Each teaching—a page or two of text—is an edited version of an email exchange between the authors and one of their students. This format is the same as in E-mailing the Lamas from Afar by Ngak’chang Rinpoche and Khandro Déchen. The ‘content’ of the book might be considered similar too, but each manifests the unique personality-display of its authors.
Ngakma Nor’dzin and Ngakpa ’ö-Dzin’s style is exceptionally straightforward, down-to-earth, and practical. That makes illusory advice particularly suitable for beginners. The topics are not merely ‘introductory,’ and long-time students of Vajrayana may also find the book valuable. However, you could understand almost everything in it with no prior knowledge or experience of Buddhism.
illusory advice is not an introductory overview, textbook, or practice manual. It is direct personal advice on how to make sense of Vajrayana as part of everyday life in the contemporary world. That often remains mysterious to Western students—even to those with advanced conceptual understanding of Buddhist theory, and who may have practiced diligently in a traditional style for many years. Conventional texts on Tibetan Buddhism do not touch on the question, and few Tibetan teachers have much to say about it in person either.
Ngakpa Zhal’mèd, who edited the book, organized the individual teachings into seven chapters: Truth & method; Relationship with the teacher; Living the view in everyday life; Being a practitioner in the world; Sangha; The hell of being a practitioner; and Practice & openness. Of these, I especially appreciated the first and last. “Truth & method” largely concerns the relationship between Sutra and Tantra, which is the greatest source of confusion for Vajrayana beginners. “Practice & openness” could be taken as an introduction to Dzogchen, without any of the conceptual complexities that typically accompany its presentation.
The book is copiously illustrated with striking black-and-white photographs taken by the authors.
To give a sense of it: below are the editor’s introduction to the last chapter, and then two sample teachings. (The footnotes are in the original, not my additions.)
Practice & Openness
A recurring theme in Ngakma Nor’dzin and Ngapka ’ö-Dzin’s teachings is the encouragement to develop a greater sense of openness. The word ‘openness’ can tend to be used as a synonym for ‘awareness,’ but whereas awareness can be understood in a wide variety of ways, ‘openness’ is somewhat more straightforward. Ngapka ’ö-Dzin describes it as the ‘capacity to remain uncertain about the outcome of a given situation.’
Openness is the key to Tantra in that it allows us to start relinquishing our tight grip on our definitions and preconceptions about how things should be. When I can remain open about a situation, and consider various outcomes without necessarily being fixed on the one I prefer, I begin to entertain the capacity for ambivalence.
Ambivalence is the experience of having simultaneous conflicting feelings about a situation—being attracted to something and simultaneously put off. Most of the time, ambivalent situations make us feel uneasy because we have no convenient ‘form’ to latch onto, but our moments of ambivalence—if we manage to relax into them—can allow us to glimpse our nondual nature.
When describing how our capacity for ambivalence reflects our capacity to live the view, Khandro Déchen says: ‘The sensation of ambivalence is emptiness. The subject of ambivalence is form. The practice of ambivalence is to allow the two to seamlessly partake of each other.’
Through openness we begin to get to know ourselves at a level of experience that is amorphous, manifold and in flux. And the more we cultivate our capacity to remain with this, the more we learn to cooperate with the sparkling through of our realised nature.
Apprentice: How can I found out what is the purpose of my life? Sometimes it feels so hollow and pointless even though I practice. I feel as though I am manipulating my reality.
Teachers: There is no purpose to life—in the sense of an ultimate purpose—there is only purpose in the moment. To give a simple example: there is a purpose in brushing your teeth because it will make your mouth feel nicer and help prevent gum disease so that your teeth won’t fall out. Your life will be more comfortable with a mouth full of teeth in healthy gums. However eventually your gums will rot and your teeth fall out—if not while you are alive, then certainly after you are dead—so there is no ultimate purpose in brushing your teeth. Being aware of the transient, in-the-moment purpose of brushing your teeth, you do so conscientiously, beautifully, with presence of mind—brushing teeth becomes an art form. It has its own purpose.
Apprentice: Isn’t finding meaning in the moment manipulative—creating something that isn’t there? Isn’t practice merely a different sort of manipulation?
Teachers: Practice could be seen as skillful manipulation. The aim of practice is to become kind and happy people, who benefit others and avoid harm. Practice skillfully manipulates your dualistic condition to change it into the realised state. You are not attempting to change a situation to a predetermined state, you are trying to open the situation and encourage clarity so that it can be exactly what it is. The outcome is open and undefined.
Apprentice: I feel as though I am battling with the reality of my situation.
Teachers: You may be experiencing a sense of battling because you are not allowing the situation to open of itself, but are trying to force something to happen. If your experience is a lack of purpose, then that is the experience of the moment and you enter the dimension of purposelessness. We would advise that you do not try to force a sense of purpose into it.
Apprentice: I have a question about practice in relation to one of the fourteen root vows of Tantra.1 This is about the vow of not regarding the five psycho-physical elements2 as impure. I have a strong tendency to regard my sensory experience very much as ‘not enlightened’—somehow unrelated to practice. It is as if the psycho-physical elements are magical things existing in some ‘other space’ disconnected from my ordinary moment-by-moment experience. This often leads me to view my ordinary life and experience as a hindrance or obstacle to practice, which doesn’t seem quite right!
Teachers: You have a background of sutric practice, so it is going to take you a little while to understand the Vajrayana perspective. To regard the body as impure—or anything as impure—is a limited and dualistic perspective.
Purity and impurity may appear as definite separate states, yet we can quite easily understand—with a little investigation—that purity or impurity are only relative definitions base in a particular view. From the perspective of Vajrayana there is no pure or impure—everything is available for transformation.
Tantra begins with the experience of emptiness—the pregnant space from which form arises. Form is simply that which arises—and does not need to be viewed in terms of pure and or impure. Human bodies are as they are and are available for appreciation. Samsara is not a separate existence to nirvana.3 They are the same experience—it is the view that changes.
- 1. The fourteen root vows of Tantra are the central practice of any tantrika. They are vows of ‘view’ in that one practices viewing phenomenal reality according to the vows. At an essential level, the fourteen root vows are a dynamic description of realised mind. To practice the vows is to attempt to remain within the felt meaning of what they indicate.
- 2. In Sutra, the psycho-physical elements are taught as the five skandhas: form, sensation, perception, mental formations, and consciousness… In the view of Sutra, liberation involves their progressive purification. In Vajrayana, however, the psycho-physical elements (earth, water, fire, air, and space) are considered intrinsically pure. One does not need to purify them, one simply recognises their beginningless purity.
- 3. Samsara: literally ’going around in circles’; cyclic existence characterised by dissatisfaction. Nirvana: state of perfection. To say that nirvana and samsara are not separate is a Dzogchen view. In Dzogchen, samsara—duality—is seen as a distortion of non-duality. As such, nirvana is discovered when we let go of our dualistic habits.