Lama Surya Das (Jeffrey Miller) was born in New York in 1950, and graduated from the State University of New York at Buffalo in 1970 with a degree in Creative Education. Between the years 1971 and 1976 Surya Das traveled throughout India and Nepal studying with various teachers. He became a devotee of the Hindu teacher Neem Karoli Baba who gave him the name Surya Das, and he practiced in Tibetan Buddhist monasteries under the guidance of Venerable Kalu Rinpoche and His Holiness Gyalwa Karmapa. Surya Das has traveled to Korea and Japan to study with various Zen masters, and he has practiced vipassana meditation with both Eastern and Western teachers. In 1980 he entered the Nyingmapa retreat center in Dordogne, France, where he completed two traditional three-and-one-half-year retreats under the guidance of His Holiness Dudjom Rinpoche and His Holiness Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche. During this time Surya Das became a Lama in the Practice Lineage of Tibetan Buddhism.
Lama Surya Das was instrumental in helping to establish Gyalwa Karmapa’s Kagyu monastery (KTD) in Woodstock, New York. He is also a published poet and writer (The Snow Lion’s Turquoise Mane: Wisdom Tales From Tibet. Harper & Row, 1991) and a member of the international Padmakara translation committee. Surya Das currently teaches meditation retreats and workshops in Dzogchen, the Great Perfection, which is considered by many lamas to be the most advanced teaching of Tibetan Buddhism. Lama Surya Das is the founder and head of the Dzogchen Foundation of America based in Massachusetts.
The following piece is a composite of two interviews, one conducted by Fred von Allmen (Copyright: Fred von Allmen, 1989) and one by Wes Nisker with Catherine Ingram.
Inquiring Mind: We would like to talk about your practice in the Tibetan tradition of Dzogchen or the Great Perfection. Perhaps you could begin by pointing out the features that are unique to this tradition.
Lama Surya Das: Dzogchen basically deals with the innate intelligence or intrinsic awareness which all beings possess. It means seeing non-dualistically, rather than in the usual dualistic object-subject dichotomy. By definition, delusion is dualistic, while non-duality is ultimate wisdom. Dzogchen doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with Buddhism. It is the pure and perfect nature of all things.
IM: It is said that in Dzogchen “the view” is of ultimate importance. Explain what is meant by view.
SD: In Dzogchen the view comes first, and is crucial. The view is the outlook that everything is primordially pure and perfect just as it is.
One might also say that the view is like vast space, without center or periphery, infinite and open. It’s the big view, the overview of overviews. We call it the view from above. Dzogchen is like swooping down from above. The Dalai Lama once said that Dzogchen is the practice of buddhas, not the practice of beings.
IM: Could you elaborate on the nature of non-dual reality? How would you describe it?
SD: All knowables, all experiences, all phenomena, all forms of duality, both good and bad, both samsara and nirvana, are simply dualistic projections or elaborations, like rainbows in the sky. In Dzogchen they are actually seen as open and empty by nature. Furthermore, the positive aspect of that emptiness is luminous clarity or radiance. In Dzogchen we see this radiance as the inherent quality of primordial being, and we call it rigpa. Rigpa is non-dual awareness, and this clear light of rigpa (in Sanskrit, vidya) is the opposite of ignorance (avidya), which is the basic defilement at the center of the wheel of becoming.
IM: Are you saying that rigpa is awareness itself, but awareness without any quality of discrimination?
SD: Let’s distinquish between mind and rigpa. And this is perhaps the unique point of Dzogchen practice and teachings. In Dzogchen the mind is that which identifies, reaches out toward objects, conceptualizes objects of perception. We see this mind as delusion, and rigpa—non-dual awareness—as wisdom. In Dzogchen we do everything, all activities, as an exercise of this non-dual awareness, not as mind training. Mind training is climbing up the mountain from below.
Look at it this way: the mind has to do with knowledge, and knowledge is so limited, so relative. Even Einstein is being refuted today. New physics seems to be like a Madhyamika dialectic, taking things apart until we see that there’s nothing there. Scientists can’t know anything certain about electrons or quarks. And when we bump up against the limits of knowledge then the mind falls apart. As Krishnamurti says, the mind is an obstacle to experience of the real, and that’s what he means when he talks about “freedom from the known.”
IM: So you consider the mind to be very different from this non-dual awareness. Does the mind obscure the non-dual awareness, the rigpa?
