Inquiring Mind invited a number of vipassana teachers to write about their explorations into Advaita Vedanta and/or Dzogchen. We think that these first notes from Christopher Titmuss and Sharon Salzberg provide a good introduction to the reflections which follow.
In the past fifteen years seniors in the vipassana community have shown interest in a variety of teachings. These include the teachings of Krishnamurti, Vimala Thakar, Suzuki Roshi, the Dalai Lama, U Pandita, Thich Nhat Hanh, Poonja-ji and now Dzogchen. Former vipassana student Andrew Cohen’s frequent dismissal of intensive meditation forced a number of friends to examine their relationship to their spiritual practice.
I regard it as a sign of health in the vipassana dharma community that teachers and students have not restricted themselves to the Theravada tradition. We encourage people to explore the spiritual life fully. We are not a cult. We are not interested in tying people down to a system, to a set of beliefs or to the Theravada tradition. There is much to learn and realize from other profound spiritual teachings. I would also add that other teachings have much to learn from the profound depths available in vipassana practice.
In the mid–late 1970s the vipassana tradition was regarded as the “poor cousin” by the Buddhist world. That perception has changed. Respect for the five precepts, deep samadhi, sustained awareness, active compassion and dharma wisdom has become a standard by which all traditions must examine themselves. The vipassana tradition is reasonably free from dogmatic leadership, the trappings of religious forms, tight belief systems, scandals and the curse of narrow-mindedness. For this we ought to be eternally grateful as it allows profound spiritual freedom.
Christopher Titmuss is an international meditation teacher, activist in the Green movement and a guiding teacher at Gaia House in England.
At times I have had dialogues with people about different approaches to meditation, later realizing with some sadness, “Why is there a tendency to compare, to judge? Given the way most people live, and the way the world is, why aren’t I filled with gratitude that a person is practicing something?” In fact, the state of comparing is one of contraction and isolation. It is an effective way to ensure a solid sense of self. When we feel love or compassion or rejoicing we know that there is no “other.” When we feel faith, we can allow things to be and to unfold. It is doubt that is trying to reassure itself by comparisons.
I think of the very powerful statement of the Buddha’s: “I teach one thing and one thing only—that is, suffering and the end of suffering.” With this, he was offering a vision of life where we aren’t following our habit of judging things as good or bad, with pride, condemnation or fear. Instead, we are responding with compassion to actions producing suffering, and with rejoicing to actions producing the end of suffering. This perspective of freedom is often lacking as we look at ourselves, or at others, or at systems of thought or practice.
Of course we need to discriminate, to determine our own course of action, and to be committed to a path. If we don’t do this, there is no strength or clarity in our practice. Our challenge, however, is to take the broadest possible perspective. If our own state of consciousness cannot allow for the extent of suffering there is in this world, and the extent of freedom from suffering as well, then our view is limited.
Recently, I attended the memorial service of an old friend who had died of AIDS. A remarkable video was shown of my friend in the weeks before his death. He talked about how thirty years of spiritual devotion, in a variety of traditions, all seemed to be converging to support him in the aloneness of dying.
What I would hope for the most in any consideration of the teachings would be to remember how much we do not know, how very vast the truth is, and how powerful and real is our need to be immersed in the exploration.
Sharon Salzberg is a founding teacher of the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts and leads vipassana retreats worldwide.
The following vipassana teachers give personal accounts about how spending time with Poonja-ji has affected their dharma understanding. Each visited him in 1990 when the daily groups were comprised of five to ten people instead of crowds in the hundreds which is typical today.
Through the many dialogues I had with Poonja-ji not only were topics such as meditation practice, effort and freedom addressed, but something happened in our connection on a deep nonverbal level that put me in touch with his perspective and understanding of reality. This has continued to stay with me and affects the way I live my life. Poonja-ji continually asks his students to return to the source of all thought and form. During one of our dialogues I had an experience that seemed to turn me inside-out. I had a strong sense of what he refers to as Self, or what could be called “that which is beyond form.” It is present all the time, underlying all reality. Our sincerity or openness to experience this “source of all things,” especially in the presence of someone who is in direct and powerful contact with it, allows us to become aware of our true nature (which is not separate from all phenomena).
