Teachings on Dzogchen by Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche
"If you believe there is a thing called mind, it is just a thought. If you
believe there is no thing called mind, it's just another thought. Your natural
state, free of any kind of thought about it-that is buddhanature. Mind is similar
to space, in that it is insubstantial, not material. Isn't it quite amazing that
something that is insubstantial is also able to experience?"
Whatever practice you do, please do so while embracing it with the Three Excellences.
The first is the excellent preparation of bodhichitta [Skt., lit. "awakened
heart"]. The bodhisattva resolve is to form the thought, "I will attain
complete enlightenment for the sake of all beings." Engendering that motivation
is a superb way to begin one's practice.
This excellent preparation is indispensable for all Buddhist practitioners, because
we all have had many lifetimes other than this one. The pure vision of the fully
enlightened ones sees that we have been through countless lifetimes. In every
one of these, we had a father and a mother. We have had so many lifetimes that
every sentient being, without a single exception, has been our own father and
mother. Thus we are connected to all other beings, and to merely wish enlightenment
and liberation for ourselves is far too limited. To achieve enlightenment in this
way would mean abandoning all our parents.
Please understand that all sentient beings, all our parents, want nothing but
happiness. Unfortunately, through their negative actions they only create the
causes for further pain and suffering. Take this to heart and consider all our
parents, wandering blindly and endlessly through painful samsaric states. When
we truly take this to heart, out of compassion we feel motivated to achieve enlightenment
to truly help all of them. This compassionate attitude is indispensable as a preparation
The excellent preparation also includes the taking of refuge. Do we actually have
the ability to genuinely help other beings? Do we have the power, the wisdom,
the boundless compassion to do so? At present we don't. Who does? Only the fully
awakened Buddha actually possesses the power to protect others, as well as the
pure teachings on how to attain enlightenment. In addition to these two, there
are those beings who uphold these teachings in an unbroken lineage. These three,
the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, are the only true protection and rescue for unenlightened
We should regard these Three Precious Ones as our shelter, our refuge and our
escort, from now on until complete enlightenment. They embody a reliable and authentic
source of protection. To entrust ourselves and place our confidence in the Three
Jewels from this point until we ourselves become truly able to benefit others
is called "taking refuge." Together with bodhichitta, taking refuge
is the excellent preparation. Taking refuge essentially embodies all hinayana
teachings, while all the mahayana teachings are contained within forming the bodhisattva
The second of the three excellences is called the "excellent main part beyond
concepts." This has two aspects, development stage and completion stage.
This excellent main part beyond conceptual focus is a synonym for vajrayana, the
vajra vehicle of Secret Mantra.
Development stage is usually understood as visualizing the support, which is the
buddha field and the celestial palace, and what is supported therein-the form
of the deity. The palace and deity are considered to be the pure world and pure
being. We may think that this is a product of our imagination, but in fact it
is an exact replica of the original state of all things. It is how things already
are in actuality-also called the great mandala of the manifest ground.
Thus, visualization is ultimately not a matter of imagining something to be what
it isn't, but rather, of seeing it as it actually is. It is acknowledging things
as they already are. This is the essential principle of vajrayana. Within this
principle is contained both development stage and completion stage.
Development stage is not like imagining a piece of wood to be gold. No matter
how long you imagine that wood is gold, it never truly becomes gold. Rather, it's
like regarding gold as gold: acknowledging or seeing things as they actually are.
That is what is meant by training in deity, mantra and samadhi. The body, speech
and mind of the deity is contained within the three aspects of vajrayana practice
called development, recitation and completion.
All appearances are the mandala of the deities, all sounds are the mandala of
mantra, and all thoughts are the mandala of enlightened mind. The nature of all
apparent and existing things-of this entire world and all its beings-is the great
mandala of the manifest ground, our basic state. These three mandalas are present
as our ground. The practice of a sadhana is based on manifesting from this ground.
Sadhana practice is also based on some very essential principles: that the tantras
are contained within the statements, the statements within the oral instructions,
and the oral instructions within the application of the sadhana itself.
Let me rephrase this vital point. In vajrayana, a sadhana is the act of manifesting
what is originally present in the form of the threefold mandalas of deity, mantra
and samadhi. When practicing a sadhana, we are not superimposing something artificial
atop the natural state of things. Rather, it is a way of acknowledging our original
state, in which the nature of all forms is deity, the nature of all sounds is
mantra, and the nature of mind is samadhi. This is the basic principle of development
stage. And the differences in profundity between the teachings of sutra and tantra
lie in how close the teachings are to the original nature. The closest, the most
direct, are the Vajrayana teachings.
