Q: I’m still a little confused about Sutrayana and Vajrayana and how this fits in with Sutra, Tantra and Dzogchen.
NN: This is a complex subject and can take a long time to fully understand. Often people’s first experience of Dharma is Sutrayana. Dharma is presented by all four schools of Tibetan Buddhism through the Sutrayana approach. The base of these teachings is an understanding of the lack of lasting satisfaction in our lives and suspicion about the processes of samsara that we repeat over and over again. The path is to understand the emptiness of those processes.
Q: So the path of Sutrayana is about emptiness?
NN: Yes. We aim to cut the activities that compound dissatisfaction and grasping at form, and encourage practices that open us to emptiness. The methods we are likely to encounter are practices to calm the mind, to develop equanimity in our view of ourselves and others, and to open our hearts to the blossoming of an attitude of loving kindness. These practices all place us in a more open and empty position with regard to our usual relationship with our own thought process and with other beings.
Q: And then there is Vajrayana?
NN: That’s right. Here the emphasis is placed differently. It is a more dynamic approach. Our experience of dissatisfaction is not used as the focus for practice. Rather the quality of the way we engage with the processes of samsara is examined. We harness the energy of our emotions as the path to transform distorted being into enlightened manifestation. Sutrayana is the path of renouncing attachment to form, whereas Vajrayana actively engages in working with form.
Q: And Dzogchen?
NN: When talking about Sutrayana and Vajrayana, Dzogchen is included in Vajrayana as the highest of the Inner Tantras – Atiyoga Tantra. However when Dzogchen is viewed as a separate yana, then we talk about Sutra, Tantra and Dzogchen: the paths of renunciation, transformation and spontaneous realisation.
Q: Previously we talked about Buddhism being a religion. It seems more obvious that Vajrayana is religious practice, because yidam23 practice seems to require a lot of faith.
NN: Yes, I can see how you could think that. It is perhaps not so much faith as confidence that develops – confidence in the person who is offering you the symbolic method. After this initial leap based on confidence—once we embrace symbolic method—we can discover for ourselves that it is efficaciously practical. Sutrayana could be said to be more immediately approachable in that its base is the experience of dissatisfaction – and yet many people do not find renunciation a path that can be easily reconciled with ordinary daily life.
The ultimate expression of the path of Sutrayana is celibate monasticism, so its practice within ordinary life can feel like a compromise. Vajrayana requires the experiential base of emptiness, which could be said to be less immediately accessible. However, emptiness can simply be an openness or devotion to the teacher that enables us to receive transmission and engage with symbolic method. As Vajrayana works with how we find ourselves—the pattern of our emotions and personality, and our life circumstances—the path of transformation is extremely applicable to ordinary life.
Q: So these two paths have quite different qualities?
NN: They do, and this is what can be so confusing. People can tend to assume that one of them must be the ‘right’ path, and that their apparent contradictions mean that they negate each other. However, if you can understand the principle and function of the different yanas of Dharma, then there is no need to feel confusion or doubt. Sutrayana views enlightenment as a seed that needs to be discovered, nurtured and allowed to develop, whereas Vajrayana holds the view that all beings are beginninglessly enlightened. It has to be understood that from the perspective of practice as method—rather than truth—it doesn’t matter that these paths appear to contradict each other.
Q: Ngakpa ’ö-Dzin once used the example of people’s glasses as an explanation of method rather than truth.
NN: Ah yes. That is a good example. The fact that I could not see clearly through your glasses and you could not see through mine, does not nullify spectacles as a method for the correction of sight. Your glasses are a method, not a truth, so it is fine for your prescription to be different to mine. It is the same in Dharma. One does not have to view Sutrayana as ‘wrong’ in order to practise Vajrayana, and vice versa.
From the perspective of Sutrayana, enlightenment involves a long journey of removing the obstacles to realisation. From the perspective of Vajrayana, our distortion and negativity are seen as reflections of our enlightened nature that naturally sparkles. The ordinary way in which we manifest in our lives is seen as a distortion of our enlightened nature, and the focus is on transforming the distorted energy into its enlightened form.
Q: So enlightened me will not be so obviously different from unenlightened me?
NN: Yes. That is it exactly. The symbolic methods of the highest Inner Tantra offered by the Lama act as a pure mirror to allow us to see ourselves as we really are. We then continue to be ordinary in an extraordinary manner. Through cooperating with the raw material of our distortion, reflected in the symbolic mirror of the practices of Vajrayana, and through interaction with the Lama, we are transformed into realised beings.
Q: But this transformation may not be apparent to most people?
NN: Quite so. It is said that Buddhas see ordinary people as Buddhas, while ordinary people see Buddhas as ordinary people. The object of Dharma is to point the practitioner in the direction of realising the non-duality of emptiness and form. Sutrayana says that you have to become comfortable with emptiness first. Vajrayana says that you can approach it through devotion and the empty form of symbol as transmitted by your Lama. Dzogchen says that you can simply enter it directly through the skilful means of your Lama. These methods may appear to contradict one another at times—like your and my spectacles—but they are simply differing methods. Each is as valid and valuable as the other.
