An excerpt from Chögyal Namkhai Norbu’s public talk in Beijing, China, October 9, 2015
Good day for everybody everywhere. I am very happy to be here in Beijing. I’m sorry that I don’t know the Chinese language in order to explain. Most of my life has been spent in the Western world and for that reason I will talk in English.
I want to explain a little about what Atiyoga is because I have dedicated myself to that. My spiritual path, my life, my way of being, everything, is integrated with the principle of the teaching of Atiyoga. I am very convinced that it is very useful and very important to know the principle of the teaching of Atiyoga not only for people who are doing practice and following a spiritual path, but also for anyone living in our human condition. This is the reason I have followed that knowledge and teaching.
In Tibet originally we had four or five Buddhist traditions and the pre-Buddhist Bon tradition, all of which are very important. They are applied in different ways and the way they are presented is different. This is related to the individual condition, just like in medicine. When we have some problems with our health we go to an expert doctor who gives us advice about which kind of medicine and therapy we need. In a similar way we have different kinds of traditions and schools. However, there does not exist any difference between the essence of all teachings and traditions. When someone follows a teaching or something similar, that person wants to learn something in order to have some benefit. They do not concentrate mainly on the tradition and this kind of division. The most important point is the benefit. In this case, then, in my experience, I have found that Atiyoga is the most important. In a traditional way I belong basically to the Sakyapa tradition in Tibet. Atiyoga is not the principle in this tradition, but when I learned all about the Buddhist tradition I discovered that Atiyoga is really the essence.
History of Atiyoga
When we learn about the name ‘Atiyoga’, we can understand its essence. The teaching of Atiyoga came originally from Oddiyana, which means it came in our epoch, in our condition. In the Buddhist tradition, Buddha Sakyamuni is considered to be the first teacher, but when we go into the history of different nations and peoples, there were many ancient histories recounted in different places before the time of Buddha Sakyamuni. We follow very much the ancient history of teachings in India, for example, and we can understand this in the teaching of the Vajrayana in which the figures of the deities and Bodhisattvas are all like figures of princes and princesses in ancient Indian style. That means ancient tradition and history are connected.
In the history of India it says that in very ancient times the human condition was similar to that of the Devas, figures like Brahma or Krishna, and that there were many types of Devas. Originally the human condition was at a very high level, but as emotions developed the human condition became more and more subject to them and worsened. For example, in Kalpa Dzogden, which means very ancient times, human beings had no need for homes and were not dependent on food, but as they gradually developed, they became limited and dependent on objects. This history describes a really very ancient period of the human condition in general, not just the history of one nation or people. At that time there was one of the most ancient teachers of Atiyoga called Nangwa Tampa who transmitted the principle of knowledge of Atiyoga. After that, twelve different teachers appeared one by one in different epochs. The last one is considered to be Buddha Sakyamuni. In general, history is presented that way in the Atiyoga teaching.
When we think about it, then the time of Buddha Sakyamuni is not so very ancient. However, at that time the teaching of Atiyoga had mostly disappeared. We live in time and space and there are always many things that change and do not remain for a longer time. The only thing that remained were some Atiyoga teachings called Nyengyüd, or oral transmission of teachings in just a few words. At the time of Buddha Sakyamuni, some of these Nyengyüd still existed, but there was no official teaching of Atiyoga. Then the Atiyoga teaching was repeated by an emanation of Buddha Sakyamuni called Guru Garab Dorje.
Today we have the original texts of Atiyoga, not only these first texts taught by Nangwa Tampa, but many taught by these twelve teachers. All these teachings were repeated by Guru Garab Dorje because he was an omniscient enlightened being.
Beyond Cause and Effect
What Buddha Sakyamuni taught was basically the Four Noble Truths. The first Noble Truth of Suffering means that there is no sentient being that does not experience suffering. But even though we do not like suffering, we do not know how to overcome it and when we have problems, we fight and struggle with them. When Buddha explained the Noble Truth of Suffering he said that even if we fight with the problem, we can never win because suffering is an effect, a fruit. What we should do is discover the cause.
