Whatever the practice in which we engage, relative truth and absolute truth are co-existent. Method and wisdom are co-existent. Experiences and emptiness are co-existent. Because this is the nature of the reality we experience, the practice of tantric ngöndro exists as a method for realizing the beginningless enlightened state.
The final phase of Tantric ngöndro, Lama'i Naljor, is the quintessence of this method. In the practice of Lama'i Naljor you reach this level of wisdom when the Lama dissolves and becomes one with you. At this point you remain in the absolute nature of things, which is the actual state of meditation as it is [as it is transmitted in the Dzogchen teachings].
At the beginning of the tantric ngöndro we invoke the presence of the Lama. Since the Lama is the one who exemplifies both the qualities of path and goal, we acknowledge the Lama as the beginning and end of all practice.
After having begun by acknowledging the Lama, we consider the difficulty of gaining human form [in terms of having the conducive circumstances to practice]. This form is the basis of the spiritual path of liberation and is therefore precious and worthy of great respect. If you do not value the situation in which you have found yourself, then you will not make use of your precious circumstances and a great opportunity will be squandered.
Then we consider impermanence and death. Everything that exists is subject to change and dissolution. Even though you die you don't find freedom simply by losing your physical form. You just go on circling in samsaric vision, taking countless other forms according to your patterned perception. The nature of samsara is the experience of suffering which arises through the attempt to maintain the illusion of duality. We contemplate upon that.
Then we reflect upon our conditioning and the pattern of our karmic vision. We recognize the manner in which our perception and responses are all governed by dualistic conditioning that is so difficult to undermine.
These are called the Lo-tog nam-zhi -- the Four Thoughts which turn the mind to practice. Their purpose is to encourage the attention away from compulsive patterning and re-patterning. It is important to dwell on these Lo-tog nam-zhi at the beginning of the practice in order to generate the appropriate motivation for practice.
Practicing in this way is like smoothing out a ploughed field to make it even and ready for sowing. Then we need to sow the seed itself. To sow the seed is to receive Refuge; to generate bodhicitta; to offer kyil-khor [for the accumulation of causes conducive to the fulfillment of method and wisdom] and purification through Dorje Sempa recitation. These practices are like seeds sown in the ground [made ready by the contemplation of the Lo-tog nam-zhi].
From the perspective of the relative condition [in which we find ourselves] it is not possible to realize the absolute nature of reality without relating with what is relative. Without using the relative situation as a basis you cannot realize the true nature of the Mind. In the same way, without this relative practice, you cannot directly apprehend the nature of emptiness. The relative and absolute co-exist -- they go hand in hand; it is really very important indeed to realize this.
Let us now look at Refuge. At the external level there are what are called the Kön-chog Sum : sang-gyé, chö and gendün [buddha, dharma and sangha]. Sang-gyé is the source of chö. Those whose minds are turned towards chö are gendün.
Because we exist in duality we experience delusory dissatisfaction. Because of this, we take Refuge in order to be freed from the experience of self-generated dissatisfaction. Due to misapprehending our true nature [because of the delusory appearances that arise when the various elements coalesce in accordance with patterns of dualistic confusion] this human body becomes the container of endless dualistic projections. It becomes a source of attachment, in terms of supplying delusory definitions of existence. This attachment remains very strong until you see the true nature of existence. Until you are completely freed from the delusion that your body validates your existence, dissatisfaction will continually color your experience. Because of this, Kön-chog Sum exist as a focus of Refuge.
So, externally speaking, one should take Refuge in sang-gyé, chö and gendün with devotion. But internally, sang-gyé, chö and gendün are symbolic. They are a profound and skilful way to lead us out of this self-created illusory samsara.
From the Dzogchen point of view, sang-gyé, chö and gendün are within us. On the absolute level, this mind of ours, which is empty of all referential co-ordinates, is in itself sang-gyé [rigpa -- radiant self-luminosity]. Externally, chö manifests as sound and meaning: you hear it and you practice it. But from an internal point of view, chö is empty. In essence, it is the unceasing, unobstructed, self-luminous display of rigpa -- primordial Mind. Externally, gendün comprises those whose minds turn towards the chö. But internally, gendün is the all-pervading, all-encompassing aspect of Mind.
They are all fully accomplished within us. However, since we do not recognize this, we need to take Refuge in the external sang-gyé, chö and gendün. When you really practice tantric ngöndro properly you visualize Padmasambhava with fervent devotion; you perform prostrations in humility with your body; and you recite the Refuge formula with your speech. Then, when you sit silently at the end of your practice [and dissolve the visualization into yourself] you realize that all these three things -- subject, object and activity -- are none other than rigpa! The meditation is oneself; Padmasambhava is one's own creation. Just remain in the nature of rigpa. Other than rigpa, there is nothing to find!
