The Thunder of the Heavenly Drum — On the Great Perfection
Translator Note: This article was originally published in Chinese in “The Teaching of Living and Dying” (生與死的禪法) by Master Tam. Taipei: Buddhall Publishing House, 2005. For those who are interested, you can read Tam’s recent article on the Einstein Archives, which makes a good companion piece to the current article.
In the last few decades, Nyingma’s Buddhist teaching from Tibet, the Great Perfection (Dzogchen) became popular. Many Nyingma centres were established in Europe and America. Even in Asia, there were many centres purportedly Nyingma, rushing in to present the teaching of the Great Perfection and its practice.
Interestingly, even ordinary Tibetans have become enamoured by this trend. There is a mall on Toronto’s Yonge street (the busiest street in Toronto). To cater to the lifestyle of the Chinese community nearby, this mall is open for business until 11 at night. In one of the stores, the owners hired twelve Tibetans, and they are all very friendly. In conversation I found out that they were practitioners of Kagyu and Gelug Schools of Tibetan Buddhism. And yet, they all claimed to be learning from a lama in the Nyingma tradition. “We want to learn Dzogchen,” said one. “Even Dalai Lama practices Dzogchen,” said another.
The Great Perfection! This Buddhist teaching is like a storm that swept the whole world, it has become a spiritual refuge. Studying Nyingma’s teaching has become fashionable for scholars in Europe, North America and Japan. I cannot help but be reminded of a prophecy by Padmasambhava: “When iron wings roam the sky, my teaching will spread across the world, but this is also the time when the teaching will be destroyed. What remains as authentic hangs on like a golden thread.” This prophecy was passed on generations by generations and it appears to have come true now.
What made popular the teaching of the Great Perfection can be traced back to January 1987 when Nyingma’s Dudjom Rinpoche (1904–1987) passed away in a French village near Paris. His passing away sent a shock wave among Buddhist scholars in Europe and America. Tibetans took pride in the event.
Dudjuom Rinpoche passed away in a seated meditative pose. After his death, a rainbow light emanated from his body, while his body became smaller and smaller. This phenomenon is documented in Nyingma’s scriptures as “the attainment of rainbow body.” Many considered this a myth at first, but now to be able to witness in person, all of a sudden, the little French village was flooded with at least 8,000 people.
At that time, a disciple of Dudjom Rinpoche, the King of Nepal, decided to build a temple for the preservation of the body. He called for Dudjom Rinpoche’s senior disciples to join in a collective prayer, praying for the body to not shrink any further. Then, I just moved to Hawaii, I also received the call. I promptly proceeded to practice “Guru Yoga.” By the fourth day, it was said that the seated body had shrunk to about two feet high and it was no longer shrinking.
After a year, the temple was built. The body was placed in a sandalwood box, decorated with five layers of colourful satin, and was transported from France to Nepal. During the year in France, the body did not decay. It was said that rainbow light occasionally emanated from the body.
The death of this great guru has stimulated the yearning for the teaching of the Great Perfection. When the attainment of rainbow body is no longer in doubt, no one would question Nyingma’s teaching, let alone its practice.
But what kind of teaching is the Great Perfection?
This teaching is not something foreign to Buddhist practitioners. This teaching shows up in scriptures as “the teaching of non-duality.” It is also called “the teaching beyond comprehension.”
In the Chinese translation of the Buddhist canon, one famous text is called Vimalakīrti-nirdeśa (“The Teaching of Vimalakīrti”). In China, there are a total of seven different translations, the earliest one was translated by a Han monk called Yan Fudiao (嚴佛調) in 188 AD. The central character is Vimalakīrki. Nyingma considers him a lineage master and what he presented is exactly the teaching of non-duality.
The dissemination of this teaching and its meditative practice began with Garab Dorje (55–?) and continues generation by generation. His disciple, Mañjuśrīmitra, had for a long time resided in Mount Wutai in China, so he had to be a monk who travelled from Xiyu (Central Asia) to China in the early part of Eastern Han dynasty (25–220 AD). A Tang monk by the name of Huixiang also documented that since the Han dynasty, Mount Wutai was a residence for monks “from foreign lands.” Mañjuśrīmitra was most likely one of them.
About Vimalakīrti, he is a legendary character in Buddhist texts. He was a merchant from the town of Vaīśalī. He had wives and servants, living a life of luxury. He was often found visiting gambling dens and brothels. Yet, Buddha’s disciples were often admonished by him, including Śariputra and Ānanda, no one could escape from his admonishment. He even lectured Maitreya, Prabhāvyūha, Jagtīṃdhara, and Sudatta, bodhisattvas well-known in Buddhism. Those who got the slap knew very well that this merchant was in the right, that he far surpassed them in his practice. The only one who qualified as a match was Mañjusrī, who was an expert in non-duality. At one point in Vimalakīrti-nirdeśa, Vimalakīrti was sick. Buddha told his disciples and the boddhisattvas to visit him, but no one was willing except Mañjusrī. Only he was not fearful of Vimalakīrti’s criticism in the teaching.