Then Buddha explained the second Noble Truth, the Cause. When we discover the cause, there is a possibility to change or modify it with the consequence that the fruit does not manifest. The Buddha’s famous teaching of Cause and Effect is called karma. However, people have different capacities and conditions, and even though many people may wish to stop or modify a negative cause, some of them may not have sufficient capacity on their own. So Buddha gave this path, the third Noble Truth called Cessation, which means how to stop negative causes. Many people have the capacity to stop them by themselves, but other beings do not have that capacity. In that case, they receive a vow because when we take a vow, somehow we can overcome a negative cause. So this is another method.
In the Buddhist tradition, particularly in the Hinayana, we can receive a vow. For example, we may want to stop doing something in our ordinary lives such as smoking because we consider it very harmful for our health, our memory etc., but we may have tried four or five times without succeeding. What can we do in this type of condition? We can receive a vow, take it in a perfect way and overcome that problem. For that reason Buddha explained the Noble Truth of the Path. The Path is a different method related to the condition of the individual.
The principle of the Teaching that Buddha gave was Cause and Effect. When some of his students asked Buddha how they could go beyond Cause and Effect, he gave them advice saying that there would be a teacher just like him who would explain how to go beyond Cause and Effect. Buddha didn’t directly explain or give this type of teaching, but he said that there would be a teacher just like him. That teacher was Guru Garab Dorje.
Dra Thalgyur tantra
Guru Garab Dorje’s teaching was firstly based on the teaching of Nangwa Tampa, who was the first teacher to give the teaching called the Dra Thalgyur tantra. This tantra is the root of the Dzogchen teaching and so we can say that Dzogchen teaching is the essence, the final goal of all teachings. Its essence doesn’t manifest very much externally, such as sutra teaching. We can understand this from the Dra Thalgyur tantra in which there is an explanation of how long the teaching of the Buddha will last on this globe. It says that the Sutra teaching that Buddha gave orally will disappear early, while the Vajrayana will still be alive for many more thousands of years because Vajrayana is not related to anything like a vow at the physical level. When the Vajrayana teaching disappears it says that the teaching of Atiyoga will continue almost until this globe disappears. This is because Atiyoga is knowledge of our condition. In Atiyoga there are no rules that we should follow or that dictate how we should be. People who are interested in Atiyoga should learn and become responsible for themselves.
Ati – Primordial Condition
When we talk about Atiyoga, what does Ati mean? In the language of Oddiyana, it is ‘ati’ while in Sanskrit it is ‘adhi’ and it means primordial condition. Everybody has his/her primordial condition. There does not exist a unified primordial condition for all sentient beings. If there are ten people, there are also ten different kinds of primordial states. We can understand that in the way the Sutra teaching is presented. For example, if we want to do practice to increase our compassion, we should do Avalokiteshvara. If we want to have a longer life, we do Buddha Amitayus practice. If we want to become more intelligent we do Manjushri practice. We have all these kinds of concepts about Enlightened Beings. However, an Enlightened Being means a being that is totally qualified and possesses a quantity and quality of wisdom. Manjushri has compassion just like Avalokiteshvara, while Avalokiteshvara also has that capacity and knowledge of intelligence, so why do we divide them? The real state of all Enlightened Beings is the same condition but it doesn’t mean becoming one. Some people have this kind of idea. This is more in the Hindu tradition.
If we are in the state of a realised being, we have no concept of separation or being only one. We are beyond that. But when we are beyond it doesn’t mean that everybody becomes one. This is also related to what is called our primordial state for everybody.
Yoga or Naljor
‘Yoga’ means the condition of real knowledge. ‘Yoga’ is also used in the Oddiyana language and in Sanskrit, in the Indian Hindu tradition, and when we ask what the real meaning of the word ‘yoga’ is, they say it means ‘union’. But in the Dzogchen teaching, in the Vajrayana teaching, the word ‘yoga’ does not mean ‘union’. In ancient times, at the time of Guru Padmasambhava, when he introduced Vajrayana teaching and Dzogchen in Tibet, there were many translators who were not only good at translating the words but also knew the real sense of the teaching. They translated the word ‘yoga’ as ‘naljor’ in Tibetan. This is a very important word. ‘Naljor’ is two words in Tibetan. ‘Nal’ or nalma’ means how the real condition is. Everybody has his or her primordial state: that is the real condition. If there are ten people then they have ten nalma, real conditions. If we have knowledge of our real nature, then there is no difference between my nalma or his or her nalma. But although they are the same nature it doesn’t mean that we become a single entity. We are just in this same nature, same knowledge, and everybody has his or her real nature, nalma.