Q: Sometimes it seems that Sutric method says that things are bad, that our bodies are ugly and impure…
NN: This is a common misunderstanding of Sutrayana view. Sutrayana is renouncing form in order to realise emptiness and uses the language of renunciation. This can appear to be presented as body-negative, but it is simply pointing to the empty nature of body and attempting to undermine our grasping at that particular form. You see, it is the practitioner who has the problem, not the method. The practitioner distorts the path of the yana through their lack of understanding. Also language itself can distort the path – language conveys Dharma but does not limit Dharma.
Q: Does Vajrayana have its own language as well?
NN: Yes it does. Vajrayana uses the language of transformation. It is much more florid and colourful than the language of Sutrayana, because form is embraced and utilised as the path. Vajrayana language is also paradoxical and ambiguous because Vajrayana plays with the idea of form as emptiness and emptiness as form. The useful thing about learning to recognise the language of Sutrayana and Vajrayana, and to understand the approaches of these paths, is that we are then able to read any book about Dharma, and attend any teaching without becoming confused.
Once we can understand and recognise the different views and methods available, we can let go of wishing them to be ‘truth’ and enjoy their differing qualities as method. We can approach the methods of Sutrayana and Vajrayana as a tool box.
Q: [laughs] A tool box?
NN: Yes – you employ the method that is suitable for the situation. If you are caught up in a strong emotion such as anger, that you lack the capacity to transform, then it is better to engage the Sutrayana method of renouncing involvement with the emotion than to punch someone on the nose [laughs]. This would be so even if you regard yourself as primarily a Vajrayana practitioner. We can only ever begin where we find ourselves. The Dzogchen practitioner spontaneously responds in an appropriate manner that is congruent with a movement towards realisation. The subjective definition of the method employed may be that it is Sutric, Tantric, or Dzogchen. However if it is spontaneous and appropriate, then it is congruent with a Dzogchen approach.
Q: Could you please say some more about using the terms ‘Sutra, Tantra and Dzogchen’ rather than ‘Sutrayana and Vajrayana’?
NN: This is another layer that can seem complicated. The nine vehicles of the Nyingma School can roughly be described as the three vehicles of Sutrayana, and the six vehicles of Vajrayana – the three Outer and three Inner Tantras. The highest Inner Tantric vehicle, Ati yoga, can also be called Dzogchen. When Dzogchen is viewed as a path in its own right, we talk about the three vehicles of Sutra, Tantra, and Dzogchen, rather than about Sutrayana and Vajrayana. Sutra incorporates all teachings and practices of the path of renunciation with the experience of emptiness as their fruit. Tantra embraces all the teachings and practices that use symbolic method as the path of transformation. Dzogchen includes all teachings and practices that provide an opportunity for direct introduction into the experience of non-duality.
Hinayana, Mahayana and Vajrayana are historical. They are based on the historical evolution of Buddhism. Sutra, Tantra and Dzogchen are not the same as this. They are the spontaneous perspective of Dzogchen. Dzogchen view also has its own ‘flavour’ and language. It is direct and simple. The opportunity for realisation is either spontaneously realised or it is not.
Now… [pauses and smiles] I hardly dare tell you this [laughs] but… each of the vehicles can talk about each of the other vehicles in its own language. This can become extremely elaborate – and hearing a teaching on a subject with which you thought you were familiar presented in a totally new way could be challenging. This is where there is the danger of falling into judging teachers and teachings –
My teacher explains it is like this, so what you are saying must be wrong. This is the perspective of someone who has not had the opportunity to understand the various perspectives and language of view and method.
Q: Is this why sometimes Dzogchen teachings appear to be very different from ways I’ve heard them presented elsewhere?
NN: Yes, that is it exactly. Other presentations you heard were not ‘wrong’, they were simply arising out of a different view and method.
Q: So teachings and practice are presented from the perspective of Dzogchen in the Aro gTér Lineage?
NN: Mostly, yes. In this lineage teachings normally associated with the sutric path are found in the Ulukhamukha Sutra. Viewing them from the perspective of Dzogchen can provide great insight into these teachings. For example the Sutric teaching of ‘The Four Thoughts that Turn the Mind to Practice’ can be presented from the perspective of Dzogchen and is found in the Ulukhamukha Sutra. The semantic expression of the teachings in the Ulukhamukha Sutra is fantastically subtle, but we can continually refer to the Dzogchen view.
Q: You said that any Dharma teaching or practice is actually an exposition of the whole path. Does this mean that it would be possible to engage with just one practice for our whole life and still gain realisation?
NN: Yes indeed – but we might experience boredom. We may find that we need the enlivening effect of song to counterbalance our tendency to dullness and distraction in silent sitting. There are multifarious methods because of the multifarious nature of our distortion. Dharma is amazingly skilful. It works with as we are so that we can discover as it is.
23. Yidam (yi dam) (Tibetan): ishtadeva (Sanskrit), often referred to as ‘deity’. The yidam is an awareness-image that acts as a symbolic form of enlightened-nature for Tantric practice. Literally means ‘firm mind’. Derived from ‘yid’ and ‘dam-tsig’: intellect and commitment.