While sorting through files in an attempt to organize important documents and records into a file for survivors, recommended as best practice for life's-end preparation in a newspaper article, I serendipitously came across some email messages from April of 1998 (slightly more than 20 years to the date of this writing!). They comprised an inquiry into Dzog Chen by one of my senior students at that time, and included a copy of Dzog Chen and Zen, published record of a 1981 lecture at UC Berkeley by Professor Namkai Norbu Rinpoche. Serendipitous because his life story was the subject of a film I recently co-hosted at the Plaza Cinema here in Atlanta, My Reincarnation. I have commented on the film in recent posts, and recommend it highly to anyone who is interested in Tibetan Buddhism in general. I chose to invert the title for this piece, as a point of emphasis.
After seeing the film, and discussing it at length with a couple of co-hosts from the Atlanta community of Dzogchen practitioners and followers of Norbu Rinpoche, my curiosity about Dzogchen was rekindled. I had read that Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk famous for interfaith dialog and social activism, investigated Dzogchen toward the end of his life. I am given to understand it to be the most direct of all Tibetan systems.
Reading Dzog Chen and Zen, I came to a clearer understanding, I think. I also think that Norbu Rinpoche does not understand, or present, Zen, in the way that I think I do. So I will attempt to clarify some of my poor understanding by quoting from the text (translated from the Italian), and comment based on my personal experience. (The book is available from Blue Dolphin Publishing, ISBN 0-931892-08-2.)
In the preface, Dr. Kennard Lipman emphasizes the importance of the relationship of Zen and Zogqen [Wylie romanization] in the West:
Understanding the relation of the Zogqen system to Zen is very much a contemporary issue. In the West, the Tibetan and Zen forms of Buddhism continue to be the most widespread forms to be seriously practiced. This is no accident, for both Zogqen and Zen have managed to maintain some semblance of vitality despite many centuries of decline of Buddhism in Asia. This is due, at least in part, to the fact that both are "direct," non-gradual approaches to the Buddhist teaching, and represent in this sense the culminations of Tantric and Sutric Buddhism, respectively.Following this, Dr. Lipman goes into some detail on distinctions between gradual and non-gradual approaches in the Indian and Chinese sutric (based on sutra) traditions, the tantric (based on tantras) tradition of Tibet, and finally the Zogqen system (based on self-liberation). In a nutshell, the gradual approach holds that a step-by-step process of eliminating obstacles to the truth eventually leads to insight, whereas the non-gradual approach, through a meditative practice such as zazen, can lead immediately and directly to understanding: "Here, in this directness, lies the similarity between Zen and Zogqen." The editor also makes mention of the idea that the sutric approaches, sudden or gradual, always imply the exercise of renunciation, a subject we have treated elsewhere and will return to herein. Tellingly, the style of Zen referred to is the Mahayana monastic model.
The back of the book explains that "Namkai Norbu Rinpoche is a Tibetan lama who...has conducted retreats throughout Europe and the united States, giving instruction in Dzog chen (sic) practices in a non-sectarian format."
This, I think, is part of the charm and attraction of Dzogchen for Westerners, including those who co-hosted the screening. One related that she had been a practitioner of Zen before turning to Dzogchen. Part of the shift was the loss of her connection with her Zen teacher, from a Korean lineage, but she also mentioned that Zen requires sitting in zazen, a special form that Dzogchen does not consider necessary.
Ordinarily, I would interpret this as a result of the common resistance to zazen, which can be quite demanding, once the novelty wears off. But this person is a long-time serious student, and a tough cookie as well, in my estimation. So I interviewed her about this decision, to get a more complete understanding of what inspired her to pursue Zogqen over Zen, as I think the reasons may be as important to other students of Zen as to myself.
One curious difference — a Dzogchen master initiates the student before they enter into training, details of ceremony not known to me. In Zen, we encourage the novice to begin practicing now, and ask questions and undergo ceremonies later, a 180-degree reversal. Zen's pedagogy is based upon the premise (historicity aside) that Buddha's insight came through his practice of meditation, not based upon what he had learned before, let alone dependent upon the intervention of a teacher. Of course, Prince Siddhartha studied and practiced many traditions and disciplines leading up to his awakening as Shakyamuni, all of which he rejected, if we are to believe the story. The other dimension of this difference is that in Zen, the relationship to a true teacher is valued as necessary to the process. But it is not co-dependent, and not as devotional as apparently in the Tibetan model.
