The Paradox of “Practice”


  Mind itself – that is, the nature of awakened mind –
is pure like space, and so is without
birth or death, pleasure or pain.
It has no substance to delimit it and is free of the
phenomena of samsara and nirvana.
It cannot be characterized as some “thing,” and being
infinitely spacious expanse, it is unchanging, without transition,
spontaneously present, and uncompounded.
Choying Dzod, Longchenpa

The essence of the Dzogchen thread of Tibetan buddhist tantra is a culmination of a journey through graduated refinement and purification. It is simultaneously described as the instantaneous realization of the true nature of mind. The process leading to authentic realization is described in highly specific instructions lending an inescapable character of Path to the process, whereas the culmination of Dzogchen realization is the direct knowing of the unity of Ground and Fruition. Hence, the reference to Dzogchen as the Pathless path.

An additional mark of all instruction is that realization cannot be achieved without direct transmission of the nature of mind from an authentic teacher. The fact that there are examples of direct and spontaneous awakening both within and outside Mahayana would tend to undermine this requirement, or at least call it into question. But regardless of the context, there seems to be substantial agreement in Vajrayana buddhism on the characteristics of the awakened state.

There are no doubt examples of persons who have experienced direct moments of non-dual knowing, rigpa, as well as persons who express some aspects of awakened mind, but who might not be regarded as awakened by a tulku. And there are likely examples of the territory in between, people who lie somewhere on a continuum between random transient generic realization as well as those for whom a dissolution of the boundary between internal and external awareness follows persistent and gradual religious instruction and practice over decades.

I said in a previous post that there is one thing of which I am certain: that no amount of practice can guarantee a moment of true awakening; therefore, not a single moment of practice will benefit by carrying the weight of any expectation of a specific or desired outcome in a nebulous future. And, by implication, no amount of indolence can predict that awakening will not occur. I admit this may be a radical statement. But if true, what are the implications for the contemporary culture of Vajrayana transmission?

Keith Dowman is an accomplished dharma translator, scholar, historian and teacher in his own right. His most incisive observations on the meaning, practice and teaching of Dzogchen go right to the heart of this paradox of the gradual path and the unpredictability of instantaneous recognition. In his view,

The moment that any technique is conceived as a method providing a cause or condition for the realization of the natural state of mind, we enter a progressive, gradualist—cultural—path that is usually taught by the lineal protagonists of latter-day Dzogchen to those they believe cannot comprehend the rigorous precepts of radical Dzogchen.

 And further,

In order to reach a plane were there is no ladder of spirituality to climb and no pyramid of meditational accomplishment to hold us in awe, we need to be free of the notion that we can fall to a lower level of existential cognizance or rise to a higher state (my emphasis). Only then can we relax into the all-embracing matrix of the now.

170px-Vajra_aksamala_ghantha Dowman also points out that Longchenpa describes the nature of mind as being abhorrent to structures of any kind, “particularly those that are constructed through ambition, competition and contention reinforcing the sense of self.”

The central questions to be asked might include how a causal structure can be a potential gateway to realizing the nature of mind that is a-causal, without condition and which “abhors all structures?” How can the exercise of intellect in unveiling the View be anything other than a means of separating what is ultimately indivisible: emptiness and appearance? Is arrival at a state of non-meditation, where no religion whatsoever exists, dependent on the practice of meditation in a context of religious dogma?

A partial response is to recognize the distinction between Vajrayana practice and a Dzogchen view. One is deliberate incremental self-improvement through the guidance of a teacher while the other is the yoga of instantaneous presence, realizing the spaciousness of this very moment. One is dependent on the existence of a future; there is no such thing as a future for the other. The former is the inhale, the latter the exhale.

As long as we remain cognizant of the distinction, we can keep breathing. If we lose awareness of this distinction, that the light is already ON, then every exhale (every opportunity to realize the illusory nature of self) merely becomes a nuisance interlude before the next inhale, the next opportunity to reinforce the self, to reinforce our imperfection in the moment. We create difficulties for ourselves unnecessarily and then become attached to them, falling back into striving to get somewhere.

Jan Frazier, author of a book I have also referred to in a prior post, The Freedom of Being: At Ease With What Is, is someone who communicates some essential characteristics of the natural state in very practical terms. She manages to reach into the operation of the constructed ego and strip away the ever-so-enthralling pretense of the thinking mind. What she has to say about spiritual practice is directly on point here as it completely depends on a belief in the future:

You can’t be on a journey to someplace you already are. It’s a way to avoid really looking at where you are now…..Being absolutely truthful about what’s going on. Belief in the future is an escape hatch..….Anything that nurtures belief in the reality of time puts you in your head. It puts you someplace besides presence. Telling yourself you aren’t free puts attention the wrong place: someday.  

As in, someday I will wake up. Someday the light will be ON. Someday I will not be burdened by my past and I will be free to move forward. Someday I will get off this treadmill of striving to become different from exactly what I am in this moment. Then I will have arrived. a9bd18dd36e2a81e0034c783eee06b42 As part of spiritual practice, pursuing a spiritual ideal, we are perpetually comparing now with some idealized future moment. As Frazier points out, we are creating despair out of thin air. The seeker is the one not owning the reality of the present. The flaw in this thinking is that we perceive ourselves as burdened by our past, our Story, the agendas we are carrying around like accumulated baggage. And it’s sticky. It all hangs on, weighing us down.

A different way of seeing might be to regard the mind as pulling us along, the weight of the past, all our flaws and concern about past and future being entirely a construction of mind. Not that we can be devoid of feeling. The entire point is to feel all there is to feel…as long as we are also asking who is doing the feeling? So there we are, being pulled along by the thinking mind, willingly holding on for dear life, as though we were water-skiing. What if we were to let go of the rope?

If you step out of your mind into the present …if you let all of your awareness be with what is, right now…despair over not being awake has no place to live.

And even letting go of all our burdens is not quite an adequate rendering of the truth of presence. All of what we construct as our personal obstacles are appearances, after all. They do not simply disappear or dissolve into nothing. But their essence is empty. In letting go of our past or of our habitual regard for the imperatives that ego throws up before us, we may find ourselves in the exquisite imbalance of what is and what is not, of burning through the mind that wants us to believe in the future. And if despair has no place to live here, then neither does hope.

The edifice of “practice” suddenly holds less traction. Any distinction between practice and life is blurred into non-existence. Practice comes closer to living in each breath. I can sit at the feet of any teacher. I can still find bottomless devotion for the manifest wisdom coming forth. But as long as I can notice and let go of  the ways that I construct and become attached to a future, I have an opportunity to remain closer to the truth of the moment.

©2015 Gary Horvitz. All rights reserved.

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