What came from my time with Poonja-ji was actually a reconnection with a very familiar but forgotten way of being that I had often experienced in my childhood. It is an awe and wonder at the mystery of life that goes beyond the discursive mind into a place of openness, trust and coming home. The sense of a separate self dissolves and I become a “locus of consciousness” as life coalesces in, and expresses itself through, me. It’s been a great gift to have this space much more accessible since seeing Poonja-ji. Because of it, my understanding of freedom is that of a natural state which is available in every moment instead of some transcendent experience to be attained in the future. It is experiential, not theoretical. Theoretical ideas of freedom easily take us into the world of concepts instead of closer to the discovery of who we really are.
The effect on how I teach meditation has been subtle but significant. While it certainly requires great commitment and effort to bring the attention into the present, the actual experience of true meditation has shifted from “seeing clearly” to simply “being.” So although there is a tremendous preparation to come to the moment, resting in it requires no effort at all. Any effort, when one is completely here, is actually counter-productive because it is a movement of doing or becoming rather than simply being.
I would like to suggest one area of caution for those who study with Poonja-ji: a possible misunderstanding about what it means to be enlightened. Sometimes people get a glimpse of emptiness and take that to mean that their spiritual journey has been completed. One can easily become identified with the idea “I’m enlightened,” and assumptions one has about it, and begin to wear that label as a credential. Glimpsing the truth of freedom does not mean one is living from that understanding all the time.
I’ve seen a number of people who have had a strong experience of non-duality, yet continue to be quite unskillful in their dealings with others. If one knowingly creates suffering because of a lack of sensitivity and compassion, chances are a declaration of one’s enlightenment is premature, at least as defined in Buddhist teachings. (Indeed to say “I’m enlightened” is usually an unnecessarily self-aggrandizing statement, quite contrary to a mind that is truly free.) The expression of a mind that is free of greed, hatred and delusion is generosity, loving-kindness and wisdom. It seems important that a strong grounding in sila (moral virtue) be the container for a deep understanding of emptiness. For most of us, this is a lifelong process of practice.
Poonja-ji has such extraordinary joy in his expression of emptiness. That someone who seems to be so free can teach dharma with this incredible lightness was particularly refreshing. There is no denial of the suffering, but more an attitude of playing in the dream that we call life. I asked him at one point why the Buddhist expression of emptiness is often talked of in very solemn and serious tones, while his teaching of emptiness is filled with joy. He replied that often the emptiness spoken of in meditation is associated with a silence that is relative to the busy-ness of activity. When Poonja-ji speaks of emptiness, he is referring to the source underlying all phenomena. Therefore, its manifestation (the whole phenomenal world, which is essentially empty) includes stillness, activity, joy, suffering, love, anger—everything. Nothing is excluded in this emptiness.
James Baraz has been teaching vipassana meditation since 1980. He leads ongoing classes in the East Bay and is actively involved in the establishment of Spirit Rock Center.
I went to India in the Fall of 1990 to visit Sri Hari Lal Poonja because many of my friends were returning with exuberant stories about their experience of being with him. It was a thrilling and inspiring experience for me. I had never been to India before, and I had never before made a pilgrimage to meet a holy man.
For me, the important part of being with Poonja was how he WAS rather than what he taught. There were about a dozen of us at satsang each day, so we each got to talk to him quite personally. Poonja would remember our individual stories and struggles and, as we returned day after day, would resume our individual specific dialogues. With one of us he might ask, “What did you discover was behind your sense of a personal self?” and with the next, “Did you have any trouble getting your train tickets to Benares?” “Are you ready to make the leap into emptiness?” and “Who brought these sweets? They’re really good!” When he talked to you, you had the feeling that he was totally aware of only you. When he turned to the next person, you felt that you had totally disappeared from his mind. And, that it was just fine that you had. It was watching “a mind that clings to naught” in action.
Here are the two Poonja stories that I recall most often:
Someone was telling Poonja a particularly poignant story. Suddenly, Poonja burst into tears. All of us present sat quite still, rather startled. After a minute or two of unabashed crying, Poonja burst into loud peals of laughter. He has a remarkably hearty laugh. It was wonderful for me to see that his clarity of mind reflects an equanimity that includes the whole spectrum of passionate human emotional response.
