Comments on “Emptiness in the Aro gTér”

Comments

Fantastic

Sabio Lantz's picture

This was a great article -- thank you. Do you have a blog also? Do you have a name?
I will now have to read this whole site. Just wondering if you are there to answer questions.
I am just starting to get a little more systematic about studying Buddhism and re-vitalizing my meditations.
Thanx

Blogs & name...

Hi, Sabio,

I'm glad you liked this!

I have two other sites: Meaningness, which this article mentioned, about the Four Extremes; and Buddhism For Vampires, a light-hearted take on the dark side of Buddhism. I have two more sites coming -- one about the future of Buddhism, and one about the non-monastic Tibetan sangha.

My name is David Chapman; there's an about the author page on this site.

I will try and answer questions here -- but keep in mind that I'm not a Buddhist teacher and you shouldn't take anything I say very seriously.

Best wishes,

David

Great, don't worry, I will

Sabio Lantz's picture

Great, don't worry, I will weigh what you say. Look forward to the readings.

I see now that the e-mail works but I was confused. Is there any way to turn on regular method to follow by e-mail? Here is the e-mail I got:
Hi Sabio Lantz,

David Chapman has commented on: "Emptiness in the Aro gTér"
Subject: Blogs & name...

You can view the comment at the following url:
!url/node/161/comments#comment-194

You can stop receiving emails when someone replies to this post,
by going to http://approachingaro.org/comment_notify/disable/b3924234ac96fe218d429a4...

Best wishes,

http://approachingaro.org

As you can se, I can't just click on the link, but had to cut, paste, amend ... ==> very much a pain. Hope you can improve it.

Comment notification email fixed

Hi, Sabio,

Thank you very much for pointing out this problem! There was a misconfiguration in the software. I think I have fixed it, so the emails you get in future should have a proper web address (URL) rather than something like !url/node/161/comments#comment-194 (which obviously is no good).

If the problem happens again, please do let me know!

Best wishes,

David

Aro: English or Nepalese?

When you point out the unique "Aro" aspects, are those unique aspects coming from your Rinpoche (is he English?) or from his Nepalese/Tibetan Root Lama? Or from whom? Do you know, or can you approximate, the historical philosophical split point?

Form

Which quality of Emptiness is connect which of the Dzogchen 5 elements?
Thus, in Non-Duality style, the equivalent form quality would be likewise connected, no?

Unique aspects

In most cases, the answer is "I don't know—and probably no one else does, either."

I emphasize the "unique as far as I know" aspects, because if you are evaluating a lineage, these might be good points to concentrate on. If you are a traditionalist, you might prefer a lineage that had no unique aspects, or as few as possible. If you worry about orthodoxy, you would want to look very hard at anything unique to make sure it is not heresy. If you are a modernist, you might want to see whether the unique features accord better with your modernist values. And so on.

The Aro gTér comes from Aro Lingma, a woman who lived in Kham a hundred years ago. However, it's not clear whether she objectively existed as nirmanakaya, or has sambhogakaya form only. So the history is obscure, and it's hard to say where unique aspects come from if you take a Western materialist view.

Quite often I ask Ngak'chang Rinpoche "is X unique to the Aro gTér, or is it found in other systems too?" (I ask this only because I write about Aro for the public—for myself, I don't care.) He usually says "Hmm... I don't know... I never thought about that... I don't think I've seen it anywhere else, but..."

Then sometimes I go off and do a bunch of research to try to find out. And sometimes I find some journal article that says that the same thing is found in some obscure terma lineage in Amdo, and I send it to Rinpoche, and he says "Hmm... that's quite interesting..." And sometimes I can't find any reference to it elsewhere.

And then sometimes, a few years later, a new journal article comes out, in which someone has found the thing in a musty thousand-year-old manuscript, or taught by one guy who lives in a cave in Golok. Presumably these were things Rinpoche couldn't have known. (A dramatic case of post-Aro publication was when Sarah Jacoby's doctoral thesis on Sera Khandro came out. Sera Khandro's life and teachings were startlingly similar to Aro Lingma's. There's an article about this on the Aro Friends' site if you are interested.)

I think the lesson here is that everything in Aro—or any other terma system—is an expression of the handful of fundamental principles. All of the details can be traced back to those principles, which means everything makes sense once you get the fundamentals straight. And this also means that different terma systems are going to wind up having identical details "accidentally". Sera Khandro's terma elaborated the Dzogchen aspects of karma mudra from a female point of view, and so did Aro Lingma's. If you understand Dzogchen and karmamudra, when you derive the details, they are going to come out similarly.

As for the Aro teachings on emptiness, I don't think the view itself is unique at all. You can find very similar statements in the informal literature of all the serious Buddhist practice traditions. What may be unique is making these statements formal teachings. The problem is that generally Nagarjuña is taken as having a complete and correct explanation of emptiness, so you can't officially say that "here's another way of looking at it that might be more useful". Unless, maybe, you are a woman (Aro Lingma) and don't care about monastic authority. Or unless, maybe, you are an Englishman (Ngak'chang Rinpoche), and don't care about Tibetan politics. Or unless, maybe, you are an eccentric Tibetan (like Ngak'chang Rinpoche's teachers), and you want to seed a better view of emptiness in the West, where it might escape Asian religious traditionalism. Or unless, maybe, you are a cosmic goddess (Kuntuzangmo, the ultimate source of the Aro gTér) and are fed up with Nagarjuña's version, and have decided it's time for a new revelation.

As for the other question, Ngak'chang Rinpoche's father was English and his mother was German. He's recently finished an autobiography...

Elements, form, and emptiness

In Aro writing, anything that comes in fives is almost always listed in the order earth, water, fire, air, space. (To remember this order, you can visualize them going from bottom to top, physically.) So in this case:

Form is explained in terms of the five qualities of solidity, permanence, separateness, continuity, and definition. Emptiness is explained in terms of the seeming opposites—insubstantiality, transience, boundarilessness, discontinuity, and ambiguity.

In some cases, there's obvious connections between these qualities and the physical five elements; earth is solid and air is boundariless. In other cases, it's not obvious.

Spectrum of Ecstasy explains this in detail.

Numerology as a Control for Chaos

I put Spacious Passion on my list.
With the penchant in many cultures to overstretch numerical association I figure there may be a convenient way to put the five characteristics of E & F into all the other 5s.
I imagine the large 5 associations did a couple things, it helped memorizing, it helped expand meaning (so as to inspire) and it helped give the illusion of explanatory power. The problem with such schemes (seen all over the ancient globe) is that they were over used, and made orthodox and hold back new, more useful paradigms resisting growth in knowledge.

5 Element theory in Chinese medicine and 4 Humors in Greek History are examples. People force fit to preserve tradition and make their universe seem definable, discrete, ordered and easily controlled.

Kuntuzangmo !

Very helpful, thanx. His biography will definitely be something I look forward to read.

Limits of correspondences

Yes, systems of correspondences are the best analytical tool available when you don't have serious math.

I've found the Vajrayana system of five-fold correspondences surprisingly helpful as a way of understanding many things. But I take them as "method rather than truth". Which is perfectly orthodox, from the Dzogchen perspective...

Bother, wrong book

I'm sorry—I wrote "Spacious Passion" but meant "Spectrum of Ecstasy". I've updated the text of my recommendation above. Spacious Passion is also a fine book, but it is not particularly about this topic.

Homeopathy and 5-Elements

Thanks. "bother" is a word my daughter uses - she got it from the British Winnie-the-Pooh. Cute! (though I realize it is normal in British English -- but dude, you are from Ohio, no?) :-)

Spacious Passion is by Ngala Nor'dzin and even as a used book at Amazon it presently costs $22.88.

Also, Ngala Nor'dzin's bio says she is a "qualified homeopath" -- which I also am/was. But have left homeopathy behind for the same reasons I have left behind 5-element acupuncture (as I allude to above). So with that background, for now, I think I will wait till I find Nor'dzin's book in a library or someone lends me one. Do you think her book has the same philosophical grounding and understanding of reality that she uses to embrace homeopathy? I understand that the 5-element model helps you organize and understand some of Buddhism, but for me, homeopathy and 5-element Acupuncture illustrate how though something may be useful, if we are not careful, and are not discerning, it may also carry the seeds of misunderstandings which can lead to bad outcomes. Perhaps my critique of this sort of thinking is similar to your critique of Monism -- useful concepts and directions but also carrying large mistakes. [not trying to be contentious, just honest]

Epistemology & health

Do you think her book has the same philosophical grounding and understanding of reality that she uses to embrace homeopathy?

Well... I don't know on what basis she embraces homeopathy.

Many of my closest friends practice healing systems which I'm reasonably sure don't work. That's a bit frustrating, because I think they're wasting their time, and other people's time and money. So far, I don't see that I can help with this. I would like to.

Homeopathy is not part of the Aro gTér. The gTér does include some medical practices, which makes me slightly uncomfortable. However, I've never heard the Lamas talking about them (after more than a decade as a student). They seem to be available on request only, and since I haven't been interested to ask, I know almost nothing about them.

What follows is off-topic here on Approaching Aro, and if we are to continue the discussion it would probably be better at your site or at Meaningness. However:

I often think about problems of practical epistemology. Not the useless, unanswerable academic question "how can we know anything at all," nor really detailed questions like "how do we know the 160.4 GHz noise is left over from the Big Bang," but intermediate questions like "how do we know whether there is a correct ethical system" or "how do we evaluate different theories of healing."

