Chögyal Namkhai Norbu: Compassion, Culture and Understanding
“Someone who begins to develop an interest in the teachings can tend to distance themselves from the reality of material things, as if the teachings were something completely apart from daily life. Often, at the bottom of all this, there is an attitude of giving up and running away from one’s own problems, with the illusion that one will be able to find something that will miraculously help one to transcend all that. But the teachings are based on the principle of our actual human condition. We have a physical body with all its various limits: each day we have to eat, work, rest, and so on. This is our reality, and we can’t ignore it.
The Dzogchen teachings are neither a philosophy, nor a religious doctrine, nor a cultural tradition. Understanding the message of the teachings means discovering one’s own true condition, stripped of all the self-deceptions and falsifications which the mind creates. The very meaning of the Tibetan term Dzogchen, Great Perfection, refers to the true primordial state of every individual and not to any transcendent reality.
Many spiritual paths have as their basis the principle of compassion, of benefiting others. In the Mahayana Buddhist tradition, for example, compassion is one of the fundamental points of the practice, together with the knowledge of the true nature of phenomena, or voidness. Sometimes, however, compassion can become something constructed and provisional, because we don’t understand the real principle of it. A genuine, not artificial, compassion, can only arise after we have discovered our own condition. Observing our own limits, our conditioning, our conflicts and so on, we can become truly conscious of the suffering of others, and then our own experience becomes a basis or model for being able to better understand and help those around us.
The only source of every kind of benefit for others is awareness of our own condition. When we know how to help ourselves and how to work with our situation we can really benefit others, and our feeling of compassion will arise spontaneously, without the need for us to hold ourselves to the rules of behaviour of any given religious doctrine.
What do we mean when we say, becoming aware of our own true condition? It means observing ourselves, discovering who we are, who we believe we are, and what our attitude is towards others and to life. If we just observe the Limits, the mental judgments, the passions, the pride, the jealousy, and the attachments with which we close ourselves up in the course of one single day, where do they arise from, what are they rooted in? Their source is our dualistic vision, and our conditioning. To be able to help both ourselves and others we need to overcome all the limits in which we are enclosed. This is the true function of the teachings.
Every kind of teaching is transmitted through the culture and knowledge of human beings. But it is important not to confuse any culture or tradition with the teachings themselves, because the essence of the teachings is knowledge of the nature of the individual. Any given culture can be of great value because it is the means which enables people to receive the message of a teaching, but it is not the teaching itself. Let’s take the example of Buddhism. Buddha lived in India, and to transmit his knowledge he didn’t create a new form of culture, but used the culture of the Indian people of his time as the basis for communication. In the Abhidharma-kosha, for example, we find concepts and notions, such as the description of Mount Meru and the five continents, which are typical of the ancient culture of India, and which should not be considered of fundamental importance to an understanding of the Buddha’s teaching itself. We can see another example of this kind of thing in the completely novel form Buddhism took in Tibet after its integration with the indigenous Tibetan culture. In fact, when Padmasambhava introduced the Vajrayana into Tibet he did not do away with the ritual practices used by the ancient Bon tradition, but knew just how to use them, incorporating them into the Buddhist tantric practices.
If one doesn’t know how to understand the true meaning of a teaching through one’s own culture, one can create confusion between the external form of a religious tradition and the essence of its message. Let’s take the example of a Western person interested in Buddhism, who goes to India looking for a teacher. There he meets a traditional Tibetan master who lives in an isolated monastery and knows nothing about Western culture. When such a master is asked to teach, he will follow the method he is used to using to teach Tibetans. But the Western person has some very big difficulties to overcome, beginning with the obstacle of language. Perhaps he will receive an important initiation and will be struck by the special atmosphere, by the spiritual vibration, but will not understand its meaning. Attracted by the idea of an exotic mysticism he may stay for a few months in the monastery, absorbing a few aspects of Tibetan culture and religious customs. When he returns to the West he is convinced that he has understood Buddhism and feels different from those around him, behaving just like a Tibetan.
But the truth is that for a Westerner to practice a teaching that comes from Tibet there is no need for that person to become like a Tibetan. On the contrary, it is of fundamental importance for him to know how to integrate that teaching with his own culture in order to be able to communicate it, in its essential form, to other Westerners. But often, when people approach an Eastern teaching, they believe that their own culture is of no value. This attitude is very mistaken, because every culture has its value, related to the environment and circumstances in which it arose. No culture can be said to be better than another; rather it depends on the human individual whether he or she will derive greater or lesser advantage from it in terms of inner development. For this reason it is useless to transport rules and customs into a cultural environment different from the one in which they arose.
