The path of the Vajrayana practitioner is a marathon not a sprint. I have to be willing to sweat, to wear clothing appropriate for the effort involved, and to leave behind the ties that keep me at the starting line. I have to be content to let those around me observe, either enjoying or despairing of my decision to enter the race. I have to accept that they may not wish to run with me. I have to be confident that there is a finishing line, that there are people looking after me who know the route, and that some have completed the course before me.
I have to accept the support and encouragement of the other runners, knowing that I may be quicker than some, but am no doubt slower than others. I have to pace myself, recognising that there will be times of sudden energy and ease, and times of sudden exhaustion and difficulty.
It may be that I am attracted to the path of Dzogchen to avoid this hard work. Perhaps Dzogchen looks like an easier option – a ‘get-enlightened-quick’ opportunity. If I am attracted to the spontaneity of Dzogchen view, I may delude myself that realisation will arise quickly – that the path will be fast. I am likely to become a disillusioned or self-deluding practitioner. Realisation indeed arises spontaneously and immediately in the moment, but our tendency to grasp at the experience generates an equally immediate return to duality in the next moment.
Our ability to discover the space where Dzogchen view can be engaged is capricious. So we have to practice from where we find ourselves. We have to also engage in the methods of Tantra and Sutra in order to afford ourselves opportunities to discover Dzogchen view. Tantra and Sutra require self-discipline, effort, and application. To allow realised view to penetrate being at the level of mind, energy, and body, takes considerable time, effort, and commitment. To be able to entertain spontaneity as a base, a path, and a fruit of practice, requires fine tuning of being through practices which address the reality of where we are.
With regard to Dzogchen, this does not negate the possibility of direct introduction, remaining without doubt, or continuing in the state – it is simply a realistic statement of our relative condition. So recognising our relative condition, and realising that great effort and commitment is required – how can we maintain effort and commitment? How can we maintain effort and commitment in times between contact with our Lamas and sangha9?
The next four chapters address this question in detail. The next four chapters explore ‘The Four Thoughts that Turn the Mind to Practice’. These ‘four thoughts’ offer methods which help us maintain effort and commitment.
‘The Four Thoughts that Turn the Mind to Practice’ are: appreciation of the rarity of genuine human experience, precious human rebirth10; recognition of impermanence and death11; understanding the mechanism of perception and response, or cause and effect12; contemplation of the unsatisfactory nature of self-defeating cyclic experience13
These four offer a method of opening view, in order that we are encouraged to practice and embrace Dharma, and in order that we can exist in the world in a manner that is congruent with view. The manner in which this teaching was first presented to me, seemed to be attempting to frighten me into practice, and as such it could easily have acted as a deterrent rather than an incentive. I was brought up within a Christian approach to spirituality, and was familiar with the approach of ‘you really should be good or things will get bad for you later’. Discovering a similar approach in Dharma proved unattractive, and it was fortunate that I came into contact with Dzogchen view before I had abandoned this path. However this frightening approach, I now realise, is inevitable from the perspective that enlightenment or salvation is a totally separate state to the one in which I find myself.
Hence with my first experience of these teachings, given from the perspective of the Sutric path of renunciation, I felt that I was being taught that there was something wrong with me and my circumstances. Sutric view can be misunderstood as declaring that there is something actually wrong with the ‘form’ of our lives – the physical circumstances and objects with which we make contact. In fact the path of renunciation is stating that the problem is addiction to, and grasping of, form – not the form itself14.
I had the same misunderstanding and confusion about the Sutric view of myself. I interpreted the need to change my view and behaviour as stating that there was something inherently wrong with me. I did not understand that it was my view of myself that was the problem. I received the renunciate message as stating that I was a sinner and had fallen from grace; that my natural tendency was to be a bad person and that I had to be constantly vigilant of controlling the evil within me; that good people were exceptional and may endure great suffering for their spiritual practice; that there are wonderful pure lands or a heaven awaiting the good. I felt that terrible hells await the bad and that I would dwell there indefinitely with little hope of redemption if I fell into them; that spirituality requires a faith that must at times deny logic and reason.
The Sutric path of renunciation, renounces attachment to form, rather than renouncing form itself – this is a detail which is often lost or misinterpreted and was certainly misunderstood by me initially. Inevitably, when we discover Dharma we tend to bring cultural and educational baggage with us. We may approach Dharma with a fixed mind-set and interpret its teachings through the filter of our religious and cultural background.
I saw Dharma as a paternalistic, autocratic structure that stated that it knew better than I did. Consequently teachings that were presented from the perspective of stressing the urgency to practice now, tended to produce a negative reaction in me.
I felt that I was being indoctrinated to ‘do what these sacred texts tell you to do or else…’ This interpretation will not be helpful for truly engaging in the path of Dharma – whichever yana practice is based within. This approach produced depression, lack of energy and a feeling of hopelessness in me, rather than inspiration and a fire for practice. It could have turned me away from spiritual practice altogether, if the teachers that I encountered had not been so inspiring of themselves. It was my confidence in them as kind, gentle, and exceptional human beings that kept me interested. Dharma methods offer the opportunity to find out for ourselves whether practice is pragmatic and efficacious, and discover the reality of view ourselves, if we can stay with practice long enough.
The Four Thoughts offer an opportunity to directly discover realised view. If we open ourselves to these teachings, and actually engage in practice, we will discover the extraordinarily skilful capacity of these and other methods. It will become clear that Dharma functions.
As mentioned in the first chapter, fundamental teachings normally associated with Sutrayana open out into great depth and subtlety when presented from the perspective of Dzogchen. The Four Thoughts that Turn the Mind to Practice are found in the Ulukhamukha Upadesha Dakini Sutra of Khyungchen Aro Lingma’s Dzogchen cycle of gTérma. When viewed from the perspective of Dzogchen The Four Thoughts become a source of joy and celebration. They become the seed of great energy and commitment. They become engagement with the path.
The warning of the danger of failing to engage in spiritual practice is still apparent, but the emphasis is on the celebration of the simple and direct reality of their declaration. The emphasis is on The Four Thoughts as a method to approach ‘form is emptiness and emptiness is form’. The Four Thoughts that Turn the Mind to Practice are one example of the macrocosm of Buddhism presented in a microcosm. To truly grasp the principle and function of these Four Thoughts is to have entered the path of Dharma in a deep and meaningful way. To fully engage with realisation of The Four Thoughts is to be spontaneously present in the actuality of the path.
9. Sangha (Sanskrit): gendün (dGe ’dun) (Tibetan), The community of practitioners
10. Precious human rebirth: mi-lü rinpoche (mi lus rin po che) (Tibetan).
11. Impermanence and death: chi-wa mi-tagpa (chi ba mi rTag pa) (Tibetan).
12. Perception and response: lé-gyü dré (las rGyu ’bras) (Tibetan) karma (Sanskrit).
13. The experience of dissatisfaction: Dug-ngal la-jé su thogpa’i shépa (sDug bsNgal la rJes su rTogs pa’i shes pa) (Tibetan)
14. As stated in The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, ‘…most of the people living on it were unhappy for pretty much of the time. Many solutions were suggested for this problem, but most of these were largely concerned with the movements of small green pieces of paper, which is odd because on the whole it wasn’t the small green pieces of paper that were unhappy.’