There seems to be an unaddressed gap there. It seems terribly important, because these intermediate problems have big impacts on people's lives, and the epistemological questions are mostly ignored.

Alternative healing systems may be useful as a laboratory, because people believe in them strongly for bad reasons. Understanding how those bad reasons work might help with the kinds of issues I'm looking at on my Meaningness site: issues that are traditionally the domain of religious and spiritual systems. There too people have strong wrong beliefs, and they do seem often to have similar bases.

One random observation: alternative healing systems (and confused ideas about meaningness) are attractive because they make sense. You can give explanations that are simple and conceptually tidy, and there's a closed system that purports to explain everything. Reality, unfortunately, does not make sense. It's a vast mass of ambiguity, randomness, and inexplicable incoherence. That means that if you want to find out what is true, you have to abandon "makes sense" as a criterion. Much of what is reliably known in medicine makes no sense it all, which is unattractive. Its only virtue is that it works.

I would be very interested to read more about how you became disenchanted with homeopathy and acupuncture and switched to mainstream Western medicine. That's a very unusual transition, I suspect. Perhaps helping people replicate it would be a great service.

BTW, the full text of Spacious Passion is available free online at http://spacious-passion.org/ . (This is, for better or worse, not true of the other Aro books.)

Emptiness

Karmakshanti's picture

Most Buddhist schools consider that Nagarjuna’s explanations of emptiness must definitely be correct and complete, because they were given to him by nagas: aquatic snake-gods.

This really isn't so. Buddhists are not nearly so soft headed. The Prajnaparamitra texts were what Nagarjuna is supposed to have received from the nagas. This is not the Madyamika method of argumentation which was Nararjuna's philosophical method. It was, in essence, a gong ter, or "earth terma" of more sutras or dialogs between Shakyamuni and his students.

I'm a little surprised that a follower of a Nyingma lineage of terma would be so skeptical about a gong ter, even if it is a non-Tibetan one.

While the "emptiness" may be the same, the Prjanaparamitra is about systematic denial of an attitude of naive realism attributed to the exhaustive categorizations of experience found in the Abidharma: "no object seen, no seeing, no eye consciousness" and so forth.

Madyamika argumentation was an application of Avoidance of the Four Extremes, which was actually articulated by Shakamuni himself in a very abbreviated form. It arose in the context of a very sophisticated and well argued philosophy of "atman" or eternalism developed in the Hinduism of the day. It also developed as a response to various Buddhist trends, both eternalist and nihilist, surrounding the doctrine of Everything is Mind. Once you accept this, the obvious next question is: Well, is Mind real or not? Nagarjuna's reply is "neither".

As my Kagyudpa teachers explain it, "emptiness" is not the same as "absence". Conventionally, we call a parking lot at night, without cars, "empty", but Nagarjuna would insist that, full of cars, in the daytime, the parking lot is still "empty". The term "parking lot" itself is a mere mental concept describing a blacktopped area with parking lines where we are solicited to park our cars, a set of causes and conditions that make the application of the label "parking lot" true.

But the cars, the blacktop, and the lines are all "mere appearance" like the image on a laptop screen, and the labels "car", "blacktop", and "lines" are simply mental concepts like "parking lot". Our dualistic confusion of "self" vs. "other" causes us to impute permanence and reality to those concepts and to confuse the labels with the appearances they describe.

More generally "existence", "non-existence", "both", and "neither" are all mental concepts we apply to "mere appearance" and none of them accurately describe it. This leads to what is known as the "two truths". The first is the truth of appearances, or the Relative Truth. Appearances are either absent or present, absence is not "non-existence" and presence is not "existence". Thus appearances are "empty", "luminous", and "unobstructed", in exactly the way that "insight" or "realization" as the experiential Fruit of Buddhist meditation show them to be. This is the second, or Absolute Truth.

These issues are still being argued today in the monastic shedras, and nobody there takes them for granted merely because Nagarjuna found things in Nagaland.

Re-expressed in terms of the Prajnaparamitra, "appearances" are Form and their basic nature is Emptiness. These are not two things, but two ways of looking at the same thing.

Nagas and argument from authority

These issues are still being argued today in the monastic shedras, and nobody there takes them for granted merely because Nagarjuna found things in Nagaland.

Hmm. Apparently my attempt at humor was too subtle. I thought it was over-the-top surrealistic and outrageous; I suppose this goes to show how hard it is to convey tone in writing.

Behind the satire, my serious point was that Nagarjuna is taken as an unquestionable authority. As far as I am aware, the only form of argument that is permissible is how one should properly understand what he wrote. Even within that, there are only fine shades of disagreement allowable.

As far as I know, no monastic seriously considers the possibility that Nagarjuna got significant points wrong, or that there were major gaps in his story.

Aro Emptiness

Karmakshanti's picture

Well, I can't bring any evidence to refute this, though I do believe that the monasteries start with the early concepts of Buddhism that the world consists of atoms in space and moments in time and work their way through all analysis that followed until Madyamika is reached. At least this is how it is presented in Progressive Meditation On The Stages of Emptiness by Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso, the best teacher I personally have listened to on the subject.

But we're not in the monastery so we can look at it now.

Form is explained in terms of the five qualities of solidity, permanence, separateness, continuity, and definition. Emptiness is explained in terms of the seeming opposites—insubstantiality, transience, boundarilessness, discontinuity, and ambiguity. Although the Aro gTér sometimes speaks of existence and non-existence, its main explanations are in terms of these ten qualities of experience, instead.

This I understand, as it is commonly used among the Kagudpa to articulate the inner experience of the yogi as it occurs in the encounter of the various bardos [See Bardo Teachings by Lama Lodro--a student of the great Kalu Rinpoche]. It is labeled there as the Five Elements: Space, Water, Earth, Fire, and Air.

[At least I think these are equivalent, what's your view?]

These are described as the Five Buddha Families and are the enlightened experience of the Five Buddhas: Vairochana, Akshobya, Ratnasambhava, Amitabha, and Amoghasiddhi. Their consorts in yab/yum are Yingchokma, Sangye Chenma, Mamaki, Go Karmo, and Damtsig Drolma. The consorts are the Five Skandhas: Consciousness, Form, Feeling, Perception, and Intention.

In this view, the union between these yab/yums is indisoluable, but, collectively, they return to the Alaya ["all-basis"] continuum and re-emerge from the karmic seeds that the individual is carrying at death into either the Bardo of Death or directly into a future rebirth.

Does Aro use the Five Skandha analysis, and the other components of the Abhidharma? In the Kagyu analysis, the Five Elements are not the "opposites" of the Five Skandhas but are the complement of them interacting to create the experience of a being as a whole.

The best-known interpretations of Madhyamaka are rooted in Sutrayana, which prioritizes emptiness over form. From point of view of Sutrayana, form is impure and contaminating, and should be renounced.

I really don't think this characterization of Sutrayana is accurate. What is to be renounced are the Five Emotional Poisons: Ignorance, Anger, Craving, Pride, and Jealousy, as well as the actions which keep them going. These are our confused reactions to the world as we find it, not the world [or "form"] itself.

In addition [though I am less sure about this because of the habit of translators of abridging the full scope of Avalokiteshvara's words so as not to bore us hasty English readers] "Form" as it is used in the Prajnaparamitra is exactly the same usage as in the Five Skandhas: the most primitive apprehension of the outer world, as something separate from itself, by the just emerged Consciousness.

It is used in "Form is Emptiness and Emptiness is Form" as illustrative of the Heart of Perfect Wisdom and not all-encompassing of the other Skandhas. As such it is not something to be "rejected" or "eradicated", but something to be clearly perceived instead of being confused about. All the elaborate net of concepts used to describe experience in the Abidharma are thus emptiness along with "form". This is why Avalokiteshvara is at pains to deny each one explicitly, one after the other, which is what the translators always seem to cut out of the text.

Does Aro have a different view of the Prajnaparamitra?

Finally, I think there is some confusion here about Madyamika logic itself. It is an analytical means of refuting all possible incorrect views, and not a "view" about reality itself. Nagarjuna went to great lengths to demonstrate that no such "view" of reality can possibly be accurate or adequate, so he expressed no views of his own.

Though, by implication, the Madyamika analysis supports the conclusion of the Prajnaparamitra, it does not address that conclusion directly, and does not talk about either "form" or "emptiness". It is also not about any particular apparent object [such as your spaghetti pot]. It is about the philosophical views of reality held by others.

Elements and emptiness

Yes, your recognition of the five elements is exactly right. The Bardo teachings are classified as Dzogchen, and the five elements are the Dzogchen equivalents of the five Buddha Families. The view is that the five skandhas, kleshas, wisdoms, Buddhas, elements, and tigles are all the same things, manifesting through the different yanas.

Abhidharma is deemphasized in Aro, but it's there.

Nyingma has a distinctive tradition of Madhyamaka teaching. On the scholastic side, the three main figures are Shantarakshita (who unified Madhyamaka and Cittamatra, and who was one of the principal founders of the Nyingma); Longchenpa (who defended the Nyingma approach against sectarian attack, and arguably incorporated insights from Tsongkhapa); and Mipham (who clarified the three-way relationship between Prasangika, Shentong, and the Nyingma approach). On the yogic/terma side, there's a lot on the experience of emptiness and form that is not necessarily obviously rooted in Madhyamaka.

