Laughing At The Sky

Posted by

On the home page of this site is a photo of a painting. The subject is Longchenpa, the Buddhist sage of 14th century central Tibet. He was certainly not the first to discover “everything is perfect,” nor, by far, was he the last. The tradition he inhabited and to which he contributed in incomparable ways was founded upon the vision of non-dual reality characterized by emptiness, openness, inclusion and unity. In 1200 years there has been great elaboration, but no substantial revision of the essential knowledge base.

Its earliest proponents (Padmasambhava) filtered north in the 9th. C. from the Swat Valley at the border regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan, a key territory in the American war (now occupied by the Taliban), through the Hindu kush to western Tibet, surviving and/or integrating the influence of indigenous Bon practice already known as Dzogchen and spreading east from Mt. Kailash to China and Mongolia.

Tibetan Buddhism has a number of schools, each with a slightly different version of the essential teachings. The oldest school, Nyingma, structures a gradual path, a course of nine levels (yanas) of achievement in education, purification and transformation. The highest level, ati yoga, or maha ati, originally articulated by Longchenpa, represents a leap into the pinnacle teachings of Dzogchen. The lower yanas (concerned with sutras) are accepted by all the other schools. The highest yanas, tantric Dzogchen, remain the deepest heart of Nyingma practice.

In the case of all major religious traditions, a historical thread of mysticism with non-dualism at its core can be found. In the case of Christianity, it was the Gnostics. In Islam, it was/is the sufis. In Judaism, the kabbalists; in Buddhism, it is Dzogchen. In each case, these sects diverged from mainstream teaching, favoring direct transmission and cultivating direct apprehension of non-dual realization. Persecution, denial and marginalizing the mystics started early and to some degree has continued to this day.

The ‘path’ to realization in traditional theology was, and largely remains, under the direction and control of mainstream hierarchies defining the structure and extended nature of finely articulated relativist dogma in the form of spoon-fed courses of  study and ritual. Realization depends on deference, scholarship, patience and, most of all, an orientation to the future prospect of liberation.

Language, in subtle ways, corrupts our comprehension of the non-dual view. Tibetan Buddhism offers our ‘essence nature’ or ‘Buddha nature’  as a fundamental principle, that we are not here to become something we are not, but to uncover what we already are–or, to be more precise, what already is. We are not stained by original sin. Our essence is already pure, intrinsic, indestructible and it is only our confusion that stands in the way of realizing our true nature.

All well and good. However, in the Dzogchen view, which is actually no view at all, ours or mine do not exist. There is no one to recover from confusion. There never was confusion, nor was there ever clarity. A relative path does peel away confusion–up to a point. Dzogchen departs from this approach, hence is called the pathless path. Realizing all of this is the reason Longchenpa could ‘laugh at the sky’ in the first place.


In cutting through confusion, we do not realize luminosity separate from someone else’s. In the shimmer of timeless awareness, there are no others. We see only one thing which is not even a thing at all. We do not see our nature, separate from Nature. We are not even beings experiencing Being. We become Being itself, not separate from Self–which has no attributes, is unconditional, cannot be adequately described in academic or any conversational language since language–at least English–resides in a dualistic fame.

Poetry comes close. As Longchenpa describes with inspiring poetic versatility (reflected in the immensely skillful translation of Richard Barron) in The Treasury of Dharmadhatu, Reality only knows one thing, beyond all description, beyond positive or negative, beyond all causation or attributes: the essence of all things is equal.

Samantabhadra is regarded as the primordial Buddha, the anthropomorphic form of all Buddhas. He is depicted metaphorically as the realization of Dzogchen, an expression of the most extreme impermanence possible–a state in which there are no discrete moments to be identified or grasped. The concept of now does not exist here. Any attempt to contemplate, arrest, understand, attach goals, to accomplish anything or to contrive causality instantly creates duality and thus inequality.

He is not regarded as the messenger of primordial purity, but the message itself. He is not a teacher. He is the teaching. He is the embodiment of non-action, of Being without source or cause. Goal-orientation is not only not required, but an impediment to the truth Samantabhadra displays. No liberation can be forthcoming until the drive for attainment is relinquished.

All things being equal, there is no good or evil, no right or wrong. This is the Great Perfection. In this domain, one might wonder if meditation is even required, or if it’s any use whatsoever. And indeed, is there really any  difference between conventional meditation and post-meditation? Whether one is meditating or not, if all practice and behavior exist in a context of insufficiency and there is nothing save an endless treadmill spanning numberless incarnations inching toward a virtually unattainable perfection, then one might well choose indifference…or amoral indulgence. Unfortunately, some of the best known and most influential teachers have succumbed to the temptations of copulation and inebriation.

Does the equality of unchanging ineffability implicate a value-free state? What about morality? What about karma? What about this world awash in conflict, deprivation, exploitation and suffering in all its forms? No. Dzogchen may be regarded as non-meditation, the removal of every impulse or vestige of ‘doing’–and especially to the extinction of the witness.

Extinction of the witness, the awareness constantly observing and evaluating our every thought and action, is the attainment attributed to the historical Buddha. It is intrinsic to the ultimate knowing. It is another aspect of extreme impermanence known as Presence. There can be no true Presence if an object of consciousness exists. Because the Great Perfection arises with an inseparable and enveloping compassion, the adept is suffused with action just as surely as the practitioner of conventional incremental spiritual practice.

Attempting to contrive this condition is a sure way to forego any possibility of its dawning. Certain things are sure: the bliss of Being is not a state of isolation. It is a state of union. Its limitless view is elevated by equally limitless compassion in which moral choices in the midst of perfection remain as natural as breathing. The doors and windows are all open. The roof is blown away. All beings, who in essence are none other than light, stand naked in their endlessly inventive, unceasing and often desperately comical attempts to adorn their existence with permanence.

Yes, we are all doing it. And we are all–save an infinitely small cadre of seekers– ultimately doomed to fail. Ironically, the one who crosses the bridge to that extreme impermanence is most fully in this world beyond all imagination, retaining and expressing the freedom–the imperative–to act on behalf of all beings in accord with a union of relative and absolute guidance. The distinction between the two no longer exists.

Fortunately, since this pinnacle of perfect equality is so rarely attained, let alone stabilized, the imperative for moral action remains present for the rest of us at every moment. All decisions and actions still exist within that perfect field of equality, even as every perception, decision and action remain expressions of our confused view. Here, the survival instinct, the human drive for sensory pleasures, all compulsion and resolution, aspiration and failure, awakening and falling back to sleep, every breath arising at the nexus of samsara and nirvana, resides on the cusp of an exquisite poignancy, humor and bewildering inevitability. Arriving at this clarity, experiencing the perfect equality of everything, yet never forgetting every act matters in this troubled world, is the moment when you can, as Longchenpa did 650 years ago, only tilt your head back and laugh at the sky.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s