Chagdud Tulku Rinpoche looks like a Tibetan sage. He has a wispy white beard, a creased, leathery face with pronounced laugh lines, twinkling eyes, and the stout frame of a laughing Buddha which he carries with ease and grace. He also has one of those low-pitched voices common to older Tibetan lamas who for decades have been chanting body-resonating prayers and mantras. And when Chagdud Rinpoche uses that voice to speak about dharma one hears the unmistakable depth of ancient accumulated wisdom that seems to reside in the gene pool of various Tibetan Buddhist lineages.
Chagdud Rinpoche began his lama training at age five, received extensive instruction in all aspects of Tibetan Buddhism, and eventually studied with some of the greatest Vajrayana and Dzogchen masters of his time. During the Chinese invasion, he fled Tibet and for the next twenty years worked with Tibetan refugees in India and Nepal. In 1979, at the urging of his Western students, Chagdud Rinpoche came to the United States, where he has since established several centers and affiliated groups of students, mostly located in the Western U.S. and Canada. Aside from his reputation as a highly realized meditation master, Rinpoche is also an accomplished artist and poet.
Chagdud Tulku Rinpoche teaches the philosophy and meditation practices of Vajrayana Buddhism, which came to Tibet from India in the eighth century and subsequently survived only in Tibet. The Vajrayana is said to incorporate all levels of Buddhist meditation training, culminating in Dzogchen or Great Perfection. Vajrayana masters claim that their system of practices is unparalleled for swift realization of the mind’s true nature and that Dzogchen is the pinnacle of all Buddhist teachings.
The following interview with Chagdud Tulku Rinpoche took place in April 1992 and was conducted by Wes Nisker.
Inquiring Mind: Dzogchen is considered to be the most advanced of all Tibetan Buddhist practices, and very extensive training is required before students are given these teachings. Furthermore, before one can receive the detailed teachings of the Great Perfection, one must first receive empowerment. What is meant by empowerment? Is it the guru’s initiation, the blessing of the guru?
Chagdud Tulku Rinpoche: Empowerment is a very complex ceremony that is full of meaning from beginning to end. There are different levels of empowerment—different symbols, blessings, mantras, recitations, visualizations.
For example, traditionally, before doing vipassana practice one needs to take vows of refuge, and those refuge vows are then the foundation upon which one applies the practice. In the Mahayana path the foundation is the Bodhisattva vow, and based on that one applies the various methods. In the same way in the Vajrayana, the empowerment is the foundation. Only after one has received empowerment can one do the practice.
Throughout history some extremely fortunate people were able to receive these Great Perfection teachings directly from their teacher by words, by gesture, by symbol, by the power of the teacher’s realization. The student “got it” just like that, very simply. But that is extremely rare. Most people who aspire to practice the higher teachings are not so fortunate. One needs to go through a process of training to purify the obscurations of the mind before one can “get it.” The extent to which the mind’s obscurations are purified is the extent to which one can realize these teachings.
For example, if we do meditation practice and just simply quiet the mind and let the thoughts self-cease, in one way this is very wonderful. But it’s like we have a tape recorder and the sound on the tape we are playing is desire, anger, jealousy, pride, all these kinds of things that we don’t like. So we push the pause button and the tape stops. If we’re good meditators maybe the tape can be stopped for ten hours; maybe even a day, or a week. And for some practitioners it can be stopped for six or seven months. But when you finally lift up the pause button, there are the same thoughts again, the same desire, the same anger, the same jealousy, and the same pride. It hasn’t changed. So what’s the problem? The problem is that the tape wasn’t erased. And it wasn’t retaped. The machine was only on pause. It is for this reason that we employ these visualizations and mantras and empowerments. All these complicated methods are employed to erase the old tape and to tape over it. After we apply these methods, then when we release the pause button there is a different sound. The sound is selflessness, the sound is lovingkindness, the sound is diligence, patience, generosity and wisdom.
People are now talking a lot about a method of spontaneous awakening, but I think this is really a mistake. If there was a true method for spontaneous awakening, then the Buddha would have taught it [laughs]. If the Buddha and the bodhisattvas didn’t teach it, then I don’t think it will work. To think that anyone has more wisdom than the Buddha, or that there’s anybody who ever came to this world with more wisdom than the Buddha, is also probably a mistake.
