The Long and Enduring Road Home: Revisiting The Precious Vase, Instructions on the Base of Santi Maha Sangha by Chögyal Namkhai Norbu
The Base of the teaching consists in studying, meditating, and experiencing perfectly
The Buddha’s perfect teaching contained in the sutras and tantras
And the perfectly connected method and their essence, that is the teaching of the mind of Samantabhadra
By means of the tantras, lungs,, and upadeshas of Total Perfection and of Yantra Yoga.[Santi Maha Sangha 7, PV p. 21]
In the Sati Patthanna Sutta (Pali) commonly referred to as “The Four Foundations of Mindfulness” of body, feeling, mind and phenomena, the Buddha sets forth a bold claim that this path, based on his own personal spiritual journey, is the direct path to enlightenment.
Bhikshus*, this is the direct path for purifying beings, for overcoming sorrow and lamentation, for vanquishing pain and distress, for attaining the right approach, for realizing nirvana—namely, the four applications of mindfulness. [i]
*[Refers here to both monastic and laypeople, women and men]
Clear and to the point, the Buddha tells us about our real condition and what we need to do about it —nothing more. The rest is up to each individual to take responsibility for their own happiness and overcoming “sorrow and lamentation” through a process of awakening to one’s authentic condition.
Typically through extended metaphors for a particular “path,” metaphors are often used to express the variability among the different “vehicles” or schools of Buddhism. These range from simple walking all the way to a space ship.
From the point of view of the space ship sometimes associated with Dzogchen, one might ask why would anyone ever want to go back and “walk” the path of Sutra in the Buddhist tradition once one discovers how to be transported vast distances immediately and effortlessly through a non-gradual path?
Having returned last winter from a mostly silent and unplugged three-month personal retreat at a local Vipassana center, I have my own personal answer as to the benefits and limitations of the “walking” mode from the perspective of a Dzogchen practitioner’s view.
Sometimes it’s just more useful to walk in order to slow down and create the time and space required for studying, practicing and reflecting on one’s life in an environment free from worldly distractions and our habitual tendencies. This is especially important when trying to stabilize Shamatha/Shine as I was attempting to do yet again. Remaining silent for most of the time over a period of months proved equally beneficial in that it was so refreshing not to maintain a constant narrative about oneself. As a writer, who loves to think and create, it was a real challenge at times to drop my storyline and just abide in each moment in order to minimize concepts. In this respect, I found that temporary silence does cultivates an experience of spaciousness that loosens the mind from its usual stronghold of dualistic concepts especially for dislodging old grudges and tired story lines.
For me this down shift to slow “walking mode” offered a rare opportunity to look at the view, meditation and conduct of my “identity” as a Dzogchen practitioner in relation to the actual level of my awareness and presence by means of investigating with microscopic precision moment to moment mindfulness that Vipassana fosters. The very word Vipassana in Pali means “clear seeing” which defines this process. So in that sense, microscopic is not lesser but smaller, as in more focused. In traditional Vipassana, as in Dzogchen, it is not that our thoughts are the problem but that thoughts bother us and continually steal our precious jewel of awareness from the present moment like a wily thief. Noticing this on even the subtlest level can prove very fruitful to assess one’s development. It’s just so easy to delude ourselves otherwise into believing we are more aware than in actuality.
I‘m no expert here on any of this and for decades struggled with trying to stabilize my Shamatha/Shine practice according to the common instructions found in sutra, which is the base for further development. This process can be both rapturous and plummet one into the deepest despondency, which is why equanimity, one of the key factors of enlightenment according to the Buddha is so important to maintain balance as one develops. There is no right or wrong here, nothing much to attain but everything to discover in cultivating a bright wakeful awareness as training for entering into instant presence and continuing in the state of contemplation beyond a few moments. While the intention in Dzogchen is always to relax fully in unfabricated natural presence effortlessly beyond cause and effect, the actualization of this state only comes with developing our capacity through efforts.
