Ati Yoga Teaching Retreat

Day 2 morning

Part one of day two of Chögyal Namkhai Norbu’s Ati Yoga Teaching at Dzamling Gar, December 29, 2017. Part two of day one was published in the last issue of The Mirror, no. 144. Rinpoche gives an explanation of the principle teachings of the Buddha, which are related to the Three Gates or Three Existences of all sentient beings: body, speech and mind.

Good day for everybody and everywhere. We start with our practice of the Ati Guruyoga.

In general we know very well that the teaching of the Buddha, the teaching of all enlightened beings, is for all sentient beings. We understand that intellectually, but practically not. If there is a teaching, it seems that this teaching is only for spiritual people. “All sentient beings”, does not mean spiritual people only. For example, most people work and think about how to live. If we all become spiritual people or live in monasteries, then what do we eat, how do we live? Therefore the teaching for everybody means that we need to integrate the sense of the teaching, otherwise it doesn’t correspond.

When Buddha explained the teaching, first of all he explained how the three existences of the individual are. Those existences are not limited only to human beings, but to any kind of sentient being that possesses body, speech and mind. We live with these three existences, so we need to know how to deal with these three existences with the teaching. First of all, everyone is familiar with the aspect of the body. We immediately discover problems like illness or pain, but our existence is not only the body. There is also energy. The condition of energy is more difficult to discover or understand, and still more complicated and difficult is our mind. These three existences are interdependent. For example, if we have some problems on the physical level, to overcome them we need to understand how the problem is related with our energy. Also we need to understand how energy is related with our mind – judging, thinking, etc. Then if there are some problems, this understanding helps us to overcome all these problems.

The first thing that Buddha taught was The Four Noble Truths. In The Four Noble Truths, the first thing Buddha explained was suffering. We have so many different kinds of suffering. We not only have the suffering of the physical body, but also the energy level and still worse, the suffering of the mind. No one likes suffering, but we do not know how to overcome it. For example, we know we have some problems, but we do not know how to overcome them. Our idea is that one day, after struggling and fighting with those problems, we will win and no longer have these problems. It is true that we always think in that way; Buddha showed us that this is the not correct way to think. Buddha said, for example, even if you struggle all your life with suffering, you will never win.

You will never win because suffering is a fruit, an effect of something that we did. So if we want to change or modify something, we must discover the cause. If we think well, it is not so very difficult to understand. For example, if you go to a doctor when you have some illness, the doctor studied medicine and knows very well how to analyze your illness, so the first questions the doctor will ask you are what did you do yesterday, what did you eat and drink? So that means the doctor is researching the cause. You have this problem of illness as an effect of the cause. So instead of struggling with that problem, we try to understand the cause.

Buddha explained that 2000 years ago. And his students learned and understood. But not all sentient beings know that. So, still today we are doing the same way as we did in ancient times. When we have some problems in a country, for example, you know very well what we do. We struggle and fight and we have a revolution. What does revolution mean? Revolution means you change something without knowing the cause, you fight with what you see in front of you. If we learned what Buddha taught since the beginning, we can have much benefit. But in a practical way we do not know how to apply that.

Ordinary people don’t know this so they don’t apply this understanding in that way. Also, protagonists of the teachings, practitioners, for example, many people are struggling. We know we don’t like to have suffering, so what we should do? We try to discover the cause. Then Buddha explained The Second Noble Truth, which says to learn how to change or modify the cause. That means we discover the cause and apply a method to stop it.

Most people, even if they understand the cause, they do not have sufficient capacity to stop it. A good example is when people say, “Oh, I understand when I drink or smoke too much, it is very bad for my health.” So they know there is an effect that manifests in their condition and they have the idea to stop. There are so many people that cannot stop smoking or drinking. The omniscient Buddha knows this, so people who have no capacity take a vow. When you take a vow in an important moment, at an important place and with an important teacher, then you think the vow becomes very dangerous to break. In that way some people can overcome these problems.

We can understand why vows exist and why people take them. So, for example, the principle for a Dzogchen practitioner is not to take a vow, but relatively, if it is necessary, for example, we must be present and know how our real condition is. So in the time of Buddha Shakyamuni, for most people who followed the teaching of the Buddha, like Hinayana, the basic principle was to take vows. So, it is not a kind of Buddhist system, but it is related with the condition of the individual.