What are the reasons for the development and completion stages? The profound development
stage enables us to attain enlightenment in one lifetime and in one body through
deity, mantra and samadhi. And completion stage means that the deity is none other
than our originally enlightened buddhanature. Its essence is present as Body,
its nature radiates as Speech, and its capacity is pervasive as Mind.
Our originally enlightened essence contains within itself the awakened state of
all buddhas as the three aspects of vajra body, vajra speech and vajra mind. Training
in these three vajras is intrinsically contained within the profound state of
samadhi, which is none other than one's own nature. That is the starting point
or source of the excellent main part beyond concepts.
Deity, mantra and samadhi are the enlightened body, speech and mind. Vajra body
means the unchanging quality which is the identity of the deity. The unceasing
quality is the identity of the mantra, while the unmistaken or undeluded quality
is the identity of the deity's mind. These three vajras are complete in our buddha
nature. They are also called dharmakaya, sambhogakaya and nirmanakaya [Skt.: the
three bodies, or kayas, of the Buddha; respectively, the dharmakaya level of absolute,
primordial mind; the sambhogakaya level of energy, emotions and symbols, and the
nirmanakaya level of manifested form].
These profound methods of Vajrayana-practicing a sadhana, meditating on the deity,
reciting its mantra, and training in samadhi-are called a quick path. The essence
of this is the nature of mind. This is the unfailing, unmistaken vajra speech
of the perfectly enlightened Buddha, which can enable us to attain complete enlightenment
in one lifetime. This teaching has been passed through an unbroken lineage of
great masters all the way down to my own root guru. While my ears have been very
fortunate to receive this teaching, I myself am nothing special. Although I may
take great words in my mouth, please understand that I am merely repeating what
I have been fortunate enough to receive.
It is very difficult to really learn something or to be educated in it without
a teacher. You probably all know this very well, having gone to school so many
years. The education we have received is something that we can make use of our
entire lives. Even so, our education has not brought us even one inch closer to
the state of perfect enlightenment. Our years of effort in school are ultimately
of no real benefit.
Because you are all intelligent, I think you can understand why I am saying this.
No matter what we do in this life, all the information we gather and all the knowledge
we accumulate and all the effort we make to amass wealth through work and business-when
the time comes for us to leave this life, all of it is futile and in vain. It
will not help us in any way whatsoever. I can easily say this since I am not educated
at all! So I can smile and act big about this. Don't be angry, please.
What I'm trying to say is that we may well succeed in becoming extremely rich
and gain great material profit. We can buy the most expensive clothes or manage
to be famous in this world so that everyone knows our name. That is quite possible.
We can pursue these worldly attainments very enthusiastically and think that there
is plenty of time to enjoy them while we are in the first half of our lives.
However, in the second half of our lives, as we age and become elderly, life starts
being less fun. I speak from experience here. It begins to be difficult to stand
up and to move around. You get sick more often and you start to ail in different
ways. What lies ahead of you is only further sickness and finally death.
All these disasters are lined up in front of us, and we will meet them one after
the other. What comes after death is not clear to us right now, because we cannot
see our next rebirth. We cannot even see if there is anything after this life.
When we look down at the ground we don't see any lower realms; when we look up
in the sky we don't see any heavens or buddhafields. With these eyes we have now,
we don't see that much.
Please consider this: right now, you have a body, a voice and a mind, don't you?
Of these, mind is the most important. Isn't it true that your body and voice are
the servants of mind? Mind is the boss, and here comes more about mind. The five
physical elements of earth, fire, water, wind and space do not perceive. Mind,
in contrast, means that which can experience; that which perceives. The five sense
organs of eyes, ears, tongue, nose and body do not perceive and experience. A
corpse possesses the five sense organs, yet a corpse does not perceive, because
it doesn't have a mind.
The term corpse means that the mind has departed. We say that the eyes see, that
the ears hear, that the tongue tastes, the nose smells and so forth-but it is
only possible for this to happen when there is a mind to experience through the
senses. The moment what we call consciousness, mind or spirit leaves the body,
the five sense organs are still there; but there is no experience taking place
Mind means that which knows pleasure and pain. Of all the different things in
this world, only mind experiences and perceives; nothing else. Therefore, mind
is the root of all states-all samsaric as well as all nirvanic states. Without
mind there would be nothing to feel or perceive in this world. If there were nothing
that feels or perceives in this world, the world would be utterly empty, wouldn't
it? Mind is completely empty, but it is at the same time able to perceive, to
The three lower realms are arrayed according to the degree of pain experienced
in each, just as the three higher realms are arrayed according to degrees of pleasure.
