Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche had a unique way of expressing the most profound points of training the mind in simple language. Here are two excerpts from some of the chapters in Quintessential Dzogchen, a collection of that has many teachings by this extraordinary master.
The traditional phrase is: cultivate shamatha; train in vipashyana. Buddhism never says that shamatha and vipashyana are superfluous and should be ignored or totally set aside. Nor would I ever teach that. But there are times when I seemingly put down shamatha a little bit. There is a reason for that, and that reason is found only in a particular context.
The context of the general teachings is one of talking to a sentient being who is experiencing uninterrupted bewilderment—one thought or emotion after another like the surface of the ocean in turmoil, without any recognition of mind-essence. This confusion is continuous, with almost no break, life after life. To tell such a person that shamatha is unnecessary is definitely not the correct way of teaching, because that person’s mind is like a drunken elephant or a crazy monkey; it simply won’t stay quiet. Such a mind has grown used to the habit of following after what is thought of, without any insight whatsoever. Shamatha is a skillful means to deal with this state. Once confused thoughts have subsided to some extent, it is easier to recognize the clear insight of emptiness. It is therefore never taught that shamatha and vipashyana are unnecessary.
Teaching styles are adapted to the two basic types of mentality: one oriented toward perceived objects, the other toward the knowing mind. The first mentality pursues sights, sounds, smells, tastes, textures, and mental objects and is unstable in buddha nature. This is the situation with the threefold bewilderment—the bewilderment of object, sense faculty, and sense perception, which causes rebirth in an ordinary body. Due to this deep-seated habit of getting caught up in one thought after another, we traverse through endless samsara. To stabilize such a mind, the first teachings need to show that person how to calm down, how to attain or resolve upon some steadfast quality within the turmoil. It’s like the example of muddy water: unless and until the water is clear, you can’t see the reflection of your face. Likewise, instructions on shamatha are essential for the individual who gets carried away by thoughts.
Thoughts come out of our empty cognizance. They don’t come only from the empty quality. Space doesn’t have any thoughts, nor do the four elements. Sights, sounds, and other sensations do not think. The five sense doors do not think. Thoughts are in the mind, and this mind, as I have mentioned so often, is the unity of being empty and cognizant. If it were only empty, there would be no way thoughts could arise. Thoughts come only from the empty cognizance.
The general vehicles hold that the method of shamatha is necessary in order to abide peacefully. To counteract our tendency to constantly fabricate, the buddhas taught us how to rely on a support. By getting accustomed to this support, our attention becomes stabilized, able to remain steady. At this point it is much easier to have pointed out that the attention’s nature is empty cognizance. But please remember that merely abiding, merely resting in the stability of shamatha practice, does not guarantee the recognition of the naked state of self-existing wakefulness.
Generally speaking, mind has many different characteristics—some good, some bad, some calm, some untamable. Some people grasp with desire, some are more aggressive; there are so many different kinds of worldly attitudes. If you want your mind to become quiet and still, it will become quiet and still, provided you train long enough. It will indeed—but that is not a liberated state.
The process of becoming quiet is like a person learning how to sit down instead of roaming about bewildered and confused. Still, looking at him from a distance while he sits doesn’t necessarily give any indication of his true character. And, as you know, people have different personalities. One person may be very gentle, disciplined, and kind—but while he is just sitting there, you won’t know that. Another one may be very crude, short-tempered, and violent, but you won’t know that either. These characteristics only show themselves once a person’s thoughts begin to move again. When thoughts move, we usually become caught up in delusion. At the same time, our nature is primordially free of the obscuration of emotions and thoughts. Thoughts and emotions are only temporary. The actual character of mind is one of self-existing wakefulness, the state realized by all buddhas.
From this Dzogchen perspective, shamatha is the unchanging quality of innate steadiness, while the natural sense of being awake is the vipashyana aspect. Neither of these is produced or fabricated in any way. Saying that shamatha is not needed refers to the stillness of mind-made fabrication. When I told you before to not meditate, it was to not meditate in the sense of mind-made meditation. It was that kind of shamatha I told you to stop.
