HIS HOLINESS’ 2006 VISIT TO DZOGCHEN CENTER IN BOSTON AND NEW YORK
by Lama Surya Das
His Holiness the Twelfth Gyalwang Drukpa flew into Boston on Sunday, April 30, from Mexico City, following upon weeks of teaching in Peru and Mexico. What a joy it was to meet him and his two attendant monks, Ngawang Zangpo and Khenrab, at Logan airport, and drive them to my home in Cambridge. It had been eighteen months since I last saw His Holiness at our retreat center Dzogchen Osel Ling outside Austin, Texas, where he visited for ten days and taught during one of our annual, one-hundred day, cloistered retreats. A year and a half somehow seemed to have flown by; His Holiness’ splendid presence and the blessings of his teachings must have carried us over from 2004 until 2006. Isn’t it always that way with a true guru?
His Holiness himself often says that a master’s greatest blessing is actually his teaching, but I beg to differ with him on this question. I may be entirely wrong— who in his right mind would contradict a master such as HH?—but for me the presence of the guru is the greatest blessing, encouragement, inspiration–and yes, even the ultimate teaching. For everything HH himself does expresses and exemplifies the sublime Dharma, in my humble opinion.
His Holiness came for several days of rest and relaxation, staying upstairs in our house much of the time. We often ate together and caught up with each other, enjoying regular long chats and chuckles, little walks, visits to my wife Kathy’s home garden, and occasional private Dharma study, particularly concerning the teachings he’d given two years before and a Dzogchen teaching I’d translated. But for the most part he was quiet, designing building plans and blueprints for several new monasteries and school projects in the Himalayas and doing his own prayers and practices, with a little midnight entertainment watching some of the historical video footage of the great old lamas who escaped from Tibet around 1959 that I have collected over the years. One day he created several large and strikingly lovely Tibetan calligraphies, which he presented to me. On Tuesday afternoon his old friend from Nepal, Trungram Gyaltrul Rinpoche, a youthful and energetic Karma Kagyu tulku who has been studying for a doctorate at nearby Harvard University, came to visit. Another day, at around 11 pm., He suddenly said to me: “You should rest less and teach more. We have a lot to do.”
Wednesday we took in the sights of Boston, including the view from the top of the tallest skyscraper, browsing a shopping mall and exploring some of Boston. That evening our neighbors and their children came for an audience with our master. He graciously blessed and entertained them for the early part of the evening, an unusual event which the neighborhood is still buzzing about. (It is not every day that a Buddhist saint and sage comes calling!) My wife and I felt privileged to be able to share the largesse of His Holiness’ presence with our friends and watching him interact with the young people from our neighborhood.
Thursday night we hosted a private dinner reception at our friends’ home in nearby Lincoln, where seventy people were invited to come and meet HH. Throughout the evening His Holiness held private audiences in the library, during which time many of the Dzogchen Center’s senior students, patrons, journalists, professors of Buddhism and personal friends—some of who traveled from afar—had the opportunity to speak with our honored guest. Our guests included two of my local Tibetan lama friends, other local Tibetans and Nepalis, several of my Western Dharma teacher friends and others I knew long ago in India. The guests were touched by how easy it was to talk with His Holiness personally in English, a rare experience for many of them although they may have met important Asian gurus of various kinds and high lamas before. His Holiness, as always, extended himself to make personal connections with each of them.
Friday we traveled to New York City, where the curator of the Rubin Museum of Tibetan Art, my friend Dr. Jeff Watt, offered His Holiness a learned and delightful guided tour of the seven stories full of Himalayan antiquities, including many tangkas and relics of the mahasiddhas. It was quite moving to see His Holiness in front of the ancient tangkas and blessed statues of Guru Rinpoche, Naropa, Milarepa, Tsangpa Gyare and other masters directly in his lineage. We all took the opportunity to pray and make the auspicious connection at that sacred confluence of great masters ancient and living.
That evening His Holiness gave a teaching to a full house of about 250 people. He begin by speaking what people call blessings, explaining that for him blessings meant encouragement and inspiration, saying that the greatest blessing was the teaching of an authentic master. He went on to discuss the importance of lineage, samaya bonds, purity of intention, compassion, faith and devotion as supports for the development of spiritual realization, especially stressing how to be in nowness and total presence amidst any and all activities At the end of the teaching, His Holiness consented to receiving the entire crowd, one by one, for a personal greeting and blessing, for which everyone was grateful.