SD: The mind is actually a display of rigpa. Thoughts are the display of rigpa. They are like reflections in a mirror. In Dzogchen we recognize that all appearances arise in the mirror of innate wakefulness, of non-dual awareness. The mind reaches out for objects, labels them, and out of this ignorance arise subject and object, wanting and not wanting. The opposite of that dualistic ignorance is rigpa.
But rigpa is not something you get at the end of countless kalpas of practice, or after going through the four stages of enlightenment and becoming an arhat. We say rigpa is the innate state of all beings, the intrinsic wakefulness, and to recognize that is enlightenment.
IM: And every being has it at all times?
SD: Every being’s got it all the time but very few can recognize it. People overlook their own innate nature.
IM: And how does Dzogchen enable people to recognize their true nature?
SD: It is said that a practice like Dzogchen depends upon someone being “introduced” to the ultimate nature. The word ngotrod in Tibetan means “to be introduced, but it also means “to identify.” So introduction doesn’t just mean somebody tells you about it; it means you’ve recognized it yourself. You’ve seen the sun break through the clouds, for a moment at least. The clouds might obscure the sun again, just as the mind obscures the innate awareness, but the important point is that we have recognized the ultimate nature with certainty; we have actually come to see how things are. But for most of us that experience doesn’t last forever. It is relatively easy to get enlightened, but it is hard to stay enlightened. Most of us who have a real enlightenment experience then have to work out all its implications, which is what practice is all about.
So first we “recognize” the fundamental ground. However, you must remember that in Dzogchen the ground is also the fruit, the final result. In the Tibetan Buddhist scheme of ground, path, and fruit, we actually see that we are the ground, that we have always been identical to the ground or the fundamental, existential nature of being. But we have to tread on the path to re-orient ourselves to that which is always present. That is the practice of the path, which allows for finally achieving the fruit, which is also inseparable from the ground.
In other words, having perceived the ultimate truth through this “introduction,” by identifying or recognizing our own true nature (which is the true nature of everything and everyone), we do certain practices to bring that recognition to the forefront of our being. So that we actually live from and as that ground, instead of looking for it.
IM: How does one get introduced to this truth? Is it a formal kind of initiation by a teacher?
SD: In the Tibetan tradition there is a strong emphasis on the vajra master, the spiritual teacher or guru, and devotion. So we say that the introduction comes through the master. But actually one can also recognize it oneself, without a master, through practice and penetrating awareness—awareness that is aware of itself rather than looking outward.
Nonetheless, it is said that the master can destroy the hut of duality. We usually think the mind is a mansion, but actually it is like a little hut. Introduction by a master means cracking the shell of duality, so that the hut falls apart. This is done by mingling with the guru’s enlightened nature, which then becomes a mirror of our own Buddha-nature. The ultimate guru is actually the inner guru, intrinsic awareness itself.
IM: How do you establish yourself in this intrinsic non-dual awareness, this rigpa?
SD: One can maintain that awareness through a practice called “cutting through.” But in reality, there’s nothing to cut through, and no one to cut through it. Seeing that is cutting through. So it might be better to say “seeing” through. But then it sounds very visual. So we call it trekchöd, which means “cutting up solidity.” Or in other words, seeing through duality. It implies recognizing all phenomena as the display or projection of awareness, seeing that everything is spontaneously and naturally self-arising and self-dissolving. All that is needed is awareness, penetrating recognition.
Cutting through solidity undermines the compulsive need to alter or improve situations. It dissolves struggle and grasping, and the habitual illusory striving which is not right effort, but mistaken or limited effort. Our practice then turns out to be a matter of settling back in a relaxed way into our own primordial beingness, seeing through all forms into their true nature.
This is a very spacious sitting practice, a meditation of centerless openness. It can be done in any situation, not just in formal meditation periods. It’s applied in walking, eating, in any and all activities. When one gains stability of this view through experience, one can do trekchöd anywhere. It is the main practice, the very heart of Dzogchen.
IM: It sounds like you have a technique, but then, you don’t really do anything.
SD: It’s tricky, because all techniques involve the mind in duality, in effort and will, and in hope and fear. With any technique or practice you have the expectation of getting something, or anxiety about losing something or not getting it. You have hope for enlightenment, or fear of samsara. Trying to cross the river of samsara to get to nirvana—that’s hope and fear orientation. However, when one has been introduced to the view from above—the absolute truth, the non-dual immanent reality—then all the relative practices are enhanced.