The truth of the matter is that without continuous presence of awareness, there can be no evolution on any path. It is not really something we can learn only from a book but must experience first hand many times. As they say– where there is smoke, there is fire and only direct experience leads to illumination. There is no faking here.
Direct experience, as we all know, leads to the true meaning of words. But experience alone is not enough. We need to coordinate our practice first through study and then reflection so that a deep understanding arises. In The Precious Vase, Chögyal Namkhai Norbu eloquently outlines this sequence to follow in establishing our base.
“So, in order to practice a teaching, whether it pertains to the Sutras, Tantras or Dzogchen, first of all it is necessary to eliminate the darkness of the mind by learning what to practice. Then by reflecting one must free oneself from the net of doubt with regard to the teachings one is following. This factor is indispensable in order to approach a path of realization and to practice the preliminary teachings. In particular to enter the supreme Dzogchen teaching, after having studied and reflected on everything that seems useful, it is necessary to understand the characteristics related eloquently to essence, nature, and specific aspects etc that distinguish an uncommon path from a common path.” [PV, p.35]
After many weeks in personal retreat, I experienced a deep appreciation for the methods of the Sutric path as taught by the Buddha so important in establishing the base for Santi Maha Sangha. I also began to see why establishing a base is so essential to enter fully into Dzogchen. With this appreciation arose an understanding that clarified how the Santi Maha Sangha training works to further our realization if we really apply its unique and special methods precisely as laid out. These methods introduced in the base when applied quickly introduce us to many experiences to enhance our understanding. Like pieces of a complex puzzle that seamlessly fit together, the emerging picture becomes clearer the more one engages. Most importantly I found myself deeply grateful for finding such a marvelous Master like Chögyal Namkhai Norbu who imparts the Dzogchen view, meditation and conduct as a guide for such an extraordinary and uncommon path in this very life. The Precious Vase provides a rare and unique opportunity to enter the gateway of Dzogchen in an authentic lineage under the perfect guidance of a supreme master whose depth of knowledge and kindness is as deep as the ocean and vast as the sky.
Now, I am old in years but feeling young in my understanding. It’s never too late to discover anew presence in the vast continuum of one’s mind stream. All the more so as one enters one’s senior years. To start at the beginning again with fresh eyes with a more mature view of Dzogchen proved an inspiration to continue on the path. I encourage everyone to try it. The road may be long with many starts and bumps but it’s enduring once we begin. We mustn’t lose heart for we are indeed very very fortunate to have met these Teachings and such a master as ours whose deep learning and accomplishment is unrivaled among his peers.
The key here is to arrive at certainty free from doubt without arrogance but with a natural confidence in the Teacher and the Teachings, which comes from having concrete experiences and deep understanding. In itself, the base of Santi Maha Sangha found in The Precious Vase is an extraordinary introduction to Ati now and especially for the future.
We live in an increasingly tumultuous age some call the Kali Yuga. None of us knows what conditions will prevail for such Teachings to survive in the future or moral degradations afflicting human societies. But one thing I am certain is that the Santi Maha Sangha training is a safeguard against corruptions within the transmission of Dzogchen brought forth from the loving kindness of it’s author, a true embodiment of these Teachings and all the previous Vidyadharas. To safeguard this legacy, I say to older practitioners, …Come back, there’s still time! For younger, I say…. Don’t wait, it’s a long road! It’s up to us, no one else.
Jacqueline Gens first studied in the Masters of Buddhism program at Naropa University attending Trungpa Rinpoche’s last seminary before his death in 1986. She met Chögyal Namkhai Norbu in 1991 through Tsultrim Allione. She has been a continuous member of Tsegyalgar East since she first took her Santi Maha Sangha exam with Rinpoche in 1994 and hopes to continue further levels.
