-time. Then within that environment of study and practice, face to face meetings can create the right situation in which ordinary experience can be pointed out. Transitions between intensive one pointed practice within the context of a strict schedule and the completely open schedule of "days off" in which practitioners have a day and a half of no community schedule are incredibly effective methods for recognizing experience beyond habitual reference point. It should go without saying that this is great training for the moment of death-- when the physical body collapses and we lose that very big habitual reference point. For practitioners who have recognized the nature of mind as "nonreference point experience" it is said that this is a tremendous opportunity.
"In any transition there is a gap where the absence of the previous reference point has not yet become the next one. In that space, there is no time. That is the Buddha''s time. Buddha does not abandon appearance and experience; Buddha's mind is found in between hope and fear and birth and death."
Vajra Regent Osel Tendzin
Then one’s main practice on a daily basis is simply to recognize that quality of experience either in the formal practice or during one’s regular activities-- in meditation or in the larger vipashyana atmosphere of post-meditation. It is basic reality...basic sanity.
Activity – which is our third point—refers to this quality of “self-liberating” whatever objects arise in our awareness. This is dependent upon having the right view and putting it into practice by one’s own efforts. One can have an excellent guru and be a part of an authentic lineage but unless you are willing to really do it then the rubber never meets the road. As Dudjom Rinpoche says the guru ,who is the pipeline for the authentic lineage, points out the nature of mind to the student – from that point on it is up to the student to travel the path and reach liberation on his or her own. The guru is not a savior who does it for the student. He does not die for our sins.
"Recognition of rigpa, as Tilopa said, occurs through gathering the accumulations and purifying obscurations, and through the blessings of a qualified master. Depending on other means should be known as delusion. Have you heard of anyone who recognized nondualistic awareness simply through reading books? Aside from receiving blessings, gathering the accumulations and purifying obscurations, no other technique exists for recognizing rigpa.
Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche
There are many methods to recognize the nature of mind and train in sustaining that recognition. Guru yoga belongs to the higher methods of training within tantric practice because it is so effective. The translation of "tantra" is 'continuity." In this case it refers to a method of practice which enables the practitioner to experience the continuity of the recognition of the nature of mind, the recognition of "ordinary mind." In order to engage this training it is essential to understand the difference between a theistic approach to the guru principle and a nontheistic approach. In order to do this it is necessary to resolve the view.
"Devotion to the guru arises because we have understood the emptiness of self and phenomena through the practice of meditation. You cannot conjure up or invent devotion. It's not based on hope and fear. Discriminating awareness brings the understanding that devotion is without second thought and is based on complete trust in your own mind. You realize that your emotional behaviour makes you continually paranoid, fearful, afraid to live, afraid to be in love, afraid to die. Your emotional behaviour continually makes you confused. At the same time you understand that you cannot discard emotional behaviour as though it were foreign or extraneous to your life.
Then you come to the vajrayana path, where you must actually use poison as medicine., You do that when you realize that the guru embodies the wisdom aspect of all the emotions. The vajrayana view is that whatever appears in your mind is real in its emptiness and luminosity. It is not in any way real due to conceptual content. When you realize that, your mind is stripped completely bare of any sense of ego. When you meet the guru on those grounds, you cannot help falling in love. It is not simply a case of being in awe of or attracted to someone or something better or higher than you. It's quite different. You fall in love because your mind begins to recognize its own enlightened quality. The guru is a complete and flawless mirror of that, which at times can be quite irritable. We would prefer to see a distorted image and so deceive ourselves a little longer that things are not really as they are. But things are as they are, and the guru embodies that. The guru is the unconditional reflection of your awakened state of mind. The guru reflects both qualities at the same time: distortion-- the longing to dwell in samsara-- and the aspiration to attain nirvana, the awakened state."
