In our troubled times, a path to wisdom that penetrates the everyday fog like a ray of brilliant sunshine has great appeal. Sally Price explains her personal experience of Dzogchen.
A faceted crystal is a beautiful creation of nature and man. In gazing at a crystal in sunlight we see the refraction of white light into the full colour spectrum. We can see the qualities of the crystal as reflecting our true nature, the underlying clarity of the nature of mind. This clarity has informed the culture of ancient Tibet, as described by the Dzogchen master, Chögyal Namkhai Norbu:
"Like a crystal at the heart of the culture, the clarity of the primordial state, as manifested in the minds of many masters, has radiated the forms of Tibetan art and iconography, medicine and astrology, like brilliant rays or sparkling reflections. So by coming to understand the nature of the crystal, we will be better able to make sense of the rays and reflections that emanate from it. (The Crystal and the Way of Light, 2000, p. 34)
Over the last 50 years this centuries-old wisdom of Tibet has become popular in the West. The most visible leader of Tibetan Buddhism, the Dalai Lama, is recognised and revered across the whole world. Why has this happened? What is it about Tibetan Buddhism that answers a need in Western society?
The answer is probably quite simple and extremely complex at the same time. The Dalai Lama's message of developing compassion simply resonates with us. Behind this message there is as much or as little complexity, depending on what suits each individual, on how to achieve this state. The basic messages of Buddhism: to release our attachment to things, to accept change as a natural part of life and to conquer our habitual attraction or aversion to our judgements of "beautiful" or "ugly", help to answer the inherent malaise that seems to be growing in our society.
Recent studies show that mental illness, most commonly depression and anxiety, will affect 45% of people at some time in their lives. That means nearly half of us will have our lives brought to a halt by a crippling emotional state. Growing numbers of young people contemplate suicide because they perceive that life is hopeless and there is no clear path ahead. The stress of our Western capitalist society where expectations to achieve are so high, puts enormous pressure on us, sometimes without us even realising it.
About 15 years ago, I came across Chenrezig, one of the oldest Tibetan Buddhist retreat centres in the Western world. It is nestled into a beautiful rainforest on the side of a hill overlooking the Sunshine Coast in South East Queensland. For all of the reasons I've outlined above I decided that this wisdom was helpful in my life. I began to internalise the concepts of non-attachment, non-judgement, acceptance of change and developing love and compassion towards everyone without labelling them "friend", "enemy" or "stranger".
I read a wonderful book by a Tibetan "Rinpoche" or reincarnate teacher called Sogyal Rinpoche. In this book, The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, I first learned about a path within Buddhism called "Dzogchen" which is often translated as "the great perfection". However, Sogyal Rinpoche, like Chögyal Namkhai Norbu and many other Masters, prefers to leave Dzogchen untranslated as the word "perfection" suggests that it is something we need to strive to attain. Nothing could be further from the true meaning of Dzogchen, which is really more like a discovery of the true nature of our mind, which has always been perfect, like the clarity of the blue sky.
The role of the teacher of Dzogchen, who has already realised this view of the nature of our minds, can be compared to a mirror. Imagine that you have never seen a mirror before and someone holds one before your face. For the first time, you see what you really look like, but this is not something given to you by the person with the mirror because you have always possessed your face. It is just that for the first time, you have been given the ability to look at it.
Sogyal Rinpoche poses the question, what is the nature of mind like? "Imagine a sky, empty, spacious, and pure from the beginning; its essence is like this. Imagine a sun, luminous, clear, unobstructed, and spontaneously present; its nature is like this. Imagine that sun shining out impartially on us and all things, penetrating all directions; its energy, which is the manifestation of compassion, is like this: nothing can obstruct it and it pervades everywhere." (The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying ed 2002* p157)
The state of Dzogchen goes beyond conceptualisation. The first time we realise the nature of our mind is like seeing for the first time - except that there is no "thing" to see. Dudjom Rinpoche says: "That moment is like taking a hood off your head. What boundless spaciousness and relief! This is the supreme seeing: seeing what was not seen before."
Being ready for this moment does take some preparation. We need to recognise the causes and effect of our actions, the ever-present nature of change and the inevitability of death and suffering. We need to also cultivate the compassionate heart and begin to still the endless chatter of our minds by meditation.
I remember a guided meditation in the meditation hall at Chenrezig where the nun who was leading the practice encouraged us to visualise our minds as the clear, blue sky and our thoughts as clouds passing across it. As we breathe out we see these clouds dissolving, leaving the beautiful blue in the light of the sun.
Many Tibetan masters have claimed that hundreds of thousands of people through India, the Himalayas and Tibet have attained realisation through the practice of Dzogchen. There is an ancient prophecy that in the dark age, this essential wisdom would blaze like a fire. Several Tibetan masters have said that this is the time for Dzogchen to spread. "This age of extreme confusion demands a teaching of comparable extreme power and clarity." (The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, 2002 p. 155 )
These days many people are searching for a path without dogma, fundamentalism, complex metaphysical concepts and exotic paraphernalia. In other words, "a path at once simple and profound, a path that does not need to be practiced in ashrams or monasteries but one that can be integrated with ordinary life and practiced anywhere." (The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, 2002 p. 155)
Once we realise the view, the essence of our mind, our lives can be transformed. It is like ultimate freedom. Everyday life can become an experience of wonder, of humour, of profound relaxation. Not that we are immune to challenges, or pain and suffering, but we are able to experience them differently. We have "let go" in some fundamental way and our dualistic vision of the world no longer imprisons us.
Combing through the bookshop at Chenrezig, I was looking for any other titles on Dzogchen when I noticed a book called The Crystal and the Way of Light. I bought the book, googled the author, Chögyal Namkhai Norbu when I got home and discovered that he was coming to Australia in a few weeks and that there was a community of Dzogchen practitioners in my area. Immediately, I had a feeling that I had "come home" and that here was a teacher from whom I could receive the teachings of Dzogchen.
Since then I have experienced the power, clarity and immediacy of these teachings and met many brothers and sisters on the same path. This has broadened my life and my mind. When teaching Dzogchen, Chögyal Namkhai Norbu refers to the original teacher of the path, Garab Dorje and his famous teaching, in which the entire path of Dzogchen is encapsulated in three statements. First, the state, or view of the nature of mind is introduced directly by the Master who, in various ways, encourages the disciple to understand the condition of "what is". Then it is important that we do not remain in doubt but have a precise knowledge of this state, developed by a state of meditation called contemplation, which is the path. The fruit grows and ripens as we integrate this wisdom in our daily life and in all circumstances so that we continue in this state.
The Dzogchen teachings offer those who are fortunate enough to encounter them a unique opportunity. It is as if a sharp ray of brilliant light penetrates our everyday fog and we may see a new possibility, a path of liberation that has always been there.
For more information on Dzogchen, go to www.dzogchen.org.au.