The second incident occurred the day that I came to satsang dressed in a sari for the first time. Poonja was pleased, and he complimented me on how well I looked. He said, “I used to wear a sari, too.” I thought that surely I had misheard, or that this was a metaphor. Poonja is a very tall, sturdily built man whose arms are covered with tattoos. A sari? Poonja went on to explain that as a young officer in the Indian army he would dress in a sari as part of his devotional prayer life. He had felt, he said, that dressing in a sari and jewelry was his attempt to make himself beautiful enough to attract the attention of Krishna. The ardor of his spiritual yearning, his total lack of self-consciousness or embarrassment about recounting his behavior, was very inspirational to me.
Poonja radiated joy. It had always been exciting to me to read stories about realized beings, and it was exciting to meet a real, living (and lively) person who seems to be that.
Sylvia Boorstein has been teaching vipassana meditation since 1985. She lives in Kentfield, California where she is a psychotherapist in private practice.
Sharda (Henrietta Rogell)
Meeting Poonja-ji was an accident. I went to Lucknow to visit a friend who was there and at her encouragement, I went to meet him. When we arrived that morning at his home, he was so happy to meet us. In a very short time, he asked me if I had any questions. I said I had none but I told him a story about a vision I had on the train on my way to Lucknow the day before. I had been thinking about a difficult situation that had occurred and was feeling quite agitated when a crystal mala appeared in my mind along with the thought, “Go to the light.” Then a soft bright light filled my mind dissolving the thoughts and I remained in a peaceful state for some time afterwards.
Poonja-ji was very pleased with this report and said, “You’ve already done your work on the train. Now, you have a half step more. Sit here, be quiet and do nothing. If you have any questions, ask them.”
I remember that morning, laughing, chatting, telling stories, drinking chai, eating Indian sweets; we had such a delightful time. I enjoyed myself so much, I decided to stay in Lucknow longer.
On the fourth morning the structure of “I” and of time—past, present and future—completely collapsed and Poonja-ji said, “Remain there. This is your true home.” I knew “I” had nothing more to do. Tears rolled down my flushed cheeks as my body-mind again filled with a peaceful, blissful light. In my years of meditation, I have had many powerful spiritual experiences, even a collapse of the “I.” Yet, my teachers suggested that I view these experiences as “the passing show,” and to keep being mindful. It is a precious moment when the illusion of separation dissolves, or when one has an experience of the emptiness of a separate self. I found that emphasizing mindfulness at this point seemed to foster a false separation of the “watcher,” thus reinforcing a dualistic view.
That morning, as the “I” dropped into emptiness, Poonja-ji said, “This is the experience that ends all experience. This is enough.” And I knew “I” could stop; there was nowhere else to go. Instead of an “I” or a witness watching phenomena come and go, the “I” merged with everything, everything which was previously thought to be separate from itself. And what remains is nothing. I use the word “nothing” because any word I use to describe what remains is limiting. Yet, this is one of the great paradoxes of the teachings and where many people get misled and confused.
Because it is that void of nothingness which allows for the arising of everything—all phenomena. And there is no individual solid “I” that is separate from all that arises. Yet, it is the nature of things that there will be the appearance of me and you, an appearance of duality and separateness. We see that it is only an appearance, like a dream that has no substance.
Sharda (the name given to her by Poonja-ji) teaches meditation retreats in England, Europe, India and the U.S. and enjoys simply sitting and exploring with people she meets along the way.
In my first dialogue with Poonja-ji, I said, “I already know that the seeker and the sought are the same.” In other words, what I had been seeking for was the one who was seeking. I continued saying, “Yet, I have traveled halfway around the world to see you so I must want something from you.” He replied, “Remove the seeker and remove the sought.”
Upon hearing his words a momentary explosion occurred which seemed to bypass my mind, revealing a silence which is beyond description, beyond the seeker and beyond the sought. The thinking process went dead silent and there was a realization that I am that silence, the substratum of all that appears and disappears. I am truly nothing that can be named or described.
