Shechen Monastery in Kham, Eastern Tibet, now in exile in Nepal as well as revived in Tibet after its destruction at the hands of the Chinese communists, is a matrix of profound spiritual realization, immense learning, and brilliant creative expression. It was founded in 1695 by Shechen Rabjam Tenpé Gyaltsen. It is both a vital center of the Nyingma tradition and its Dzogchen teachings, one of the six most major centers of Nyingma in Tibet, as well as a focal point of the Ri-mé, non-sectarian movement which was ignited in 19th Century Tibet. Great past and recent teachers who were spawned at Shechen include Shechen Kongtrül Rinpoche, Khenpo Gangshar, Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, Rabjam Rinpoche, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche, and many others. If you include all those who were or are students of Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, the tally widens to include a great span of current Tibetan Buddhist teachers, including His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama. This book is a collection of translations of one of Shechen’s great teachers, Shechen Gyaltsap Gyurmé Pema Namgyal (1871-1926).
Now, as a steady stream of previously inaccessible resources find their way out of Tibetan contexts and into Western view, the roots of Shechen Monastery’s great contributions to Buddha Dharma are surfacing, in this case thanks to the fresh translations by the Padmakara Translation Group. With the publication of PRACTICING THE GREAT PERFECTION, we can taste the spiritual essence and brilliance of the Shechen tradition that has given rise to so much powerful contemporary Buddhist expression, and indeed to realization in many. Shechen Gyaltsap Gyurmé Pema Namgyal, even if one is not familiar with him, can immediately be appreciated as the root teacher of Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche. If you are a Buddhist practitioner, reading Shechen Gyaltsap is like being brought into a room to meet your great great grandfather, and simultaneously being introduced to who you are as a member of a vast family lineage. If you are not a Buddhist practitioner, you are introduced to the brilliance and directness of a tradition that arose out of complete honesty, clarity and awareness in encountering life and the world without pretense.
Changling Rinpoche, a current gem of Shechen, a student of Dilgo Khyente Rinpoche, and the abbot of the Shechen monastic college (shedra), was explicating the necessity and essential role of contemplation for the Buddhist path and practitioner. He noted that though intensive meditation retreat over a long time has certainly been the source of so many realized masters, at Shechen there were many who arrived at realization by contemplation of seminal Buddhist texts, without going into extended meditation retreat. The profound expression of such teachings blossomed as realization in those who probed their depths and took them utterly to heart.
As Shechen Gyaltsap writes, “Regarding the implementation of the actual practice on the path, there is, generally speaking, the analytical meditation of the panditas and the resting meditation of the kusäli yogis. These two paths are taught according to the mental aptitude of the practitioner concerned.” It is clear that both of these are equally valid and potent paths to realization. Shechen Gyaltsap identifies both of these approaches as meditation. As has been said, to be effective the path requires both intellect and intuition, and each of these approaches offers both to full measure.
In reading this volume of Shechen Gyaltsap’s writings, despite my merely floating on the surface of their immense depth like a water strider on a vast ocean, it is penetrating to consider that these very pith instructions were exactly what ignited realization in those Shechen practitioners who thoroughly contemplated and penetrated them.
This volume is thin, a mere 152 pages, but is anything but a quick read. Each chapter is so drenched in both meaning and invaluable instruction that one could spend years (or life times) sifting its content gradually into finer and finer grades, in tandem with one’s evolving understanding and meditative insight. As much of it is mostly directed to advanced practitioners, one can aspire to reach the level of comprehension and insight they embody. Meanwhile, much of it is immediately applicable and immensely helpful to one’s current practice and understanding.
In preparing to read and review this book, I simply could not just read it through and come to a summary view of it. It took me much longer than I anticipated, for which, in the end, I was grateful. I had to live with the book, practice with the book, eat with the book, sleep with the book, dip into it deeply then depart from it, then dip again, like the first few years of a marriage, or like a dolphin flying and diving along the bow of a great ship. The style and content of the book mandate this. It conveys directly the teachings of the most profound Buddhist view and practice, from the vantage point of their realization. Given that, the best attitude with which to approach the book is with utter humility.
