Compassion & The Nine Yanas

Ngak’chang Rinpoche

at San Francisco Shambhala Centre, February 1997

Part I – Oneself as the Basis

There is a book by Kyabjé Kalu Rinpoche with the most appropriate title I have ever seen. It is called ‘The Dharma’. Now, ‘Dharma’ is a word I rarely use. I rarely use this word because I have too much respect for it to make an adjunct of it. I usually use the word Buddhism when I talk about the religion to which I belong. But Dharma is not actually a thing – it means ‘as-it-is’. Dharma means ‘reality’ – so I use the word with caution. ‘Dharma’ could actually be the title of every Buddhist talk, and the title of every Buddhist book. In a sense we have no need to sell Dharma with descriptive titles, and the reason we do so is in order to express and communicate the particular manifestation of Dharma we represent as Dharma teachers.

I belong to the Nyingma School. It is the oldest school of Buddhism in Tibet. It is not really a ‘school’ in the sense in which Sakya, Kagyüd, and Gélug are schools – it is a school by virtue of the fact that these other schools arose at a later date. Nyingma is simply the Buddhism which arrived in Tibet with Padmasambhava, and which was continued by Yeshé Tsogyel and the disciples of Padmasambhava. There are 25 disciples who are well known, Yeshé Tsogyel and twenty four male siddhas – but there are also 21 female siddhas. The female siddhas are less well know, but their accomplishments rival those of the male siddhas and in several cases surpass them in their outrageous quality. Nyingma, or Nga’gyür Nyingma, means ‘Old Translation School’. It is called ‘Old Translation School’ because there arose the three ‘New Translation Schools’. The idea of ‘school’ is more like family style. There is no great difference between the schools; but they all have their own style of presenting and organising Dharma. What is important is how one can actually apply Dharma within one’s life.

Within the Nyingma School, there are two strands of practice. One is monastic and the other non-celibate. The non-celibate sangha is call the gö-kar-chang-lo’i-dé. Khandro Déchen and I are members of the gö-kar-chang-lo’i-dé. There are many ways of describing these sanghas. Often they are spoken of as the two divisions of the sangha of ordained practitioners (dGe bDun gyi sDe nyis). In this way of explaining there are ‘the renunciates with shaved heads’ or ‘the division of Vinaya’ (‘dul ba’i sDe), and ‘those with uncut hair and white skirts’ (gos dKar lCang lo’i sDe) or ‘the division of Mantra’ (sNgags kyi sDe). Both are distinguished from the sangha of ordinary individuals the soso’i kyé-wo gendün (so so’i sKye bo’i dGe ‘dun).

There are few things in life that irritate me; but the word ‘lay’ is one. I would like to define what is meant by ‘lay’. When I became aware of this word’s usage with regard to the white sangha, I looked it up in American and English dictionaries; then I asked French and German people what this word meant in their dictionaries. It was interesting that it was all the same definition: The word ‘lay’ meant not of the clergy, non-professional, an amateur. To have someone like Düd’jom Rinpoche or Dilgo Khyentsé Rinpoche described as a ‘lay’ master is bizarre. In the Nyingma School, and also in the Kagyüd and Sakya Schools, you had people who were both monastic – that is, they were celibate ordained people, you had white sangha members who were ordained but non-celibate, and then you had people who were non-ordained but who were high level practitioners, whom you could not categorise as non-professional or amateur in any way.

There are many different ways of practising. I am ordained into the white, or ngak’phang sangha. In Tibetan, ngak means mantra. Phang means hurling or throwing. In Sanskrit it is mantrin / mantrini. This is a non-celibate ordination. Another word for this lineage of ordination is gö-kar-chang-lo’i-dé. Gö-kar is white skirt; chang-lo is long-hair. This is a different ordination in outer appearance to the monastic ordination, because we do not have shaven heads. We wear the same shape of robes, but it is in different colours.