Your suggestion that "form" in Prajnaparamita is to be understood as exclusive of the other skandhas is interesting. I have not come across that interpretation before. It would be interesting to see what the implications are.

Your suggestion that Madhyamaka does not talk about either form or emptiness seems odd. The Mūlamadhyamakakārikā, Nagarajuna's primary text on the subject, makes frequent reference to shunyata ("emptiness"). What do you have in mind here?

Offhand, it sounds as if you hold a version of Prasangika, which emphasizes the "via negativa" of Madhayamaka—the refusal to make any positive statement. Prasangika is certainly a defensible interpretation, but it is rejected by most Nyingmapas as nihilistic.

Kagyu Madyamika

Karmakshanti's picture

You're giving me quite a workout. This is fun! And I think I've finally flushed out the scholar I thought was lurking around here. Actually, my guys are Shentong, and their views are more closely approximated by this from my initial comment:

Appearances are either absent or present, absence is not "non-existence" and presence is not "existence". Thus appearances are "empty", "luminous", and "unobstructed"

Even though the terms "existence" and "non-existence" cannot be applied to appearances, there is clearly a difference between their presence and their absence [The presence of the spaghetti pot is also the absence of, say, battery cables], so "emptiness" is implicitly more than merely nothing being there, which would simply be "absence", that more is the luminous quality of appearances which constitutes their presence, and neither presence nor absence can be "obstructed" by any classification with one of the Four Extremes because they are nothing in themselves.

I didn't quite mean to say that "form" was exclusive of the other skandhas, merely that all the skandhas are empty and not just the skandha of form. The usage of the term "form" here is a little ambiguous. Throughout most of this discussion Form is treated rather as if it were the union of all the skandhas and all the elements together. This is why I much prefer to use the word "appearances" because it allows me to shift from your spaghetti pot to your perception of it without having to constantly differentiate between form-the-skandha and Form which is nothing but Emptiness.

This is not a reification of the separateness of appearance and perceiver. As you say, there is no essential boundary between any of these terms. But it makes for neater verbal housekeeping, and with the rarified atmosphere we're breathing up here neatness is a very good thing.

I expressed matters ineptly in the last phrase of my comment. I meant to assert that Nagarjuna's method is not directly focused on the same issues as the Heart Sutra, which is clearly not addressed to some error in an outside point of view, but, rather, to our understanding of the components of experience that the Abidharma classifies. Madyamika is a corrective of wrong views, an argumentative technique, and not a separate view itself.

Shunyata is elusive. The ghosts of existence and non-existence linger undispersed the more we try to reach a definitive understanding which will finally eradicate them.

But I'm sure you agree with me that, in meditation, we know it when we see it. Or maybe when we don't see it.

More on Spacious Passion

Just to clarify: Spacious Passion is not connected to homeopathy. It's a Dzogchen take on the four thoughts (precious human rebirth, impermanence, karmic patterning and samsara) that turn the mind to practice. Ngakma Nor'dzin's application of a Dzogchen perspective to those subjects, in my opinion, would likely be more palatable to a materialist reader than the traditional perspective.

Rin'dzin

Renunciation

From point of view of Sutrayana, form is impure and contaminating, and should be renounced.
I really don't think this characterization of Sutrayana is accurate.

Yes. Ngak'chang Rinpoche teaches that the idea that form is impure and contaminating is a common misconception in Sutrayana practice. Sutric view recognises obstacles caused by our distorted relationship with form, and provides renunciation as the antidote. Renunciative practice can give rise to the misunderstanding that form is inherently problematic.

That seems accurate to me in my relatively small contact with Theravada on the ground (ie, that it is a common misunderstanding). A useful question for renunciate practitioners, perhaps, is to what extent holding the view that form is impure, is helpful to the end goal of emptiness? I imagine that holding the view consciously as method might be more productive than holding the view and believing it true, though those two inevitably overlap if one takes the practice of view through to its conclusion.

The principle of renunciation is, in fact, implicitly accepted and understood in Aro practice. Because the gTérma is based in Dzogchen, what might be called renunciation elsewhere doesn't necessarily look like it, or take the same name. Appreciation, for example, is central to the Aro teachings. Appreciation involves discriminating with awareness. In practice, you can't do that without understanding renunciation experientially. It's just that the renunciative aspect of discriminating awareness is de-emphasized in favour of engaging.

Rin'dzin

Sutrayana

Karmakshanti's picture

I think we're a little at cross-purposes here. I have been assuming that "Sutrayana" is a synonym for Mahayana practice, not Theravadin practice.

It seems to me that in the Mahayana the outlook is intrinsically positive and centered around the Bodhisattva ideal. I have never heard any expression of a Mahayana view that "form is impure". Rather than a call for renunciation of "form" in the outer world, the key teaching of the Mahayana is that our samsaric confusion is the confusion of our minds rather than anything inherently a problem in either "form" or "emptiness" in outside experience.

The way I have had it described to me, our mind is inherently pure, but is clouded by "incidental stains" that are the result of countless lifetimes of clinging to the dualistic illusion of self and other. Walking the Path is the clarification of this confusion, and the removal of these incidental stains in the mind, and not in the world.

What one attempts to leave behind are the behaviors that clearly make our confusion worse and our minds more stained. A behavior like killing, lying, harsh speech, theft, sexual libertinism, and so on, strongly reinforces the same clinging to "self" and "other" that produced those behaviors in the first place, starting a downward habitual spiral eventually resulting in birth in the Lower Realms, where we can't do anything about our situation.

What we can do now, and why human birth is "precious", is we can restrain our problematic behaviors and substitute for them wholesome ones. We can give generously, for example, instead of stealing. By working on our obvious problems of exterior behavior first, we achieve some mental "space" to judge and manage the conflicting emotions that drive our behaviors.

As a confused sentient being I'm inevitably going to get angry, really angry, at sometime or other. The habitual and automatic response to this is to strike out at the object of our anger, and maybe even kill it. If we short circuit this habitual response by restraining our behavior, we now have a vantage point for dealing with anger directly and skillfully.

How? One of the most powerful techniques of the Mahayana is lojong, or "mind training". When we get angry we try to think as follows, "May all the anger in the world be bound up in this anger of mine, and may all beings be free of it." When you start doing this, it is inevitably artificial, but if you keep doing it you form the same sort of habit that used to lead to your killing things and thinking in this way becomes "second nature" whenever anger arises.

So what's the good of this? Well, obviously, you are not actually going to be able to grab up all the anger in the world and take it away. But when the thought form "may all beings be free of anger" takes real hold inside of you, and when it is finally genuine, you have begun to cultivate true "compassion", the desire that sentient beings be free from suffering. Compassion and anger simply cannot exist in the same mental place at the same time, and the more you cultivate this first seed of compassion, the more it's growth will simply choke out the weed of anger.

This really does work, by the way. The famous compiler of termas, Jamgon Kongtrul the Great, was a big fan of it, because he could do it and benefit from it when he was simply too busy to do any other practice, and he was a very busy lama. Thirty odd years ago, my own root lama had to spend his first months in America flat on his back in a Tuberculosis ward. Mind Training was all that he could do and when he would describe to us how well it helped him manage the pain and suffering of a situation that none of the fancier practices could tackle, he would be nearly in tears.

I think that the assertion, "From point of view of Sutrayana, form is impure and contaminating, and should be renounced," is not only untrue, it is also gravely unjust to the genuine spirit in which the Mahayana is practiced. From the very start of my practice day, and with each individual practice, I repeat the following words, known as the Four Immeasurables, which are the spirit of the Mahayana, and what it is really all about:

May all beings have happiness and the cause of happiness,
May they be free from suffering and the cause of suffering,
May they experience the Great Bliss that is freedom from suffering,
May they achieve the Great Evenmindedness beyond craving and anger.

Sutrayana

Thank you for your careful, clear explanation of Mahayana practice. It fits well with my understanding of Mahayana, so - no cross-purposes there.

In Dzogchen terminology, Sutrayana describes any practice employing a renunciative principle with the end goal of emptiness. Theravadan practices tend to fit under that umbrella, but the categorisation is in terms of principle and function rather than by school or institution. Because Dzogchen assumes no subject/object division, whatever arises in mind is regarded as form. There is no particular division between internal or external form - they are viewed as part of the same continuum. A pure/impure dichotomy might appear internal, but working with it wouldn't constitute Sutrayana unless one employed the principle of renunciation. One might, for example, use transformative methods - which from Dzogchen perspective would be Tantrayana.

I might have been unclear in my first paragraph. I mostly agree that to say form is impure and contaminating from point of view of Sutrayana, is not entirely accurate. I also don't think it's a wrong statement - because it holds true to much sutric practice on the ground. The idea that our relationship with form is problematic engenders a method that regards form as impure. Many practitioners do regard that view as a truth. The Patikulamanasikara practices, developing revulsion for body parts, are Mahasatipatthana and Satipatthana Sutta based examples.

I think that the assertion, "From point of view of Sutrayana, form is impure and contaminating, and should be renounced," is not only untrue, it is also gravely unjust to the genuine spirit in which the Mahayana is practiced.

There is no sense in Dzogchen that renunciative method, even when regarded as truth, is not genuine.

I enjoyed your description of lojong purification. It's a marvellous practice, one I've benefited from greatly.

Rin'dzin

Sutrayana?

