At a recent dzogchen meditation retreat, the Tibetan Buddhist master Tsoknyi Rinpoche said to us, “Look in between your thoughts. In the gap between thoughts is where you will see the empty essence of mind, the reality of who you are, the ultimate truth.”
“How strange,” I thought to myself. I had always assumed, along with my entire civilization, that the ultimate truth would come in the form of a thought, not in between them. We are used to having our truths expressed in meaningful sentences, and I figured that the ultimate truth would come, maybe in big, block letters, or flashing on and off, “HERE IS WHAT IT’S ALL ABOUT. . .” and then the answer would follow. But now I was being told that my thoughts are actually obscuring the truth.
As you may have noticed, the teacher’s instructions got me thinking a lot, but in spite of the many thought gaps thereby created, I was still not seeing into them very clearly. “Okay,” I would say to myself, “here comes another gap at the end of this thought. . . . Whoops! Missed it again.”
At one point, as I was trying to peek into the empty essence of mind, I realized that a good deal of my life has already been devoted to this experience. I have not exactly been trying to see between my thoughts, but I do have a long history of looking for ways to “blow my mind.” Along with many of my generation, I have spent a good deal of my life seeking relief from the analyzing, judging, segregating, self-conscious, thinking mind. Perhaps I intuitively knew all along that ultimate truth was lying somewhere in the cracks between all the thoughts and things.
A few days into the retreat, I became convinced that “mind blowing” was a key element of this dzogchen practice. Further evidence for this conclusion came when we were told that the empty essence of mind can be glimpsed more easily in the moments immediately after sneezing, and right after having an orgasm. The dzogchen masters are quite serious about these opportunities for seeing the mind essence. However, since I had no pepper handy, and because we had taken vows of celibacy at least for the duration of the retreat, this information did me no good at the time. So, I just kept looking, trying to catch a glimpse of. . .
I was especially fascinated by one technique where the teacher shouts or slams his hand down on a podium or strikes a bell, and when you hear the sound you quickly “look at what is looking.” It’s a funny game of trying to sneak up on yourself and slip past your egoic consciousness, which, of course, knows what you are up to and is ready to make evasive maneuvers to prevent you from seeing through its illusory face. This is part of the tricky dzogchen endgame.
In recent years I have gone on several dzogchen retreats with Tsoknyi Rinpoche to study Vajrayana Buddhist philosophy and practices. I had heard about dzogchen back in the early ’70s in India, but was told that it was nearly impossible to receive transmission of this ultimate in esoteric wisdom, requiring that I undertake many years of arduous preliminary practices. Also, at the time, Tibetan Buddhism appeared too arcane and “religious” for my taste, so instead I began to follow the Theravada path, “the Way of the Elders.” In the Theravada school there were no “gurus” required, no wild-looking deities, no foreign-syllable mantras.
Along my chosen path, I did encounter some of the great spaciousness that is the dzogchen trademark. These experiences would sometimes occur spontaneously at vipassana retreats, but especially when we did a practice known as “big sky mind,” which may, in fact, have been borrowed from the Tibetans.
Big sky mind is usually done by focusing on the sense of hearing, and then letting the mind expand outward to encompass the source of even the furthest sounds. Eventually the boundaries of mind can seem to dissolve, leaving the perception of a vast, empty space of awareness into which all phenomena arise and disappear. It was into that big sky of mind that I found it easiest to release my thoughts, desires, fears and sense of being a separate self. In the big sky of awareness, the machinations of my ego seemed nothing more than a dust devil, an ephemeral and temporary whirling of elements moving across the wide open spaces. When I was first told that I would be able to study dzogchen, I was excited to hear that it would be like an entire retreat of “big sky mind.”
The Tibetan word “dzogchen” is translated literally as “the natural great perfection,” and the name itself rang true to me. I have long believed that the cosmic condition is essentially perfect just as it is, warts and all, naturally unfolding, inconceivably vast, way beyond human judgments of right or wrong, good or bad, or this, that and the other thing. When I first began my spiritual journey, I was convinced that if I could just merge with the great cosmic Oneness, then my painful self-consciousness would be stripped away, nirvana would kick in, and the bliss would begin. I figured that the merging would take a few weeks, or maybe a couple of months at the most.
Of course, I understand now that I am already “in” the Oneness. Trying to become one with the One is like playing musical chairs with yourself. However, in spite of the fact that there is nowhere to go, you’ve still got to make some effort or you’ll never remember that you are already where you want to be. Furthermore, when you do realize you are there, then you aren’t there. (Oneness and you-ness don’t go together.) To put it another way, “wherever you go, there you aren’t.”
So now, with dzogchen, I was being offered “the natural great perfection,” not just as an abstract idea about the nature of things, but as an actual home—a big, rambling, heavenly estate where all manifestation is revealed as a dream and all things are resolved. The teacher told us that we did not have to struggle to find this natural great perfection. In fact, a major part of the dzogchen practice (called non-meditation) seemed to consist of simply relaxing the mind. We were told not to do anything or try to construct any mental state or conditions, but just to let the mind be open and natural. I found that this simple instruction, surprisingly, led quite often to a feeling of great spaciousness, the experience of a vast perspective into which the sense of self dissolved.
Another aspect of the dzogchen practice is to recognize the nature of awareness itself, which is the whole point of trying to look into the gap between thoughts. And what precisely did I see in those moments when I saw into the gap? Well, first of all, there wasn’t any me there. Knowing was there (sometimes referred to as “Knowledge-Awareness”), and for just a brief moment, a sense that knowing was knowing itself. (Who knows what knowing lurks in the minds of humans? The Knowing knows!) And not only was there no me in the gap, there wasn’t even any there there. The knowing had no location and seemed like some kind of elemental force field, an omnipresent quality of the universe itself. Indeed, in the dzogchen view, this pure knowing is without boundaries and is the necessary condition for all things. As it says in the beautiful dzogchen text The Flight of the Garuda,
“The primal awareness of self-existing Knowledge manifests everything. . . . It is unchanging and unchangeable. . . . It is the pure-being of Immutable Diamond. . . . It is the pure being of Boundless Light-form.”
As I read and study about dzogchen, I am often struck by the reverential way in which the dzogchen masters refer to Knowledge-Awareness, sounding similar to how other religions talk about their gods.
(At this point, I must offer a caveat and remind readers that I am just a beginning student of dzogchen, relating my novice’s experience and understanding. There are entire schools of thought and multiple volumes of writing devoted to the nuances of dzogchen philosophy and practices.)
I find it interesting to note that the Knowledge-Awareness at the core of dzogchen seems to be the central mystery of existence, not only for spiritual seekers, but for Western scientists as well. The neuroscientists have been looking around inside the brain but can’t seem to figure out what exactly “knowing” consists of, where it is located, or how it is produced. Francisco Varela, a student of Tibetan Buddhism and renowned cognitive scientist, says that knowing is the very quality that defines life, and that “to live is to know.” If that is the case, then as dzogchen adepts pay homage to pure knowing, they are bowing to the essence of life itself.
One effect of the dzogchen training that I cherish is that it has turned me toward awareness itself as something worthy of reverence. I haven’t “believed” in anything for a long time, but since doing dzogchen practice, I am feeling a deep awe and appreciation for this Knowledge-Awareness. I haven’t exactly seen “god in the gap” (although it does have a nice ring to it), but I have begun to sense a fullness in the emptiness, a light shining in the wilderness of non-existence. In those moments when I experience this knowing within—not my mind, but Mind with a capital “M”—shining in its bare power and clarity, I feel a renewed reverence and appreciation for life and the mystery that surrounds it.