Clear seeing, vipashyana, is your empty cognizance, your naked awareness beyond waxing and waning. This sentence has incredible meaning. In Dzogchen it refers to the true recognition of rigpa, while in Mahamudra it is called the innate suchness. This is when the real is recognized. It can be called many things, but in short it is the seeing of mind-essence simultaneously with looking. “Seen the moment you look. Free the moment it’s seen.” There is not a single thought that can stick to that state. However, after a bit of time you discover that you are again looking at something seen. That is when thought has arrived. Then you need to apply “remindfulness,” and once again, immediately, the looker is dropped. Relax into uncontrived naturalness!
When remaining without doing anything whatsoever, there is total letting go. In the same moment there is also a sense of being wide awake; there is an awake quality that is unproduced.
Simultaneous with the disappearance of thought, there is an awake quality that is like the radiant flame of a candle, which exists all by itself. That awake quality doesn’t need to be supported through meditation, because it is not something that is cultivated. Since its recognition lasts for only a short while, it is necessary to remind yourself again. But honestly, how far away is it to get to that moment? When you put your finger out in the air to touch space, how far do you need to move your hand forward before you connect with space? In the same way, the very moment you recognize mind-essence, it is seen the very moment you look. It is not that at some later point you will see it or that you have to continuously look, look, look for it. There are not two different things going on here.
The recognition of emptiness is accomplished the moment you look. “Seeing no thing is the supreme sight.” When seeing emptiness, you don’t need to do anything whatsoever to it. The key word here is uncontrived, which means you don’t have to alter it in any way; just leave it as it naturally is. At that moment, you are totally out of a job; there is nothing you need to do to it. In other words, no act of meditating is necessary at this point. That is what I meant by “Don’t meditate.” Because at that moment whatever you do to try to keep or prolong the natural state only envelops it in more activity and complexity, which is not really what we need. We have been doing that nonstop anyway, for countless lifetimes.
The perfect dharmakaya is when thought has been allowed to subside. Ordinary beings have fallen under the influence of thought. It is a matter of either recognizing or not. In Dzogchen, the essence is seen the moment you look. Yet, dharmata is not a thing to be seen. If it were, it would be a product of mind.
Sentient beings hold on to this moment. In the present moment, the past has ceased and the future has not arrived. Be free of the three times; then there is nothing except being empty. Trekchö is like cutting through a string; there is no thought conceptualizing past, future, or present. Free of the thoughts of the three times, your present, fresh wakefulness is rigpa.
The shamatha I told you to be free of, in the sense of not meditating, is mind-made peace. It is extremely good that you have dropped it. Mind-made peace is not the perfect path to liberation. Existence and peace, samsara and nirvana—we need to be free of both of these. That is the perfect state of enlightenment.
The natural state of totally naked awareness has the quality of being unimpeded; that is true freedom. Recognize the moment of totally open and unimpeded awareness, which does not hold or dwell on anything whatsoever. This is not the mere absence of thought activity, as in induced serenity. That is one major difference. That is also the main reason that shamatha is not by itself the true path of liberation; it needs to be conjoined with the clear seeing of vipashyana on every level, all the way to complete enlightenment.
The ultimate achievement through shamatha practice, with partial but not the full and clear seeing of vipashyana, which is the recognition of mind-essence, is to attain the nirvana of an arhat, but not the nondwelling true and complete enlightenment of a buddha. We should always aspire toward the complete enlightenment that dwells neither in samsara nor in nirvana.
It is also possible to have a sustained meditative state of serenity and yet not be liberated. Here is a story about that. Once I was with my father at a benefactor’s house. The man who brought in the tea was a meditator. While carrying the tea in through the door, he somehow suddenly froze, the teakettle lifted in midair. One of the boys wanted to call him, but my father said, “No, let him be—if he drops the pot of boiling tea, it will make a mess; simply leave him be.” He stood there for hours, and as the sun was about to set, my father gently called his name into his ear. He slowly regained his senses. Someone said, “What happened?” He replied, “What do you mean what happened? I am bringing the tea.” They told him, “That was this morning. Now it is afternoon.” He said, “No, no, it is right now, I just came in with it.” He was interviewed more about what he experienced, and he said, “I didn’t experience anything at all—it was totally vacant, with nothing to express or explain, just totally quiet.” When he was told that so many hours had gone by, he was quite surprised, because to him it didn’t feel as if any time had passed.