Shakyamuni Buddha said in the Do-de Kalpa Zangpo, 'I manifested in a dreamlike way to dreamlike beings and gave a dreamlike chö, but in reality I never taught and never actually came'. From the viewpoint of Shakyamuni Buddha never having come and the chö never having been given, all is mere perception, existing only in the apparent sphere of suchness.
As regards the practice of Refuge, the relative aspect is the object of Refuge to which you offer devotion and prostrations and so on. The absolute aspect is without effort. When you dissolve the visualization and remain in the natural effortless state of mind, the concept of Refuge no longer exists.
The generation of chang-chub-sem [bodhicitta] or enlightened thought means that if we just act for ourselves alone we are not following the path of chö and our enlightenment is blocked. It is of the utmost importance that we generate enlightened thought in order to free all beings from samsara. Beings are as limitless as the sky. They have all been our fathers and mothers. They have all suffered in this samsara that we all fabricate from the ground of being. So the thought of freeing them from this suffering really is very powerful. Without this, we have the deluded concept that we are separate from all sentient beings.
The enlightened thought [in the words of the chang-chub-sem vow] is: 'From now until samsara is empty I shall work for the benefit of all beings who have been my fathers and mothers'. So from the relative point of view, there are sentient beings to be liberated, there is compassion to be generated, and there is the 'I', the generator of compassion. The way of generating and showing compassion is actually explained by Shakyamuni Buddha himself. Such is the relative chang-chub-sem.
So in this relative practice of chang-chub-sem, you visualize all beings and generate the enlightened thought. You try to free them from all suffering until enlightenment is reached. You recite the generation of chang-chub-sem as many times as your practice requires. The instruction [according to the teachings on the development of chang-chub-sem] is that you must exchange your own happiness for the pain of others. As you breathe out you give all your happiness and joy [and even their causes] to all sentient beings. As you breathe in you take on all their pain and suffering so that they can be free of it. This practice is also very important. Without the development of chang-chub-sem and without freeing ourselves from our attachment [to the form display of emptiness] we cannot attain enlightenment. It is because of our inability to show compassion to others and because of being attached to the concept of ourselves that we are not free of dualism. All these things are the relative aspects of the practice of chang-chub-sem.
As regards the absolute aspect of chang-chub-sem, Shakyamuni Buddha said to his disciple Rabjor, "All phenomena are like an illusion and a dream". The reason why the Buddha said this is that whatever manifests is subject to change and dissolution; nothing is inherently solid, permanent, separate, continuous, or defined. If you see the world as solid, you tie yourself up with a rope of entanglement and are constrained and pulled [like a dog] by compulsion as your lead. You get drawn into activities that can never be finished, which is why samsara is apparently endless.
You might think that because samsara is like a dream, perhaps enlightenment is solid and permanent. But Shakyamuni Buddha said that nirvana itself is like a dream -- an illusion. There is nothing that can be named which is nirvana; nothing called nirvana which is tangible.
Shakyamuni Buddha said this directly: "Form is emptiness". For instance, the moon is reflected in water, but there is no moon in the water; there never has been! There is no form there that can be grasped! It is empty! Then Shakyamuni Buddha went on to say: "Emptiness itself is form". Emptiness itself has appeared in the manner of form. You cannot find emptiness apart from form. You cannot separate the two. You cannot grasp them as separate entities. The moon is reflected in the water, but the water is not the moon. The moon is not the water, yet you cannot separate water and moon. Once you have understood this at the level of experience, there is no samsara. In the realm of realization there is no samsara or nirvana! When speaking of the teaching of Dzogchen, samsara and nirvana are just another dualistic concept.
But when looking at this moon in the water, you may say: "But it is there, I can see it!" But when you reach for it and try to touch it -- it's not there! It is the same with the thoughts that arise in Mind. So if you ask: "How has this actually come about?" you need to consider that everything comes from interdependent origination. So what is this interdependent origination? It is simply that the moon and water do not exist separately. The clear water is the primary cause, and the moon is the secondary or contributory cause. When these two causes meet, then this interdependent origination manifests. It is the coincidental appearance of the primary cause and the contributory cause.
To put it directly, the primary cause or basis of samsara is duality -- the artificial separation of emptiness and form. From this all manifestations become contributory causes within the framework of karmic vision. They meet together and bring about the manifestation of samsara [as long as we attach to the form display of emptiness as a definition of being]. Everything that we experience as samsara exists only within this interdependent pattern. You must be quite sure of this! When you go further [and examine the nature of interdependent origination] you find that it is none other than emptiness. Therefore, apart from emptiness, there is no chö. The ultimate view of Thegchen [Mahayana] is emptiness, but this viewpoint does not exist in the lower teachings.
