Although—or perhaps because—Dzogchen is a “pathless path,” practitioners can sometimes go astray. In this excerpt, adapted from Natural Great Perfection, Nyoshul Khenpo gives essential guidance on how not to get side-tracked.
If one practices the incredibly rare and profound teaching of Dzogchen, nondual Dzogchen, with an intention like this: “I want Dzogchen, I want enlightenment. I’m going to get it in this life,” and there is a great deal of grasping, pushy, small-minded selfishness, how can there be any Dzogchen? This is the very antithesis of the vast, unconditional openness of Dzogchen. This is how we stray from the true path and become wild practitioners and even become crazy. If self-clinging, self-cherishing, and clinging to the reality of things remains strong, how can there be any genuine Dzogchen, which is the true natural state of freedom, openness, and primordial perfection?
If you practice bodhicitta practices—mind training, loving-kindness prayers, exchanging oneself and others (tong len), and so forth—these practices may seem conceptual and relative, but they actually include the absolute truth that is the very nature of Dzogchen: vast openness, big mind, purity, freedom, and non-grasping. Unselfishness is no different than that nondual openness, vast emptiness, shunyata. Dzogchen may be as primordially pure and ever unaffected as the virgin snow, but approaching it with mixed motivation or impure selfish aspiration is a great limitation. When you urinate in the snow, the snow starts white, but suddenly it’s yellow.
The word for bodhicitta in Tibetan is sem kye. This literally means “the opening or blossoming of the mind.” It is the opposite of small mind, of self-preoccupation, self-contraction, and narrowness.
Whatever practice-path we find ourselves on—be it Dzogchen, Vajrayana, the Bodhisattvayana, the fundamental Theravadin Vehicle, or another spiritual path—if we have a pure, wholesome attitude and a spacious and tolerant mind, then our practice is really Buddhist practice; it is in line with practice that really blossoms and unties the mind.
This is the real meaning of bodhicitta. It may be that the sky is always limpid, clear, vast, infinite, and so on, but when the moment of Dzogchen arrives it is as if the sun has suddenly risen. It is not that the sky of our inherent nature has improved, but something definitely does seem to happen. This metaphor of the rising sun refers to the rangjung yeshe, the spontaneous, self-born awareness wisdom or innate wakefulness dawning within our nature. This is the moment of Dzogchen, the dawn of the self-arisen awareness wisdom, innate wisdom.
This is the meaning of what is called in Tibetan nyur de dzogpa chenpo, meaning “swift and comfy innate Great Perfection”—a path that does not require austerities or arduous practices. It is direct, swift, spacious, natural, and comfy. It is doable! In one lifetime, in one body, even in one instant of self-arisen awareness, this dawn of Vajrasattva—the self-born innate awareness wisdom—shines forth like a blazing inner sun. When you relate to this self-arisen innate awareness wisdom, when you practice Dzogchen as it actually is, this fleeting human existence is instantaneously made meaningful. And not just this life, but all our lives are made meaningful, as well as the lives of all those who have been connected with us. This experience of the natural state of the luminous innate Great Perfection implies the annihilation, the crashing into dust, of all forms of self-clinging and duality, of clinging to the concrete reality of things, to their appearances.
The inherent freedom of being is spontaneously, primordially present. All delusory perceptions are naturally nonexistent in this dawn of innate awareness wisdom. The proliferation of karma and klesha is based on dualistic clinging, ignorance: in the light of nondual awareness, the kleshas do not obtain. Everything “falls apart” because it is inherently unborn from the beginning; and the freedom of perfect being, of rigpa, spontaneously present since the beginningless beginning, is clearly and thoroughly realized in that very moment.
It is easy to stray into sidetracks in this vast, luminous profundity. Of course we know that we need a vast, open, altruistic bodhi-mind. We can see that the innate Great Perfection, the ultimate nature of things, is beyond the conceptual mind and its dualistic perceptions. But still—here the deviation point comes in—still we are spying, searching in a very constricted and pointed way, wondering: What is Dzogchen? Where is Dzogchen? What is it? I want to perceive and experience it.
This is natural, but it precedes the recognition of our true nature. This is a deviation point that, after recognition, is not necessary to indulge in. It is like after meeting and getting to know someone, one doesn’t have to think too much to imagine what that person looks like or is like: there is an intuitive freedom from such doubts and speculations, and one gets on with more direct, firsthand appreciation.
We can make many productive inquiries, such as, when a thought arises, noticing: That’s a thought. Where does it arise from? Where is it going? Where did it go? Where is the gap or open space between thoughts that I heard about in Mahamudra teachings, which I’m supposed to recognize?
This has little to do with actual Dzogchen practice: this is mind practice, mind-made meditation, not rigpa practice per se. Yet these questions are part of the explicit preliminaries to Dzogchen practice and help one to distinguish between mind (sems) and innate wakefulness (rigpa).
The danger is that we hear too much too soon. We think we have understood shunyata, err on the side of the absolute in a nihilistic fashion, and are obscured by concepts. Nagarjuna said, “It is sad to see those who mistakenly believe in material, concrete reality, but far more pitiful are those who believe in emptiness.” Those who believe in things can be helped through various kinds of practice, through the way of skillful means, but those who have fallen into the abyss of emptiness find it almost impossible to re-emerge, since there seem to be no handholds, no steps, no gradual progression, and nothing to do.