From the point of view of Sutra the hair is shaven off. In Hindu culture hair is a mark of defilement; it is something put out by the body. As a symbol of cutting off defilement, the hair is shaven off. In Tantra, because Tantra is the path of transformation, the hair is left uncut; the defilements are worn as an ornament. This is an important principle of Tantra. The idea is that however we are, whatever style of neurosis we have is intimately connected with our enlightened state – because it is our enlightened state. If I am an angry person, a sad person, a greedy person—whatever style of neurosis I have—is simply a distortion of the realised state. It is not something other than the realised state. It does not fall into the category of evil—that which is opposed to that which is good—that is totally different, disconnected. However we are, we are connected with the realised state. Whatever the degree of distortion, the energy there in its pure form is always the realised state. As a symbol of this in the ngak’phang sangha we leave the hair uncut.

The tube that is worn in the hair is called a takdröl. Takdröl means ‘liberation on wearing’. It is a representation of the presence of one’s teacher; and it is given when someone begins to teach in this tradition. It is part of the symbol of wearing the defilements as an ornament – so the hair is wrapped round it, and it is tied up on top of the head. The ngak’phang sangha, then, owes its origin to the Tantras and holds to the Tantric vows. It does not hold to the Sutric vows, in terms of how one regulates one’s life, as does the monastic ordination.

I remember being at a Buddhist conference, and there they were talking about the white sangha, or yogis and yoginis, as being half way between lay and monastic; as if that were the polarity. This had never been the case. This is a modern contrivance in Western languages. Ordination in terms of white sangha means that one is a Tantric practitioner. It is a different style of ordination, which is not half-way between anything and anything. The whole half-way-between idea is completely artificial.

It is important that in the West, if we are to practise, we need to have an idea of ourselves as people who are taking something seriously. If the only way we can take something seriously is to be a monk or a nun, then we have to adjust to the idea that we are not taking it seriously. Now, if you are not taking this seriously, why are you engaging with these teachings? Or why are you not thinking of becoming a monk or a nun? If you do not have this idea, then you have to look at what all that means. For me it is important that people have an idea that they are practitioners; not second-rate or second-class practitioners because they are not celibate. They are practitioners and that is the way they are practising. That is crucial. This is also connected with the word bodhicitta, or active-compassion. The principle here is that one’s practice is integrated with one’s life.

Buddhism as Method in Relation to the Yanas:

We come from a culture that looks at religion as truth; there has got to be right and wrong with truth. For some people, that causes a lot of problems with Buddhism – Buddhism is 99% method. When we look at Buddhism from a Judæo-Christian perspective, we have a problem: There cannot be different truths; otherwise you have to redefine what is meant by truth. That is a definition of yana – how we redefine truth. If there are different truths, then we have to say: What does that mean? Who are they true for? As soon as you get to that point, then you are discussing yana.

That is important: Buddhism is method; it is a way of realising truth. The expression is not necessarily truth in itself – it is not ‘the word’ as written that is truth. Everything within Dharma is a sign-post to that, something that helps you find that. But ‘the Dharma’ can never be expressed. If you look in the Sutras, you will find that Shakyamuni Buddha said: I never taught the Dharma. The Dharma is non-existent. Apart from looking at that as some highly profound statement that one cannot understand, one can look at this as an expression of method. However Dharma is expressed, it is simply a method from which one can realise Dharma.

It is only in recent times that we have had dictionaries. Words shift in meaning all the time. When I was young, there was this idea of ‘slang’. There was real language—the language of the dictionary—and then there was slang or local usage, which was not really respected. Now you can find words such as ‘hassle’ in the dictionary. It always occurred to me that if someone understood the meaning of the word, then it was a word and you could use it. It had a meaning.

If you look at the dictionary and see what words mean, and then you see how people use them, they are different. The word ‘share’ for example. This is an interesting word. When someone said: I would like to share something with you, I always took this to mean that they had something valuable and were going to give me a bit of it – their sandwich, their pork pie, their bottle of beer, whatever. But, no! I was wrong. The real meaning of the word ‘share’ seems to be: I have got some stupid idea that I want to bend your ear with for half an hour. The real meaning seems to be ‘take’ – I want to take your time with my idea. I hear: Let me share something with you, and I think: No! You are too generous! You keep it! Far be it from me to take your great idea. That is interesting – how words shift.