During the next few weeks, with trips to the noisy, bustling market of Hardwar, sitting with friends by the Ganges river or being in satsang with Poonja-ji, the mind remained quiet, unmoved. Thoughts would appear and be noticed although there was no effort to be mindful. Each day brought greater confidence that this silence or emptiness is my nature and I need not lift out of this instant to find myself. This primordial awareness is always here and now, outside of time, untouched, yet not separate from the appearances that arise and pass away.
The natural question might be, did this experience of non-thought continue? The answer is no. No state that exists in time lasts. However, the conviction remains that I need not search anymore or anyplace to find peace. Peace is my fundamental nature.
The impact of being with Poonja-ji has dramatically changed my emphasis in teaching meditation. Much of the focus in my meditation practice has been to develop the tools of precise observation of the objects of awareness, to realize their impermanent, unsatisfactory and impersonal nature. For these insights, practice has been a sure and gradual way of disidentifying with the contents of mind, for relinquishing ownership of this mind-body process. However, there was very little emphasis on examining the observer of these objects, looking directly at awareness itself. Who is meditating? What is this I? Today, besides encouraging vigilance toward whatever appears in our life experience, I more often point the observation to awareness itself, to what we are prior to thoughts or ideas of who we take ourselves to be. I suggest that this awareness is what is most natural to each of us. So rather than speaking of “becoming” aware, I speak of “being” aware, being as you are, nurturing the sense of completeness rather than the notion of becoming.
Many of us find ourselves endlessly waiting for some experience, some confirmation or sense of completion, postponing our happiness and freedom to a future that never arrives. There is only here and now. The future is a thought. Don’t postpone! Examine your assumptions about what you must do to be free. Remove these ideas and see who you are.
Howard Cohn teaches meditation and inquiry groups in San Francisco and leads retreats around the U.S. and in Europe.
I met Poonja-ji quite unexpectedly two-and-one-half years ago. I was in Asia with the sole intent of adopting a child. Destiny had other plans for me! I met my partner in Thailand, who until recently had been living there as an ordained monk, and several weeks later found myself with Master Poonja-ji. I had no conscious motivation to seek him out, but the opportunity presented itself and I took it. I did not know anyone who had met Poonja-ji so I did not know what to expect.
There were only four of us with Poonja-ji for the ten days of my first visit. It was very informal—we spent as much time with him eating meals, shopping and seeing local sights as we did in formal satsang. Being a well-trained Buddhist meditator, I asked him what kind of practice I should do while I was there. I was quite mystified when he grinned and bellowed, “Don’t do anything!! Keep your usual habits. Just come here (to his home) every morning at 10:00 a.m., and leave the rest to me!” So I did.
For several days I was experiencing considerable resistance to India, and quite a bit of doubt and confusion as to what this man was teaching. Nothing was happening—at least not in any way that my mind could grasp hold of. And then one morning—WHAMMO!!! We were sitting in his very small room. I was directly across from him. I was speaking to him about something (I don’t remember what—the content was irrelevant). He leaned forward intently and I looked into his eyes, feeling considerable fear, as if I was about to be exposed for being a complete fool—when suddenly there was an explosion. Everything I had previously known myself to be fell away—mind, body, time—all were gone!
Language cannot adequately convey the shift which occurred in awareness in that moment and in the unfolding of insight which followed. Put briefly, it was the end of a fictitious “me” seeking an imagined “it.” It was the end of the dualistic fixation of mind which had kept me on a path of urgent seeking for many years. With sparkling clarity, the entire path of seeking deconstructed itself in my mind. With rapid-fire insight, that which was essential sorted itself from that which was not. The “jewel in the lotus” revealed itself, and in its radiant light much of the dross of Buddhism as an institution or religion fell away. I saw the brilliant truth of the Buddha’s teaching as a vehicle or skillful means to bring us to liberating insight.
I now find myself teaching vipassana, with a minimum of emphasis on technique, as a means of helping people redirect attention from wherever it is bound (mind, body, phenomenal world and all that is known) to the presence of non-dual awareness, and to the possibilities of living with greater surrender to, and faith in, the unknown.