‘Jor’ means we possess that knowledge. This is something that is very important. Any kind of sentient being has his or her nalma, real condition, but we are ignorant of it and we remain in dualistic vision. What is the difference between dualistic vision and the condition of nalma? The condition of nalma means beyond time and space. In our relative condition we cannot understand what beyond time and space means. This is the reason why in the Sutra teaching the Prajnaparamita is beyond explanation. In the Vajrayana it is explained just like Mahamudra and all these states are beyond explanation because to explain them we have to think and judge, and then establish something. When we try to understand through judging and thinking with our minds in time and space, how can we understand what is beyond?
Mind and nature of mind
For example, in an ordinary way when we learn teaching, we talk about mind and nature of mind. How is our mind? We can observe our thoughts and if we remain just a little, some kind of thoughts arise. Immediately we ask ‘chung, ne, dro sum’: where do thoughts come from, where are they, and where do they disappear? When we follow teachings, teachers tell us to observe our thoughts in order to discover this. When thoughts arise we try to see where they come from, but we cannot find anything and the thought disappears. When we don’t find anything, then that is emptiness. But we do not remain in emptiness for long because another thought immediately arises. When I think to myself that I am searching for the thought but I haven’t found anything, that is another thought. Immediately I search where this thought came from, but I cannot find anything. It is always emptiness. So we can understand that thoughts exist because if they didn’t exist they wouldn’t arise, even though we cannot find anything concrete.
What is the nature of the mind? Some people, particularly in the Sutra style of the teaching, say that they cannot find anything, only emptiness, and that this is the nature of the mind. This is not the nature of the mind. In the teaching this is what is called experience. We have many different kinds of experience, not only emptiness. We have learned everything in our lives through experience. If, for example, I want to know whether the taste of a certain food is sweet or sour, I don’t need to do much research to discover what sweet and sour are. I already know because I have had experience of that, I have learned. If we were like newborn babies, we wouldn’t have had that experience or have that knowledge and even if someone gave teaching and explained, we wouldn’t understand.
In the Dzogchen Atiyoga teaching there is an example. If someone who has grown up never tasting anything sweet during their life and is curious about what sweet is, they may ask their parents and other people about it. But nobody can explain what sweet is if they have had no experience of it. We can write volumes of books explaining what sweet is, but how can we introduce a person who has never had that experience to what sweet is? The nature of mind is just like that, only a kind of concept. We know that mind exists because thought arises and is something alive. Since this mind exists then we think that there should be something like the nature of mind. We can talk about the nature of many things such as the nature of the elements, the nature of fire, etc., but to really discover we need to have experience. For example, we can give just a small piece of chocolate to a person who has never experienced sweet and he or she can taste in their mouth that it is sweet. There are different ways of presenting sweet but this is the way to discover it.
In the same way, we have learned everything in our lives through experience. For example, if a small child goes near a fire his parents will tell him not to go there because it is dangerous. However, the child cannot understand why it is dangerous; he only understands that his parents are not giving permission to go there. When the parents are not there, the child will go towards the fire and discover the problem of the heat – it isn’t even necessary to touch it. We learn everything through experience. Sometimes the experience is concrete and has a material aspect, at times it may also be something related to our existence of voice at the energy level, or also be at the mental level.
When we are children as we grow up we pass through primary school, middle school, high school and university, learning many things with our minds. At the end of our studies we think that we know everything. It also means that we are qualified to do some job which is indispensable in our society, in our condition as human beings. However, when we talk about naljor, jor means we possess knowledge of how our real nature is. This is really important for everybody. We must discover and understand that a human being has the human condition. Each person has his or her condition and we pay respect to that. This is also the principle of the teaching that Buddha explained.
Transcribed and edited by Liz Granger