When you realize how perfect everything is, you will tilt your head back and laugh at the sky. –Longchenpa
Longchen Rabjam, Drimé Özer, The Omniscient One, commonly abbreviated to Longchenpa (1308–1364), was a major teacher in the Nyingma tradition in Tibet. His name literally means ‘the infinite great vast expanse of space,’ which characterized his view, and which permeates all his writings. He is commonly recognized as one of the three main manifestations of the principal bodhisattva, Manjushri, to have taught in Central Tibet. He was also a critical link in the interpretation and transmission of Dzogchen teachings, collecting and compiling the substance of the previous six centuries, writing and distinguishing Dzogchen as neither a book, a tradition nor a religion, but as the nature of mind itself. These writings are principally contained in his masterwork: The Seven Treasuries, composed in retreat at Gangri-Tökar and Chimphu, two mountainous locations in central Tibet. To this day, these locations remain sacred sites, upwards of 14,000 ft. of elevation visited by pilgrims from near and far.
He studied under contemporary masters of every Buddhist tradition in and had significant visions influencing his development and teachings. He was also abbot of Samye, the first of many monasteries established in the Himalaya, consecrated by the root teacher of Tibetan Buddhism himself, Padmasambhava, and one of Tibet’s most important remaining monasteries. But he spent most of his life traveling or in retreat, both in Tibet and Bhutan. Because of his command of all major traditions, and despite 500 years of contemplation and discourse preceding him,…
…it was Longchenpa who systematically refined the terminology used by the tradition with a series of subtle yet clear distinctions; brilliantly revealed its relationships with mainstream exoteric Buddhist thought; clarified its internal structure; created from it masterpieces of poetic philosophy remarkable for their aesthetic beauty, philosophical rigor, and overall clarity; and pinpointed the inner quintessence of the tradition with writings that not only systematized every major topic, but also creatively explained each to render crystal clear the unprecedented revolution in the content, form, and structure of ‘philosophical’ thought in Indo-Tibetan Buddhism known as the Great Perfection, Dzogchen.”
Longchenpa 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 non-dual realization characterized by four core principles: emptiness, openness, inclusion, and unity. In the 1200 years since the time of the acknowledged root teachers of Dzogchen, there has been further elaboration, but no substantial revision of the essential knowledge base that he compiled.
Tibetan Buddhism’s earliest proponents filtered north in the 9th C. from the Swat Valley at the border regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan, once called Uddyanna, (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. More specifically, the most popular acknowledged source of Dzogchen teachings is Garab Dorje.
The four main schools of Tibetan Buddhism, have slightly different versions of the essential teachings. The oldest school, Nyingma, structures a gradual path of outer and inner tantras compiled as nine levels (yanas) of achievement in education, contemplation, purification, and transformation. The highest level, ati yoga, defined as one of Longchenpa’s original articulations,represents a leap into the pinnacle teachings of Dzogchen. The outer tantra (sutra path) is accepted by all schools. The inner tantra (Dzogchen) remain the deepest heart of Nyingma practice.
In all major religious traditions, there have been holders of a thread of mysticism with non-dualism at its core. In the case of Christianity, it was the Gnostics and certainly other individuals scattered through history. The Christian mystic, Meister Eckhardt, a contemporary of Longchenpa, comes to mind. In Islam, it’s the Sufis. In Judaism, the kabbalists;it’s the Indian Vidantists and Tibetan Dzogchen. In each case, these seekers diverged from mainstream teaching, defining a path favoring direct transmission of redemptive truth and cultivating direct apprehension of non-dual realization. Persecution, denial and marginalizing the mystics started early and to some degree continues 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 (salvation). 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, a distinct and separate self, but to uncover what already is, the true nature of everything. We are not stained by original sin. Our essence is already pure, diamond-like in its clarity, constant and indestructible. Only our confusion stands in the way of realizing our true nature.
All well and good. However, in the Dzogchen view, which is no view at all, oursormine do not exist. There is no one to recover from confusion. In the state of natural mind, there never was confusion, nor was there ever clarity. A relative path peels away confusion—up to a point. Dzogchen departs from this approach; hence it 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. There is only one view, which is not even a thingat all. We do not see our nature, as if we own it. We see reality. On the contrary, we are owned by something in which any attempt to differentiate ourselves is obvious folly. We are not even beings experiencing Being. We become Being itself, the nature of mind, which has no attributes, is not subject to cause and effect, cannot be adequately described in academic, conceptual or any conversational language since all language arises from a dualistic fame.
Poetry can come 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, released from cognitive description, moral codes and discriminating judgment, is equal.
Samantabhadra is the figure regarded as the primordial Buddha, the anthropomorphic form of all Buddhas. He is depicted metaphorically as the timeless 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. There is no past or future. The concept of now does not exist here. Anyattempt to contemplate, arrest, understand, to become attached to goals, to accomplish anything or to contrive causality instantly creates duality and thus inequality.
Samantabhadra is not regarded as a messenger of primordial purity, but the message itself. He is not a teacher. He is the teaching, the perpetual electric and generative embrace of wisdom and compassion. Borrowing again from Huntington, (s)he is both Presence and Absence, the embodiment of appearance and emptiness. He embodies non-action, of Being without source or cause. Goal-orientation is not only not required, but an impediment to the truth Samantabhadra displays in his embrace with his consort, Samatabhadri. No liberation can be forthcoming until the drive for attainment is extinguished. 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 of any use whatsoever. And indeed, is there really any difference between conventional meditation and post-meditation, between loving all beings and holding all beings in the great heart of boundless compassion in this moment compared to any other moment?
Whether one is meditating or not, the view including all practice and behavior exists in every moment. But if practice is defined as a context of insufficiency and there is nothing save an endless karmic treadmill spanning numberless incarnations inching toward a virtually unattainable perfection, then one might well choose indifference…or amoral indulgence. Unfortunately, some well-known and 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. The Dzogchen view 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 seemingly omnipresent awareness constantly observing and evaluating our every thought and action, what defines the inner world of ego-mind, is the attainment attributed to the historical Buddha. The dissolution of every boundary created by ego is intrinsic to ultimate knowing. It is another aspect of extreme impermanence clouding the distinction between Presence and Absence. Oddly, there can be no true Presence if an object of consciousness exists. Because the Great Perfection arises with complete immersion in an ocean of compassion, the adept is suffused with a natural imperative for action in every moment, in every encounter, just as surely as the practitioner of conventional incremental spiritual practice because there is only one endless moment, infused with natural unity and evenness.
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. But Dzogchen does not abandon the heart. Dzogchen is the ultimate finding and opening of the heart. Its limitless view is elevated by equally limitless compassion in which moral choices remain as natural as breathing. The doors and windows are all open. The roof is blown away. From this view, 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 a vanishingly 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 from the intersection 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.
The land of natural perfection is free of buddhas and sentient beings;
the ground of natural perfection is free of good and bad;
the path of natural perfection has no length;
the fruition of natural perfection can neither be avoided nor attained;
the body of natural perfection is neither existent nor non-existent;
the speech of natural perfection is neither sacred nor profane;
the mind of natural perfection has no substance nor attribute.
The space of natural perfection cannot be consumed nor voided;
the status of natural perfection is neither high nor low;
the praxis of natural perfection is neither developed nor neglected;
the potency of natural perfection is neither fulfilled nor frustrated;
The hidden awareness of natural perfection is everywhere,
its parameters beyond indication, it’s actuality incommunicable;
the sovereign view of natural perfection is the here-and-now,
naturally present without speech or books, irrespective of
conceptual clarity or dullness, but as spontaneous joyful creativity.
Its reality is nothing at all.