Dzogchen: Ordinary Experience
"Who you are is simply the unobstructed, spontaneous arising of awareness without origin."
Vajra Regent Osel Tendzin
"Suppose you are in bed-- all tucked in and cozy, asleep and dreaming. And in this dream you are at a large banquet. Everyone is dressed up. People are dancing and having a good time. And this is taking place in the banquet room of a large hotel. And you are having a great time enjoying the party. Above the banquet in this hotel there are a number of rooms for the guests. So what I want to know is which room are you currently sleeping in and having this dream?"
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 of the same nature.
Awareness is “knowing.” When we examine our awareness as ordinary experience we see that our actual awareness 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 without conceptual overlay 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, meaning and permanence--that is, we react habitually to our projections. This habitual, dualistic approach to experience always fails to provide the solidity, security and meaning that we are looking for which is the message of the Buddha's first turning of the wheel of Dharma and teachings on dukkha, basic anxiety. Direct experience or naked awareness is nondual in the sense that whatever arises as objects in the mind are inseparable from the awareness which percieves them. This is the only meaning there is to our experience and to look for meaning elsewhere turns out to be a hopeless endeavor.
"Whatever appears as visible objects to the eye--
Everything in the outer universe--
Although it appears, rest without taking it to be real.
The purification of dualistic perception is the clear yet empty form of the yidam/deity."
It is actually impossible to truly establish that the objects of experience have any external reality whatsoever. This is not simply a post-modernest view of reality -- it is the way things actually are. We have all experienced dreams and felt during the dream that our dream-reality consisted of outer objects and a subjective experiencer. Yet, when we wake up we realize that our dream was occurring in our minds and what we took to be external phenomena were also just manifestations of our minds . This is similar to the 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 separate -- 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. On the other hand, when the outer object and inner subject are seen directly with the secret recognition of nondual awareness-- this is referred to as coemergent wisdom-- like "space copulating with space."
"Outwardly, there is the purity of things perceived as external objects; Inwardly, there is the freedom of the nature of mind perceived as the inner subject; Between these, there is recognition of the true face of utter lucidity."
Supplication in Seven Chapters (Soldeb Le'u Dunma) Terma, Padmasambhava
So from the point of view of dzogchen practice the important element is to resolve this fresh, present awareness -- whether you are dreaming or not– which in Tibetan is called rigpa. The ultimate meaning of our precious human birth is to recognize mind's true nature-- i.e. rigpa-- and not be deluded by our habitual reaction to what arises as experience.
"Awareness is first pointed out by your master. Thereby, you recognize your natural face, by yourself, and are introduced to your own nature. All the phenomena of samsara an nirvana, however they may appear, are none other than the expression of awareness itself. Thus, decide on one thing--awareness (rigpa)!" Dudjom Rinpoche
"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. The basic techniques of shamatha/vipashyana meditation are meant to accentuate this moment of recognition which, in fact, occurs naturally when any constructed phenomena falls apart or washes out. The processes of the five skandhas are always falling apart-- moment to moment. The activity of habitual mind is to attempt to speed over these gaps. Meditation practice is accentuating and exploiting gaps in the speed of habitual mind so that we can recognize the basic background of rigpa and through familarity we learn to allow that insight to infiltrate all of experience.
"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
When your past thought has ceased, and your future thought has not yet arisen and when you are free from conceptual reckoning in the present moment, then your genuine and natural awareness, the union of being empty and cognizant, dawn's as a state of mind which is like space.
Yanpa Lodey ( Carefree Vagrant)
Shechen Gyaltsap Pema Namgyal
As for growing accustomed,' when meditating and a thought arises, just let it arise-- relax in its arising. If no thought arises, don't try to make it do so-- just rest in its nonarising.'"
Even though reality is this unconditioned, nonreferential awareness and even though we have had it pointed out to us by a genuine master -- without effortful practice we will remain caught in the cycle of habitual hope and fear and be blown about by the winds of karma. From the samsaric point of view this same experience of impermanence --which is nonreference point experience, the gap-- seems to be the cause of our suffering. We constantly use projection and fixation in a futile attempt to solidify our experience running away from this feeling of impermanence and groundlessness. Trungpa Rinpoche refers to this as "the cosmic joke." From the point of view of authentic Dharma this is coming at things from the wrong end of the stick. From our samsaric point of view this is the cause of basic and fundamental anxiety--dukkha. So it is necessary to engage in meditation training to stabilize our realization of nonreference point experience and to realize this fundamental ground as our true nature-- basic sanity. Meditation training is a way to rest in this nonreferential awareness of ordinary experience and grow familiar with it as the basic ground of being.
An aid to this practice – what we might call "dzogchen shamatha/vipashyana"—is to sit in a room where nothing is happening. 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 to dwell in a peaceful state , or something we focus on to enter into a trance state-- those are big misconceptions 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 attention relax during the inbreath 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 in the sense of insight into the true nature of phenomena. This expansion is what we call vipashyana--"clear seeing." 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 or backstory. It should also be understood that what arises in the mind , whether pleasant or unpleasant, is not an obstacle to this realization at all. It has no origin and no dwelling place. When looked at directly it is co-emergent with that nondual awareness. In fact, what we call "nondual awareness" is simply looking at things directly.
