We are universally enjoined by the expressions of Dzogchen teachers to regard all phenomena as the simultaneous appearance of both deluded mind (samsara) and the natural or essence nature of mind (nirvana). We are always ‘here’ and ‘there’ in every moment. This guidance applies to everything at all times, even, dare I say especially, to the expressions of those teachers themselves.
When we listen to the words of a teacher, using innate cognitive faculties to convey conceptual information, which is then apprehended by our own cognitive faculties, we have thoughts, interpretations, memories and visceral experiences in response. As we all know, this is no less a continuing cascade of mental and emotional activity in the presence of a teacher as it would be under any other circumstance.
Beneath those words, completely integral to them, coming from an equally expressive locus of the inner world of that teacher, not only from the thinking mind but from the natural mind as well, is the reality and experience of emptiness. Like a carrier wave, that inner experience is not separate from the teaching nor can it be separate from any other experience. It is a manifestation of both oneness and difference in every moment.
The words themselves are the path of knowledge and contemplation. The carrier wave is the path of direct experience. The words emit from the direct experience of the teacher, but they are a derivative, not the experience itself. The words are as much a reflection in the pond as the reflection of the moon itself. They are, as the moon itself, mere appearance, not their meaning nor any of the internal responses we may have to conceptual interpretation.
How we listen to those words can, but may not always, happen on two different levels: one, by way of the intellect, by which we receive and interpret and assimilate the meaning we attribute to them; and the other, by which we have a direct experience of meeting them as they touch some other locus of gnosis other than merely the cerebral.
These two ways of listening are not mutually exclusive. In fact, to assume they are would be a primary strategic error, a fundamental misunderstanding of our encounters with the teachings and with their teachers. If we are to have any chance of assimilating teachings in a manner congruent with their intent, we must activate our capacity to listen in both ways at the same time.
These two ways of listening are inseparable. It is often said that we must listen to teachings for their outer, inner and secret meanings. But in reality, listening in two ways activates a direct and immediate experience of duality and non-duality, of both awareness in time…and of timeless awareness that characterize teachings regardless of their inner, outer or secret meaning.
We can learn to recognize our error by observing our inner process. We can lean in one of two ways. We can pride ourselves in listening and recording with our intellect, making notes, committing portions of what we hear to memory, keeping a record of our engagement for consideration and possible regurgitation at some later date when we believe it will matter.
Or, we can listen with the subtle body, the inner ear, the ear that knows there is no cognitive meaning to which we can cling, much less retain. There is only one message, the same message at all times: the unity of appearance and emptiness, the unity of time and timeless awareness, the indivisibility of duality and non-duality. That is the experience of Dzogchen.
True enough, every moment is an opportunity to enter that experience. But sitting in front of a teacher is a special invitation to listen in this way.
All of the Buddhist teachers in the West, at least all the Dzogchen teachers I’ve encountered, are very well practiced in transmitting to their students. We in the West are so well suited to hearing them because we place such a high cultural value on and rely more on our cognitive faculties. That is our default mode. We are good students in the Western mold of being a student. And our teachers have done a very good job of learning our language and expressing themselves in ways that speak to our default approach to learning, the rational use of logic, the collection and storing of conceptual knowledge and ritual practice.
But ultimately, that approach is not what we truly need. Insofar as we automatically rely on that approach, we learn little, and slowly, because no student can truly arrive at the Dzogchen experience without an empirical experience of The Great Perfection.
It is the direct seeing of the inseparability of the kayas. It is the direct knowledge of dharmakaya, the immediate, timeless and complete mutuality of absolute oneness and absolute difference, the union of the relative and the absolute, perpetually folding into and creating each other, becoming one another without beginning or end.