Eyes, Channels and Dzogchen
Interview with Aro Buddhist lamas
Ngak’chang Rinpoche and Khandro Dechen
Ngak’chang Rinpoche: In sKu-mNyé there is great emphasis on the eyes. This is the case with many practices of Dzogchen. The eyes are kept wide open and unmoving whilst engaged in the exercise, and in the meditation that follows. Sweeping movements of the torso, arms, and legs are quite characteristic; but the most unusual aspect is ‘circling’ the head.
Q: I believe there’s head rotation in Hatha Yoga?
Khandro Dechen: Yes, but the head circling in sKu-mNyé is kept extremely small. If you imagine tracing a circle with your nose – the circumference should not be more than an inch (2.54cm). It’s difficult to keep it that small, because the tendency is to make larger circles. Unmoving eyes in conjunction with circling takes time to perfect, but it’s made easier by the ability to focus in space. Focusing in space needs to be explained. It does not mean going ‘out of focus’. Focusing in space means you are in focus, but that there is no tangible object or surface to act as a reference point upon which your focus rests.
Q: That sounds really quite difficult. I imagine that you would have to spend a long time in training to be able to do that. What purpose does circling have in sKu-mNyé?
KD: There are two active principles involved with circling. Firstly there is the Dzogchen gaze. The method of Dzogchen gazing disorientates the conceptual mind. Secondly, there’s circling. Circling massages the rTsa, the spatial nerves, but it does so through movement rather than through control of the breath. When conceptual mind is disorientated, we become open to perceiving extraordinary experiences, which are released through massaging the rTsa. There are numerous rTsa in the neck that connect with the eyes – so circling activates the rTsa and opens up a subtle dimension of visionary experience at the same time.
Q: So you might start to see in an unusual way?
KD: Possibly, but in terms of Dzogchen the word ‘vision’ applies to all the senses. Initially there would be tactile visions. Then the other sense fields would gradually follow until visual experiences began to occur. It might sound difficult, but anyone can experience their rTsa rLung energy if they have enthusiasm and application. You do have to push through sensations of dizziness and vertigo – but these sensations tend only to arise when you’re not focused in space. Learning to focus in space is crucial to sKu-mNyé, so it’s very important to practise the gaze first. You have to do that in order to keep your eyes from seeking forms upon which they tend to settle.
Q: This must be a valuable aspect of Dzogchen.
KD: Yes. This is something which is central to Dzogchen long-dé. The eyes are important in all the Dzogchen systems. The eyes always relate to what is happening at the level of mind and the nature of Mind. You see, it’s not really the eyes that seek out forms – it’s the conceptual mind that seeks them out. In fact, the conceptual mind seeks out forms through all the senses.
NR: In terms of Dzogchen, we train through the senses and the sense-fields rather than through trying to let go of thought. We learn to fix the senses. We keep the senses unmoving in relation to the external world. We employ the natural phenomena around us to become part of the process that leads to the dissolution of reference points. We accomplish this through the Dzogchen practices of integration with the moving elements: water, fire, and air.
KD: This is because we are always attaching to reference points. We grasp at reference points in order to feel real; but this actually saps the vitality of our being and obscures the vividness of our perception.
Q: So how would I practise this integration with the moving elements, say, with the water element?
KD: You would sit by the sea. Or you would sit by a river. You would focus on the surface detail of the water, so that you saw it very clearly and crisply. You would then fix your gaze. You would achieve that by keeping your eyes from moving. The eye muscles habitually track movements by flicking backwards and forwards along the line of movement. This is what stops everything from becoming a blur when you look out of the side window of a car.
Q: Yes! I’ve seen that! When you look at someone who’s looking out of the window of a car, their eyes dart rhythmically. They seem to hop forward in the direction the car is taking, and then flash back again. And that’s obviously completely unconscious, isn’t it?
KD: Yes. But with sKu-mNyé that habit is brought into consciousness. You become aware of that darting movement, and you continually attempt to freeze it – to fix your gaze. You know when your gaze is fixed because the water blurs – the scenery from the car window blurs.
Q: So you could practise this on the way to work every day.
NR: But it is especially important to remember that the blur is a speed blur and not an ‘out of focus blur’. So, in terms to gazing into the water, the water would blur because your eyes were fixed.
KD: This wouldn’t be because you weren’t focussing on the surface of the water. It would happen because your eyes were not moving. This is a specific of many Dzogchen practices.
NR: The impression you would receive would be like a photograph taken at a slow shutter speed. This is one of the best ways to train in fixing the gaze.
KD: The way to train in focusing in space, in terms of Dzogchen, is to learn to feel comfortable when your eyes have no object of focus. This seems challenging at first, but it is by no means difficult. It is, in fact, easier than learning how to fix the gaze. There is a fairly simple method. You stretch out your arm and focus on your index finger. Then, when you have settled your focus, you lower your arm and maintain the gaze. Every time you find your eyes settling on distant objects, simply raise your arm again and re-focus on your finger. You just keep repeating this process until focussing in space becomes a simple muscular reflex.
Q: Could that ever be bad for the eyes?
KD: [laughs] No, it is actually very good exercise for the eye muscles.
NR: Especially when you develop the ability to fix the gaze and focus in space. In sKu-mNyé you do both at once, so it is good to practise both before attempting circling.
NR: Prana, or rLung in Tibetan, is the subtle breath or ‘spatial wind’ that flows in the ‘spatial nerves’ of the subtle energetic body. These ‘spatial nerves’ or rTsa form a pattern that spreads throughout the body.
KD: There are rTsa all over the body: in the armpits; the ‘elbow pits’; the inside of the wrists; the palms of the hands; between the fingers; the soles of the feet; behind the knees; the inner thighs; the stomach; the neck; and in general, in all the areas described as erogenous zones.
Q: Are rTsa like acupuncture meridians?
KD: Yes, in some ways, but the pattern is sometimes very different from that of the acupuncture meridians, and functions in different ways. sKu-mNyé stimulates the rTsa and causes stagnant rLung to move. When rLung begins to move, people tend to come alive or wake up in surprising ways. To use the analogy of acupuncture meridians, you could say that sKu-mNyé was like a system of acupressure. Rhythmic physical movements affect the meridians, rather than pressure.