Did this Vimalakīrti truly exist? I believe he did, because in the old Sanskrit texts, any occasion mentioning him, he is always “Licchavi Vimalakīrti.” Licchavi is the name of a clan. To refer to a person first by his clan and his name is very formal. If he were fictitious, there is no call for such formality.
Besides, the Licchavis had a profound relationship with Sakyamuni Buddha. Sakyamuni was born in Kapilavastu, which is now Tilorakot, north west of Nepal. South of it is Vaīśālī, the home of the eight prominent clans in Vṛji, most notably, the Licchavis.
Towards the end of Sakyamuni’s life, he wanted to return to his birthplace. Travelling through Vṛji, the four Licchavi clans, blue, yellow, red and white, all came out to welcome him. Each clan decorated the animals and carriages according to the colour of the clan. From afar, one could see the four festive colours, and Buddha was very happy. He said to his disciples, “The gatherings of Licchavis are like the gatherings in the thirty-three heavens.” One can see the special connection, a deep sentimental connection between the Licchavis and Buddha.
According to Vimalakīrti-nirdeśa, Vimalakīrti was a bodhisattva who came from a land in the east. Coincidentally, Mañjusrī, according to The Buddha Speaks of Mañjuśrī’s Pure Vinaya Sūtra, was also a bodhisattva from Ratnaketa, a land from the east. Both of these teachers of non-duality came from the east, this fact has relevance to the teaching of Atiyoga.
In the tantric practice, only practitioners of Atiyoga treat the direction one faces in meditation as the east, regardless of the true direction. The primary deity is Vajrasattva, which is the Buddha of the east. The practice of Atiyoga happens to be the practice of non-duality, the Great Perfection. Following the Nyingma tradition of the Great Perfection, in the preliminary practice, the deity must be Vajrasattva of the east. One can see that this teaching is rooted in the eastern land.
We can say a few more things about Mañjusrī.
In Tāranātha’s History of Buddhism in India, in Candrarakṣita’s kingdom in Odiviśa, Mañjusrī appeared as a monk offering the king Mahāyāna teachings.
Candrarakṣita was the first of the line of Candra kings. Historians had established that Candrarakṣita rose to power around 324 BC, the throne was named the Maurya dynasty. The king died in 300 BC. This coincided with Mañjuśrī’s spreading of Mahāyāna teachings. This suggests that the teaching of Great Perfection has been around for a long time.
However, if one goes along with Ratnakaraṇḍa Sūtra, Mañjuśrī appeared even earlier. It was said, “At the time the Victorious One was enlightened… Mañjuśrī arrived in this Saha world from the kingdom of treasures where Ratnaketa Buddha resides. He came to see Śākyamuni Buddha to pay homage and respect.”
According to the sūtra, shortly after Mañjuśrī joined Śākyamuni’s sangha group, he disappeared for three months. Ānanda questioned him his whereabouts. Mañjuśrī answered, “I spent a month in the royal palace with the queen, then a month at a school, and then a month in various brothels.” Ānanda became very angry. He struck the gong to rouse the monks, wanting to chase him out of the sangha.
You see, Mañjuśrī’s behaved exactly as Vimalakīrti. They do not follow conventions and dogma. They even became “intimate” with prostitutes. This is what makes practitioners of non-duality different. In particular, Mañjuśrī appeared as a monk but openly did not follow the precepts of a monk. No wonder Śākyamuni’s five hundred disciples unanimously proclaimed, “I do not want to see Mañjuśrī. I do not want to hear his name. Wherever he goes is not where we should go. Why? Mañjuśrī’s behaviour is different from our precepts.” (cf. The Buddha Speaks of Mañjuśrī’s Travels Sūtra)
What made Mañjuśrī so unusual? He was a bodhisattva who was “liberated beyond comprehension.” Since his state of mind was beyond ordinary comprehension, what appears to be action of greed, hatred and ignorance, such poisons cannot taint his mind. As such, there was no need to follow precepts to avoid the stain and obscuration. In Vimalakīrti-nirdeśa, it says, “Fire giving rise to a lotus is rare. Practicing Zen while immersed in desire is just as rare.” Mañjuśrī’s practice is precisely the Zen practice while being immersed.
Avataṃsaka Sūtra (the section on dharma-dhātu) also contains stories of bodhisattvas in such practice. It was said that Mañjuśrī was mentoring Sudhana. He went on a pilgrimage to visit fifty-three bodhisattvas and to learn about their bodhisattva way. Among them, three fit into this “zen while immersed” model.