If you really look into your experience of existence with the eye of meditation, you begin to see everything as the play of emptiness. Phenomena [as referential co-ordinates] become exhausted and you finally arrive at their essential nature, which is emptiness. But, having said this, you might be led to say: 'In that case we should not need anything'. But whether you need anything or not is up to you. It simply depends on your mind! Just dryly talking of emptiness is not enough! You must actualize it and then see for yourself. If your mind is really empty of referential manipulation, then there is no hope, no fear, no negativity -- your mind is free of that! It is like waving your hand in the sky! Whatever arises is completely unobstructed.
The purpose of meditation is to remain in this natural state. In that state all phenomena are directly realized in their essential emptiness. That is why we practice meditation. Meditation purifies everything into its empty nature. First we must realize that the absolute, natural state of things is empty. Then, whatever manifests is the play of the dharmakaya. Out of the empty nature of existence arise all the relative manifestations from which we fabricate samsara. You need to understand quite clearly how things are in reality and how they appear in terms of duality. It is very important to have this View, because without View your meditation becomes dull. Just simply sitting and saying: 'It's all empty' is like putting a little cup upside-down! That little empty space in the cup remains a very narrow, limited emptiness. You cannot even drink tea from it!
It is essential to actually know the heart of the matter as it is. In the absolute sense there are no sentient beings who experience dissatisfaction. This dissatisfaction is as empty as the clear sky, but because of attachment to the form display of emptiness, [interdependent origination] the relative sphere of things becomes an illusory trap in which there are sentient beings who experience dissatisfaction. This is the meaning of samsara.
In expressing the essential quality of the Great Mother, emptiness, it is said: 'Though you think of expressing the nature of the Heart Sutra you cannot put it into words'. It is totally beyond utterance, beyond thought, beyond concept. It was never born. It has never died. If you ask what it is like, it is like the sky. You can never find the limit of the sky. You can never find the center of the sky. So this sky-like nature is symbolic of emptiness: it is spacious, limitless, and free, with infinite depth and infinite expanse.
But having said this, you might say: 'So my own rigpa, the nature of my own mind, is like the sky, free from all limitations'. But this is not it either! It is not just empty. If you look into it there is something to see. 'See' is just a word we have to use in order to communicate. But you can see that. You can meditate on that. You can rest in that, and whatever arises in that spacious condition. If you see the true nature of emptiness and form as non-dual -- as it really is -- this is the mother of all the Buddhas. All this chatter has been an elaboration of the absolute chang-chub-sem.
Next is the purification through Dorje Sempa. In the absolute sense there is nothing to purify, no one who could purify you, and no purification. But since beings are apparently unable to leave it at that, matters become a little bit more complicated. Obscurations and dualistic confusions arise as the consequence of clinging to the form display of emptiness.
In the illusory perception of this grasping at the form display of emptiness, we subject ourselves to endless dissatisfaction. Because of this, purification becomes a relative skilful means. In order to purify our delusions, Dorje Sempa yab-yum arises from your own true state of rigpa and the flow of nectar from the secret kyil-khor of their union completely purifies your obscurations. You enter into the envisionment and recite the hundred-syllable mantra; and this is the means of purification. In the natural state of things [in the state of what is] everything is pure from the very beginning -- like the sky. This is the absolute purification of Dorje Sempa.
Now we come to the offering of the khyil-khor [cosmogramme or mandala]. The khyil-khor is offered for the accumulation of auspicious causes. Why do we need to accumulate auspicious causes? It is because of grasping at the form display of emptiness that illusory samsara has come about; so we need to practice giving everything up. Because there is the illusion that there is a way of purifying illusion, we can utilize this as a relative skilful means. Because you can purify there is also a way of accumulating auspicious causes. When you offer 'my body, my possessions and my glories', this is the relative, symbolic offering of the khyil-khor. From the absolute point of view, these things are empty, like the clear empty sky. So if you remain in the state of primordial awareness, that is the absolute khyil-khor offering and the absolute accumulation of auspicious causes.
Then there is the practice of Lama'i Naljor. Due to clinging to the form display of emptiness, the Lama appears as the one who inspires purity of mind. He or she is the object towards whom one feels purely. Because clinging obscures the mind [and because you feel purity of perception toward the Lama] both you and the Lama appear to exist in the sphere of dualism [as if the fundamental nature of your Minds, within the sphere of dharmakaya, were different]. Therefore, externally, you visualize the Lama with great devotion. Then you receive the empowerment of his or her non-dual condition.
These are all the external, relative practices of Lama'i Naljor in which you have invoked the wisdom presence of the symbolic apparent Lama. Then you recite the vajra words: "The Lama dissolves into light and unites with my very being . . . See! The one taste of rigpa and emptiness [rig-tong] is the actual face of the Lama!"
If you ask where the absolute Lama is, he or she is nowhere else but there -- in the absolute nature of the Mind! The absolute state of rigpa is where the Lama is fully accomplished as primordial wisdom and clear space. Simply continuing in the awareness of how it is, is the Dzogchen practice of Lama'i Naljor.
This is how the outer tantric ngöndro relates to the inner ngöndro in terms of the teaching of ati-yoga.