Karmakshanti's picture

First, I want to thank you for taking the trouble to comment. I went and looked at your bio and you seem to be nearly as busy as Jamgon Kongtrul. I was particularly taken with, "Naljorma Rin’dzin is a physically active pamo. She is training in the martial arts and practises grappling and the sPrul-khor..." I thought about how that would translate into a description of me, and came up with this, "Karmakshanti is a fat lump of a pawo. He does as little as he can possibly get away with..."

And, more seriously, your Dharma responsibilities of mentoring and teaching must be quite great and I'm flattered that you take the trouble to peek in on this give and take to do some of it here. Also, when I did go take a look at your picture, I had one of the flashes I get now and then, "Oh, her." I won't speculate on that but I'm pretty sure I've just made a fine Dharma connection for my long term future.

Sutrayana describes any practice employing a renunciative principle with the end goal of emptiness....Dzogchen assumes no subject/object division, whatever arises in mind is regarded as form. There is no particular division between internal or external form - they are viewed as part of the same continuum.

Throughout this exchange with both David and you I have remained more than a little hazy about what is meant by "renunciative principle" and "form", as well as an “end goal of emptiness”. Is the mere taking of Gelong vows a renunciative principle? Or the Bodhisattva Vow? which I gather Aro doesn't transmit. I don't see how these vows are any different in principle from the Genyen vows that I hold and that, according to David, Aro apprentices must also take.

It also leaves me with the distinct impression that Aro students as a whole have more fortunate karma and are a lot calmer than some of my Kagyudpa peers, such as the friend of mine who is an ex-heroin addict, strongly bipolar, and stubbornly insistent that he does not wish to medicate his condition. Could such an individual even approach Dzogchen at all without a little toning down of self-destructive behaviors? And, if he did that, would his practice remain "Sutric" afterwards?

Now as to “form”, my understanding is that the source of the term in Aro is the Prajnaparamitra, but when you look there you find the following:

O Shariputra, a son or daughter of noble family who wishes to practice the profound prajnparamita should see in this way: seeing the five skandhas to be empty of nature. Form is emptiness; emptiness also is form. Emptiness is no other than form; form is no other than emptiness. In the same way, feeling perception, formation, and consciousness are emptiness. Thus, Shariputra, all dharmas are emptiness. There are no characteristics.

What the text clearly means when it speaks of “form” is the skandha of form as part of the five skandha analysis of the Abhidharma, and “form” is used merely illustratively with no significant prioritization over the other skandhas. Further:

Therefore, Shariputra, in emptiness, there is no form, no feeling, no perception, no formation, no consciousness; no eye, no ear, no nose, no tongue, no body, no mind; no appearance, no sound, no smell, no taste, no touch, no dharmas; no eye dhatu up....to no mind dhatu, no dhatu of dharmas, no mind consciousness dhatu; no ignorance, no end of ignorance up to no old age and death; no suffering, no origin of suffering, no cessation of suffering, no path, no wisdom, no attainment, and no nonattainment.

So neither form nor the skandhas as a whole are prioritized over the dhatus, the sense organs, the sense consciousnesses, and all of the “dharmas” of the Four Noble Truths.

However, you have remarked:

Because Dzogchen assumes no subject/object division, whatever arises in mind is regarded as form. There is no particular division between internal or external form - they are viewed as part of the same continuum.

And this clearly seems to me a use of “form” as a blanket label for every one of the “all dharmas” that Avalokiteshvara is speaking of. Is every appearance, then, really only part of the skandha of form? Or does the Dzogchen usage derive from some other source?

This leaves me completely at sea about what to make of something like this:

Sutrayana describes any practice employing a renunciative principle with the end goal of emptiness.

Together with this:

From point of view of Sutrayana, form is impure and contaminating, and should be renounced.

Now what I have been taught is that the point of Hinayana practice is to realize that a permanent "self" inside us simply doesn't exist, and, with that realization, stop the process of creating new karma, leaving what's left to ripen into Nirvana sooner or later. And that the practices of contemplating dead bodies, and so on, are merely temporary antidotes to sexual craving or other gross conflicting emotions that prevent us from realizing the absence of a "self". Nothing of "all dharmas" per se is rejected, rather, the illusion of a "self" is actually perceived correctly as the five skandhas interacting and nothing beyond that. This really doesn't seem to me to be an "end goal of emptiness".

I have also been taught that, in the Mahayana, the aspiration to remove the suffering of others is the initial cause of the eventual realization that all appearances everywhere are empty, in exactly the same way that the Prajnaparamitra describes. And this realization merely confirms that there is "no path, no wisdom, no attainment, and no nonattainment" I can't see how this can be either a "goal of emptiness" or the renunciation of any particular appearance or set of appearances. Thus any Mahayana training, including Mahayana pratimoksa vows, is simply an expedient to such realization, in exactly the same way that Dzogchen employs specific techniques to reveal the fact of Rigpa.

Finally, I have been taught in the ordinary ngondro of Mahamudra that "renunciation" is coming to the conclusion that life is worthless and pointless without the practice of the Dharma. And, in the practice of Mahamudra, I have been taught that nothing is to be either accepted or rejected.

I cannot see where either adding the Dharma to your life, or abiding in the "freshness of thought" without acceptance or rejection, can be the removal of an impure and contaminating "form" to achieve a goal of "emptiness".

Any thoughts?

Madhyamaka scholarship

I agree that the ambiguity around "form" is potentially confusing, and might better have been avoided. Out of curiosity, I've spent a couple of hours trying to trace the history of the usage, but didn't come to a definitive conclusion.

I am definitely not a Madhyamaka scholar. I have read some books and know the basics. I think my understanding might be a little different from yours, but it might also just be a matter of terminology. If there are differences, they might be due to Shentong vs. Dzogchen, or something distinctive about the Aro take, or a misunderstanding on one our parts.

If you want to clarify the Shentong vs. Dzogchen issues, the standard text would be Mipham's Beacon of Certainty. I mostly skipped the Shentong section, and know almost nothing about it from other sources.

Sorting out exactly what is distinctive about the Aro view vs. other Nyingma views could be difficult; there isn't an Aro corpus of writing on Madhyamaka (or Prajnaparamita per se).

And, figuring out whether and how one misunderstands any version of this matter is notoriously difficult. There are some who hold that a perfectly accurate conceptual understanding is critically necessary, and others who say that a good enough intellectual understanding is good enough, because true understanding comes from practice. Aro tends toward the latter.

Proof of Pudding

Karmakshanti's picture

others who say that a good enough intellectual understanding is good enough, because true understanding comes from practice. Aro tends toward the latter

I think my guys would agree. If we had all the time in the world, it might be better to come to a complete understanding. But we don't. I think you can say that it is enough that if you don't misunderstand it in a major way, you're probably in good shape.

Another issue on the meditation side has struck me forcefully. Can Dzogchen be practiced in the Aro fashion when you bring to the table an exaggerated helping of conflicting emotions? This actually may be of less importance now than it was when I started Buddhism 35 years ago [with Zen]. We've spoken of Baby Boomers elsewhere, and, having been there and done that, I can say unequivocally that at the time we were all stark, staring crazy. There is nothing, utterly nothing, comparable in people age 18-35 today.

But, still, Sanghas differ in members as well as in teachers and teaching. Besides reformed Boomers, who are prone to slip back into old ways if you press the buttons in the right order, mine contains ex-heroin addicts; people who've been in and out of prison; some who have survived physical accidents that have left them with significantly less cognitive functioning; some who have been in chronic pain for thirty years and are now watching their bodies deteriorate from the long-term use of steriods, combined with opioids, and with immune system suppressants; people who have climbed their way out of alcohol with AA; and greater or lesser degree of "survivors" of cancer for whom every medical visit may be the receipt of the ultimate bad news.

Does Aro work with many in their Sangha with these elevated levels of physical and mental suffering? And are they given any variations in practice in order to manage it?

Emptiness and renunciation in Dzogchen

Hi Karmakshanti,

Sorry to cause confusion! We're approaching this conversation from two different paradigms. They won't fit neatly together but that need not be a problem, if we regard each as coherent systems within themselves. I'm not a scholar so you may find my response limited or frustrating.

Within Dzogchen, there is a three-fold categorisation of the yanas: Sutra, Tantra, and Dzogchen. Sutrayana includes Hinayana and Mahayana. Lumping the two glides over many distinctions, and could cause confusions. However, Dzogchen sees them as similar in that they are renunciative. (See Chögyal Namkhai Norbu's book The Crystal and the Way of Light: Sutra, Tantra, and Dzogchen for a detailed explanation.) The Aro gTér approaches this categorisation primarily as a means to understand personal practice options; it also helps busy apprentices understand where practitioners in other systems are coming from, though only at a general level.

Seeing emptiness as the end goal of renunciation is how Dzogchen expresses the path it calls Sutrayana - although that's not terminology that would be used, or even make sense, from within Hinayana. Quoting Namkhai Norbu's book: "Hinayana and Mahayana work toward the experience of shunyata, or voidness, which is Tantra's basic assumption and starting point."

Is the mere taking of Gelong vows a renunciative principle?

Taking vows is not a principle, it's a promise to behave in a certain way. The general principle underlying the Gelong vows, as I understand them, is renunciative.

Or the Bodhisattva Vow? which I gather Aro doesn't transmit.