Vajra Regent Osel Tendzin
Once again we must see experience from a nondual perspective -- i.e. that ordinary experience is the nonduality of awareness and objects that arise in that awareness. An authentic guru appears in one's experience and they bring a message of awakened mind. It might be useful again to use the example of the dream. Usually our dreams are confused experiences of grasping and fixation on the objects which arise. We can have sexual fantasies or aggression fantasies based upon our confused habitual reaction to the objects that arise in our minds during a dream. Yet, if we were to realize that we were really just experiencing these things while lying in bed and dreaming we would not be enticed or tortured by our habitual reaction. It is the same with training in the recognition of rigpa. Through the training of guru yoga, in this case, we project an object onto which we imprint the expression of rigpa. This is the expression of the trikaya guru. In this way our habitual mind is hijacked and transmuted. All of our experience is transformed into an expression of "ordinary experience" because recollecting the guru sabotages our habitual reaction. We then experience all objects arising in the mind as rigpa, which is the nature of the guru and our inherent naked awareness-- this is called the experience of "one taste," of "sacred world" or the "blessings of the lineage." The outer guru is the catalyst or agent in some sense but in buddhist practice ,which is nontheistic, -- it is all about utilizing this method to recognize "ordinary experience." If there is no understanding or vipashyana experience happening for the practitioner then it is not appropriate to engage in this form of tantric training. The real danger is for the student to validate their neurosis rather than their "basic sanity" through their relationship with the guru-- that is called Vajra Hell in the tantric literature. As with all practices, as my guru said many times, "its up to you."
Tashi Armstrong, Director of Dzogchen Meditation Center
Founder of the Surmang Kagyu Order
Stillness, Occurrence and Noticing
“Correlating Mahamudra and Dzogchen"
When embarking on meditation practice in the Mahamudra tradition, the meditator is taught three aspects: stillness occurrence, and noticing.
The cultivation of stillness means to train in cutting off involvement in memories; you disengage from entertaining any thought about what has happened in the past. The same regards the future; you are not supposed to construct any plans about the next moment. And in the present, right now, simply and completely let go. Drop everything and settle into nowness. In the Mahamudra tradition, stillness refers to just being this way—not following thoughts about the past, the future, or the present, not churning out any new thoughts.
A beginner will notice that totally letting be without any thought involvement does not last that long. Due to the karmic force of the energy currents, new thoughts are formed—thoughts grasping at subject and object, at the pleasant and unpleasant. The activation of such patterns is known as occurrence.
When the attention is quiet and still, there is a knowing that this is so. When one is involved in thinking about this and that, there is a knowing that this is so. In this context of stillness and thought occurrence, this knowing is called noticing. These are the three aspects known as stillness, occurrence and noticing.
Now, the training is this: each time you notice that you are thinking of something, you disengage from it and pull back—suspending your attention—into being quiet, into being still, an simply remain like that. When after a while you notice that you are thinking about something, again simply return to the stillness. That is the training. By repeating this over and over, you become more familiar, more experienced. That is how to progress.
As you grow more capable, there comes a point when the thought occurrences no longer have such a strong hold on the attention. It becomes easier to arrive back in the quietness. Then later, every time a thought again begins to stir, rather than getting caught up in it, we are able to simply remain, until the force of the thought occurrence weakens and the aware quality grows and strengthens. The dividing line between stillness and occurrence fades away. That is the point at which we can recognize the actual identity of noticing what it really is. In other words, vipashyana can begin.
The great yogi Milarepa said, “In the gap between the past thought and the following thought, thought-free wakefulness continuously dawns.” This is the way it is whether you recognize it or not, so the difference is to recognize. The opportunity to recognize is there all the time, and that is the training. In the beginning, a thought vanishes; that is called stillness. Next a new thought arises; that is called thought occurrence, and one notices that these are happening. These three—stillness, thought occurrence, and noticing—have to do with becoming increasingly aware of the gap between thought. This aware quality grows stronger and stronger, which happens only through training; you cannot pull on the gap to make it bigger. You cannot artificially increase the power of training. At some point, once you recognize that which notices and what the awake quality is, that is the difference between shamatha and vipashyana in this context.
If your shamatha practice is simply training in being absentminded, remaining in a neutral, indifferent state without any thought activity whatsoever, this is known in the Dzogchen system as the all-ground. It is simply a way of being free of thought involvement. When attention becomes active with the expanse of the all-ground, according to Dzogchen, that activity is known as dualistic mind. But when the dividing line between stillness and thought occurrence fades away and instead the strength of the aware quality is intensified, that awake quality, according to Dzogchen, is known as rigpa. Depending on whether one is using the Mahamudra system of the Dzogchen approach, there are different terminologies, but the actual training is essentially the same in both cases.