Everything is based on that which feels pleasure and pain, which is mind. In other
words, mind is the basis or root of everything.
Mind is empty, and while being empty, it still knows or experiences. Space is
empty and does not know anything. That is the difference between space and mind.
Mind is similar to space, in that it is insubstantial, not material. Isn't it
quite amazing that something that is insubstantial is also able to experience?
There is mind, but it is not tangible or substantial. You cannot say that there
is no mind because it is the basis of everything; it is that which experiences
every possible thing. You cannot say really that there is a thing called mind,
and yet at the same time you cannot say that there is no mind. It lies beyond
both extremes of being and not being. That is why it is said, "Not existent,
since even a buddha does not see it; not nonexistent, since it is the basis of
both samsara and nirvana."
If we were without a mind, we would be corpses. You are not corpses, are you?
But can you say that there is a mind that you can see, hear, smell, taste or take
hold of? Honestly, you can continue to search for it exactly like this, scrutinizing
for a billion years, and you will never be able to find mind as something that
either exists or doesn't. It is truly beyond both extremes of existence and nonexistence.
The absence of contradiction between these two is the principle of the Middle
Way-that mind is beyond conflict between existence and nonexistence. We do not
have to hold the idea that there is a concrete mind or that there isn't. Mind
in itself is natural "thatness," meaning that it is an unformed unity
of being empty and cognizant. The Buddha called this unformed unity shunyata,
emptiness. Shunye means empty, while the -ta in shunyata, the '-ness' in emptiness,
should be understood as meaning "able to cognize." In this way, mind
is empty cognizance. Natural thatness means simply what is by itself. Our nature
is just like that. Just recognize that fact, without coloring it with any kind
of idea about it.
If you believe there is a thing called mind, it is just a thought. If you believe
there is no thing called mind, it's just another thought. Your natural state,
free of any kind of thought about it-that is buddha nature. In ordinary sentient
beings, this natural state is carried away by thinking, caught up in thought.
Involvement in thinking is like a heavy chain that weighs you down. Now it is
time to be free from that chain. The moment you shatter the chain of thinking,
you are free from the three realms of samsara.
In this entire world, there is nothing superior to or more precious than knowing
how to break this chain. Even if you were to scan the entire world, or piece by
piece put it through a sieve in an attempt to find something more precious, you'd
come up with nothing. None of the buddhas of the past, present and future have
discovered an instruction that is more profound or more direct in attaining enlightenment.
To ask for teachings on the nature of mind means to understand how to recognize
The traditional way of receiving the instruction on how to realize the nature
of mind involves first going through the training of the preliminary practices
of the "four times hundred thousand." After that, you would carry out
the yidam [Tib.: deity] practice, staying in retreat and completing the set number
Finally, after all this, this teaching would be given. But nowadays we live in
different times. People are so busy that they have no time to actually sit down
and go through all this training. My root guru told me once that different times
were coming. He said, "If you happen to be in front of people who ask about
and want to hear about the nature of mind, explain it to them. If they have the
karmic readiness, they will understand, and if they do understand, they are benefited.
To benefit beings is the purpose of the Buddha's teachings. It's all right."
When I was young, I often tried to do that. It's like someone pointing out the
sunrise. Often people look towards the west and see that the sunlight has hit
the mountain top; that's how they know the sun has risen. But actually what they
have to do is turn around and see the sun rising in the east. When someone tells
them to do so, they turn around and say, "Well, yeah, the sun is actually
rising in the east!" That is how I have been teaching, and that is how I
will continue to teach now.
So: you have heard that our mind is actually empty, meaning it is not a concrete
thing, and that at the same time it is able to perceive, to understand, to experience.
When you hear this and think about this, can you trust it? Is it clear? Can you
decide on this point?
Our mind is empty, and yet it does think. That it is empty means there is no concrete
substance with any definable attributes. And yet, mind does think. Isn't it true
that we are always thinking about the past, present or future? And aren't we so
busy thinking that we have one thought after the other, day and night, incessantly?
This is not something that has suddenly happened. It has been going on for a long
time, through countless past lives in samsara. We have been spinning around involved
in one thought after another in different realms in samsara. That is the essence
of samsaric existence. And if we carry on in the same way, we will be busy thinking
one thought after the other until the very end of this life.
It doesn't stop there. Of course there is no body in the bardo [Tib.: the intermediate
state between death and rebirth], but mind continues churning out one thought
after the other due to habit. After a new rebirth, regardless of whether it's
in the lower realms or the higher realms or the deepest hell, everything is simply
one thought after the other. Yet all the time, the very nature of all this thinking
is buddha nature-the enlightened essence.