Aro doesn't have an explicit Bodhisattva vow ceremony, but Boddhicitta is taught as the fundamental base and essence of all Aro practice. It's not renunciative action itself.

You have written that "the aspiration to remove the suffering of others is the initial cause of the eventual realization that all appearances everywhere are empty."

It's also true that compassion arises from the experience of emptiness. The two are ultimately inseparable—which is a core principle of Tantra.

I don't see how these vows are any different in principle from the Genyen vows that I hold and that, according to David, Aro apprentices must also take.

We agree to live according to a Dzogchen interpretation of the Five Precepts. It's quite different in principle, and non-renunciative. And, to avoid confusion, this is not called Genyen in the Aro system and there's no explicit vow ceremony - it's part and parcel of becoming an apprentice.

It also leaves me with the distinct impression that Aro students as a whole
have more fortunate karma and are a lot calmer than some of my Kagyudpa
peers, such as the friend of mine who is an ex-heroin addict, strongly
bipolar, and stubbornly insistent that he does not wish to medicate his
condition. Could such an individual even approach Dzogchen at all without a
little toning down of self-destructive behaviors? And, if he did that, would
his practice remain "Sutric" afterwards?

I think it depends on the individual's capacity to develop a trusting, personal relationship with their Lama, and the Lama's capacity to work with challenging students. There are bipolar ordained Aro sangha and we have our fair share of ex-addicts. Having the renunciative discipline to become an ex-addict might well be good preparation for other types of practice.

Renunciation is the right approach when emotions are too strong to self-liberate or transform. Renunciative practice is definitely prescribed for Aro students at times. However, it is feasible for one person to practice renunciation, transformation, and self-liberation alternately, according to the difficulty of the different circumstances.

I have also been taught that, in the Mahayana, the aspiration to remove the
suffering of others is the initial cause of the eventual realization that all
appearances everywhere are empty, in exactly the same way that the
Prajnaparamitra describes. And this realization merely confirms that there is
"no path, no wisdom, no attainment, and no nonattainment"

Yes.

I can't see how this can be either a "goal of emptiness" or the renunciation of any particular appearance or set of appearances.

Well, it isn't, as far as I understand Mahayana's take on itself. It only looks like that - at times but not necessarily - from the point of view of Dzogchen. Dzogchen deliberately creates a false/illusory separation between form (which corresponds with compassion) and emptiness (wisdom) to enable understanding their nondual nature. It characterises Sutra as the yana that develops wisdom, and Tantra as the yana that develops compassionate methods (skilful means). Those yanas/principles become obsolete when they're no longer necessary. They're only ever temporary. As you point out succinctly above - as soon as you realise form, it becomes empty, and vice versa.

Thus any Mahayana training, including Mahayana pratimoksa vows, is simply an expedient to such
realization, in exactly the same way that Dzogchen employs specific techniques to reveal the fact of Rigpa.

Right.

Finally, I have been taught in the ordinary ngondro of Mahamudra that
"renunciation" is coming to the conclusion that life is worthless and
pointless without the practice of the Dharma. And, in the practice of
Mahamudra, I have been taught that nothing is to be either accepted or
rejected.

Mahamudra is Tantric, yes? So it is not renunciative, and on that basis one does not reject anything. Tantric ngöndro does encompass renunciation.

I cannot see where either adding the Dharma to your life, or abiding in the
"freshness of thought" without acceptance or rejection, can be the removal of
an impure and contaminating "form" to achieve a goal of "emptiness".

Hopefully my answer so far gives some clarity on this. There's no particular connection between those views, because they're presented within different paradigms. They make no sense in relation to each other, only in the context of the system within which they reside. Dzogchen doesn't say that form is impure and contaminating, and if you get rid of it you achieve an understanding of emptiness. It says something more like "in order to achieve the 'nyam' (experiential understanding) of emptiness you can use renunciative method - that is, let go of Stuff, in all it's infinite variety. One (of many) techniques to do that is to regard form as impure."

All the best,
Rin'dzin

Scholarship & Clarity

Karmakshanti's picture

Oh I am no scholar. On another comment I mention the training of my root guru in old Tibet and the extraordinary number of lines of the Dharma that he had to memorize, and be able to successfully debate about, in shedra, to take a Khenpo degree. Virtually all I really know about the Dharma is due to his extraordinary capacity to explain things in a way that is both simple and clear.

If you look at the barely two length feet of Dharma books that I retain, over a foot of them are either Kagyu lineage namthar or commentaries on particular practices that I obtained to keep those that we do as a group straight in my mind, since I do not do them privately.

My root lama has retained this capacity for simple clarity into very old age, indeed, probably 30 years more than the average Tibetan. I cherish that 30 years, because it's just about the amount of time I've had to study with him, and I know the effort he has made in White Tara practice to stick around to get our lineage holder's monastery built, and to gently insert some humility and renunciation into blockheaded and headstrong students such as me.

We Kagyu are devotion junkies. And we have a saying, "When thinking of the Guru, if your eyes are dry, you're not a Kagyu!" I passed the test. In the last the 1000 rounds or so of our ngondro guru yoga, I often couldn't stop crying. If my manner here has seemed a little fierce and my questions a little aggressive, you may chalk it up to the passion and fierceness which we Kagyu cultivate by supplicating the blessings of the guru.

I came upon David and his website here wholly by chance from a casual remark on my Facebook wall. [I'm known over there by my civil name] I was struck by the calmness, evenmindedness, and generosity of his words and knew immediately that I was looking at something special in the way he has been trained in the Dharma. I could not get a grasp of what that training might be merely from the Aro webpages. So I decided to come over and ask a few pointed questions. I'm well satisfied with the answers. As both of you should be.

I also, without any intention of flattery, think that your comments above, and David's responses to my questions, give the pith of the Aro viewpoint much more clearly and concisely than most of the Aro website prose, which is, to my old book editor's eye, overly diffuse and repetitive. I urge you not to let any modesty stand in your way and to extract these passages for revision and web publication in a format that will serve your Aro ter sangha well. I have no objection whatever to your retaining any of my questions that are necessary for what you say to make sense, your editing of them to tone down my cheekiness, or your use of my Sanskritized Dharma name. I also remain available for any help I can give to do so. David has my e-mail address.

There are also things that I could say as a tantrika speaking to tanrikas that really don't belong on the public Web. You certainly know the sort of thing I mean. I'd enjoy sharing and invite you to write me privately if it suits you and you have the time. I have no problem with David sharing my address for this purpose.

Mangalam. May all beings benefit.

Yours In The Dharma

Karmakshanti

The origin of "form"

This question about the broad vs narrow uses of "form" is continuing to bug me. I've done a couple more hours of digging, and have a tentative, partial conclusion that might be interesting.

I looked in about ten traditional discussions, and the pairing of "form" with "emptiness", and the use of "form" to mean "whatever is empty", seem to be rare or absent. In Mipham's Beacon of Certainty, there is a single use of "the union of form and emptiness"; but that is in a context in which a narrow meaning of "form" might be intended.

This really surprised me, because I'm so used to the "form and emptiness" formulation. I thought "OMG, could this be just an Aro thing?" But a quick google showed it isn't.

It's quite common in modern usage. It shows up particularly in Zen, but also English-language Tibetan Buddhism. Particularly in writing by white-guy Dzogchenpas (e.g. Keith Dowman, Lama Surya Das, Robert Beer), but also some Tibetans (e.g. Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche, and apparently HH Dalai Lama, although the attribution in his case looks questionable). In John Pettit's commentary on his translation of Mipham, he uses "form and emptiness" extensively, apparently as synonymous with "appearance and emptiness" (which is Mipham's usual formulation).

So then the question is "where does this come from, if it's not a common traditional usage?" It would take a lot more work to be really sure, but I have a pretty good guess:

I think it comes from Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche's Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism. He uses the form-and-emptiness terminology exclusively in his chapter on shunyata. An excerpt from the beginning of the chapter is here. He continues to use form-and-emptiness in the two remaining chapters of the book, on Prajna and Tantra.

Cutting Through was Trungpa Rinpoche's first book; it was nearly the first book on Tibetan Buddhism written in English for practitioners; and it was enormously influential. My guess is that his formulation of Prajnaparamita/Madhyamaka in terms of "form" was taken as standard by a great many people who didn't realize it isn't traditional; and has now become effectively "traditional" in English-language Tibetan Buddhism.

The next questions would be "where did he get that?" and "why did he do it?" and "what effect does it have?"

The answer to the first is probably easy. He was strongly influenced by his relationship with Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, who used this formulation extensively. It seems to be common in Zen and not just Suzuki Roshi's eccentricity. I suspect it goes back at least as far as Dogen, but haven't followed this up properly.

Trungpa Rinpoche's explanation of emptiness in Cutting Through is unusual in other ways. For instance, he writes "So form is empty. But empty of what? Form is empty of our preconceptions, empty of our judgments." "Empty of what?" is the key question in traditional accounts, but "preconceptions" is definitely not the official Tibetan answer. Undoubtedly he knew the official framework thoroughly, so this represents a deliberate deviation—from the textual tradition. I think it's likely, though, that it reflects a tradition of informal oral explanation. (The chapter is an edited transcript of an informal talk.)

If so, this is interesting because it supports my hypothesis that actual understanding of emptiness, based on practice experience, has long outstripped the official explanations rooted in Nagarjuna. If so, I think it's past time to declare the actual understanding to be kosher—never mind what scripture says.