(A caveat here: my references to Tibetan or Dzogchen practices are necessarily contextual, and based upon my first scanty impressions. They are not meant to imply that I presume to know what they mean to the practitioners of Dzogchen. I primarily wish to use some points about Dzogchen to act as a foil to clarify Zen practice, with which I am more familiar, as an American lay priest. I believe that engaging in respectful dialog to elicit commonalities and differences may be important to some students of Zen, who may know as little as I do about Dzogchen, but may share my curiosity.)
There are several clarifying statements in the book, which I think reveal commonality with Zen, more than differences. Rinpoche explains that Zogqen finds its provenance at least as much in Bon, the ancient, indigenous religion of the Tibetan region, as it does in Buddhism, which appeared much later. And the deeper point that the central teaching of Buddhism is not something that can belong to a single school or sect, but is something primordial that any human being can discover:
This is something that is very important for us to look at. First of all, as regards the Zogqen teaching, there is no importance given to whether it is Buddhist or not. What is most important is to know whether the Zogqen teaching is, or is not, a key for transcending our limited, dualistic condition.In Zen Buddhist circles, we say, "Spit when you say Buddha" for this very reason. The truth that Zen points to has nothing to do with such a label. The only importance of Zen or Buddhism is in its meditation and approach to daily life, and whether or not that method leads efficaciously to personal, direct insight. He goes on to clarify the dilemma that naming Zen or Zogqen anything at all creates — a comparative competition of sects:
This has nothing to do with methods that are particularly Bonbo... or whatever, but rather a principle of the Zogqen teaching. Nor is it something necessarily limited to Zogqen, but could be true of other teachings. For example, when we speak of Buddhists in general, we have to understand that all the limitations of schools are created by men... But as for the principle of teaching, we know, for example, that Buddha never created any schools. Man does not understand this. A human being has limits. And thus in every conceivable way, with every possible means, he tries to make the teaching enter into his own limits.This is certainly true of the adherents of Zen, particularly in my experience promulgating Soto Zen in the West. People want Zen to conform to their view, not the other way around. Again, Buddha, himself, was not a Buddhist. What he discovered did not have a name, did not comprise a school, and is not limited by anything other than human ignorance and arrogance. Another, rather startling statement brought a smile to my face:
One must not think that Zogqen is like a book that is written first in such and such a place. We find, for example, in one of the tantras of Zogqen, it is said that the Zogqen teaching is found in thirteen different solar systems. How can we possibly think that Zogchen originated in a given country and is the result of happenings in that particular location?This rather startling declaration, that this principle and practice can be found in thirteen different solar systems, begs the fantastical questions — How do we know this? and Which ones are they, and where?
Of course, in chanting the Bussorai (lineage names of Buddhas and Ancestors), which begins with the six prehistoric Buddhas, we are already participating in what is beyond our ken to know for sure. Further, in the introduction to several of the recorded Sutras, the narrator states, without embellishment or explanations, that all the buddhas and bodhisattvas of all the other worlds would gather and appear to hear the teaching of Shakyamuni, along with gods, devas, asuras, and so on. Blithely ignoring these repeated assertions, or relegating them to some proto-Indian culture as accretions meant to get the undivided attention of the audience of the day, nonetheless we are clearly entering into some sort of final frontier of science-fiction-like vistas.
The main point is consonant with my understanding of Buddhist truth, sutric or tantric: that this spiritual awakening originated with Shakyamuni Buddha in the historic sense only. The potential for awakening (the root of buddha is bd, "awake") is regarded as innate, not dependent on circumstance, and independent of spacetime. Thus, six prehistoric Buddhas and counting. And the "thousand buddhas" of the ten directions.
A fundamental bifurcation of the tantric from the sutric approaches posits in the former the lack of a single, coherent doctrine, and an emphasis on world-embracing, householder practice in tantra. In the latter, the associated doctrine of renunciation implies an emphasis on world-denying, monastic practice of the solitary monk as its ideal. This is where my understanding of Zen, differing with the latter description, parts company with that indicated in this talk. Which may historically accurate, but is clearly out-of-date.
For Zen, as we practice and propagate it today, is very much a lay practice, embracing and supporting the householder lifestyle, and the social engagement of its practitioners. It is not, however, a secular crusade to save the world in the usual sense of achieving world peace, feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, et cetera, though those forms of charity are more or less predictable outcomes of the adaptation of Buddhist Precepts by society.