The following day, Saturday, we hosted a daylong teaching by His Holiness at Tibet House, on the subject of Spontaneous Meditation. There, for about 200 avid students, His Holiness elucidated the traditional Three Principles of the Path—renunciation, compassionate bodhicitta and sunyata (emptiness); explaining how compassion spontaneously arises from seeing through illusory, impermanent, essence-less things; which are hollow as bamboo; and how renunciation also leads directly to awakening compassion and experiencing freedom, as we perceive the folly of chasing happiness and satisfaction where it can never be found, at least not reliably or for very long. He explained renunciation on several levels, outer, inner and secret: externally, relinquishing outer things, internally letting go of attachment to pleasure and other experiences, and secretly releasing identification with self or any identity and self-concept, while in fact ultimately transcending any form of conceptualization or reification at all, free from names, forms and attributes. At this point I began taking notes. His Holiness continued to explain that renunciation is fundamental to Dzogchen and Mahamudra practice, since renunciation is a willingness to let go of all the various gross and subtle ways of grasping which obscure the authentic View and clear vision.
On the indispensable subject of the precious and invaluable Bodhicitta, the altruistic aspiration for enlightenment, His Holiness said that compassion is like an internal attitude, and that love is more of an action and must be expressed and enacted, offered in the form of selfless service and encouragement; for without compassion and loving-kindness in life itself, emptiness alone will not lead one to the sublime path. “Strive with a good heart to do everything you can to help and benefit others. Bodhicitta is Buddha’s most important teaching; it is the antidote to afflictions and negative emotions. If one has Bodhicitta, one will definitely attain Buddhahood. Without Bodhicitta, it is impossible to attain Buddhahood. All the Buddhas relied on precious Bodhicitta and became enlightened.”
Talking from his own personal feelings and meditative experience, our Dragon Master candidly revealed his own way of perceiving things and working with experiences of all kinds, developing personal stories into an inspired and edifying afternoon-long Dharma talk about spontaneously enjoying and appreciating everything, just as it is, in its dream-like, magical radiance, through realizing blissful natural awareness, pure perception and everything as sacred reality– a wisdom perspective integrating both emptiness wisdom and loving compassion. He said that people often think that, in the name of Dharma, they should have no attachments or desires. His Holiness used himself as an example of the Middle Way philosophy’s skillful means of balancing principles and actual practice in daily life. “I too do have a strong attachment, to various things, I do!” he exclaimed, “such as to my beloved parents, who still care very much for me and help me too— or to my habitual rituals, and to my friends and close disciples, as well as my dogs and horses; but it is empty bliss- attachment, not burdensome heavy stuckness. I don’t rely on them too much or expect that they’ll make me happy very much, either now or in the long run. With bigger mind, with the vast View, one is not caught in any limited corner, and everything can be appreciated just as it is. Of course some things are negative, harmful, and they are not recommendable. But generally, masters perceive everything as blissfully empty, just in suddenly arising at all, accepting it as it is like a marvelous show—in fact, being awakened by its suddenly arising manifestation rather than distracted or overwhelmed by it. That’s how I see it. That’s how it is taught, not to either cling to it very much, nor to hate whatever it may be and aggressively want to destroy it either, which would indicate too much hatred and mistaken clinging to a solidity that really isn’t there. Just seeing it as it is in its vivid momentary appearance while also seeing through to it’s hollow emptiness, at one and the same time– This is the blissful Mahamudra.”
His Holiness apologised, laughing and saying that this was just his own gossip and that we shouldn’t mind what he said very much. Then he continued, discussing how daily life is not apart from spiritual practice and that everything can and must be recognized as part of the path. “We are always on a spiritual path but we don’t realize it, therefore we encounter many obstacles. If you really wish to develop your life, you must first develop your mind. Contemplation on the process of your own life is the main and authentic practice of Buddhism.”… “I want my students to be happy,” he continued, “genuinely, unconditionally happy. They cannot avoid life and its chaos and difficulties and pleasures too, even if they think they want to get away from it, or maybe they hear someone saying such things. Of course, the samsara is within us and our usual minds; you can’t just walk away from it to a mountain cave. Spiritually, you’ll eventually have to progress deeply enough to experience inner happiness, regardless of material gains, achievement or personal circumstances and situation. Spiritual inner realization is unconditional happiness, good for both now and later, this life and the next. Realization is the whole point, not mere appearances. We shouldn’t make the Dharma into a big drama.”
