One of the wonders of Dharma is that the entire path, as a macrocosm, can be expressed and understood through each microcosm of teaching within it.
Every teaching is an exposition of the entire path. When he came to visit Ngak’chang Rinpoche and Khandro Déchen in Cardiff in 1996, Lama Tharchin Rinpoche said that he had known yogis and yoginis in Tibet who had achieved realisation through the practice of the Seven Line Invocation of Guru Rinpoche alone. He was teaching on the subject of this practice – the Dorje Tsigdün1. He wanted Ngak’chang Rinpoche and Khandro Déchen’s students to understand the great wealth of teaching contained within the seven lines.
This, he said
contains all levels of teaching within the three classes of Inner Tantra.
Every method or practice reflects the essence of the entire path. Any teaching can be understood on several different levels – or can be viewed from several differing perspectives. This may remain invisible to us even after years of study, and then suddenly, startlingly, reveal itself through the inspired teaching of one’s Lama. We may suddenly realise that our teacher has departed from a linear presentation and that the topic has mysteriously evolved into a three-dimensional exposition of another facet of Dharma that seemed previously unrelated. To experience a teaching in this way is to become aware of spontaneous lyricism – engaging with the teaching as a subtle musical composition. We may catch a glimpse of the logical yet magical matrix of subtlety which emerges from a single principle. We may discover that the matrix emerging from this single principle is functional rather than mysterious, so that the complete path is revealed in its subtle simplicity.
Many times I have sat in front of my own Tsawa’i Lamas2, Ngak’chang Rinpoche and Khandro Déchen, and experienced their capacity as teachers in this way. I remember once listening to them teaching on the subject of the six realms of being. Ngak’chang Rinpoche was discussing the way in which we may experience the same situation or environment quite differently at particular times in our life. We may find a situation hellish, or like a paradise, depending on our mood or circumstances. As an example, they suggested that the experience of a busy city street could be exciting at one time, but frightening at another, comfortingly busy at one time, but overwhelmingly hectic at another.
Khandro Déchen continued, saying that we may find the busy street rich and interesting, glittering with the clarity of reflective surfaces, vividly fascinating, elaborately varied in the number of differing sights and sounds it offered, or spaciously open.
This expression of five qualities of perception, refers to the qualities of the elements of earth, water, fire, air and space respectively. Hence the teaching had expanded to encompass the dance of the elements within the context of the six realms of cyclic existence. In referring to how perception changes our experience, Ngak’chang Rinpoche and Khandro Déchen were also referring to karma3 as perception and response, and to bardo4 as the experience of the changing moment.
This versatility could appear at first to be complicated and overwhelming. There is magic and mystery in Dharma but only in the way in which language is a mystery to a newborn. A newborn baby has the potential to fully understand language. We can reasonably expect that, in time, infants will master the intricacies and subtleties of their native tongue. By one year of age, children can understand many words spoken to them and speak a few themselves. Continual contact with language gradually enables the magic and mystery of language to unfold as a logical and straightforward system which can be learned.
Similarly there is nothing in Dharma that is beyond human scope. The principles and methods of Dharma do not arise from another world with which we have no contact. I do not have to travel to some other place or develop superhuman powers in order to approach the methods of Dharma and experience their benefits. I already possess all I need to realise my capacity for happiness and freedom from confusion. The magic of Dharma is the sparkling openness that I can discover through engaging with practice. The mystery of Dharma is the subtle adjustment of view through which I can find liberation. Complete release from the constraints of ordinary limited view is made possible through the reflectivity of the Lama.
To give an example of how one’s Lama can offer an alternative, objective view, I recount this story. Opposite the venue for a day of teachings in 2003, was a derelict school with nearly all the windows smashed. As I verbalised my disapproval of the vandalism, Ngak’chang Rinpoche quietly observed that it was pretty skilful stone-throwing that succeeded in smashing the uppermost windows, and that it must have been a satisfying experience. I was jolted into an awareness of the two viewpoints. I allowed these two ‘opposing’ viewpoints to play in my mind, without indulging the need to decide which was the ‘correct’ view. A tantrika5 recognises the naked clarity of energy without limiting it through moralistic or conventional definitions: of ‘misdeed’ for destroying a building or of ‘skill’ for the accuracy of aim. Vajrayana dances with such ambiguity. I was well aware that Ngak’chang Rinpoche was not speaking from a laissez-faire attitude concerning vandalism – but simply offering me the opportunity to become aware of my knee-jerk response to this particular aspect of life circumstances.
1. Dorje Tsigdün (rDo rJe tshig bDun) (Tibetan): The Seven Line Song or the Seven Thunderbolt Phrases of Padmasambhava
2. Tsawa’i Lama (sTrsa ba'i bLa ma) (Tibetan): root teacher
5. Tantrika (Sanskrit): a person who practices tantra.