You see, in the time of Buddha Shakyamuni the teaching of Mahayana also developed. It is not always indispensable to take a vow in Mahayana. Of course, many practitioners take vows and apply them. The principle is not the vow, the Mahayana principle is the training. Training means that when you have no capacity, you train and you construct that capacity. Not everybody has the capacity to control themselves. So, if you have the possibility and need to take a vow you can, but it is not necessary. But in most of our traditions, particularly in Buddhist Sutra style, even if they are practicing Mahayana and Vajrayana, they give too much importance to the receiving of vows.

I told you many times, for example, about some of my students when they went to receive an initiation in Rome. An important lama invited the students and this lama was giving an initiation. When the students arrived they needed to ask to receive that initiation. The organizers, the Westerners who invited that teacher, asked my students if they had received a refuge vow. My students said they had not. They thought they had not because I was giving Dzogchen teachings, and even if I know very well and explained the meaning of refuge so that they could understand the sense of refuge, I did not give a vow. Of course they said that I never gave the vow and they never received it. So, then the organizers told them they could not receive the teaching. First they must receive a refuge vow and then later they can receive this initiation. This is the higher level in the Vajrayana system. For receiving the higher-level teaching you basically need to have a vow as the base. They told my students that if they waited, when the teacher was finished, he could give them a refuge vow. Then the next time there was an initiation they could participate and receive it. My students didn’t stay and they arrived back and told me the story. I felt a little bad because this was something that was also my fault because I never explained, for example, that in the Dzogchen teaching it is not indispensable to receive a refuge vow.

This is a good example of how people see and think. They think a vow is very important. A vow is important if you have no capacity. First if you discover that you have no capacity, you try to do some training for constructing the Mahayana system. If you do not have even this capacity, then you take vows. In the Hinayana Vinaya system there are many different kinds of vows. For example, we say Nacig Chodpa[1], which means there is only one vow you can take for overcoming one problem. If you cannot stop drinking alcohol, for example you take only this vow. Then Naga Chodpa[2] is different and it means taking more taking than one vow. All people who take this kind of lower vow are called genyen. In Sanskrit it is called upasaka. That means they are taking only a few vows and they are paying respect to these vows and overcoming these kinds of problems. There are these vows Naga Chodpa or Nacig Chodpa, and then there are also superior vows when we become monks and nuns. Of course, there are so many rules, not only one. How did all these rules develop? In the time of the Buddha Shakyamuni, Buddha said there were certain activities not to be done. Then more and more rules arose, one by one; some are heavier and some are less heavy.

Particularly if you read and you study Vinaya, there are many explanations called Drugde[3]This means there were six monks creating problems. Each time these monks were doing something strange, Shariputra, one of the best students of Buddha Shakyamuni, explained to Buddha and Buddha said, “Oh, they cannot do that.” So, basically when you are taking a vow then you know very well Chomnga[4] – the five rules that are the most important. If you apply these actions, then your vow is completely broken. The second heavier vow is called Lhagma Chusum[5]; there are also thirteen that are very heavy. Even if you did only one of these thirteen actions, you have not completely broken your vow but you should do purification.

Perfect monks should be in a monastery, because in a monastery there is a Sangha of monks and nuns. You should do purification each time there is a full moon and a new moon, two times a month at least. That is called sojong. So means if something is missing then you are adding. Jong means if you did something negative you are purifying that. Some Western monks and nuns are going to the East so they can receive vows of monks and nuns, and then they are returning and living ordinary lives. That is a wrong choice. If you want to be monks and nuns then you should be in the Sangha. Sangha means at least four monks or nuns together; this is called Sangha. Even if there are three monks or nuns, it is not a Sangha.

You should also receive a vow in the Vinaya system from the Sangha. In the Sangha there is one elder one called neten. When you first receive a vow, there are, for example, twenty questions or so. For example they ask, “Do you have some responsibility for your family?” You should say “no.” If you have some responsibility to your family you cannot receive a vow. There are so many of these kinds of questions. The neten, the older one, asks these questions. There are some three other monks, at least, who are listening and have understood; they have understood that this person does not have these conditions and can receive this vow. And when there is something a protagonist needs to ask or say, the older one is doing that. But the older one is not becoming a Vajrayana teacher, he is only the oldest in the Sangha.