So, why did Trungpa substitute "form and emptiness" for "appearance and emptiness"? Perhaps for no good reason—he'd just been hanging out with Suzuki the day before he gave this talk, they spent hours talking in Suzuki's terms, and it carried over. But since the talk seems to deliberately deviate from tradition in other ways, this substitution might also be deliberate.

One possibility is that "form and emptiness" is, in fact, a traditional but rare formulation in Dzogchen, and Trungpa Rinpoche was drawing on that. The one use by Mipham tends to support that theory; but I haven't been able to find it in other Dzogchen explanations of emptiness, so it would be pretty obscure.

Many scholars believe Dzogchen was influenced, in its formation, by Ch'an (Chinese Zen). If "form and emptiness" is a Dzogchen thing, maybe it came from Ch'an. Or at least, maybe Trunpga Rinpoche thought it did, and found that interesting after his discussions with Suzuki Roshi, and wanted to bring out the connection. But this is all conjecture...

A more important question might be "does this make any difference?" Might it be a problem if contemporary Tibetan Buddhism has imported Zen terminology for a key concept, without most people noticing?

It never occurred to me that "form and emptiness" wasn't totally traditional before you expressed confusion. And then I was really rather shocked to find that it is rare or absent in Tibetan language accounts. I had taken the use for granted—probably because my main exposure to Tibetan Buddhism was via Trungpa Rinpoche's organization, and before that I had studied Soto Zen, and my first Buddhist teacher was thoroughly grounded in Soto. This is probably common: many widely-respected Western Tibetan Buddhist teachers appear to be unaware of the issue.

It seems that we all take "form" to be a technical term that means, roughly, "appearances", and which has only a vague connection with the usual English meaning of the word, or with the use in Abhidharma. So maybe there is no problem here. But maybe we should be thinking hard about what implications this might have, and exactly what we mean by "form", and whether the word might be leading us astray.

Probably a helpful first step would be to find where and how and why this usage originated in Zen. Then we could think about whether the same reasons apply in Tibetan Buddhism, or if it's problematic there.

different practices and approaches

Torben's picture

I think there is a difference between the semde/longde and the Upadesha in Dzogchen.

While the former has a lot of explanation about emptiness and letting go (which was the main practice of Vairochana, who was a monk); that is not so important in the upadesha tantras of the Longchen tradtition (and was the main practice of Padmasambhava, who had consorts.)

However, I speak from a researcher's point of view, not of a practitioner's, which might be an handicap.

New Understanding?

Karmakshanti's picture

actual understanding of emptiness, based on practice experience, has long outstripped the official explanations rooted in Nagarjuna. If so, I think it's past time to declare the actual understanding to be kosher—never mind what scripture says.

I'm really puzzled as to what this improved "actual understanding" might be. Surely the meditative experience of emptiness has not changed that greatly over time, if at all, in Buddhism. And the basic questions still remain: What is the true status of the stuff that appears to be "out there"? What is the true status of the "in here" that seems to be perceiving the "out there"? and What is the true status of the concepts we use to describe either one?

There seems to be general agreement by all Buddhist parties that Question 1 and Question 2 are actually the same question since there is no boundary to be found between "in here" and "out there". If we look at the notion of "interdependent origination" it seems to be saying that no boundary can actually be found to unequivocally separate any appearance from any other, whether the distinction is between "in here" and "out there" or "the spaghetti pot" and "the slotted spoon", so Question 1/2 must legitimately be asked of only appearance-as-a-whole.

I have no direct meditation experience to offer myself, but the accumulated meditation experience of beings we all agree to be "realized" or "enlightened" seems to consistently support this. None of the apparent boundaries between "this" and "that" have any ultimate reality.

As far as I can see, both the Prajnaparamitra and Nagarjuna's dialectic are largely focused on Question 3 and at pains to deny that these concepts actually can answer Question 1/2, if the question is asked, as it must be, about appearance-as-a-whole. I think they do so successfully.

So things cannot be "as they appear" since the appearance is that of separation between subject and object, self and other, spaghetti pot and slotted spoon. Thus we also cannot talk about reality in terms of concepts which separate one thing from another in appearance-as-a-whole.

Where does that leave us besides with the Two Truths? Things appear as they appear, but none of those appearances have any reality "on their own side", hence they are "empty" in reality. And verbal concepts describe how things appear, which is separate from one another, but have nothing to say about how they actually are, so the concepts themselves are also "empty".

What more or what different does "practice experience" have to tell us than this?

Elevated suffering

This was very funny... Sometimes I wish I had been around for the fun and excitement of the '60s, and sometimes I'm glad I missed the insanity.

Yes, you can definitely practice with intense negative emotions in the Dzogchen style. It is possible to allow intense suffering to continuously self-liberate. Not always—unless you are realized—but increasingly often with practice. Even I can sometimes, so anyone who has been meditating for a little while probably can...

An interesting question is why is this sometimes feasible and other times not. I don't know an answer from theory (other than "karma", which is too generic to be helpful). Very tentatively, I might suggest that the key is willingness. The capacity for Dzogchen is always present in everyone; but samsara is so alluring that we are rarely willing to let go of it. And the key to willingness is faith in the method. Partly that comes from experience; but also it comes from faith in the Lamas. If your Lama(s) say "yes, that's awful—now practice trekchöd", you could think "they just don't get it—how hopeless my situation is and how much I am suffering—meditation is obviously useless in such circumstances"; or you could think "that sounds silly, but they've been right about things before; what have I got to lose, I'll give it my best shot anyway."

Probably the Aro sangha is not as afflicted as yours; but we do have apprentices in most of the categories you describe.

The Lamas' instructions about what to practice are often highly personalized, on the basis of life circumstances, capacity, and interest. (This is the advantage of a non-linear curriculum and extensive individual attention from Lamas.) They are generally considered private, so I can't give a specific answer to your question. But yes, they almost certainly would take into account the kinds of life problems you describe.

Sorry to be behind on replying to your comments; I can't quite keep up!

New improved extra-strength

You raise many questions here, and I find them interesting personally, but I am going to discipline myself to not reply to most of them in any detail.

Going back to the original topic of the page on which we are commenting, the Aro story is that experience is—variably—solid and insubstantial, durable and transient, boundariless and separated, continuous and discontinous, and defined and ambiguous. This is not included in the official story. Such adjectives do regularly appear in dohas expressing the non-duality of appearance and emptiness (although the five-element organization seems to be unique to the Aro gTér). Those dohas arose out of practice experience.

There have been many other improvements in understanding since Nagarjuña. I think Tsongkhapa's story was a huge advance. He had to present it as "this is what Nagarjuña really meant", but that is obviously false. I also think his story is wrong as an account of reality, but it's on the right track in important ways. [This paragraph could get me assassinated by hit men from both the Geluk and Nyingma schools, for opposite reasons, so don't tell anyone, OK?]

To the slight extent I understand it, Shentong also seems to contain important insights that weren't in Indian Buddhism.

I have another story to tell. It's probably mainly compatible with all of the above, but it's not the same. I hope it's an improvement in some respects. I've decided not to present it as a Buddhist account, to avoid hair-splitting arguments about obscure ancient texts. It'll be over on my Meaningness site. [Coming soon, subscribe to the feed today!]

So, interesting as your points are, I don't want to engage with them here. Once I've got enough of the picture up on Meaningness, it'll be possible to discuss it in terms of how things are, rather than what millennia-dead philosophers said.

On devotion

Hi Karmakshanti,

I am touched by your reply - so generous. It's interesting to hear about your path and sangha. Devotion counts for a great deal in the Aro sangha too and has carried many an apprentice through difficult times. Ngak'chang Rinpoche's book Wisdom Eccentrics, to be published soon, describes his own relationship with his root lamas. Recently we've been reading through chapters of that at apprentice retreats: a moving experience as it creates a tangible sense of how devotion provides the thread for the continuity of dharma.

Your manner has not once seemed fierce or aggressive, and your questions are welcome and productive. In particular your picking up on the different usage of form yesterday led to some interesting discussion and research.

I've just started reading Paul Williams' book on the doctrinal foundations of Mahayana Buddhism, by the way. Do you know it? I'm only yet in the opening chapters, but one thesis seems to suggest renunciative monastic practice as the unifying element across Mahayana and non-Mahayana, despite doctrinal divergence. In other words that Mahayana developed as doctrinal differences within sanghas holding the same Vinaya. The idea is that some practitioners may have held outer renunciative vows whilst developing Bodhicitta practice at the inner and secret levels, hence the development of the Mahayana suttas. That's not received wisdom, as far as I'm aware, but it seems an interesting hypothesis in light of our discussion.

Looking forward to more contact,
Rin'dzin

Yana continuity

Anonymous's picture

I actually don't do much Dharma reading. I'm on a small Social Security stipend and haven't bought or borrowed a book in ages. I do dip into Google Books to scan some of them for free now and then, but my taste has shifted to namthar, autobiography, and memoirs.

The continuity of thought and of monastic discipline between the yanas is a cornerstone of the Kagudpa teachings. The vows, as I understand it, really have not changed materially from the time of the Buddha, and the discipline they instill is not in any way incompatible with the Bodhisattva ideal. As a very much slower path of accomplishment than the Vajrayana, Right Aspiration, Disciplined Conduct [either monastic or lay], and Right Dedication of the merit accumulated are essential to any hope whatever of fulfilling the Bodhisattva Vow.