To be in the company of those who are opening to truth—whether in satsang with a realized master or on a silent meditation retreat—is an extremely rare and precious event in this world. With heartfelt gratitude, I bow to the excellent company my life has been blessed with—my teachers, family, friends and students! May all beings be so blessed!
Anna Douglas teaches retreats and classes through Spirit Rock and the Insight Meditation Society. She has a background in psychology and the arts, and in addition to vipassana practice, she has studied in the Zen, Advaita and Dzogchen traditions.
In these final two pieces, Ram Dass and Jack Kornfield write from their own experiences about how vipassana students might integrate their explorations of alternative paths into their practice.
I’m an eclectic who takes teachings wherever I can find them. I’m still open to them since I’m not yet enlightened. Hearing from various friends that Hari Lal Poonja and Dzogchen had something to offer, I was attracted. My history of love for Ramana Maharshi and his teaching was what drew me to Poonja. The fact that one of my guru brothers (Surya Das) was studying Dzogchen, and that I had been supporting his work in the monastery in France, led me to pursue that path as well.
My experience with Poonja was that of a very loving, devotional person. Poonja and I hit it off very quickly; he was very kind to me, and described his visits with Hanuman and with Ram and Sita. I found him to be a very deeply bhakti person, who at the same moment was joyfully reminding me of my training in the path of vichara atma, or the nature of self, which I had pursued for many years through Ramana Maharshi’s teachings. My experience in the Dzogchen retreat was extraordinarily useful, and I found Kempo Rinpoche to be incredibly sweet. Both of these men demonstrated a playfulness in the way in which they dealt with dharma, which is something that I continually need to be reminded about. I would say that Poonja and the Dzogchen masters are a helluva lot more fun than many other practices, even ones which I respect and from which I have gathered a great deal that is of value.
I feel that the vipassana practice, certainly the samadhi training, and Zen and Hindu practices prepared me to be able to absorb the Dzogchen training much more quickly. For me, now, all of these practices seem to summate.
In terms of emphasis, I feel that the Dzogchen technique focuses on the relation between nirvana and samsara, and focuses on rigpa—the clarity of mind that exists in emptiness—in a way that I have not found other techniques to bring into focus as clearly.
The techniques of Dzogchen and Advaita Vedanta are neither more nor less advanced than vipassana. I think they cultivate different parts of our consciousness or our understanding of dharma. The work I’ve done with vipassana has been invaluable in helping me to more deeply understand my own mind in a way that I don’t think I could have done initially with Dzogchen. In that sense, Dzogchen focuses on the end point rather than the means, while vipassana focuses more deeply on the means.
It seems to me that both Poonja and Dzogchen allow me to integrate my meditative practice into the world quite easily—especially the Dzogchen open-eye meditative practice, which I am finding very useful in my daily life. I feel that the Poonja technique is not really much of a technique, though I think he’s a statement of the realization of the technique of examination of where the self resides. I didn’t find his method useful to me in terms of spiritual practice, but I found him as a symbol of the results of practice to be an incredibly wonderful mirror, and in that sense Poonja is a true dharma friend.
I question whether either of these methods is really appropriate for beginning dharma students—although I think that there are some “beginning dharma students” who are in a reincarnational sense very old souls, and for whom Poonja would be a real shortcut. But I have a feeling that the Poonja technique creates a sense of situational high which is incredibly useful to remind people of the possibilities, but which is not necessarily stable. The three stages in Dzogchen, in which the stabilizing one is the third part, is what really interests me now. The first part of Dzogchen, which is the introduction or opening, is the place where Dzogchen and Poonja are very parallel. For the second stage, the continuous training part, I find Dzogchen very useful. And the stabilizing part I just dream about.
At the moment I find myself more attracted to the daily Dzogchen practice than to the vipassana practice which I have done since 1971. However, when I sit down to meditation I do start with a period of time in which I bring my awareness to my breath, to quiet my mind before I turn to the Dzogchen. An integration of these two methods seems most useful on a day-to-day basis.
My hope is that these techniques, especially Dzogchen, will be able to be integrated with vipassana. I hope that the teachers of these traditions will find ways to bring about this integration in a way that is useful to the students in this culture at this moment.
