Q: What do you mean by total saturation?
NN: You cannot enter vajra commitment and believe that there are areas of your life that are not open for scrutiny. You cannot enter vajra commitment if there are aspects of your Lama that you do not enjoy, even though their taste may be different from your own. You cannot take this step thinking that you can just ignore your worries and doubts in the hope that they will go away in time. You have to saturate yourself in the experience of your Lama’s presence display, personality display and life circumstances display. You have to saturate yourself in knowing the human being as a Lama and the Lama as a human being.
You must practice what is taught, follow advice and experiment with allowing the Lama to interfere with your life and your view before entering vajra commitment.
Q: Is it easy for people to misinterpret ‘giving up your rationale’? It doesn’t mean giving up common sense and responsibility…
NN: Giving up common sense and responsibility… [smiles] That of course presumes that we do actually have common sense and are actually able to take responsibility. What if this ‘common sense’ is merely common samsara? Samsara is—after all—the common sense of beings. So maybe we need to trade in common sense for the un-common sense of the Lama? And responsibility – what responsibility can we actually take in an unknown situation? We can take responsibility for listening to the teacher and believing that they can teach us, but if we are in a learning situation which is outside our experience, then we have to give responsibility to the teacher. I have to believe that my Welsh language teacher is really teaching me to speak Welsh – and not some wild and peculiar language full of strange spellings and confusing mutations that they have created to torture me! We naturally have to trust the teacher and surrender to that if we are to learn. If we look at this in ordinary situations, it is not really so alien. In fact it becomes obvious – especially with regard to learning hazardous physical skills.
Anyone who has ever learnt to scuba dive, sky dive, abseil, ski, or ride a horse will have had to trust a teacher well outside the limitations of their own judgment. We may well put our lives in the hands of such a teacher. Yet when we start to talk about the teacher with regard to our spiritual learning, people can tend to become unduly nervous.
In the West there are many people who call themselves Dharma practitioners who wish to neuter the Vajra Master with regulations and rules. They believe that Lamas should only act as spiritual friends10 – teachers who offer spiritual teachings, but who do not interact with the student in the intimate and individual manner of the Dorje Lopön.
The decision to enter vajra commitment is taken after a long period of working with the Lama in a general way. The decision is taken after a sufficient period of time of practice has passed for the student to realise the limitations of their own rationale, so that a desire arises to effect transformation through the reflective relationship with the Lama. There is no coercion to enter vajra commitment; in fact, in the Aro gTér tradition—as it is in the West—there is a tendency to defer this commitment for at least five years. Students have to show a deep and real understanding of what it means, and have to complete various practices and retreats before it is even considered.
Ngak’chang Rinpoche once explained that we are all in vajra commitment to ourselves anyway—to our neuroses—so all we are doing in taking vajra commitment is owning up to that fact and shifting the direction. If I found myself at the controls of a plummeting aircraft and could hand the controls over to a trained pilot – I would be happy to do so! I would naturally—and quickly—have to come to the realisation that I was in grave danger and incapable of flying the aircraft.
Q: So is the process that leads up to vajra commitment long and drawn out?
NN: It is. Technically, Vajrayana cannot function until one is in vajra commitment. Once in vajra commitment, everything changes. It could be like playing a musical instrument – you start to be able to play the tune rather than playing the notes. It is like the difference between a learner driver and an experienced driver, where changing gear and road awareness have become fluid and free.
But… mind you… when you discover vajra commitment, you’re not in the car on your own anymore – and you’re not the only one who has control of the pedals. The Lama might decide to stamp on the accelerator!
Ngakma Shardröl Du-nyam Wangmo told me
about an occasion when she was in a car with Ngak’chang Rinpoche.
He was driving to Cardiff from Bangor in North Wales. They were on a
long stretch of open road when Rinpoche suddenly cried out in horror,
Oh my God! The steering wheel! At that moment he
wobbled the steering wheel up and down as if it had become disengaged
from the steering mechanism. This illusion was easily achieved due
to Rinpoche’s car having an adjustable steering column. Rinpoche
grinned at her after a moment or two, and explained it was merely his
little joke. Ngakma Shardröl said she learnt a lot from that
experience. She thought she would have been frightened of death, but
she said that she was just too shocked to think at all.
Rinpoche has never done anything quite like that with me, so it is not as if you could anticipate things like that happening. Rinpoche plays with my neurosis in other ways. Once we were travelling together to meet a man who had made some drum shells for us. As we approached the place where we were meeting this man, to follow him in his vehicle back to his cottage, Rinpoche told me that there was something I should be aware of. The drum-maker was ‘vertically challenged’ – he was only about five feet tall. Rinpoche told me that this man was rather self conscious about his height and that I should not give any indication that I had noticed he was unusually short. Our drum-maker did not get out of his van when we met him and we drove behind him to his cottage. I remember wondering how he reached the foot pedals of the van and whether he had a specially built up seat, as his head seemed to be at a normal sort of height as he sat in the driver’s seat. I imagined blocks on the pedals and piles of cushions.
When we arrived at the cottage and he finally climbed out of his van, I experienced an extraordinary perceptual confusion. My expectation produced a short man climbing out of his van, who suddenly unfolded into an extraordinarily tall man. In fact our drum-maker was unusually tall!
Thus Rinpoche is different with different people. I have not known him to be wrathful. One of Ngak’chang Rinpoche’s Tsawa’i Lama’s was extremely wrathful, but Rinpoche does not seem to have inherited that.
Q: Is vajra commitment a decision that you make or does it become obvious, a natural progression?
NN: It’s a natural progression that becomes a decision – but you have to make the decision – you can’t just fall into it. You may make the decision internally and work with it for a while before approaching the decision formally, but it must be taken as a formal commitment. That is why in the Aro gTér Tradition in the West we have a long pre-ordained process so that people can experience Vajra commitment without actually having taken the vows. It could be seen as a decision you make after having already made the decision – you allow yourself to be empty in relation to the Lama.
10. Spiritual Friend: Gé wa’i shé-nyèn (dGe ba’i bShes gNyen) (Tibetan), kalyanamitra (Sanskrit) – the rôle of the teacher in Sutrayana.