The first one was Jayoṣmāya. This bodhisattva did not practice Buddhism. He was seen climbing mountains of swords, flinging himself in fire. Sudhana suspected he was a devil pretending to be a bodhisattva. The action depicts ignorance.
The second one was King Anala. This bodhisattva meted out cruel punishments to his people everyday, “cutting off a hand or a foot, an ear or the nose, gauging out their eyes, chopping off heads, severing the body, boiling in cauldron, burning in fire, or pushing off a high mountain.” Sudhana was shocked by such brutality. The action depicts hatred.
The third one was Vasumitra. Vasumitra was a prostitute. Living in a place of decadence, she was intimate with everyone in it. The action depicts greed and desire.
Sudhana went on a pilgrimage because of Mañjuśrī’s suggestion. By the time he revisted Mañjuśrī, he had entered into Buddhahood. The three bodhisattvas in his visit are representative of the teaching of non-duality, which is distinctly different from Buddha’s other teachings.
However, this “zen while immersed” feature cannot become an excuse for Buddhists for bad behaviour. For a practitioner entering into non-duality, one’s attainment is on the eighth bhūmi (“stage”) or further in the bodhisattvahood, which is no ordinary achievement. It was said that Nāgārjuna, the famous buddhist teacher, was merely a first-bhūmi bodhisattva. Who among us can surpass Nāgārjuna, or even Mañjuśrī and Vimalakīrti? One cannot make excuses of one’s misconduct in the name of non-duality.
Non-duality (advaya) refers to all matters that are beyond relativity, thereby refuting the existence of relativity in itself. That said, a profound relativity is the meditative entrance to the wisdom realm of non-duality, which itself is relative to the conceptual reality that naturally arises upon the wisdom realm.
We do live in the world of duality. This world is the said conceptual reality; it is a world governed by relativity. That is why we have concepts and ideas, the good and the bad, the beauty and the beast, living and dying, and so on. These dichotomous pairs are the “duality” that we insist on differentiating. Without duality, we cannot think, we cannot function in our lives.
Buddhism says that because we are so busy, so hung up, and then so busy coping with relativity, that we end up flowing in a never-ending cycle (saṃsāra). To realize non-duality is the only way to become free from the confines of saṃsāra.
Does non-duality imply not distinguishing the good from the bad?
Not at all. When discussing a matter or an idea, Buddhists always examine it from three perspectives: its essence (prakṛi), the appearance (lakṣana) and its function or capacity (prayojana, vṛtti).
What Buddhists try to be rid of is just the relative nature (perspective) of things, not their appearance or their function. Because the nature is none other than “emptiness” (śūnyatā) and yet, we treat it as “substantial,” which gives rise to delusive thinking. Note that the phenomena and the function cannot be abandoned. Otherwise, one ends up in nihilism. (Buddha called this perspective “damaged emptiness.”)
Because we do recognize the reality of appearance and function, good and evil, or fact and fiction, they are not rendered indistinguishable. While we make conceptual distinctions, we also recognize their emptiness. Once we have entered into the realm of emptiness (not merely something we treat as a piece of knowledge), while we may make relative conceptual distinctions, we do not become trapped and attached to them.
In fact, when we make such distinctions, we have never for one moment seen the true nature of things. What we get hung up on is their function or their appearance, and then we become attached to our conceptuality of them, which in turn is seen as substantial.
Say if I ask you, what is water?
We may answer, water flows. It cleans, it is drinkable, fish live in water, boats float on water. This matter is called water.
A person of science may say, water is a compound formed by two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom. At zero degree Celsius, it freezes into a solid form; at 100 degrees, it turns into a vapour.
Yet, all these answers never touch upon the true nature of water. What defines as water depends only on its appearance and its capacity. Say, the combination of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom is just the phenomenon.
This is why, life after life, we flow in a cyclical world of phenomena. We have mistaken the phenomenon along with the function as the nature, as the true substance. Life after life, we never have a glimpse of the “absolute truth.”
This so-called “absolute truth” is the realm of emptiness. When one has gone beyond the appearance and the function, what arises is the nature as a state of non-attainment.
In Sanskrit, “empty” is śūnya, and śūnya means “zero.” Zero represents nothing and yet it does have an appearance and a function. Take the zero-sum game. We all understand that this “zero” points at the stock market and similar phenomena. The same “zero” is sufficient for a stock market to operate itself.
Between living and dying, we can view all phenomena and their function as real. But viewing them as the nature is what traps us into a never-ending cycle.
To become free from saṃsāra, the “duality” of relativity is key. Every single phenomenon and its function manifest in “duality.” I am not going to offer more examples but consider this: can you find something that is not relative to it?
I bet you cannot. There is no way. In our world, we are so used to relativity dictating our lives, our thinking, our values, our order. This is the “common karma” for the beings in our world.