So what we have in Tibetan Buddhism are different methods for erasing the tape and retaping it. And the faster methods for erasing the tape and retaping it are also the most complicated. For example, say you need to get someplace. Any vehicle will take you. If you take a bicycle, it will be quite slow but it’s also very simple. If you want to go more quickly, then you might take an automobile, but the automobile is much more complicated to build and much more complicated to run. If you want to go even faster, you can take an airplane, but that is even more complicated to make and to run. In a similar way, in Buddhism if you apply more complicated methods, or even several different methods simultaneously, although it may be more complicated, there will be much swifter accomplishment. Because what you are doing is cutting, and cutting, and cutting the delusions of the mind in many different places. Applying many methods together has a very powerful impact.
IM: This fall in Massachusetts I attended a weekend Dzogchen meditation retreat [laughing]—two full days of the Great Perfection. In my vipassana practice there had almost always been a witness present; there were objects and thoughts and sensations—and me watching them. In the Dzogchen meditation, the witness disappeared. In fact, all distinctions seemed to dissolve. Although I had experienced that state previously, I had not understood it to be the true nature of reality, the “Great Perfection.”
CT: It’s not so difficult to have the experience of the non-dual. But the second thing that is needed is meditation. Because this experience doesn’t last so long. It’s kind of like putting a patch on a hole in your pants. It seems really good until you stand up and try to walk and then the patch falls off. You can say everything is non-dual, everything is emptiness, but then someone comes along and slaps your face and you feel pain. Then anger arises. What happened to non-dual awareness? What happened to your understanding of the empty nature of experience? This experience of the non-dual was not sustained.
So how do we sustain it? When we’re first introduced to the view, there is some intellectual understanding, but it’s not really experience. So meditation is needed.
It’s like sewing the patch onto the fabric. With meditation one begins to be able to maintain that quality of knowing. But the Great Perfection isn’t the same as vipassana. In one way it is easier. In one way, it’s too easy to believe. But in another way it is more complicated because it is more subtle. And for this reason there are many who aren’t enlightened and who don’t have realization of the ultimate nature of things. They talk Great Perfection, but if someone hits them, then their impulse is to fight back. This means there’s really not realization there. So meditation is needed.
But then a third thing is needed. First there is view or understanding, then meditation, and then finally there is action. It’s not enough to simply sit atop a cushion for a few hours a day. We have very strong habits of the mind, and to change them we need to bring our meditation to our everyday experience. We need to hold the absolute truth when we brush our teeth, when we wash the dishes, when we talk on the telephone, when we go to work. View, meditation, and action together are the path to realization.
IM: Could you say a little more about the difference between vipassana and Dzogchen, as you see it?
CT: It’s not just the difference between vipassana and the Great Perfection Teachings, but between Great Perfection and all the other yanas or levels of practice. Vipassana and all the other eight levels of practice are using ordinary mind as the method. There’s always some category of mind watching, looking, thinking; some level of duality exists. But at each level, even though there is still duality, the distinctions become more and more subtle. Finally, when Great Perfection meditation is being properly applied, one simply isn’t working with ordinary mind.
In Great Perfection practice one is working with awareness, but there’s a difference. And it’s easy to confuse this awareness with ordinary mind. In talking about the experience it can sound almost the same. For example, if we’re talking about mind, if we really look for the mind we’ll never find it. It has no shape, it has no form, no color, no substance. No matter how intelligent we are, or how complex the technology, we’ll never find it. And so it seems like it is nothing. And yet we can’t deny that there is this continuous knowing quality, and this is the mind. We can’t say yes it’s there, because we can’t find the mind. And on the other hand we can’t say no, there’s nothing there, because there’s this unceasing experience of this knowing quality. And in this yes and no there is no dichotomy. The reason there is no dichotomy is because ordinary concepts are not the object. The nature of this knowing is beyond ordinary concepts. This means that neither yes or no, or both, or neither can catch it. This nature is the ultimate reality.
In the Great Perfection there are deeper teachings about this. What I have just told you is like the outer teaching. But this is enough without empowerment.
So people may have some glimpse or some momentary non-dual experience of reality. But that’s very difficult to maintain because something always pulls us towards the past, or pulls us towards the future. Some hope or some fear arises in the mind. There’s always something which is crowding our attention, and so we don’t remain resting in the view or experience of the true nature. In order to address that, we need to call on meditation.
IM: Can you describe the Dzogchen meditation practice?
