I first met Tsoknyi Rinpoche in 1993, when he was leading a nine-day meditation retreat in the practice known as Dzogchen. At that time he was twenty-seven years old. As you might know, sometimes during silent meditation retreats people can look very grim and determined. One day when I was walking down the hall and passed Rinpoche, he just reached out and tickled me in the ribs. He had that kind of playfulness and joy throughout the retreat. In fact, one of his opening meditation instructions was: “Be happy, be cheerful.”
Tsoknyi Rinpoche’s teachings of Buddhadharma were among the clearest and most profound that I had ever heard and I wondered how such teachings could come from a twenty-seven-year-old body and mind. I came to understand this better after hearing Tsoknyi Rinpoche’s history. He is considered to be the third in a line of reincarnate lamas, the first of whom was a lama in Eastern Tibet in the last century. The first Tsoknyi Rinpoche was known for perseverance and effort in his meditation practice, and he also founded a large nunnery. The son of one of the most renowned Dzogchen masters of this century, Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche, the current Tsoknyi Rinpoche was recognized at age eight by His Holiness Karmapa. At age thirteen he began twelve years of very intense formal training. After hearing this history I came to understand Tsoknyi Rinpoche better: You take a previously enlightened mindstream, give it the genes of a renowned Dzogchen master, recognize the qualities at an early age, train that intensively, and you get Tsoknyi Rinpoche.
Inquiring Mind: To begin, please describe the essential teachings of Tibetan Dzogchen for the readers of Inquiring Mind, many of whom know Buddhadharma primarily through the Elders’ tradition of Theravada Buddhism and the methods of vipassana meditation.
Tsoknyi Rinpoche [speaking primarily through his translator, Tony Duff]: Having gone through all of the practices connected with the mind, in Tibetan Buddhist practice one finally arrives at Dzogchen, which goes past the mind. Many traditions depend on mind in meditation. No matter how far you go with them, you still end up with a subject and object. There is still a meditator present, even though its presence might be very, very subtle. Dzogchen provides the means to break through the duality.
IM: Do you believe, then, that Dzogchen adds to or somehow completes the path of insight from the Elders’ tradition?
TR: As you might know, the Tibetan tradition does incorporate the various practices of shamatha (concentration) as presented in the Theravada. Shamatha practices do not abandon conceptual mind. You might go very deeply into those practices and make conceptual mind very, very subtle but it still remains. Even at the most subtle level of those practices, there is still some kind of grasping at a meditator. You are in the present moment but are dwelling there with a subject and object still involved. You are still grasping a little at the present moment. Therefore, you are not free. In the Tibetan tradition, that grasping is dispensed with by various methods, including Dzogchen.
Dzogchen itself is what is. It is non-dwelling in the past, the future or even the present. It is the thorough actuality of everything. In contrast, the person who practices Dzogchen has a path that he or she proceeds on in various stages. The person who practices Dzogchen finally arrives at the empty essence/natural clarity which is Dzogchen. Having had that final insight, such a practitioner’s mind becomes completely expansive and free of grasping at any phenomenon. That practitioner in meditation actually does not meditate and in not meditating stays undistracted from what is real.
IM: Are you saying that in Dzogchen there is no meditator meditating? No sense of someone who is doing something?
TR: When we speak of meditating, we take it to mean that you are creating a state with your rational mind which ceases when you stop meditating. Thus, meditation does not get to the natural clarity but to a clarity that is constructed by the mind. In that case you have a stoppage. Where are you stopped? You are stopped in whatever you are creating with your conceptual mind. On the other hand, if you don’t meditate but just allow yourself to be distracted, you are just an ordinary person. [Laughter] In the Dzogchen method there is no meditation and in that non-meditation there is no distraction. These two together are crucial to the way of Dzogchen.
IM: In vipassana practice, the meditation object is often the breath, in which case it would seem that the meditator is present with what is real rather than something created by the mind. How is that different from Dzogchen?
TR: What you say is true. Breath is a natural phenomenon. However, when you focus on breath you are setting it up as an object which is separated from the knower of the object, so you are maintaining the subject-object duality. You still have not gone to the other shore. The method is good, but you are still using a method. From the Dzogchen point of view, you must destroy the method too.