His Holiness discussed how driving his car was like meditation to him. “All experiences are meditation when you have the View; everything is spontaneous teaching, Dharma itself, reality itself. Even having differences with someone is the best meditation!” He shared with us that he used to listen to music to relax, and that we could learn to concentrate and meditate by whatever we naturally can remain undistracted from, in any activity, even through our daily work tasks–a brilliant tantric meditative pith instruction, echoing the mahasiddhas’ sublime vajra songs of old.
I was reminded of a famous shaldam or Heart Advice by our late great master Kyabje Dudjom Rinpoche, who said:
“The root of phenomena is your own mind.
If you tame your mind, you are a practitioner.
If you are a practitioner, your mind is tamed.
When your mind is tamed, that is liberation.”
I couldn’t help but notice how, even in such a large and diverse gathering of extended duration in noisy downtown New York City, the many busy minds seemed suddenly tamed and at ease; everyone was riveted, avidly attentive, seemingly overawed by His Holiness’ splendid and totally authentic presence. Is there a better explication of the Mahamudra and Dzogchen state of mind than that.
HH reiterated on several occasions throughout his visit that he thinks the worst thing is to be fanatic, rigidly dogmatic and narrow minded, and thus falling into tight corners through adherence to extreme beliefs and views. The external examples of problems political as well as religious caused by fanaticism today are obvious, but even as meditators too we can fall into extremes. His Holiness warned about the dangers of becoming a dumb meditator and being reborn as a dull cow repeatedly chewing the cud, a mere thought-wiper trying not to think or feel or know much of anything, or simplemindely falling into the extreme “of trying not to do anything in life and becoming a loser, as if that is the meaning of nonattachment.” He explained that trying to silence and empty the mind and be rid of thoughts and feelings, or simply to avoid responsibilities and commitments and drop out of active engagement in life, is mere quietism, too simplistic, and far removed from the profound wisdom and Bodhisattva-like activity of the Middle Way. On the inner level, he stressed more than once that we should not piously mistake the Buddha as a mere person or one particular human teacher – our teacher, as opposed to others teachers or prophets – and thus miss out on the deeper reality, true import and significance of the subtle Buddha principle or nature of Buddha within all beings and what the universal activity of the guru actually is.
“As Buddha himself said, if you think seeing me is seeing Buddha, you are mistaken and have never seen the real Buddha. If you think hearing Dharma teachings is hearing the profound Dharma, truth itself, reality itself, you are mistaken and haven’t heard the deep Dharma. Don’t think the physical body of the teacher is the real guru, or that he or she departs or is absent when you do not see them before you. Don’t become a narrow-minded sectarian Buddhist. Eventually you have to go beyond any notion of enlightenment and the duality between sacred and profane.” One should look deeper and realize the very nature or ultimate truth of reality, and meet the true Buddha, the true guru, the co-emergent wisdom or essential nature itself, not just dwelling in ideas and concepts.
Following the teachings, Saturday night we held a dinner reception at an Indian restaurant in midtown Manhattan for His Holiness to meet the local Dharma Center leaders and teachers, dignitaries, sponsors and patrons. Again, he met with each person personally on the side, during and after the evening dinner party. Sunday His Holiness seemed to enjoy showing the city to his attendants, who had never been there before, including a view from the top of Empire State Building and then leading the group, including myself and others, to the United Nations, where he offered blessings for world peace in the Chambers of the Security Council and the General Assembly. We were all moved as His Holiness slowly and carefully circumambulated the entire site of the World Trade Center, offering blessings and prayers for all. A Chinese restaurant was a welcome reward amidst a strenuous day of tourist activities; by the time we drove back to Boston that night, everyone–except His Holiness– seemed tired and ready for bed. His Holiness himself seems to think that rest is overrated.