CT: The ultimate true nature is non-dual, and it does not involve ordinary concepts. So to use ordinary concepts won’t work. Furthermore, to practice a meditation that uses ordinary mind would be incompatible with the non-dual understanding. So in the Great Perfection method, the meditation is effortless. What this means is we’re not losing our view, and we simply let the mind remain in recognition of its true nature. It’s very simple to talk about it, but it’s not so simple to do it. There’s always a fine line because you can’t apply effort. The effort itself is an obstacle. If you have effort there is object and subject, somebody to make effort and effort to be made. And that involves ordinary mind. But if you don’t use any effort, then it’s really easy to forget the recognition of true nature. Two—three—four hours go by and nothing has happened.
To actualize the non-dual is difficult. That’s why first we need to prepare. What we do is to cut the obstacles such as effort so there is nothing left but naked awareness.
IM: Can you say something about how you prepare to cut effort?
CT: We work with cutting hopes, and we work with cutting fears. This will reduce the need for effort, and then it becomes easier to recognize awareness. Once we’ve cut effort there’s not much left to do. Then we can be introduced to the view and “get it.” Eventually we come to the ati-yoga practice where we remain effortlessly in recognition of our true nature. At this point, the method, the path, is to maintain this effortless awareness of our nature. Awareness is the path, not ordinary mind. This is the essence of Great. Perfection meditation, which we bring with us into all our actions. However, there are deeper levels of teaching and methods within the Great Perfection that are not appropriate to discuss outside the context of the necessary training and empowerment.
IM: In Tibetan Buddhism what is the connection between the realization of emptiness or the Great Perfection, and the arising of compassion?
CT: Once we know this ultimate reality, then compassion spontaneously arises. One sees that in the not knowing, in not having awareness, beings are caught in hope, caught in fear, caught in attachment and aversion, in pushing and pulling. Those who don’t know the true nature suffer greatly as a consequence. So then, once we know this nature, compassion arises effortlessly, deep in the mind, along with ceaseless and consistent intention and action to benefit others. And so the essence of emptiness is compassion. And compassion’s nature is emptiness. These two arise inseparably.
IM: There is also talk about bliss arising with the realization of Great Perfection.
CT: Bliss arises with the knowing of the true nature, but bliss is one of the three experiences that can be an obstacle to our practice.
Once we have rid ourselves of desire, ignorance, and anger, the poisons of the mind, then we arrive at the other side, and have experiences of bliss, clarity, and stability. It’s like teeter-tottering. But we need to find the center.
We can become attached to clarity when it seems like one knows the past and the future, can see through walls for great distances outside. Yet this isn’t enlightenment. It’s only one kind of meditation experience.
Sometimes we have the experience of stability. This is the experience where the mind just stays with no thought. But again this is a temporary experience. Sometimes we meditate and we have blissful experiences, so blissful that it makes doing anything difficult.
The experiences of bliss, clarity and stability in themselves aren’t obstacles, but attachment to these experiences is an obstacle. Because these experiences aren’t the goal. They are temporary and will change. So it’s important not to have attachment or aversion to them, not to make a big deal out of them, but to simply keep going. Everything needs to be cut.
There’s karma that’s created through attachment to these different meditation experiences. If we have attachment to bliss it creates karma for rebirth in the god realm, the “desire god” realm. If we have attachment to clarity, it produces karma for rebirth in the “form god” realm. And if we have attachment to the stability of the non-dual experience—not the view but the experience—then this produces rebirth in the formless realm. So, that means that all things, whether bad or seemingly good, need to be cut. That’s why we have to have skill in applying the methods. But if one really knows view, meditation, and action, and really has non-dual awareness, and really applies Great Perfection methods with diligence, one can achieve complete realization and enlightenment in seven years, or five years, or three years. It can be this short, but it needs incredible diligence and the full application of these skillful methods.
IM: Over the years there have been some disagreements between Tibetan and Theravada Buddhists over who has the true dharma or what constitutes skillful means. How do you view this dispute?
CT: I think it is merely a matter of communication. In Los Angeles recently, I met with some old Burmese monks, very good scholars. And they really didn’t believe in Mahayana or Vajrayana Buddhism. They really didn’t think these were true dharma paths. And yet some people invited us to get together saying we were all Buddhist teachers, and so come and eat together. At the meal these monks didn’t ask any questions, but some of the other people asked questions, and so I talked for a little while. And afterwards one of these monks really thanked me, because he said that previously he did not believe in the Mahayana or Vajrayana, and now, the possibility had entered his mind that maybe there were other methods that were really effective and that were true Buddha dharma.