The introduction to the book provides a portrait of Shechen Gyaltsap Gyurmé Pema Namgyal, whose principal teachers included Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo, Jamgön Kongtrul, and Jamgön Mipham Gyatso. It briefly chronicles his early life indications of being a highly unusual and intelligent boy who was recognized very soon as the rebirth of the previous Shechen Gyaltsap. It cites his natural adoption and strict adherence to a life of monastic discipline, meditative retreat and exhaustive study. Through intensive single-minded retreat and study, his life blossoms as the natural and complete coincidence of realization and brilliant scholarly insight and expression. His example, indeed, is an example of what it means to be scholarly in the practice tradition of Buddhism, and how that does not exactly correspond to what it means to be scholarly in the modern West, or, for that matter, in more purely intellectualized systems of Buddhism.
Two of the ten documents translated are centered in doctrinal clarification, and display the utter mastery that Shechen Gyaltsap has of all the strands of Buddhist philosophy, schools, and stages. But it would be an error to label them as mere intellectual expositions, as they link the expressions of the general Buddhist and Dzogchen views directly to the meditative insights and realizations from which they originally arose, and to which they must return.
The rest of the translated documents consist of instruction in meditation and life, through the direct pointing out of the nature of mind known as cutting through (Trekchö). They are, as the first chapter, The Brilliant Lamp says, “a summary of the crucial points of mind practice.” Cutting through/Trekchö practice involves both formal meditation and everyday life, relating both directly to one’s mind and to one’s experience of and in the world.
The first chapter, The Brilliant Lamp: A Summary of the Crucial Points of Mind Practice, starts by providing the basis of all Buddhist practice, the deconstruction of the doggedly stubborn belief in a self… one’s self. The text leads one skillfully through the various assumptions, gross and subtle, that one maintains to support the pretense that one really exists, the very source of all suffering, and guides one through their deconstruction. The text then addresses the fixation of regarding other/appearance as solid and real, following through the various doctrinal expositions of emptiness, (Cittamatra, Madhyamaka, Mahamudra). It then leaps to the recognition of the nature of mind itself as awareness according to Dzogchen, as pointed out by one’s teacher. And the purity of the world of appearances when seen for what they are free of fabrication, as the expressions of wisdom, the luminosity of the non-dual mind/world. Thus the exposition traverses the entire range of Buddhist view and insight, finally exploring and celebrating the parameters and qualities of non-dual wisdom, enlightenment itself. The chapter ends with a brilliant song, which coalesces the entire range of Dzogchen view and practice into an eloquent, melodic instruction.
The next translation, An Instruction for Khenpo Jigme Drayang, addresses the question of how to maintain meditation in one’s practice and in post-meditation. Here he cites a few of the more traditional antidotes to ego-clinging, then turns to their dismissal with his injunction for a more direct approach. “At this level (the various antidotes to ego clinging) there is no exposition of the crucial point of the path whereby desire or aversion spontaneously subsides in awareness.” He then proceeds to set out how to use ordinary defilements as the path. In the mix of presenting the crucial points of how to do this, he provides what he calls a slight contrast between Mahamudra and Dzogchen, clarifies those shades of approach, then concludes that they are equal in touching the crucial point, “the realization of the truth of the dharmata.” He guides one through various approaches to emptiness and appearance, according to Madhyamaka, Mahamudra and Dzogchen, through distinctions of delusion and reality, and emphasizes the necessity in Dzogchen to distinguish dualistic mind from insight, or the actual nature of mind. Along the way he quotes various lineage pith statements. He skillfully leads one into subtler and subtler levels of non-duality, unconditionality and non-conceptual insight. For instance, at one point he observes, “One may therefore be deluded, but one is deluded in the state of ultimate reality. One may gain liberation, but one does so in the state of ultimate reality.”
Shechen Gyaltsap’s style is precise and skillful, fluidly leading from point-to-point, view-to-view (Shravakayana, Madhyamaka, Yogachara, and so on), meditation experience to deeper meditation experience, yet it does require a strong degree of rigorous attention and prior knowledge of terms and views. It is not necessarily an easy read, but very worth the effort, and as you read through, the effort sharpens itself as the rhythm of the explication unfolds.