Zen as I know it has nothing to do with renunciation of the physical or social sort, i.e. denying the reality and/or the importance of daily life. While we can find reference to the life of a monastic as being the ideal model, as recently as in Master dogen's writings of the 13th Century, we must recognize, that as Rinpoche points out, "The schools of Zen Buddhism, Theravada, Tantrism, or Zogqen may be presented in diverse fashions, but these diverse ways of presenting the teaching each deal with different individuals and what these individuals feel, think, and believe." Zen adapts to contemporary needs.
For Dogen's students, for example, it may have been true that the simplified life of a monastic was indeed the best of skillful means, centered on zazen, available to them at the time. And it may be true for many modern-day practitioners. But Zen is for everyone. If it cannot be assimilated into day-to-day lives and responsibilities of all, what good is it? Dogen, like Ancestors preceding and following, had high praise for householders who maintained the buddhadharma. And we feel lay practice to be the future of Zen. It is not limited to those who can afford to retire from life and enter the monastery. Back to text.
In recalling the apparent historical conflict between the Indian gradualism of Kamalasila, and Mahayana Ch'an Buddhism, as represented by Master Haxan, arising from a famous debate at the council of Lhasa, Norbu Rinpoche explains that the principle expounded by Haxan, who "lost" the debate, is highly consonant with Zogqen:
Their principle is something very simple. If one does not have thoughts, for example, then the object of thought does not exist. If there is no object, then there is also no thought. That is to say, both are relative. But when both are relative you find yourself in the absolute condition. This is not a way of proceeding through a method of reasoning which seeks to define or carry one to nothingness, sunyata. But in the non-gradual approach one attempts to find oneself through practice, experientially, in the non-dual, and this is what they meant by finding oneself in a state undisturbed by thought, which is the genuinely absolute truth or condition. In fact, the system of Haxan insisted a great deal on this concept; he explained that if one finds oneself in such a condition, then one has no need of a teaching, or a method, or a rule at all. Note: if one finds oneself in that condition. Then, he continues, if one finds oneself in that condition and a thought arises, good and evil are the same thing. He gives the example of a white cloud and a black cloud being the same thing in regard to covering the sun.It would be difficult to find a more cogent, coherent description of the practice of zazen and its effect than the first part of this quote. It is very similar to the principle of non-thinking expounded by Master Dogen. Where Zen would differ is that finding oneself in this absolute condition is not, as may be read into the text, a matter of understanding this principle intellectually. It is not simply a matter of changing one's mind. This is where the practice of Zen's central method, zazen, or shikantaza, comes into play. And this seems to be a main point of divergence between the prescribed skillful means of Zen and those of Zogqen. I find no mention of practice of intensive meditation beyond the preface. There are some references to visualization later on in the lecture, however.
The repeated mention of principle suggests a result of practice, but the method of practice is not made clear, other than reference to various tantras, or teachings, in history. In Zen today, practice usually indicates zazen, or some form of meditation, usually involving physical posture, not just mental exercise. In Bodhidharma's time, practice connoted the observance of precepts and other teachings in daily life, while the practice of meditation, termed analysis, was something like zazen, but involved the direct analysis of whether or not the teachings of Buddhism were manifest in one's direct experience.
At least back to Bodhidharma, who is credited with bringing the direct form of Zen to China in the 500s, Zen's lineage Masters have not asserted a causal link between seated meditation and Buddhist awakening. Zazen is not simply a means to the end of insight. Bodhidharma was even said to have said that one does not actually have to do zazen; all one has to do is "grasp the vital principle." Which sounds identical to the essential Zogqen principle. However, he and every other heir to the lineage practiced zazen assiduously. So how are we to understand this seeming contradiction?
Finding oneself in the non-dual state (bodhi- or buddha-mind) cannot be proven to be an effect of zazen. Otherwise, to sit in zazen would be to experience awakening, and many do not. We believe this is primarily because most quit too soon, owing to disappointed expectations. But nonetheless, we cannot argue for the causal connection. However...
Grasping the vital principle is a physical, physiological, process. In order to transcend the limitations of ordinary mind, we must endure disintegration, and reintegration. It is a natural, and lengthy process. This is where Zen comes down on the side of gradualism.