Book Review by Jacqueline Gens
Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Awakening
By Joseph Goldstein, Sounds True, Boulder, CO,
457 pages, 2013
Unlike most other spiritual traditions, the Buddha’s path does not rely on deities and saviors, rituals, the Word or external dietary/dress regulations for Liberation but on each person’s participation in a rigorous mind training that examines with ardor, comprehension and mindfulness first hand the nature of reality of self and phenomena. At the core of his teaching method, the Buddha urges us in the Four Reliance to rely on “experience” not on dogma; furthermore, to rely on direct experience (Nitharta), not indirect (Nethartha). While not the same as direct introduction by a living master, as we know it, the Buddhist path sets a precedent for personal individuation based on direct experience over doctrine from the very outset. This thread runs through the most basic teachings to the highest culmination- thru all of Sutra, Tantra, and Dzogchen. This is important to recognize because we are not alone but part of a continuity of yogins who have already traveled the path to realization for millennia. If they can do it, so can we. But we need to begin somewhere. For some of us it is at the very beginning.
For those interested in understanding meditative stability in Sutra, indispensable as a base, the gold standard among the Buddha’s many teachings remains the Four Foundations of Mindfulness (Sati Patthanna Sutta). These days the word ‘mindfulness’ is widely used for a variety of meditation techniques both within Buddhism and also in secular contexts. Goldstein, one of the primary Western teachers of Insight Meditation based in the Theravada tradition has provided here a commentary that elucidates the pure canonical tradition of the Buddha as outlined in the Sati Patthanna Sutta with brilliant clarity, humor, and most importantly accessibility for both beginners and advanced practitioners. It is indeed a practical guide to refer to again and again.
In The Previous Vase, the Four Applications of Presence of body, feeling, mind, and phenomena [PV, p/ 138] are part of the base training drawn directly from the Four Foundations of Mindfulness. For those of you curious to go deeper, Goldstein’s commentary will prove a useful reference to these essential teachings. Like many of the methods outlined in The Precious Vase, they are presented in the most abbreviated instruction. This does not diminish their importance. Rather it is up to us to regard the base practices according to our capacity and interest unfolding the deeper meanings as we experience them. Similarly, one simple definition can fill whole volumes if we have knowledge such as exploring the The Four Applications of Mindfulness of Presence in order to go beyond a taste of the experience.
The path of renunciation need not be about the grim reaper destroying our every joy but about renouncing our attachments, aversion, and blanket of delusion that solidifies a self and phenomena as separate outside ourselves. What we are renouncing is what causes us so much confusion and tensions so that we can really experience joy that is not dependent on outer conditions or dualistic thinking. That does not mean, of course, that we can’t appreciate any moment with awareness—enjoy a sunset, smell a flower, see sky as blue, or taste a sumptuous meal. To some extend as long as we are alive, renunciation is part of our wisdom toolbox when needed if we are practitioners. From renouncing our deeply entrenched sense of me me me, to renouncing that wily thief of distraction, renunciation is the cornerstone of wise discernment or as Goldstein says, exemplifies the “wisdom of no”.
Goldstein’s commentary is a treasure trove of information by someone who has spent most of his life in formal meditation under the severest conditions found in Burmese and Thai vihares. His many personal antidotes breathe life and pure joy into this living tradition. The author of many books on Insight Meditation, he is one of the leading Western teachers of Vipassana and it’s introduction into Western culture. .
As many long time Vipassana practitioners are now turning to Dzogchen, a natural progression, so we too on the Dzogchen path might turn towards Sutra, to our Noble roots on occasion to check our progress and drink at the well-springs of the Buddha’s wisdom.
For the future it is important that we all know what is what and not mash up all the teachings into “one” big pot nor get caught up in petty sectarianism and pedantry. Rather as the first generation of Westerners in this great transition from East to West, let’s all respect the enormous wisdom behind these centuries old teachings on their own terms in whatever form they manifest. A commentary like Joseph Goldstein’s Mindfulness, guides us in knowing the profundity of the Buddha’s teachings beyond a preliminary taste. Let’s not forget who and what we are on the path. Otherwise we might just end up with a watered down Church of sorts, an ignorant orthodoxy that obliterates the profound heritage of direct experience into a lifeless system that looses sight of the purpose — which is to discover one’s true nature.