A person’s habits and cultural environment are of importance to that individual to enable them to understand a teaching. You can’t transmit a state of knowledge using examples that are not known to the listener. If tsampa with Tibetan tea is served to a Westerner, he or she will probably have no idea how to eat it. A Tibetan, on the other hand, who has eaten tsampa since he was a child, won’t have that problem, and will right away mix the tsampa with tea and eat it. In the same way, if one does not have a knowledge of the culture through which a teaching is transmitted, it is difficult to understand its essential message. This is the value of knowing about a particular culture. But the teachings involve an inner state of knowledge which should not be confused with the culture through which it is transmitted, or with its habits, customs, political and social systems, and so on. Human beings have created different cultures in different times and places, and someone who is interested in the teachings must be aware of this and know how to work with different cultures, without however becoming conditioned by their external forms.
For example, those who already have a certain familiarity with Tibetan culture might think that to practice Dzogchen you have to convert to either Buddhism or Bon, because Dzogchen has been spread through these two religious traditions. This shows how limited our way of thinking is. If we decide to follow a spiritual teaching, we are convinced that it is necessary for us to change something, such as our way of dressing, of eating, of behaving, and so on. But Dzogchen does not ask one to adhere to any religious doctrine or to enter a monastic order, or to blindly accept the teachings and become a Dzogchenist. All of these things can, in fact, create serious obstacles to true knowledge. The fact is that people are so used to putting labels on everything that they are incapable of understanding anything that does not come within their limits. Let me give a personal example. Every now and then I will meet a Tibetan who doesn’t know me well, and who will ask me the question, Which school do you belong to? In Tibet, over the course of the centuries, there have arisen four principal Tibetan Buddhist traditions, and if a Tibetan hears of a master, he is convinced that the master must necessarily belong to one of these four sects. If I reply that I am a practitioner of Dzogchen, this person will presume that I belong to the Nyingmapa school, within which the Dzogchen texts have been preserved. Some people, on the other hand, as has actually happened, knowing that I have written some books on Bon with the aim of re-evaluating the indigenous culture of Tibet, would say that I am a Bonpo. But Dzogchen is not a school or sect, or a religious system. It is simply a state of knowledge which masters have transmitted beyond any limits of sect or monastic tradition. In the lineage of the Dzogchen teachings there have been masters belonging to all social classes, including farmers, nomads, nobles, monks, and great religious figures, from every spiritual tradition or sect. The fifth Dalai Lama, for example, whilst perfectly maintaining the obligations of his elevated religious and political position, was a great practitioner of Dzogchen.
Sometimes compassion can become something constructed and provisional, because we don’t understand the real principle of it. A genuine, not artificial, compassion, can only arise after we have discovered our own condition.
A person who is really interested in the teachings has to understand their fundamental principle without letting him or herself become conditioned by the limits of a tradition. The organizations, institutions, and hierarchies that exist in the various schools often become factors that condition us, but this is something that it is difficult for us to notice. The true value of the teachings is beyond all the superstructures people create, and to discover if the teachings are really a living thing for us we just need to observe to what extent we have freed ourselves from all the factors that condition us. Sometimes we might believe we have understood the teachings, and that we know how to apply them, but in practice we still remain conditioned by attitudes and doctrinal principles that are far from true knowledge of our own actual condition.
When a master teaches Dzogchen, he or she is trying to transmit a state of knowledge. The aim of the master is to awaken the student, opening that individual’s consciousness to the primordial state. The master will not say, Follow my rules and obey my precepts! He will say, Open your inner eye and observe yourself. Stop seeking an external lamp to enlighten you from outside, but light your own inner lamp. Thus the teachings will come to live in you, and you in the teachings.
The teachings must become a living knowledge in all one’s daily activities. This is the essence of the practice, and besides that there is nothing in particular to be done. A monk, without giving up his vows, can perfectly well practice Dzogchen, as can a Catholic priest, a clerk, a workman, and so on, without having to abandon their role in society, because Dzogchen does not change people from the outside. Rather it awakens them internally. The only thing a Dzogchen master will ask is that one observes oneself, to gain the awareness needed to apply the teachings in everyday life.
Every religion, every spiritual teaching, has its basic philosophical principles, its characteristic way of seeing things. Within the philosophy of Buddhism alone, for example, there have arisen different systems and traditions, often disagreeing with each other only over subtleties of interpretation of the fundamental principles. In Tibet these philosophical controversies have lasted up until the present day, and the resulting polemical writings now form a whole body of literature in itself. But in Dzogchen no importance at all is attached to philosophical opinions and convictions. The way of seeing in Dzogchen is not based on intellectual knowledge, but on an awareness of the individual’s own true condition.”
Dzogchen: The Self-Perfected State
“Our natural condition is self-perfected from the very beginning. What is necessary is that we reawaken and remain in our true nature. Through understanding and practice, we can rediscover the effortless knowledge of the self-perfected state that lies beyond our usual anguish and confusion, and remain in this uninterrupted flow of contemplation, completely relaxed but fully present through all activities.”