In one way, we believe that technique is good, but we are always aware that technique is only a means. The trouble is that many of us make technique into an end. We become professional meditators, or concentrators. We’re too sophisticated to think that God is only in the church or temple, but then we end up thinking spiritual life is only when we meditate. Meanwhile, the utter joy of being is all of the time.
You see, in Dzogchen, once the view is introduced or recognized, then the practice is simply a matter of getting used to it, actualizing it, seeing everything through it. Just as when you’ve perceived the unconditioned, you understand all conditions, you see through all conditions. Form is emptiness, and emptiness is form. But first you have to establish the view that there is nothing to accomplish and no one to accomplish it.
It is a paradox to the mind, because this is not a mind practice. You have to burst out of duality, burst the bubble of the mind, and only then can you experience or appreciate or, as we say in tantra, “enjoy” the innate awareness, the intrinsic wakefuness, this ineffable presence. In Dzogchen this is accomplished through what we call “non-effort, non-meditation, and non-distraction.”
IM: So you practice non-meditation.
SD: In our meditation there’s a notion of undoing rather than doing. As I said, we think of it as seeing through.
IM: But you don’t emphasis long sitting sessions, right?
SD: The Dzogchen slogan is “Many quickies rather than a few longies.” And that means not trying to get into a state and maintaining it for an hour, or a day, or forever. The instantaneous awareness is it, and one recognizes that again and again.
IM: That’s nirvana.
SD: We don’t talk much about nirvana because of the idealistic associations with it. We say nirvana and samsara are inseparable. And the mind creates both.
IM: So what is emphasized is the flash of experience, the sudden entry into the non-dual.
SD: In this very instant, if you look back at what’s looking, then suddenly it is seen. Then the mind says “this is it,” which is again dualistic perception. Therefore, you can’t say what “it” is, but there’s a flash of recognition. In that flash there’s no time and no space, no figure and ground relationship. It’s a fertile and effulgent void.
IM: Why do you keep your eyes open when you meditate?
SD: Because it’s natural to have your eyes open when you’re awake. It would be more to the point to ask, “Why do you close your eyes?” Do you close your ears, or your nose, or your mouth, or your mind when you meditate? Then, why close your eyes? Probably in order to concentrate. But concentration is not stressed at the Dzogchen level of practice. Concentration is a means, not an end. And Dzogchen is the end. It’s called the fruit vehicle. As I said earlier, in Dzogchen we use the fruit, the innate, enlightened state, as the path. Instead of trying to plant the seed of bodhi, and then watering it and cultivating it over many kalpas to reach the flowering and fruit, in this vehicle the fruit is the path.
IM: If we already are this Buddha-nature, perfect and pure, then how does duality and suffering come into the picture?
SD: Well, it seems to come into the picture, but it’s like a nightmare, an unpleasant dream. Somebody asked His Holiness Dudjom Rinpoche: “If everything is perfect from the first and takes place within the context of the Great Perfection, then how did all this happen?” And Dudjom Rinpoche answered: “Did it?” He didn’t say it didn’t happen. He was just turning the question back upon itself. So it seems to be happening. There is an apparent manifestation that we are caught in. However, what is really happening is not something that can be expressed in words, and from the point of view of rigpa everything is merely a self-display of itself, a kind of energy endowed with clarity.
So in this state of non-dualistic recognition there is no bondage to the illusion of separateness, and one does not fall under the power or influence of objects or apparent phenomena. Therefore, one also doesn’t need to dispel the phantasmagorical appearances of those phenomena. One remains completely carefree concerning whatever happens, for better or for worse. Of course, it depends on recognizing who or what is actually experiencing things. It’s a matter of knowing oneself.
IM: What you are saying implies that one doesn’t have to uproot the defilements in the mind, but to simply see their true nature as pure and perfect manifestations of the primordial show.
SD: I think it is important to recognize that the idea of defilements in the mind is a very relative notion. It relates to the relative, conditioned level of reality. But from the point of view of the ultimate truth, everything, whether good or bad, positive or negative, is recognized in its own true nature as just the magical display of rigpa. As His Holiness Karmapa said on his deathbed, “Nothing happens.” Again, this is what is called “the view from above.” Yet this view in no way contradicts self-discipline, ethical behavior or moral precepts. Pure morality is the natural expression of non-dual awareness.