The more thoughts the more dharmakaya.
Dzogchen Pith Instructions
"Awareness is the body of meditation as is taught. Whatever arises is fresh-- the essence of realization. To this meditator who rests simply without altering it, grant your blessings so that my meditation is free from conception."
Supplication to the Takpo Kagyu
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 lama-- someone who manifests the blessings of this 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 teacher 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. Having lots of conceptual ideas about Buddhist philosophy is like having a map in our pocket of a country we have never visited. We can end up arguing with a person who lives there about what it is like.
"An ordinary corpse is often found in the bed of a scholar."
Dzogchen Pith Instructions
"One pointedness means that mind is still as long as one wishes, seeing the very nature of ordinary mind." Jamgon Kongtrul
The four yogas of mahamudra provide an excellent framework for how to approach our practice. One pointedness is the beginning of training--as in the foundation. In the same way that we cannot build a house without first building a strong foundation, without developing one-pointedness one can never really progress on the path. And this is not something that we do once and then move on to other higher more important practices. One pointedness is necessary to revisit again and again. It should be present in every practice we engage. It is definitely an attribute of shamatha meditation. In this case, with reference to Trungpa Rinpoche's instruction, we continually come back to the direct experience of the outbreath and we continue to develop and refine this direct experience. When we realize that we are distracted from being mindful of the outbreath we label that distraction "thinking" and come back to a direct experience of the outbreath.
It is nearly impossible to develop this practice outside of a strict retreat setting like the one month Dathun retreat where we engage in 8-10 hours of shamatha discipline through the four sessions each day. Through real effortful practice we can come to the point where we are able to come back to the outbreath repeatedly without distraction for 20 minutes: 30 minutes and longer. The effect of doing this is that the tendency to have our awareness leak into semi-conscious discursive thought is lessened a great deal. Everytime we return decisively to the awareness of the outbreath we break the seeming continuity of our distracted habitual thinking. This is like undoing the glue that holds the five skandhas together. The power one develops is the power of "first thought" where our first thought is to be present with the outbreath rather than looking for something to fill the space. Zen practitioners call this joriki or "self-power." It is very similar to Patrul Rinpoche's instruction of yelling "phat" within a very settled shamatha meditation. It should abruptly cut any subtle pre-occupation. During the inbreath one relaxs that intentional mindfulness -- then with the next outbreath we intensify our mindful awareness again -- once again disrupting any distraction or engagement with habitual thought. Keep it natural-- this is all about training your awareness rather than yelling or breathing heavily in the middle of the shrineroom. The key point is knowing how to flash that presence and what that feels like. It is like developing a muscle through weight training. The more you do it the stronger it becomes. The technique is purposefully very simple-- no counting of breaths; no visualizations-- this way you really are working on the essential "knowing" aspect. The lack of continuity in the technique means that you need to repeatedly flash on the breath with no preamble and no post mortems-- no storyline. This interrupts the speed and continuity of our habitual mind.
The traditional analogies that illustrate how this practice deepens is that it goes from a torrential waterfall of distraction and discursive thoughts ;to a rushing stream; a gently flowing river; then a still lake and finally like an unmoving mountain. We rest in 'cool boredom." Experiences of bliss, clarity and nonthought arise. Fundamentally, one-pointedness is where we actually experience the gap between habitual thought-- "ordinary experience", rigpa, nonreference point experience.
"Between two thoughts, thought-free wakefulness" Milarepa
The experience of one pointedness is how we recognize the nature of mind-- what is "pointed out" by the lineage guru.
"Simplicity means the realization of groundlessness." Jamgon Kongtrul
From doing this as a formal practice intensively during retreat we then develop the next yoga-- nonelaboration or simplicity. What arises as appearances in our minds become transparant-- they manifest as a "quality". They no longer carry a heavy back story of discursive thought and so we see things as having no root. This is the beginning of vipashyana and the realization or insight into phenomena as arising without ground or root. This is the experience of nonreference point as what arises as appearances. The further experiences of one-taste and nonmeditation arise developmentally from this direct insight.
"One Taste means liberating all possible dualistic fixations through insight." Jamgon Kongtrul
One taste is the experience of nonreferential awareness as an inescapable environment. It is an atmosphere. It feels like the presence of the lineage or your root teacher. One cannot tell where it originates-- it seems to be both internal, and external. Having disrupted the habitual process of projection and fixation through intensive practice -- whatever arises has a particular quality that we begin to identify. From habitual mind's point of view nonreference point experience can be actually quite terrifying and unsettling. Space is solid and inescapable. From the teachings on shamatha/vipashyana this one taste is the real experience of vipashyana -- clear seeing-- or mahavipashyana in this context. This is where we encounter outer and inner experience as "self-existing wakefulness." The outer world of local environments, trees, people, Dunkin Donuts franchises, even those elements which we had associated with confused mind --like the five skandhas and emotional klesa activity-- become "liberated" from habitual referencing and in that way are manifestations of enlightened qualities. This is where one can understand the activity of the four karmas. When this quality becomes continuous this is referred to as "nonmeditation."