I sure loved Poonja and Kempo, and think that both of them were wonderful, wonderful beings, whom I feel graced to have met and to have touched.
Ram Dass is a spiritual teacher and author whose books include Be Here Now.
The Great Way is not difficult for those who have no preferences . . . because the non-dual is one with the trusting mind.
— The Third Zen Patriarch
What dharma student has not been touched by the beauty and spaciousness of the non-dual dharma? Whether the wisdom of Krishnamurti or the highest Tibetan practices of Dzogchen, the Advaita of Ramana Maharshi, or the Buddha’s words when he says, “the mind is naturally luminous,” these truths resonate deeply in our hearts. Over several years, I had the privilege of studying in India with Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj, one of the greatest masters of Advaita Vedanta. Though he rested in the middle of the world (he conducted a business and lived in the midst of family and grandchildren), his heart was free and awakened, undisturbed by daily events or by birth and death. And around him I felt an extraordinary freedom and love.
Many vipassana students and teachers have sought out non-dual teachers from among such masters (Advaita, Dzogchen, etc.). In part they have sought these teachers to free themselves from the dualistic emphasis found in the style of most Burmese and Thai teachers, common in Theravada Buddhism. These dualistic practices teach that we must fight against ourselves and our defilements. They teach that our body and our world is basically a field of suffering, and that only through striving to overcome our impurity can we obtain nirvana and escape all future births. Of course, there are some wonderful non-dual teachings in Theravada Buddhism as well—exemplified in some of the teachings of masters like Buddhadasa and Ajahn Chah. Many of us as western vipassana teachers have also followed this practice, bringing a strong sense of the non-dual to our retreats. But where the dualistic teachings predominate, there is a danger that the western students who already suffer from unworthiness and woundedness can easily become more entangled and tense, increasing their self-judgment and frustration. There is a danger that years of practice can simply reinforce a struggle with ourselves.
Most students come to spiritual practice seeking love, seeking the profound self-acceptance and peace for which most of us have searched for years. We can spend our whole life looking for this through worldly and spiritual efforts—only to discover, in the end, that what we sought is not a product of efforts to perfect ourselves, but of a radical letting go and acceptance of the world as it is. Part of the great beauty of non-dual practice is its emphasis on the inherent perfection and purity that already exists in all things. When we let go of our small sense of self, our limited identity, we rest in our true nature, our Buddha nature, and everything in the world becomes free for us.
When this quality of perfect trust is embodied in a great master like Poonja-ji or Urgyen Tulku or Ajahn Chah, students feel directly the spacious emptiness of the non-dual, together with an enormously loving presence—like the Great Father or Great Mother who offers the blessings and love that we have longed for. This presence and loving acknowledgment is as powerfully healing as the “teachings” themselves.
The main question I have for students following the non-dual ways of practice is “what happens afterwards? A taste of “awakening” is not so hard; it can be wonderful and transformative but what happens some months after a visit to Lucknow, a Dzogchen retreat, or a three-month vipassana retreat, for that matter? For a time, we may experience a sense of great freedom, a clear and empty mind, and a heart full of love. But back at home after six months this experience fades and our old personality patterns and fearful habits reassert themselves. The personal problems we felt we had “transcended” can re-arise. It is true that we still have the experience of our open heart and luminous mind to inspire and remind us of another perspective but even so, we easily get lost in the complexities of our human relationships and of modern life. How do we practice then? The truth is that real practice begins after “awakening.” The practices of right speech, right livelihood, right mindfulness, of loving compassion, which all arise from the non-dual, must be respected and fulfilled day by day. Only when our way of practice includes an awakening in every dimension of our life can we be said to truly embody the freedom of the masters.
I remember when I studied with Nisargadatta. After he felt that a student had really understood the empty and illusory nature of all things and the love that moves through the great universe, he would send them home. “If you wish to fulfill your awakening, don’t bother coming back,” he would say. “Return to your home and marry the girl or boy next door, find your livelihood, and work for your community and the world. Only remember to ask “Who am I?” while you do this.
Jack Kornfield has just completed a book addressing some of these issues. It is called A Path with Heart: the Perils and Promises of Spiritual Life and will be published next spring by Bantam.