The crescendo and conclusion of the chapter An Instruction for Khenpo Jigme Drayang is in introducing the words of, Sherab Yarphel, one of the “thirteen siddhas (completely realized masters) of Shechen.” He is also considered the immediate prior incarnation of Jamgön Kongtrul the Great. This is a treasure within a treasure, like Russian nesting eggs, that continues more thoroughly later in the book (The Teachings of Sherab Yarphel and More from Sherab Yarphel) with rare and indeed perhaps the only words to have survived from this Shechen siddha. Shechen Gyaltsap then folds in instructions from other illustrious Shechen masters. We are being led from whatever fresh and vital contact with contemporary teachers that may have magnetized us to practice and study, to the roots of that freshness in the timeless brilliance of a realized tradition.
The next translated text, A Pith instruction on the Great Perfection for Beginners, is promising in title for a more simple presentation. To some degree that proves true for a few pages, yet at some point, after providing a trove of useful direction for launching into meditation, it dives into a more fruitional treatment of shamatha and vipashyana, from a Trekchö perspective. It seems to be a hallmark of Dzogchen that even the most basic, beginning instruction is infused with the fruition of the entire path, without even trying to do so. The text adds to the mix the utter necessity of devotion to one’s teacher, and to how to practice in sleep. In brief, he follows a trajectory of conceptual meditation opening up to non-conceptual meditation, in which all occurrence, negative or positive, is the expression of wisdom already, needing only to be recognized. It’s a Dzogchen injunction to “get down to brass tacks”
The book continues with Answers to the Questions of Khenpo Jigme Drayang. This is the same Jigme Drayang who elicited the previous exposition with his name attached. The chapter explores the origins of delusions, and their resolution in the recognition of appearances as the expression of primordial wisdom, or “the display of the ground”. This and much of Shechen Gyaltsap’s work reflects and echoes the Aspiration of Samathabhadra, the famed seminal song intoned by the primordial buddha Samathabhadra/Kuntu Zangpo. Not a bad, in fact an all-good, endorsement!
It is worth keeping in mind that if one cannot follow or fathom everything that is being discussed in this display of Dzogchen virtuosity, it may be because the discussion is between two highly accomplished yogi/scholars, and not necessarily made for prime time. (As the texts only record Shechen Gyaltsap’s responses, one can only imagine what the questioner contributed to the exchange!) It is a very subtle and sophisticated communication, worthy of being read several times over. But it does provide the opportunity to fine tune one’s sensibilities and follow the conversation to depth, as far as one is able. Just follow the signs to the primordial ground and reemerge through cognitive potency as the display of self-arisen primordial wisdom, and you will be fine!
Given the fine-tuned and precisely laid out instruction and explanation with which Shechen Gyaltsab lays out the view and path of Dzogchen, he nonetheless admonishes one not to get hooked into intellectual fixation with it all. “One should understand, however, that to entangle oneself in the fetters of the views and meditations—described in intellectual terms in the tenet systems—is to create nothing but difficulty for oneself, like silkworms trapping themselves in cocoons of their own silk.”
Shechen Gyaltsap continues in this vein, leveling direct admonition against the appropriation of Dzogchen practice itself in a conceptual way, even criticizing a distorted approach to the seminal Dzogchen practice of distinguishing sem (dualistic mind) from rikpa (wisdom awareness) if it is approached devoid of inner experience and devotion: “…they claim that it is only when something bad (which they refer to as the ‘ordinary mind’) is eliminated that something clear and limpid called ‘awareness’, or rikpa, will be obtained. And they cling to the luminous and empty state of mind between two thoughts, with mouth gaping and eyes staring into space—their mental sight at the mercy of their wind energies. The end result is that they fail to accomplish the Great Perfection and succeed only in disturbing their life-wind. They do not know—they do not understand—anything!”
Without going into detail, the succeeding chapters of the book consist of shorter pith instructions, which as with the earlier chapters elucidate the view of Dzogchen in fine-tuned synchronization with the experiences and insights of meditation…not as though they were ever separate. Each of the instructions carves further facets onto the diamond of practice and insight. And offers down to earth practical advice, like, “…the so-called transmutation of the five wisdoms is but another way of saying that, by watching the nature of whichever of the five poisons occurs, it will subside. It will vanish, leaving no trace.” (from An Instruction for Yinor) What better advice for how to deal with a klesha attack!