Let me give you an example for the relationship between thinking and the nature
of mind. The nature of mind is like the sun in the sky, while thinking is like
the sun's reflection in water. Without water, it's difficult for the sun to reflect,
isn't it? Water here is the analogy for all perceived objects, for anything held
in mind. If you drained the water from a pond, where does the reflection go? Does
it run out with the water? Does it stay suspended in mid-air?
Holding subject and object, perceiver and perceived in mind, is symbolized by
the reflection of the sun in the pond. Without the sun in the sky, would there
be any light in this world? No, of course not. And yet, one single sun is able
to illuminate the entire world. This single sun is like the nature of mind, in
that it functions or operates in many different ways: it has great warmth and
brilliance, and through its heat it sets wind in motion. In comparison to this,
the reflection of the sun is nothing. Is the reflection of the sun able to illuminate
the entire world? Can it even illuminate a single pond?
Our enlightened essence, the buddhanature, is like the sun itself, present as
our very nature. Its reflection can be compared to our thoughts-all our plans,
our memories, our attachment, our anger, our closed-mindedness, and so on. One
thought arises after the other, one movement of mind occurs after the other, just
like one reflection after another appears. If you control this one sun in the
sky, don't you automatically control all its reflections in various ponds of water
in the whole world? Why pay attention to all the different reflections? Instead
of circling endlessly in samsara, recognize the one sun. If you recognize the
nature of your mind, the buddhanature, that is sufficient.
Understand the difference between buddhanature and its expression, which is thoughts.
Thoughts appear in many types. There is attachment, anger and stupidity; there
are the fifty-one mental events, the eighty innate thought states, the eighty-four
thousand disturbing emotions.
No matter how many different types of content the mind can manifest as, they are
all simply expressions of the nature of mind. The eighty-four thousand different
types of disturbing emotions are like eighty-four thousand different reflections
of the sun in different ponds of water. If you take the sun and put it in your
pocket, you automatically control all eighty-four thousand reflections. Similarly,
the very moment that you recognize your natural state, the buddha mind, your enlightened
essence-in that same moment, all eighty-four thousand types of disturbing emotions
are simultaneously vanquished.
All the different thoughts we can have are either of the past, present or future,
so they can be called past thought, present thought, or future thought. The Tibetan
word for thought is namtok. Nam means the perceived forms of the five senses and
the mental objects. Tokpa means the concept formed about what is perceived. Sentient
beings are constantly busy producing namick, making one idea after the other about
what is experienced. This thinking of your own mind's thoughts is exactly what
hinders and obstructs liberation and enlightenment.
If we try to stop thinking it only gets worse. You cannot shake off or throw away
the thinking. Can you throw away your shadow? Can you somehow cut the flow of
thought created by your own mind, maybe by detonating a nuclear bomb? Will this
stop the mind from thinking? It will kill you, sure, but your thoughts will continue
in the bardo and into the next life. Is there anything else in this world that
can stop the mind from thinking?
To stop thinking, you need to recognize your essence. It's like seeing the sun
in the sky just once-forever after, you know what the sun looks like. If you chase
one reflection of the sun after the other, you'll never be able to see all possible
reflections. There is no end to that. The sun in the sky is the real sun, and
without it, there would be no reflections. Its reflection in the water is only
In the same way, all thoughts are only expressions or displays of your essence;
they are not your essence itself. Without being free of thought, without the thinking
having dissolved, vanished, disappeared, there is no way to be liberated or enlightened.
There is a saying: "Use the thought as its own antidote." In the same
way, the reflection of all suns comes from the original, real sun. If you recognize
the real sun in the sky, there is no need to chase around after all its reflections
in this world in order to see the sun.
The most important thing is your empty, cognizant mind. Its natural emptiness
is dharmakaya, also called empty essence. Your natural ability to know and to
perceive is cognizant nature, sambhogakaya. This being empty and being cognizant
are an original unity. The famous statement "unity of empty cognizance suffused
with awareness" refers to your own nature, the essence of your mind.
After having been pointed out your nature and recognizing your essence, you see
that there is no "thing" to see. As I have repeatedly said, "Not
seeing a thing is the supreme sight." We need to see that. It is seen the
moment you look, and in the moment of seeing it is free, liberated.
This seeing may last no longer than a few seconds, perhaps no longer than three
snaps of your fingers. After that brief period of time, we either get carried
away by the thought of something, or we become forgetful. This happens to all
ordinary sentient beings. From beginningless lifetimes until now, we have been
continuously carried away by forgetfulness and by thinking.