"Nonmeditation means transcending all sophistries of meditation and nonmeditation, the exhaustion of habitual patterns." Jamgon Kongtrul
One might ask how long we need to train in order to develop in this way. When do we arrive at a place of nonregression? The short answer is that we train like this forever. As Trungpa said at one point "meditation is life's work." This is what we do-- it is the priority -- and it fulfills all of the vows we engage as hinayana, mahayana, vajrayana and shambhala practitioners. We are remarkably lucky to have a precious human birth where we encounter these teachings and have the opportunity to put them into practice. What more could we want? The goal or ambition of some further realization is an illusion in any case--simply another projection!
"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
At DMC we create an environment of practice and discipline as taught by Chogyam Trungpa which is our path and how we trained with Rinpoche while he was alive. 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 as a mutual, shared experience between the teacher and student. Transitions between intensive one pointed practice retreats 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. These are methods for recognizing and developing "the pointing out." Having a clear understanding of this "nonreferential awareness" allows you to flash it momentarily in your formal practice of shamatha. This is where the rubber meets the road in practice -- or to put it in a more tradititional analogy -- "rock meets bone." Without this genuine, personal recognition of this gap one's practice does not lead to fruition. 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
For a yogin of nonreference point experience 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. This vipashyana is also referred to as the "blessings of the lineage" or "chinlap;" a bank of energy that radiates without a radiator. Self-existing. It is basic reality...basic sanity. Basic Goodness.
"A yogin moves toward nonreference point experience, an ordinary sentient being runs from it."
Activity – which is our third point—refers to this quality of “self-liberation” in terms of whatever appearances 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. This is very important to understand --deifying the Guru is a corruption of Dharma. It is a fundamental corruption of the view.
"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
The bottom line is that basic reality, basic sanity -- what arises as our experience-- is in itself non reference point experience. All of our buddhist practices are yogas -- ways to realize this basic reality in experience. They aren't idealistic beliefs, conceptual theories or external forms of worship. Once a practitioner has a glimpse or gap in their continuous experience of delusion or co-emergent ignorance then whatever they experience can become-- if properly understood and utilized-- a method to realize the manifestation of nonreference point experience as co-emergent wakefulness. This is the essential theme in studying the stories of the 84 mahasiddhas in the Kagyu lineage. "The primordial dot expands to fill the whole of space"...This is what we call 'crazy wisdom' or 'basic sanity.' This is not some kind of accomplishment as in "one-upsmanship"-- it is recognition of the basic nature of reality as not separate from the nitty gritty experience of our daily lives-- particularly as lay people yogins living in this culture and time.
Like setting fire to combustible elements-- everything we encounter becomes a moment of combustion in which we experience the one flavor of crazy wisdom-- the essence of coemergent wisdom. For the yogi of the authentic lineage of Trungpa Rinpoche and his Vajra Regent Osel Tendzin -- this one flavor is always the same and recognizable. It sets fire to the world of perception.
The Guru Principle: Enhancement Practice
"The sun in the morning sky. The billions of stars that form a canopy at night. The moon of awareness that reflects the true meaning. All the elements together with space-- This is your kingdom. For just a moment we meditate on unobstructed, pure Dharmata. This experience is vivdly real but truly nonexistent, like waking from a dream To the guru of gurus, uninterrupted consciousness without a reference point, I prostrate. To mind istelf, none other than your smiling face, I prostrate again and again. May our minds be inseparable, like water poured into water." The Vajra Regent Osel Tendzin-- Supplication to Vidyadhara Trungpa 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 experience." 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 and what "devotion" means in the context of the nontheistic view. 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 try to understand 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. For instance, many students of Trungpa Rinpoche or the Vajra Regent have dreams in which they experience their guru and they feel the blessings as though they were actually present. This is not some kind of ethereal being visiting us. It is the way that mind can recognize it's true nature. 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-- our inherent wakefulness. 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 but in buddhist practice ,which is nontheistic, -- it is all about utilizing this method--this 'yoga'-- 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 Trungpa Rinpoche said many times, "its up to you."
"All of whatever appears is the body of the authentic guru. All sounds are heard as the speech of the dharma king. All thoughts are the mind of the ultimate teacher. Devas and gurus are one in the nature of insight. Devotedly recalling your face, well-being, and the alertness of insight are one in the nature of unmanufactured ordinary mind. By the longing and yearning of naked devotion,the doors to the treasury of wakefulness, dharani and confidence are opened. When the great space of the knowable is known, the Jamgon Guru awakens in one's heart. Padma Trime fulfills the nature of phenomena. In the realm of vast bodhisattva action the moonlight of maitri and compassion shines everywhere; the four behaviors are the self-liberated vajra dance; Sounds expressions and words are the vajra song; penetrating insight is the vajra self-sound of AH. In the post-meditation is heard this continuous sonorous song of AH.
Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche "The Sun of Wisdom .
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, and 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.