There are some precious jewels in Shechen Gyaltsab’s writing that provide a panoramic clarity about the entire spiritual path as well as demonstrate the substrata of the Ri-mé (non-sectarian) attitude and approach of inclusiveness of all the Buddhist teachings. Not as any attempt to make them all into one, but to include and appreciate the sheer diversity of Buddhist paths and teachings as the vast display of wisdom and skillful means. As observed in The Brilliant Lamp, “Consequently, for a practitioner who has accomplished the Great Perfection, there are no higher or lower vehicles, no swift or slow paths, no virtuous or non virtuous actions, and so on. There are no qualitative differences. Everything is fully included, perfected, open and free, in the state of the single, self-arisen primordial wisdom. This is precisely why it is called ‘perfection’. And because the ground to be realized, the path to be traversed, and the result to be attained are none-other than the self-arisen primordial wisdom, it is ‘great.’ The meaning of the term ‘Great Perfection’ is thus explained.”
These pith instructions join a growing literary and spiritual treasury, translated into Western languages, of teachings which spontaneously arose in direct response to specific people and their questions about how to live, meditate, and understand. Similar works have been made available in recent years from Khenpo Gangshar and the early years of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche in Tibet. And indeed one should recall that the songs of Milarepa were responses to particular people and situations, and not general dharma discourses. These are perhaps the most vital of teachings for their most direct and personally tailored cut of instruction. They are like walking into a room with Shechen Gyaltsap to have a personal interview about one’s practice and life. And though they may have been so personal, precise, and helpful in a particular situation for a particular person, they nonetheless simultaneously link the individual’s disposition and understanding to the entire cosmos of practice, lineage, and realization. They are simultaneously personal and universal, vitally relevant for generations to come…which means the likes of us.
If one is somewhat acquainted with the terminology employed in Dzogchen, the book has two complexions. One is that there are very helpful insertions of some key corresponding Tibetan terms, and ample explanatory end notes. The other is that it would have been very helpful to have a more full-blown glossary of the key Dzogchen terms and their Tibetan equivalents. The translations of more general Buddhist terminology are readily recognizable, such as wisdom, appearance, clinging, emptiness, karma, etc. Yet this translation, and translation group, like so many in the modern West, tweak many specific essential terms in a nuanced way, no doubt with the intention to reflect the meaning of the word in context as precisely as possible. Of course, as Shechen Gyaltsap himself emphasizes, one must pay attention to the specific use and meaning of words within Dzogchen instruction, and not assume any cross reference equivalency with meanings from other views and/or texts that may employ the same words. Take it for what it says in the instruction itself. Yet if one is or will be reading other Dzogchen literature, it would be very helpful to know the shades of language being employed in these particular translations, in the form of a readily accessible glossary. Even if it were to be an online appendix made available to readers. This would, no doubt, also be immensely helpful to those who are newcomers to Dzogchen literature and not familiar with its key expressions.
It would be ridiculous and scurrilous to attempt to paraphrase the lucid, precise, and eloquent language of Shechen Gyaltsap’s direct meditation instructions in a review such as this. Why not read and absorb them for yourself? But as they are so delectable and cut so skillfully to the chase of spiritual practice, here’s one of them as an appetizer, or perhaps as an entire meal:
“The mind should not be focused too strenuously. Instead, the main thing to remember is that if, with respect and devotion to one’s teacher, one can simply leave the ‘plain and ordinary mind of the of the present moment’, the state of fresh awareness, to itself in its natural flow, and if one is able to disregard, without any concern, whatever experiences occur, this itself is the most profound experience of all.”
In this way and in so many ways Shechen Gyaltsap’s teachings in this book elucidate, the Great Perfection is beyond the limitations of doctrine, philosophy, conceptual mind, and speculative interpretation. It is much simpler and more direct than those. In being so much more simple and direct, it gives rise to great brilliance, profundity, insight and eloquence, like meeting Shechen Gyaltsap Pema Namgyal face-to-face.