The moment you recognize, it is already seen. There is nothing extra remaining
that you missed. This is not like space looking at itself, because space does
not see anything. When your mind, which is cognizant, recognizes itself, you immediately
see that there is no "thing" to see. It is already seen in the same
moment. At that very moment there is no thought, because the present thought has
The moment of recognizing mind nature is called ordinary mind, whether you talk
about Mahamudra, Dzogchen or the Great Middle Way. When recognizing, don't do
anything to it; don't try to correct or improve it; don't alter it by accepting
one thing and rejecting another, motivated by hope or fear-don't do anything to
it. An ordinary person is involved in conceptualizing with the present thought.
Don't conceptualize with a present thought. Present thought means wanting or not
wanting, with hope or fear. Just disconnect from the present thought; don't follow
it up. The moment you are free from thoughts of the three times, that is the buddha
You don't have to try not to think the present thought. We need to train in just
letting go of what is thought of; that is the practice. In this letting go there
is not even a dust mote to imagine, so it is not an act of meditating. At the
same time, do not be distracted from this for even one second. It's like trying
to imagine space, because there's nothing that needs to be imagined or meditated
upon. Do you need to imagine anything to imagine space?
When we hear "Don't be distracted," we may think that we have to do
something in order to be undistracted. People usually think that trying to remain
undistracted is some kind of deliberate act. This would in fact be so, if the
aim was to maintain a particular state of concentration for a long time. Deliberate
action would be necessary in that case. But I am not telling you to do that. The
moment of natural empty cognizance doesn't last very long by itself, but that's
perfectly okay. You don't have to try to prolong that moment; rather, repeat it
many times. "Short moments, many times"-this is the training in uncontrived
naturalness. Uncontrived naturalness means you don't have to do anything during
that state. It's like ringing a bell. Once you ring the bell there is a continuity
of sound; you don't have to do anything in order for the sound to continue. Simply
allow that continuity to endure by itself until at some point the sound fades
At the moment of recognizing your mind essence leave it in naturalness, simply
as it is. If you keep striking the bell, the sound is interrupted by the effort.
Just leave that recognition be without altering it. That is the way to not lose
the continuity. Soon enough the recognition will vanish by itself. As beginners,
naturally we will forget after a bit. We don't need to try to prevent that or
guard against it with great effort. Once distracted, again recognize. That is
Every level of teaching has its own purpose, and even though the very heart of
the Buddhadharma is to recognize mind essence and train in that, still, there
are obstacles and hindrances that need to be cleared away and enhancement practices
that need to be done.
An obstacle is something that prevents us from remaining in the natural state.
These can be cleared away by certain practices. There are also ways to improve
or enhance our practice and to deepen our experience. These two-clearing hindrances
and enhancing-are extremely useful.
Outer obstacles are connected with our environment; inner obstacles with our physical
body, and innermost obstacles with our thought patterns. To dispel these, it's
extremely beneficial to do the preliminaries and the inner practice of deity,
mantra and samadhi. Hindrances need to be removed, as they are the result of negative
deeds that obscure our nature. Relying on the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha and on
the guru, yidam and dakini as support quickly clears away hindrances.
Enhancement practices, for instance, are to develop devotion to the enlightened
ones and compassion for sentient beings. Devotion and compassion strengthen the
recognition of mind nature. Other practices also further enhance mind essence;
however, the Third Karmapa stated the most essential point when he said: "In
the moment of love, the empty essence dawns nakedly."
In the moment that either devotion or compassion is felt sincerely, from the core
of our heart, there is really nothing to obscure us any longer. The more we train
in devotion to all enlightened masters, buddhas and bodhisattvas, the more our
progress in recognizing mind essence will be enhanced. In exactly the same way,
generating loving kindness and compassion for all sentient beings will also help
tremendously to enhance our realization of buddhanature.
Let us conclude this teaching by engaging in the last of the Three Excellences,
the excellent dedication. As a result of having studied these teachings, please
dedicate the merit and make aspirations for the benefit of all sentient beings.
Tulku Urgyen Ripoche (1920-1995) was one of the great Dzogchen masters of this
era. He studied and practiced both the Dzogchen (Skt.: Maha Ati) teachings of
the Nyingma school and the Mahamudra teachings of the Kagyu school, and was the
Dzogchen teacher of the late sixteenth Karmapa. Over the course of his life he
spent more than twenty years in retreat, including four three-year retreats. Tulku
Urgyen established six monasteries and retreat centers in the Kathmandu region,
where today his teachings are continued by his sons Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche, Chöling
Rinpoche and Tsoknyi Rinpoche. This article is excerpted from As It Is and is
presented with the kind permission of Rangjung Yeshe Publications. ©1999
Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche