Problems with Emptiness, Compassion and Dzogchen
Robert: In all fairness, I have never heard any decent ati yoga instructions (or any worthwhile yoga for that matter) outside of Pemako. Only two exceptions come to mind: texts from historic masters and then that one clip on Pemako channel where Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche does pointing out to the natural state. Having sought them for a long time I think authentic instructions are rare as diamond on the Internet. Seekers and teachers there are plenty but the juice is missing. It's only by own experience I have begun to understand what books and such sources say.
Kim: I searched "meaning of emptiness" in YouTube and found many presentations from both well known and less known presenters. I also checked 3 teachers from dzogchen tradition. Unfortunately, I couldn't find a single excellent explanation about what emptiness is and how is it supposed to be realised. Also, when dzogchen is presented without the understanding of emptiness, it really is very problematic and actually not dzogchen.
I often mention, like many other vajrayana teachers, how hinayana teaching doesn't reach as far as mahayana... but at the same time the fact is that unless the foundation of hinayana level realisation is there, mahayana won't go anywhere, no matter what you try to do. Many presentations of emptiness are always stuck in the same or very similar problems that in the end are of no value when practitioners try to apply the instructions, and this goes on from one generation to the next. This is no good. We can imagine the reaction if teachers in elementary schools had similar problems and couldn't teach kids to read... There would be a quick and loud response from the parents and from the society but somehow these same basic problems just keep continuing in dharma. This actually makes dharma look silly in the eyes of spectators because it doesn't make sense. I'm just saying that there are consequences of bad dharma on many levels, first and foremost the harm to seekers who try and try but are unable to get anywhere because the cooking instructions aren't clear and precise. This never happens in secular education.
Mahayana teaching of emptiness (shunyata) is founded on hinayana anatman (selflessness). Sometimes I use those two terms interchangeably but to be exact there is difference between them both practically and historically.
a seeker comes to dharma, it is, as expressed in Four Noble Truths,
because of existential confusion (dukkha) and wanting to end it with
the help of yogic dharma practice. At that point, when the suffering
is bad enough, you just want to stop feeling so bad all the time.
Therefore, as it is sometimes characterized, the job of hinayana
level practice, is to remove the "gross" selfing from the
mindstream. This happens by opening bhumis 1-6, and then little by
little perfecting them.
According to my own analysis as well as that of the kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism, the end stop of hinayana realisation, known as arhathood, is on the 6th bhumi. To be exact, then the energy system within the physical body is cleared up. This definitely is a significant signpost that every practitioner without exception and regardless of tradition arrives at or passes on the way to full enlightenment - buddhahood. So what happens here is that thoughts and emotions are seen to be selfless, without a solid entity of me or I. In Pemako tradition we have the Two-Part Formula for opening the first bhumi, related to stream-entry of hinayana, and vipashyana meditation instructions together with other practices to get the further bhumis opened, i.e. to get the gross self removed. Well taught and defined practices work like a charm, even though the process itself demands dedication, patience and perseverance from the practitioner.
What, then, exactly is the difference between selflessness and emptiness?
Historically it is a fact that emptiness developed from selflessness from few to several hundred years after Shakyamuni Buddha's time. This happened because practitioners back then started realising that there is more to go than just bhumis 1-6 or arhathood.
A major discovery that they made back then was to realise that after bhumis 1-6 it no longer serves the purpose to practice just for one's own benefit. Those who became arhats and saw how incomplete their attainment still was, figured out that in order to advance further towards complete and full enlightenment, they needed to do something about their motivation. This is how bodhicitta came into the picture. By wanting to attain full and complete enlightenment for the sake of both oneself and everyone else, they realised much more material was suddenly available for them in their own practice. This is how mahayana was born and mahayanis have been at it since.
But... mistakes always creep in into the mix and nowadays it is difficult to find teachers who could explain what emptiness is. This block actually diminishes mahayana to the level, or even lower than, hinayana. Without knowing what selflessness is, one won't understand emptiness either. Cultivation of compassion through bodhisattva vows won't be understood either because there is no wisdom there to support it. It is like trying to build a house of cards on a slippery surface. It is like an airplane that accelerates the turbines but because there are no wheels, it doesn't get anywhere but stays on the runway. This is bad dharma.
Some think that the term "hinayana", lit. lesser or small vehicle is derogatory but it isn't, or I don't use it or see it that way. I'd rather call it "foundational vehicle" rather than lesser but I didn't choose the name of hinayana or mahayana, for that sake.
The difference of selflessness and emptiness cannot be understood without taking bodhisattva vows into one's heart. No matter how much arhats say that selflessness and emptiness are the same, they aren't and they won't see the difference, unless they take bodhisattva vows, i.e. become mahayanis. Why is bodhicitta and becoming a bodhisattva so important?
They are so important because the outgoing care and concern for the existential well being of others, makes the subtle body, i.e. the mind, open up like it doesn't without bodhicitta. Showing genuine concern for others is emotionally mature and is like a secret key to a secret lock that otherwise stays hidden and unopened. This is all made diamond clear by mahasiddhas of the past in their writings.
There is more to mind than thoughts and emotions, in other words, there is more to the subtle body than the energy system inside the physical body. There is the aura! Aura, the energy field between the physical body and the outer edge of the aura, is where bhumis 7-10 are. And that's the field of cultivation of mahayana bodhisattvas. That's where the seeds of the self-based mind are stored, in subtle and very subtle forms, hidden and growing under the lid of the subconscious mind. Because they are so subtle, is the reason why (some modern) arhats say that samsaric cycling "continues" even after arthathood. It continues because only part of the mind has ceased (nirodha) but not all of it. Because it has only partially ceased, is the reason why this type of (partial) liberation is called "abiding in nirvana". If and when the whole self-based mind ceases; in gross, subtle and very subtle forms, the result is very different kind of nirvana, non-abiding nirvana. This kind of nirvana is complete and lacks nothing. The difference between the two nirvanas is like looking at the sky through a a sizable hole (arhat) or without any visual impediments at all. One is complete while the other one isn't.
In terms of vipashyana - analytical insight meditation - there is basically no difference in hinayana and mahayana. It is compassion that is the main and only difference but like I said without the foundation of insight and good theoretical understanding, compassion alone can be a dead end or lead to weird places.
Something that I've also noticed is the lack of understanding of the buddhist vehicles in those who practice and teach dzogchen or mahasandhi, through atiyoga practice.
One common misunderstanding is that rigpa, basic space or buddhanature (synonyms) would be separate from various samsaric functionins of the mind, such as thoughts. This is a really bad misunderstanding and reduces what is supposed to be dzogchen - great perfection - to one type of shamatha meditation which is light years away from great perfection.
Dzogchen is great completion, great perfection. If you have the foundation of selflessness and emptiness, you will see everything from a particular kind of perspective, that of great perfection where all things (phenomena) in the mind are a display of the perfectly awake, fresh, balanced, kind and peaceful nature of mind (buddha) that we are. No thought, emotion or energetical sensation is apart from that but if we don't have that emptiness insight, everything splits into two because this is a samsaric view. In this case, nirvanic mind becomes a safe place to run to, away from the awful constriction and contraction of samsara. Yuk... This is not dzogchen... far from it.
Once the practitioner advances in bhumi perfections from 6 to 7, to 8 and 9, sameness of samsara and nirvana (one taste, same taste) begins to be seen and one matures in the understanding that both the problem (samsara) and solution (nirvana) have the same root and are finally mutually exclusive. This is a stage after arhathood where the "solution" of abiding in nirvana, apart from the rest of samsara, becomes a temporary resting place, until the blowing of internal winds (prana) force the residual karmas to become activated that forces the yogi in question to look beyond arhathood or bhumis 1-6.
If one doesn't grow into the insight of the sameness of samsara and nirvana, there is no chance of understanding dzogchen and it will be reduced merely to shamatha - calmness practice. This is a great mistake and therefore practitioners, first and foremost teachers, need to contemplate what they are doing and try to accomplish through dharma. Let us try to see through the lackings and problems of methods. We need to remain unyielding in our efforts until great perfection, full buddhahood, is attained. Especially, if we are vajrayanis, nothing less won't do.
We need to strive and do our outmost to fulfill those bodhisattva vows. We aren't supposed to spend lifetime after lifetime in practice, starting all over in many lives, and be stuck with the basics over and over. We are supposed to grow and stand on our own feet! We are really and actually supposed to get fully liberated through the teachings of mahayana emptiness, tantra and dzogchen. Make up your mind and finish what you started. Reach the finish line and fulfill your vows.
Because I have given all the exact practices for each stage with clear intructions, my students have no excuse. If you are happy with less, then so be it, but when it comes to the method, everything necessary is there so all you need to do is to apply.
I have written this little piece to try to help people of dharma with their problems.
May the modern world be filled with buddhas in the human form, especially in cities... May you realise that you are a buddha, not a sentient being.