The vow is received from the Sangha. Also when you do purification you need at least four monks and nuns and then you can purify, otherwise it is not sufficient. So you see, we can understand that if you are monks and nuns in the Hinayana style you should be in a group of the Sangha. Otherwise it is better that you don’t take this vow, because when you take this vow and you are not doing purification, for example, if you do not purify for one month, two months, three months, etc., these thirteen heavier actions become just like the first five. Then you are automatically breaking your vow. If you do not pay respect to the vow in a precise way, if you have broken it and you have not renounced the vow, it continues to develop and creates problems. If someone has studied Vinaya well, they understand.

For example, when I came from India to Italy with my friend a Gelugpa geshe, Geshe LharampaJampa Senge, a very high level geshe, a very studied one who knew Vinaya very well; at the beginning when we arrived we did not talk about these things, because he was a very studied Gelugpa. I also knew that he didn’t like very much what I was doing. He always tried to control me. I knew that and I paid respect to him, but I did not discuss. After a little time passed, almost one year, we became friends, because he understood how my situation was, my way of seeing, etc., and that I did not have any competition with him. He had this competition with me from the beginning. Then he freed that.

He was very studied, particularly in Gelugpa logic. I also studied that Buddhist philosophy very well, but I never studied that logic. There is a book of the logic written by Sakya Pandita, which I studied. It is a Tsema Namdrel, (tshad ma rnam ‘grel, prmanavartika, Commentary on Valid Cognition by Chandrakirti), a very famous book of logic. I never received that teaching. So, I saw that this geshe was very expert in this text. Then I asked him, “Can you teach me Tsema Namdrel, the text of the logic?” He said, “Yes, I am very happy to do that.”  We did not have so much work, so we were always studying. I studied the Tsema Namdrel. I was not really deeply interested in it, but I studied to know how it is. When I asked him some important points he said, “Oh, this argument is in Tsema Namdrel on this page in this line.” He presented everything from the text of Tsema Namdrel.

So, I learned also a little Tsema Namdrel. And in the same way he became less limited. He said, “Oh, I never studied the grammatical system of the Tibetan very well, can you teach me?” Also he learned how to write Tibetan characters of uchen; to communicate and inform Western professors who needed to know uchen. They didn’t know how to read and apply the cursive ume. I know uchen very well, also how to write and all the explanations one by one, all the words. So, we were exchanging; I taught him the grammatical system and he taught me logic. In this way, we slowly developed what we studied when we were talking. We spoke very much about Vinaya. I was not a monk, but I studied all the Vinaya two times. So I asked, “You are a monk, but you are not doing sojong, so how do you do then?” He told me, “Oh, please, don’t tell me that!” He felt really afraid; he still felt like a monk. Then I said, “It is much better you offer your vow and you live like a normal person. Otherwise you are accumulating all these problems day after day.” He was a studied one, so he knew that very well. Later when Trichang Rinpoche, the younger teacher of the Dalai Lama, arrived, the Geshe offered his vow.

It was almost impossible for people to believe that Geshe Lharampa Jampa Senge was no longer a monk. The Tibetans who heard that news were very surprised. I was not surprised because I knew him very well. Later he became very happy. He got married and had a daughter who is grown up now. So that is an example of how Vinaya must be handled in that way. If you are applying all the rules of Mahayana, then you can do the training. From the beginning, when you take this kind of vow in Buddhist Mahayana, you are not saying, “I am taking this vow but I don’t follow it, I only want to train.” To train means you can apply the vow or not. If I apply vows, and I discover I cannot apply them, there is a cause, there are reasons I cannot apply them. So I discover the cause and reasons and work with them. This is the Mahayana system.

So, you see, there are many different kinds of vows. Buddha gave vows for people who have no capacity and in that way this Hinayana system developed. The difference between Mahayana and Hinayana is not only having vow or not, that is another question. The essence of the teaching is that Buddha said, “Everything is unreal.” Unreal means emptiness and that there is no concrete existence.


Transcribed by Anna Rose
Edited by Naomi Zeitz
Tibetan Language with the kind assistance of Elio Guarisco


[1] sna gcig spyod pa: practice of only one precept

[2] sna ‘ga’ spyod pa: practice of few precepts

[3] drug sde: the group of six

[4] bcoms lnga: the five defeating vows

[5] dge ‘dun lhag ma bcu gsum: it means that the ordination is totally destroyed, some remains

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