Because words change in meaning, Dharma always has to be re-expressed. There cannot be a fixed Dharma in terms of what is expressed. That is why there is always a problem in courts of law, if a Buddhist has to swear on something. The extent of what you would have to swear on would take up the entire courtroom – because there is so much Dharma, and it gets bigger all the time. There is no book that you can say: This is it – it is all contained here. Or you simply could have the letter A—you could swear on the letter A—it could be the same thing.

Dharma expands all the time; because wherever there is misunderstanding, there is more Dharma. That is the whole idea – that Dharma continues to be re-expressed all the time, in the language that people understand, in terms of how they can integrate that into their experience. Expression—how a teaching is given—is based on understanding. How a person understands, what their vocabulary is—what these words mean in terms of their connotations and implications, their colour and texture—is all part of how one works with a person. This is also connected with yana.

Accepting Oneself as the Basis:

Question: You mentioned neuroses and negative behaviour. Do you feel it is better to allow oneself to exhibit negative behaviour? That it makes it easier to look for enlightenment…? How do you feel about behaviour modification – modifying negative or unpleasant behaviour?

Ngak’chang Rinpoche: Here we are not talking about behaviour; we are talking about what is arising internally. It is obviously useful that one modifies one’s behaviour – that is really not in question. The principle of Tantra is not to advocate that one ‘acts out’; but that one accepts oneself – as the basis. However you are is the perfect basis from where you travel. You have to start from where you are; you cannot start from anywhere else. It is important that one respects the base; and the base is what I am. If I have anger, then that is part of my base – I have to work with that. I cannot go into denial about being an angry person – I cannot pretend that I am not angry, that I am not always irritated. I have to accept that about myself. I cannot try to be a ‘spiritual’ person, and enter into pretence about myself. I have to be simply what I am, and work with that. It is not that I validate my own behaviour in some way. It is important that one regulates one’s behaviour. If you do not regulate your behaviour, then you are completely out of control; and that is not useful. That is a whole different area – to accept what I am; to say: Right, now I have to look at why I am what I am. Where is this coming from?

That is the issue of embracing emotions as the path, which is central to Tantra. It is more the Sutric way to modify what I am feeling: if anger is arising, then I will cultivate compassion, in order to modify this feeling of anger. But in terms of Tantra, the approach is different. The approach there is to acknowledge this energy within myself, and to enter into some form of practice – not to negate that anger, but to experience it in its nondual state. Anger, for example, in its nondual state is described as clarity. Embracing emotions as the path is a whole discussion in itself.

The Confusion of Psychology and Buddhism:

The other part of what you were asking deals with an area that I think is quite crucial – that is the confusion of psychology and Buddhism. They share various interests, but they are not the same; nor are they part of the same paradigm. One has to have a clear idea of which is which – what their aims are, what they deal with. Part of understanding yana is to have a healthy respect for psychotherapy, to understand what task it performs for human beings and to value it within its own sphere; and then to value Dharma within its own sphere. If one confuses them, it becomes problematic.

Psychology, from certain points of view, is about integrating oneself into the social norm. I know that does not comprise the totality of psychology and psychotherapy; but that would be a generalisation that one could make. Dharma is not necessarily about doing that – Dharma is not necessarily about becoming a happier person. It is about understanding the nature of reality; it may not always be about finding oneself in a better integrated position.

Q: Is there a relationship between Jungian psychology and the process of individuation, and the process of realisation?

R: I am a-Freud I am too Jung to know about that. I have been waiting for years to say that [laughs]. I cannot say too much about individuation. Freud’s concept of oceanic experience, with regard to the infant, is interesting. Psychology is a language, a set of terminology, that Buddhism can find useful; I find various modes of expression through that. Trungpa Rinpoche was the first Lama who started using the word ‘neurosis’ as a term. Obviously there is a relationship between the two; but one has to be careful of it, and not take one for the other.