Monday evening He taught 250 of our Dzogchen Center’s students and friends at our regular meditation and meeting hall in Cambridge; many Vipassana (insight meditation) students and teachers as well as yoga students and teachers were present. During the evening talk, His Holiness especially stressed the importance of practicing and experiencing the meaning and depth of the Dharma teachings, especially through guru yoga and devotional practices. I asked His Holiness to talk more about Spontaneous Meditation, and I have the transcripts from the audiotapes of his teaching.
He said: “Anyway, myself, for example: I started to meditate on Mahamudra when I was 9 years old. Since then, I was sort of like on and off doing meditation. So that is my history. One of the most inspiring lessons came when I was a teenager. I was trying to do meditation because I was very fond of it, especially Samadhi (shinay, or concentrative meditation) and Mahamudra. I had a lot of masters, three or four at the same time, but at the same time I was very much into learning sutra scriptures and memorizing texts, like studying Nagarjuna’s Madhyamika philosophy and other subjects. There was a kind of a period when I thought a little disappointedly to myself, ‘I am not meditating now.’ So of course one of my gurus, who was really a great scholar who claimed himself not good at meditation—although he was actually a hidden Dzogchen master– he must have known what was in my mind. One day he was giving teaching and we were learning debating, going through Buddhist logic and epistemology; and he was always very kind to me. So we were just talking some time, and then I told him what I had been thinking. I said we were not doing any meditation.
“And he said, ‘We are doing meditation. You should be doing meditation while I am teaching you. These are the meditations, what we are doing in a teaching session. What do you mean we are not meditating? If we are not, then you are not going through it very well!’
“Please,” I said, “elaborate about that,” because I wanted very much to meditate at the same time as debating and studying and talking.
“’It’s very simple,’ he patiently explained. ‘First you have to concentrate on this learning process. If not, you are not learning very well. First, concentrate; and as soon as you really concentrate, you are meditating.’ That was the vital point he was putting across to me. When you are in a concentrated state of mind, you can easily check, investigate and understand what the texts say, and see how such perspective leads to dealing better with your particular life and then also your universal life, your external and internal world. If you investigate with a very strong concentration, that is analytical meditation. So don’t you ever think you are not meditating when you are studying?’
“This guru’s essential advice was very enlightening, very powerful and profound, very helpful for me. Ever since then I had strong confidence in myself—during my studying time, as well as during mealtime, lunchtime, and maybe even during family gathering time, joke time, even sleeping time – I feel confident I’m not wasting time. I can utilize my time for meditation and deeper experience and understanding. Ever since then I have the confidence in my day-to-day life as the path, without dividing it into parts such as spiritual life on one side and material life on the other.
“This is my lineage that I heard from my Vajradhara, my guru Padmasambhava, my own guru’s words: ‘you have to be meditating every moment; you have to be meditationwhen you are practicing, studying, reading,’… This is what he would say, concerning everything you do day to day.
“This is essential advice you should understand and I should be passing on this lineage, because we all are equally very interested in meditation. But I guess we all have the problem of feeling there’s no time, or very little time for meditation, and many obstacles too. Let me say, these problems– half of these will sort out if you do know how to do this in your day-to-day life. For me this teaching was revolutionary. I was about 16-17 years old, going through a difficult moment, being a teenager. But whether we are teenager or not, especially when you do the spiritual practice, you always seem to have the problem of having no or very little time.
“Dzogchen, it is very simple. Simple means in the sense that you have to keep the rigpa, you have to keep present awareness. That is the difficult part, but once you could manage to keep the spontaneous tatha’i shepa”—nowness awareness, or fresh wakefulness and vivid presence of mind… That’s it! To sustain the innate natural state free from grasping or contrivance, that is the view of Dzogchen meditation. That is very much important.
“This can be practiced along with and in middle of day-to-day life. Dzogchen can be integrated into all aspects of life: walking down the street, being with others, talking, etc.– not just on the meditation cushion. It may be difficult for the beginner, but as you continue along with the practices it will gradually become much easier. In the Bodhisattvacaryavatara, Shantideva says that there is nothing that is not part of the path of meditation. This is the true Bodhisattva’s way.