IM: Dzogchen is usually taught in your Tibetan tradition as the final fruition of a very long and arduous path, requiring many years of practice. Now you are teaching Dzogchen to senior students of vipassana. Why do you think they are qualified or ready for these teachings?
TR: The American students who have done a lot of vipassana practice have reached the point where the subject-object dichotomy is quite subtle. In fact, if you do vipassana meditation for long enough, the distinction between subject and object will naturally dissolve. The dissolving of subject and object through the application of insight is likened in the Tibetan tradition to the wearing away of both knife and whetstone when a knife is sharpened. The Dzogchen teachings can make that happen a little faster. Dzogchen can be like a match which will ignite the situation. Rather than needing twenty years of practice to gain insight, you might only need fifteen.
I am also very comfortable teaching vipassana students because they understand meditation. If you don’t know about meditation, instructions about non-meditation won’t make any sense. Generally, people who have practiced vipassana can go smoothly into Dzogchen because when I tell them to let go of the meditation, they really know what needs to be released.
IM: Please describe the Dzogchen teaching of the world as emptiness and appearances.
TR: Just look around you at all of the different things and people in your environment. You see all of these things here but the fact is that not one single one of them has any true basis whatsoever. Nothing has any true existence. The sun, moon, solar system, the world—look at anything and you realize that you don’t really know what it is, finally. You can describe the process that is taking place very well but you can’t say anything about its beginning or where it ends. You might say the beginning was the “Big Bang,” or something like that but you don’t know what came before that or who created it. How did it “big bang”? The fact that there are so few answers to these questions is a sign of the illusoriness of appearances due to their being empty.
Also, if you really look carefully into whatever there is, whatever there might be, you can never find any root to it. Nothing is permanently established. Therefore behind everything is emptiness and all things are only appearances. There is only an effect happening.
IM: It is easy to imagine that someone who was not familiar with Buddhism or had not done any meditation practice might get confused or upset by that teaching.
TR: That is why the Dzogchen teaching is not given at the beginning of the path and why it isn’t something that we broadcast throughout the world. On the other hand, I think this teaching is especially good for Americans. Everything here is considered too real, too serious and because you think everything is very real, you get crazy. You have a “real” problem. [Laughter] You want real life, real happiness, real meaning, real, real, real. You are too greedy and even though you know that about yourselves, you don’t know how to let go of it. Dzogchen can cut that very effectively.
Moreover, I see that you have high-class confusion in America. [Laughter] I can see it in people’s eyes. Generally, when I see people who live in poverty and have no opportunity to work, I see a dull confusion in their eyes. When I see Americans, who are confused with so many things to do, so many things to have, so much intellectual this and that, I see that their eyes always look outward. Their eyes show a speedy, intellectual, high-class type of confusion. Dzogchen is very useful for dealing with that type of confusion.
IM: Some people in the West are concerned that Buddhist teachers are ignoring the problems of a planet very much at risk. Specifically, they are worried about these teachings that say the world of phenomena is only appearances arising out of emptiness. They say that such teachings could undermine the motivation for action around such issues as human rights or environmental pollution.
TR: Once you clean up your inner pollution, there will still be a motivation left to clean up the world’s pollution. The Buddha spoke of that pure remainder as compassion. At this moment you are affected by illusion pollution. Therefore you have to first clean up the illusion pollution from the illusion. [Laughter] Having done that, you will have pure compassion in your mind, and that pure compassion contains within it the intention to do something about suffering beings. Beings are suffering in a dream-like existence so you do try to help within the dream, but at the same time you need to understand that all is illusion, including yourself.
As part of the Dzogchen teachings we make many dedications and aspirations to benefit the external world, focusing on a healthy environment, and peace and harmony for everyone. However, if we are going to talk about dharma we must talk about how things really are. The actuality of all things is emptiness occuring simultaneously with appearances. The teacher has a responsibility to express that reality as it is. It is then the responsibility of the students to hear what is taught and not be stupid about it. If a student doesn’t look deeply into the teaching and understand it properly, then it won’t help the student or the world.