IM: What is the relationship of Dzogchen to the traditional practices of other schools of Buddhism?
SD: Dzogchen is based upon the general practices of the sutras and tantras, involving renunciation as well as the development of generosity, lovingkindness and compassion. Dzogchen also engages in all the preliminary practices of the Vajrayana, such as doing prostrations, the purifying mantras of Vajrasattva, and the practice of mandala offerings.
There’s a complete curriculum of practice in the Vajrayana tradition which might be done in a three-year retreat or in one’s life over a period of many years. During this time one would practice deity yoga, which involves meditating on various deities. These deities are recognized as personifications of enlightened qualities innately present in the mind. With the view of Dzogchen, one recognizes that one’s own identification with the deity is relative; one might just as well think of oneself as a Buddha-deity, and look out through already enlightened eyes. Usually we think of ourselves as human beings, and we identify with a country, a profession, an ego and whatever our self-concept includes. By means of this meditation on deities, we transfer our identification onto these other qualities of being. We thus dissolve a lot of solidity and actually can see through our own self-concepts. These are all exercises, exercises of awareness, getting to know what our nature is. It means not only recognizing that one’s own mind is projecting the deity, but also that one’s mind is sitting here projecting this person sitting here, thinking that one is a human, which is not the entire picture.
From deity yoga one then goes on to deeper levels of recognizing emptiness: seeing through the illusion of self and other, and seeing through duality in all its forms. This might be done for example through the Six Yogas of Naropa and other tantric systems, such as the meditation on the eight similes of illusion-like dreams, echoes and mirages, whereby one recognizes the insubstantiality of everything. One goes through the clear-light practices and dream practices, mingling day and nighttime, seeing that the dream-state and the after-death-state are quite similar to the living reality we experience now. Seeing that they are all just different states of being. Everything is like a dream. Just know the dreamer.
In the Dzogchen approach, having recognized how things are, we then simply rest in that. We rest at ease and at home in our pure and perfect nature, which belongs to all beings. This naturally brings us into a state in which we respond appropriately and compassionately with all beings and in all situations.
IM: What other kinds of practices are employed in Dzogchen teachings?
SD: Beyond the practice of “cutting through” or trekchöd, there is the unique practice of “leaping over” or thögal. I don’t think one should talk about it, since it’s a so-called secret teaching, but you can read about it.
IM: Can you say in short what its purpose is?
SD: As I said before, trekchöd means “cutting through,” recognizing the basic nature. So thögal is the path, the visionary practice of the trekchöd view. It means “leaping over” or “leaping to the top.” And the purpose of thögal is to actualize and manifest this ultimate nature of reality. It’s to recognize that we are all buddhas, albeit sleeping buddhas. It means realizing the rainbow-light-body, a pure body of manifestation, in this very lifetime. It’s a way of transcending birth and death, of being able to consciously choose to appear in many incarnations (tulkus), extending Buddha-activity throughout the six realms of existence in infinite time and space, for the benefit of all beings. It’s a way of transforming both samsara and nirvana into their true nature, from which they have never been apart. The Dzogchen masters say that those who despise samsara and seek nirvana only lengthen the way to full enlightenment.
IM: You mentioned that thögal is a secret teaching, and that Dzogchen itself is a very radical teaching, and we’ve heard that many lamas feel it is dangerous to teach Dzogchen to someone who has not first gone through the preliminary practices. Would you elaborate on that?
SD: In Dzogchen there’s no self, there’s no creator, there’s no good and bad. You could say it’s good to do this and bad to do that, but that’s in the realm of relative truth. Dzogchen is sometimes considered a dangerous and heretical teaching because it’s beyond karma. It’s the absolute outlook. That is why it is taught in the context of Buddhism, and as a path based on the Mahayana. That way it is grounded in wisdom and compassion and the six paramitas. Guru Rinpoche, the patriarch of Buddhism in Tibet, and the patriarch of Dzogchen said, “One’s view should be as lofty as the sky. One’s practice, one’s activity, one’s behavior should be as meticulous or as fine as flour.”