“There’s really nothing that you cannot learn, that you cannot practice in this world. When you practice, you will learn. For example, if you go to the circus you can see amazing things. There are well trained dogs, elephants, bears, and even pigeons that can go on the bicycles and ride all around! Can you beat it?! Even pigeons can be trained– so why not human beings? Therefore we can be trained, by familiarizing yourself with awareness, through concentration and mindfulness practice. This is what Buddha and the lineage masters taught us.”
One of the experienced local Vipassana students asked His Holiness, “What is the difference between mindfulness and Dzogchen awareness practice?” His Holiness thought a moment, and then replied: “There is no mind in Dzogchen,” giving us all a little wakeup call as well as food for reflection. I am still thinking about that. Later he circled back to explain further that the Theravadin practice of mindfulness has more effort, discrimination and subject-object dualism built into it, while by the time one practices Dzogchen meditation, the meditator is supposed to be free from those conceptual limitations, although “in the end it all probably amounts to the same thing.”
“But generally, I want you to know what Spontaneous Meditation comes from. As a conclusion, I would say, it is meant to be simple and natural. Whenever you come across with anything – any emotions, phenonema, people, sounds, anything that comes to the senses; the minute it comes up it has to be meditated. Spontaneous meditation means that. Whatever comes to the senses: sights, sounds, fear, loving, desire, anger– it all has to be caught by the awareness. That’s the meditation, and in order to do that you have to have a sharp awareness.So you have to sharpen your awareness. It’s like a knife; you have to sharpen it. If the knife is not good, it cannot cut on the spot. The wisdom of awareness has to be sharpened. It’s one of the symbols—that’s why Manjushri has a sword, Vajrayogini has a curved knife and Yeshe Tsogyal has a dagger, to cut through completely.
“Whenever you do meditation, as soon as you sit down there; whatever comes, you have to be aware of, and yet it should not be identified with or labeled and analyzed. It should not be followed and developed; if you follow, that means you are not in real meditation. If you follow, those things will be leading you, distracting you, overpowering your mind; you would not be leading them with awareness. You will not be liberated, aware, free and liberated in the natural great perfection. And what we are talking about is the liberation. You have to be liberated, on the spot. As soon as you are caught by the things around you, you are not liberated.
“The bottom line is, one always needs to be there. Always be there. The guru always said that. Be there! This is very short, underlined advice. Especially the Dzogchen guru masters. They always say Be There. So this actually means– Be there! We are not there, that’s the problem. We are lost. We wander elsewhere. So therefore, Be there. That much effort is very much needed.
“How can we just be there, so very present and radiantly clear? How to be there at work, or with friends, for example, where one feels easily caught up and carried away? From my point of view– maybe I’m daring here… But if you are really interested in Dzogchen practice, this doesn’t matter as much; for even if there is something almost carrying you away from the Dharmakaya or the true nature (which cannot ever be lost, actually), it doesn’t matter: There is nothing to be carried away or be carried away from, so don’t worry! If you are strong in this vast outlook, it is no problem; there is no problem.”
His Holiness went on to explain that Spontaneous Meditation is simply intrinsic awareness itself; that it is no-meditation, non-meditation, beyond meditation and beyond the distinction between meditation and post-meditation; and that “Dzogchen is not mind-made meditation, we cannot strive to grasp or reach or understand Dzogchen– we are Dzogchen, and just have to be it and become it. Dzogchen mind is Buddha Mind or View, all-inclusive, without need for any yanas or practices…. As soon as you have discrimination, you are far away from the Buddha, Dharmakaya, rigpa. Dharmakaya is the thing that can only be realized when you are in the innate nature. Spontaneous moment, every moment is you, is Dzogchen. Beyond expression… It doesn’t have any vocabularies! No English! So this is something you have to understand. Nothing!”
His Holiness laughed, bowed to everyone present, and said goodnight. He stayed long after the teachings and blessed those who wished to see him personally, one by one.
It seemed as if our timeless moment together would never end. His Holiness and his monks departed from Boston on May 9, yet they remain deeply in our hearts.
May genuine masters and disciples remain long and immutably together, for the benefit of one and all.