The work of Gampopa, our first monastic lineage holder is pivotal to our style, and my own root guru is very insistent that the Buddhist Yanas are cumulative and not contradictory. The fact that I have been taught this way is one of the reasons why my differences from the Aro point of view have been so clear and striking. Our Vajrayana's roots are in the rich ground of the lay Indian mahasiddhas, both male and female, but while many of the flowers over the centuries have been lay yogis, our "family lineage" ended with the tragic death of Tarma Dode, eldest son of Marpa the Translator, and the main line of transmission has been largely monastic ever since Gampopa.

My own belief is that one of the glories of Buddhism is the real consistency and continuity of it for 2500 years. When you consider the range of differences between Greek Orthodox Christianity, Unitarian Universalism, the Society of Friends, and the Church of the Latter Day Saints, Buddhist sectarian differences are barely visible.

Karma Kagudpas hold transmission of quite a number of Nyingma terma teachings and have found them particularly effective for the needs of lay sangha. With the exception of lojong, all of the common practices in our Centers taught before Mahamudra ngondro, are Nyingma: Tangtong Gyalpo's 4 armed Chenrezig practice, Chogyur Lingpa's Green Tara practice, Nam Cho Mingyur Dorje's Amitabha and Medicine Buddha practices, and the Seven Line Prayer to Guru Rinpoche. Some our more potent 3-year retreat practices are terma as well.

From this vantage point, I find it striking how much the Nyingmapas as a whole now rely on really much newer practices than those of their Kama, while many of our Sarma practices have true continuity in the human realm all the way back to Saraha and Luipa, among others. In this sense Nyingma's label as an Old Tradition is somewhat deceptive.

In any event, the title of "hidden yogi" committed to outer monastic discipline as well as an inner Vajrayana View, Meditation, and Action, is a term of high praise among my teachers.

Oops!

Karmakshanti's picture

I'm woefully under-coffeed and let this last post slip in without my name. Sorry.

"I'm so used to the "form and

ricardo brito's picture

"I'm so used to the "form and emptiness" formulation"

I was used to a duality subject/object formulation.

The 'Samputa' comments:

"...one achieves liberation by realizing
The mind's nature is lucid clarity.
He who is unstained by lust and the like,
Who is without any duality of subject and object,
This superior enlightened mind
Is defined as supreme nirvana."

The ' Vajrapanjara' says:

"No external reality exists except for the mind.
Everything appearing as form and the like
Is a manifestation of that very mind."

this is from Mahamudra, the moonlight from Dakpo Tashi Namgyal.

On his "The wish Fulfilling Wheel (the practice of White Tara)" book, Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche states:

"Since ultimately Tara is the nature of the dharmadhatu itself, she has no single appearance and no single color. Nevertheless, since she is active in the realms and experiences of sentient beings, she is perceived in different ways."

I've always seen "no single appearance and no single color" as (emptiness). "she is perceived in different ways" is Form. This is just one example.
So i would say that this states that although Tara is emptiness, she is also Form (manifestation), her emptiness is inseperable from her form, or they coexist. Manifestation is everything that can be perceived, so thoughts, ideas, fellings are also form. So the inseperability of emptiness and form is not a idea that come to my mind from Aro, it was there already form Kagyu, even if it was a missunderstanding of mine.

On the other hand there is a lot of emphasis on emptiness, stating that emptiness is the place to go in order to understant enlightenment, but i think that happens not because enlightenement is empty but because we are to much addicted to form, so we need to emphasize emptiness. The inseperability of subject and object, or I/others is not the end of the path, but, in my opinion, enlightenement is on the same road, but it gets before we have the chance to experience the inseperability of subject/object. That would be a lot of monism.

This is just what i think and what i feel, it's not based on any particular philosophy. sory if my english is not the best. i prefer practice rather than debate, although i'm bad at both

Complementary yanas

The work of Gampopa, our first monastic lineage holder is pivotal to our style, and my own root guru is very insistent that the Buddhist Yanas are cumulative and not contradictory. The fact that I have been taught this way is one of the reasons why my differences from the Aro point of view have been so clear and striking.

We are also taught that there is no ultimate contradiction between the yanas - and that they are cumulative in the sense that they grow from each other. Sorry if I have given the wrong impression about that.

Karma Kagudpas hold transmission of quite a number of Nyingma terma teachings and have found them particularly effective for the needs of lay sangha. With the exception of lojong, all of the common practices in our Centers taught before Mahamudra ngondro, are Nyingma: Tangtong Gyalpo's 4 armed Chenrezig practice, Chogyur Lingpa's Green Tara practice, Nam Cho Mingyur Dorje's Amitabha and Medicine Buddha practices, and the Seven Line Prayer to Guru Rinpoche. Some our more potent 3-year retreat practices are terma as well.

How inspiring. The Seven Line Prayer to Guru Rinpoche is one of our central practices.

In a previous comment you asked about Guru yoga and David mentioned in reply the Lama'i Naljor of Machig Labdrön that we practice. That came via Chhi'mèd Rig'dzin Rinpoche, one of Ngak'chang Rinpoche's root gurus. He was the incarnation of Gyawa Döndup, the third son of Machig Labdrön who inherited a 'son' lineage from her, separate to the male and female Mahamudra lineages. This 'son' lineage is also sometimes referred to as the 'experience' lineage. The Aro chöd practice is connected to the Lama'i Naljor of Machig Labdrön.

I don't think it was mentioned elsewhere yet, that the foundation practice for apprentices alongside the Dzogchen Semdé naljors is the completion of Guru Rinpoche and Yeshé Tsogyel mantras.

From this vantage point, I find it striking how much the Nyingmapas as a whole now rely on really much newer practices than those of their Kama, while many of our Sarma practices have true continuity in the human realm all the way back to Saraha and Luipa, among others. In this sense Nyingma's label as an Old Tradition is somewhat deceptive.

Yah. . .we're sometimes called the 'accident' lineage due to the proliferation of unexpected catastrophes. We just get going, then something drastic happens and we have to start all over again, you know how it is. . . :-)

In any event, the title of "hidden yogi" committed to outer monastic discipline as well as an inner Vajrayana View, Meditation, and Action, is a term of high praise among my teachers.

Apologies if this question is rather impertinent, or off-topic, but can you tell, in practice, if a monk/nun is holding inner Vajrayana View, Meditation and Action? How would you know? What would be the difference between such a person and a 'regular' monk?

With best wishes,
Rin'dzin

Hidden Yogi

Karmakshanti's picture

There is a marvelous anecdote I have read about the Terton Chojur Lingpa. One day he led some of his followers to the street of butchers in Lhasa. Everyone there appeared to be covered, not only in yak blood, but also in a kind of rough stupor of evil karma of people doing the worst of things in the best of lands, where the Dharma flourished. Off in one corner was a tall woman with a sharp cleaver expertly quartering a side of yak. To the horror of his students, the Terton went straight up to her and asked for her blessing, and bowed his head on which she placed her blood covered hand.

When his students questioned him about it later about why he did it, Chojor Lingpa remarked "You had the tendrel to encounter Vajrayogini in person. You, too, could have received her blessing, if you had been open to it."

I think things are never wholly what they seem. Appearance is as much about our preconceptions as about reality. If you look at maroon dharma robes and bring to it the preconceived notion that they mean vows and renunciation, that's all you see. When I first entered the Tibetan tradition, I didn't know enough to think such things, and it was somehow obvious that some of the people wearing robes had an extra "edge". One, in particular, was a young tulku who had so much of it that he scared the willies out of me for years.

It's hard to stay open as you learn, gain more confidence in what you've learned, and place less trust in what is in the moment, but I've tried to use those early and obvious experiences to remind myself to stay as open as I can. I'm not sure I always spot it now when the being in the Dharma robes has the extra edge, but if they have enough of it, it's still pretty obvious.

I think we all have the extra edge, and when we relax and stop evaluating what we are seeing, we are, for the moment, capable of actually seeing it. It's hard to keep that fresh glimpse. The measure of our karmic accumulation, I think, is how much what we learn actually interferes with what we know. And I have embraced things like the Vajrasattva purification with that in mind and applying the Four Powers to what appears to be very virtuous Dharma study as much as what appears to be obvious blunders and downfalls. It seems to help.

"My Meaningness site works

Anonymous's picture

"My Meaningness site works out practical consequences of the Four Extremes as I understand them from the Aro gTér. It is not actually an Aro presentation (I am not qualified to do that)"

Such qualifications are formalities anyway. If we take Aro to be something fixed, solid, certain, eternally enduring, and if we take qualification as an ability to transmit this kind of perfect eternal Aro, then no one is qualified in this manner anyway. If we take qualification to mean that you can intelligently and with reasonably few omissions present Aro point of view, I am sure you are qualified indeed. The qualification you speak of is really a permission to teach. It's just a formality and is worthless in the spiritual sense. It's only worth something if you want to make $$$. :)

"qualification"

Karmakshanti's picture

The qualification you speak of is really a permission to teach.

Not quite, I think. David or I or anyone can study and discuss any point of view from the outside without anyone's permission, and we can even describe it fairly and justly. Nagarjuna's dialectic is explicable and usable by anyone taking the trouble to learn it, and it can be criticized legitimately by anyone who knows enough about it to see limits in it, or who believes they hold a better alternative.