That’s oft quoted. It means don’t just get lost in the absolute and become some kind of Hitler, or Nietzschian nihilist or superman egotist. Look at the Dalai Lama; he’s an example of the balance between relative and absolute. My teacher said that according to our tradition, a Dzogchen yogi descends from above with the absolute view while ascending from below with relative practices. In this way, Dzogchen is complete.
So Dzogchen is always taught according to both absolute and relative truths. The wisdom of emptiness and the compassion of skillful means are like the two wings of a bird. And the bird can’t fly with just one wing. Wisdom without compassion is sterile, and compassion without wisdom is blind and deluded. The Dalai Lama always says, “My religion is lovingkindness.” I subscribe to that.
IM: You’ve had some experience with vipassana meditation. How would you compare vipassana and Dzogchen?
SD: I think Dzogchen is like arya-vipassana; that is, a kind of vipassana you might practice after stream-entry. I happened to have the privilege of studying and taking precepts from the Thai forest monk, Ajahn Chah. I also sat with Goenka-ji, Munindra-ji and many other vipassana teachers in Burma and Thailand. But Achaan Chah’s view and way of teaching was quite different from the developmental model that I experienced in Burma. Achaan Chah talked about the intrinsic purity of the mind; he said that peace was already there, so stop shaking the water. It’s naturally clear and lucid. This is the same view as Dzogchen, yet coming out of the Theravada tradition.
IM: It also sounds like there are a lot of similarities between Dzogchen and Zen.
SD: Yes, in Suzuki Roshi’s book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, he presents a view that is very close to that of Dzogchen. He says everything is just the waves of “big mind,” which could be more or less synonymous with rigpa. Suzuki Roshi says the Buddha is the one sitting on your cushion, and that zazen is not so much a way to get enlightened as it is the expression of enlightenment. He’s not emphasizing a breakthrough into satori. Instead it’s wisdom itself which is seeking for wisdom. Or as we say, “Rigpa is the path, and rigpa is the fruit.”
Once a disciple asked his Zen master, “What is the Buddha, what is the way?” The master replied, “Ordinary mind is the way. The mind thinking this and that right now is it.” Then the disciple asked, “How do I contact it?” And the master said, “The more you try to approach it, the further you get from it. The more you chase it, the further it runs.” It’s kind of a joke, but you see the point. Another disciple asked, “How do I walk on this path?” And the master said, “Walk on.” Your walking is the path. It’s all path.
So Suzuki Roshi calls it “big mind,” and in Dzogchen we say the view is like outer space. It’s free fall. And there is no earth to land on. You have to stand firm in emptiness, that’s the only reliable foothold. It’s like dancing in space. All our relative structures are nothing but monkey bars.
There is another similarity between Zen and Dzogchen, in that both are very difficult to talk about. The Zen koans are incomprehensible to people who stand outside of the tradition, and even to some who stand inside it. Just as all the non-dual talk of Dzogchen or Advaita Vedanta or Rumi or Eckhart is incomprehensible to those who don’t have the karmic affinity or the faculties for it. That’s just the facts of life. That’s why we always say it is important to know “the view” but to practice according to one’s capacity.
IM: And this practice of Dzogchen is for buddhas, not for ordinary beings.
SD: Remember, we are all buddhas. There’s a great story about a cook in Adzum Trungpa’s tent camp. Adzum Trungpa was a great master, and one day his cook, who was unlettered and untrained, burned his hand in the fire and woke up. He came running in to the master and told him what he had realized. Everything fell apart in that moment of burning his hand; he had a total satori breakthrough, non-dual experience. He realized who and what he was and the nature of all things. The master said, “That’s it!” And the cook said, “Now what?” And the master said, “Keep cooking.”
That cook became a great yogi, and he just kept cooking. But he had that big view, which is not intellectual. It’s not a philosophical view. It’s your intuitive highest wisdom. It’s your gestalt, your overview, which is pre-thought, really. It’s how you see the world.
IM: So Dzogchen has nothing to do with knowledge or sophistication, or with this or that school or tradition.
SD: That’s right. If you want to entitle this interview “We Are All Buddhas” I think it might be appropriate, because Dzogchen is beyond “isms” and “schisms.” It’s beyond Buddhism. We’re all buddhas, some asleep and some awakened. A sleeping buddha and an awakened buddha are both buddhas, by nature. And our only task is to awaken to our true nature. That’s Dzogchen teaching, in my own words.