Zazen is not a method for attaining enlightenment, or bringing about spiritual awakening. It does not add anything, no new or secret knowledge, nor does it change anything in reality. It is more a subtractive process than an additive one. It allows us the time and intense attention to detail of consciousness itself, that leads to dropping away opinion, our ego-centered world view, vain intellectualism, and eventually body-mind completely.
This should inform the resolution of any perceived conflict between Zen and Zogqen. If a master, such as Norbu Rinpoche, can bring about insight through sheer force of presence and personality, or through speaking and other skillful means, more power to him. But for most, we believe the practice of zazen is necessary to set the stage for insight.
It is not necessary, according to Zen, to renounce one's life in the material sense. There is not necessarily any value in leaving the household life, giving up normal livelihood and the accoutrements of society, in a vain effort to penetrate to the truth of Zen. It may not hurt, and may be recommended for some cases, at least in the short term. Sanctuary from the distractions and temptations of normal social living can be helpful, and is a natural extension of the kind of withdrawal process that sets in when one does zazen.
But obsession with physical renunciation misses the broader point, especially in lay Zen.
Renunciation in Zen is not of this kind. Physical renunciation of a monk or nun, consisting in leaving the lifestyle and surroundings of the family and friends, hearth and home, and the broader community in general, is regarded as only the outer manifestation of true renunciation. There are many recorded examples of monastics who had the look of outer renunciation, but secretly were inwardly still attached to their heritage, family name and inheritance, and so on. This is the "inner monk-outer monk" contradiction.
Others have been able to do that kind of renunciation, but unable to release their hold on their physical health, mental comfort, and emotional comfort for the sake of their practice. Still others, who may manage this kind of extreme renunciation, cannot give up their own clinging mind, the very opinion that insists upon this obvious renunciation.
A certain bias in Norbu Rinpoche's understanding of Zen, understandable because based upon a traditional monastic model, rather than the contemporary lay practice model, is evident in the section of the talk following the last quote:
On this point Zogqen teaching is very similar to that of the Chinese Ch'an Buddhists. In the Zogqen teachings, too, there exists this same explanation of the relativity of good and bad. But this does not mean in Zogqen that one renounces or rejects the relative condition. As I said, if you find yourself in this absolute condition; but if you do not find yourself in this condition, you obviously do not just neglect relative matters. Thus, one can understand that the principle method of Zen is a way to find yourself in the absolute condition. This principle is a common element between Chinese Buddhism and Zogqen. But you must not therefore think they are one and the same thing. You must never forget that the two methods are different. We have already spoken of one as the way of self-liberation and the other as the path of renunciation. Fro the beginning, in principle, these two methods are very different.Master Dogen's instructions in Fukanzazengi, to think of neither good nor evil, right or wrong, during zazen, capture the essence of this relative-versus-absolute-truth principle. But it is only in the most superficial way that renunciation can be regarded as the essence of the path of Zen. It may be said of Buddhism in general, but Zen transmits the practice and direct insight path of Buddhism into the 21st Century, and around the globe. If it were the path of renunciation, it would find little acceptance in today's societies.
True renunciation is inseparable from this principle that Norbu Rinpoche is pointing to, as the epitome of Zogqen praxis, Self-liberation. True renunciation is seeing through this existence — the skandhas, the senses — to the underlying emptiness, sunyata. At this extreme, the seeming differences in Zogqen and Zen evaporate into the same emptiness. Like Haxan's white cloud and black cloud, parting to reveal the light of the sun. This may be tantamount to Norbu Rinoche's principle of "self-perfectedness":
From the point of view of Zogqen, however...the principle is that of self-perfectedness. Self-perfectedness means that the so-called objective is nothing else than the manifestation of the energy of the primordial state of the individual himself. An individual who practices Zogqen must possess clear knowledge of the principle of energy and what it means. The principle of Zogqen is the self-perfectedness, the already-being-perfect of every individual.Here, I can find no substantive difference in principle, as in Zen, the buddha-nature that is discovered, recovered, or uncovered in practice must inevitably be this same true self, in essence perfect. It is the getting there that is where the difference lies.
I would be interested in hearing from any followers of Norbu Rinpoche, who I understand is currently on a tour of the West, as well as any interested practitioners of Zen, who may shed some light on my admittedly limited familiarity with Zogqen. I am not very comfortable with Zen being presented in this light, which I feel will result in more confusion than clarity, as regards its modern interpretation and implementation in the West. Meanwhile, please continue with your practice, whatever form it may take.