But all of this is both chronologically and actually secondary to the direct, inner experience of "insight" into how things really are that results from meditation, particularly from Dzogchen or Mahamudra meditation. The first openly vajrayana teaching I encountered was admirably pithy and direct: "The nature of mind is empty, lumious, and unobstructed." I can say these words, you can say these words, or David can say these words, and we can believe them to be true.

However, I, at least, cannot say them with the absolute and unshakable conviction in my voice that Kyabje Kalu Rimpoche had in his voice when I first heard them. It was obvious, at least to me, that he had experienced the nature of mind directly and was speaking from that experience rather than repeating a teaching or a point of view he had merely heard, whether he believed it or not. I have heard these words repeated many times since by all sorts of teachers who clearly believe them, but few, if any, have had that tone of conviction from first hand knowledge that Kalu Rimpoche carried.

This is, ultimately, the only "qualification" there is. But not many of us have it, certainly not me.

Emptiness, Non-duality and Logic

Átila's picture

Hello David, I noticed some points that I consider wrong in your and Ngakpa Chögyam's presentation on emptiness. I hope you forgive me for any mistakes in my English.

1. The reason for the importance of Nagarjuna
The importance of Nagarjuna is not because of him receiving teachings of Nagas, but because he had used logic to define emptiness.
Reducing everything to absurdity, he demonstrates that all the concepts that were taken as real by Hinayanist are actually just like illusion produced by dependent origination and the dependent designation.
The definition of Nagarjuna emptiness is this:
"We state that whatever is dependent arising,
that is emptiness.
That is dependent designation.
That itself is the middle path." MKV 24:18
So, as everything is originated from different causes. Also,as everything is a conceptual creation that beings create together; self, others, karma, merit and so on are just products of dependent designations. So nothing is self-existent, everything is just like illusion

2.Yogacara
As a reaction to misinterpretation of Nagarjuna as nihilism, the Yogacara school came trying to explain how the non-illuminated and the illuminated mind work from the psychological point of view. Thus, the experience of emptiness is to finish the dichotomy of subjective and objective. I believe this school provides the best lessons for the general public, since few people have interest in logic and metaphysics.
Asanga expresses the gradual realization of Bodhisattvas as follows:
"Understanding that referents are mere [mental] chatter,[Bodhisattvas] dwell in mere mind appearing as these.
Then, they directly perceive the dharmadhātu, Thus being free from the characteristic of duality.
The mind is aware that nothing other than mind exists. Then, it is realized that mind does not exist either.
The intelligent ones are aware that both do not exist and abide in the dharmadhātu, in which these are absent" Mahayanasamgraha VI.7–8

3.The problem with logic and Dzogchen

Although logic and reason are important, to describe the absolute logic is limited, Manjushrimitra expresses this beautifully:
"The direct, hard to understand, subtle field of knowing, the Great Path, is non-conceptual (akalpana),
and entirely beyond the grasp of intellectual thought.
Divorced from verbal ideation, it is difficult to point out and as difficult to enquire into.
It cannot be communicated through words and [therefore] is not within the scope of the neophyte (adikarmika).
Nevertheless the path is to be approached through studying scriptures (sutra) of the World-Teacher and following the personal instructions (upadesa) of one's Guruji.
So far as logical reasoning [or philosophical speculation] based on cognitive perception is concerned, it is an established tenet that one can reflect on existence only within the confines of thesis and antithesis.
Therefore any attempt whatsoever to define an object-of-experience (visaya) by means of thought, is an affirmation of a "reality" (pramana) inherently negated by its own logical antithesis.
If thought is incapable [of positing ultimate reality], then what valid knowledge (pramana) can there be?
Hence, the conventional means of reasoning normal to worldly individuals does not apply to the Path of Yoga."
So the difference between Dzogchen and the teachings of the sutras is the fact that for the Dzogchen direct experience and the instruction from the guru is more essential than logic and reason. In addition, the Dzogchen teachings include the use of visualizations and energy that are not present in the sutras.

4.Emptiness and Non-duality
The statement that emptiness and non-duality are two different things is wrong, non-duality is the emptiness of emptiness, when one realizes that even the concept of emptiness is nonexistent and even the nonexistent is also nonexistent . Like Manjushrimitra says:
"Claiming that something is an absolute, is itself an obscured position.
One should therefore abide in uncertainty (vicikitsa, defensive skepticism), nor attempt to overcome it.
Since neither the meditator nor the Source of Reality exists, there can be neither uncertainty nor certitude of view.
Thus, if one enquires into the conception of "Existence," even as an apparition it is without an independent-nature (svabhava, own-nature).
Consequently, even this nonexistence, depending as it would on existence, is not; nor does the nonexistence of nonexistence exist!
Since all finite concepts are negational, the concept of "middle" (madhya) is equally negated, and so one should not even try and abide in a Middle View (madhyamaka)."

Emptiness, non-duality, and snakes

Hi Átila,

The importance of Nagarjuna is not because of him receiving teachings of Nagas

Yes, I'm sorry, that's my attempt at a joke. Jokes often don't translate well. This one is a bit subtle and might not be obvious even to native speakers of English.

As you say, Nagarjuna's importance is his logical treatment of Prajnaparamita, the Sutric teaching on emptiness.

non-duality is the emptiness of emptiness

I'm curious, where did you read this? Or is it your own insight?

Unfortunately, "non-duality" is used by different Buddhist writers to mean many different things. For example, there is the non-duality of self and other, which is a major theme in some Buddhist teachings, but not so important in Dzogchen. Most concepts of "non-duality" are not explained clearly, so it can be difficult to sort out how the different meanings relate to each other.

For Aro, and some other Dzogchen systems, the most important non-duality is the non-duality of form and emptiness. They are not two different things—they cannot be separated—but they are not the same thing, either.

A definitive book on this is Mipham's Beacon of Certainty: Illuminating the View of Dzogchen, the Great Perfection. It explains the relation between the Sutric, Tantric, and Dzogchen understandings of form, emptiness, and non-duality.

Be careful with nagas, they

Átila's picture

Be careful with nagas, they get irritated easily.

My equalization of non-duality with the emptiness of emptiness was more like a personal insight, but I need to find more support in texts.

It is also possible to say that nonduality and emptiness are one thing, because all dualistic concepts are mental fabrications, so the idea of a good or evil, for example, are not self-existent, all good and evil are created dependently.

My favorite texts on the subject are Opening the Wisdom Door of the 'Rangtong and Shentong Views: A Brief Explanation of the One Taste of the Second and Third Turnings of the Wheel of Dharma' by Khenchen Palden Sherab Rinpoche and Khenpo Tsewang Dongyal Rinpoche; and 'Cultivation of Enlightened Mind' by Manjusrimitra.
The first offers an insight into the union of the second and third turning, and also an introduction to the philosophy of Mipham Rinpoche and the Nyingma school. While the Manjusrimitra's text is an amazing synthesis and response to different questions of Buddhist philosophy, for me, it is probably one of the most important Buddhist text.

Non-duality, Emptiness and luminosity

Átila's picture

I noticed that I made a mistake. Non-duality is simply the logical conclusion when one understands the meaning of emptiness in Mahayana Buddhism. Using logic, we can conclude that all dualistic concepts are only dependent designations, not something self-existence, in this way we can prevent suffering by eliminating the attachment to dualistic concepts.

I do not agree that Dzogchen is something really different from the teachings of Mahayana. However only in esoteric Buddhism the energy aspect and the experience of luminosity are fully revealed. Emptiness can also be understood from the energy aspect, since energy is 'something' constantly changing and taking many forms, and is the attachment to these forms that creates suffering.

Another relevant point is regarding the union of emptiness and luminosity. Little emphasis on luminosity experience can lead people to nihilism, while luminosity should be seen as an illusory product of the mind. In Nyingma school, Rigpa would be the union of emptiness and luminosity, a mystical state that would be better transmitted from the guru's mind to his disciple.

I also noticed a great similarity between Dzogchen and some Taoist schools, one of the Taoist schools is called 'Way of Complete Perfection "(Quanzhen). A big problems that I notice in Buddhism is that there is not a great emphasis on the energy aspect as in Taoism. In Taoism the problem is that philosophy was not as well developed as in Buddhism, which led to some Taoist schools to adopt aspects of Buddhist philosophy.

I am commenting on this post

Átila's picture

I am commenting on this post again because I noticed some points that could be interesting to note.

First, in the Lokayatika Sutta, the Buddha was not speaking of the concepts of nihilism, eternalist, monism and dualism; as these are ontological concepts, but that sutra is about cosmology. He was denying four cosmological positions , that is, the universe is eternal, it is simply non-existent, it has a single source and it has multiple sources.

However the terms: nihilism, eternalism, monism and dualism are relevant from an ontological point of view and all are denied insides of Mahayana philosophical systems, despite the monism term is peculiar to Western philosophy.

Nihilism, within Buddhism is the belief that emptiness would be an entity or substance or that everything is just like nothing, eternalism is the belief in the existence of an eternal substance that is the basis of all beings and / or phenomena, such as Brahman ; monism, too, is the belief in the existence of a substance that is the basis for all beings and phenomena, such as matter, mind, etc; dualism is the belief that reality is composed of yin and yang as opposite; mind and matter; god and evil etc.

Personally, I believe that the inclusion of monism is redundant because it is already denied by the denial of nihilism and eternalism. However, the fact that it is a base of Western philosophy, the inclusion of this term is relevant.