The teaching of non-duality is to guide us to break from this “common karma,” and it is the only way. The only way to break free is to break away from the chains of relativity, to enter into the realm of emptiness.
Therefore the teaching of non-duality is Buddhist ultimate teaching. We call it nitārtha.
Although we call this teaching nitārtha, there are still many levels of teaching in between. This is a matter of practicality. Depending on the practitioner’s tendencies, what is presented may not be the ultimate. In Buddhism, this is called “expedience.”
The truly ultimate teaching pervades everything and everywhere (dharma-dhātu); it transcends relativity. A more expedient way may be taught according to the state of mind of the practitioner. The former (“ultimate”) places an emphasis on the view, the latter (“expedient”) places an emphasis on the meditative practice.
Here we talk about the view.
The ultimate view goes beyond space and time, this is also a characteristic of the Great Perfection practice.
In the life of a human being, to say a person is trapped by relativity, the saying is still from the perspective of our world. More profoundly speaking, humans are trapped by all the relative concepts given space and time. On the path of the Great Perfection, one does not only break free from relativity, one has to break free from the shackles of space and time, which is what we mean by “pervading dharmadhātu.” (At this point, “relativity” becomes “mutual obstruction.” Limitation is mutual obstruction. For a moment, let’s this idea aside.)
For example, when we speak of time, we have the concepts of past, present and future. To view all matters through this conceptual lens is a view that is limited.
The practice of the Great Perfection is different. Besides the three times of past, present and future, there is an idea of “indefinite time” (aniyata). In the old days, this idea was very difficult to understand. How could time be indefinite? Now, modern humans can at least handle the concept of time difference (e.g., time difference between Toronto and Beijing), making the concept of “indefinite time” easy to accept. However, taking time difference as an analogy to indefinite time is still limited by three-dimensional space and linear time. This understanding of indefinite time, in the practice, is to become free of as well. The meaning of indefinite time goes in the territory of multi-dimensional space and multi-dimensional time and the relative interchange between them.
There is a famous example about this issue.
Some physicists insist that humans can travel in time. This idea is a challenge to Einstein’s theory.
Here is a conundrum: can one travel to the past and murder one’s grandfather and yet, this person can still exist in the “present”?
Common sense may say it is impossible. Quantum physicists think otherwise. They suggest that the world is splitting at every single moment into infinite number of worlds. When one travels to the past, it is likely that if one murders the grandfather in one world, he can still be born into our world.
This is a glimpse into the world of the Great Perfection. As far back as 2,300 years ago, the time Mañjuśrī appeared in our world, this view already existed in Buddhism. Both space and time are multi-dimensional and there is interchange between them. In any space and any time there arises uncountable lives and phenomena. They are none other than images upon a certain space-time continuum; they appear along with function, but the essence is empty. A practitioner is to break free of the constraints from all space and time, or one risks being trapped by a world of illusions, taking the illusions as substantial.
Not too long ago, Oxford University Press published a book called The End of Time. It is a work by a physicist, Julian Barbour, culminating thirty-five years of research on time. His conclusion is that time does not exist. It is only an illusion. This conclusion is exactly what Buddhist called emptiness. It took me a lot of effort to read it again. Perhaps I will write another essay on the Great Perfect after, because Barbour’s way of defining time is very similar. At least on the non-existence of time, the two are the same. In our lingo, we call it “simultaneous life and death” (spontaneity).
The simultaneity of life and death is very much against common sense. When we are born, we are alive for a period of time before dying. Clearly there is a gap in time. So what do we mean by “simultaneous”? We can only describe this state of mind as “beyond comprehension.” Nyingma’s ultimate teaching only guides one in the practice, to enter into non-duality and to realize this state of mind. But what it is like cannot be described. And there is not such a need, because in doing so, we can only think about it or talk about it. What can be said, what can be thought of, are conceptual and within the limitation of space and time. Within it nothing is not relative. And yet, this state of mind cannot be spoken of or to think of using such concepts. Following the meditative path to arrive at this state of mind can be described as “absolute,” because it is no longer relative in terms of the movement of space and time.
Barbour meant the same except he attempted to use a set of limited concepts to explain (to think and to discuss) a realm that is beyond. He said everything is like a world of quantum mechanics. A sub-atomic particle can exist in two different places, yet the distance between them can be as vast as the whole universe.
According to our concepts, distance implies time. In the world of quantum mechanics, time is clearly refuted, simultaneity/spontaneity implies that time is zero.
Barbour expanded quantum mechanics to include our ordinary world. He said that our life and death is akin to the sub-atomic particle; they are illusions that appear simultaneously and spontaneously.
How does he explain these simultaneous illusions and yet we feel like they takes a long time? He made use of many recent physics concepts to explain. Ultimately, not dissimilar to Nyingma’s teaching, one has to break free from the common understanding of space-time continuum. A modern physicist can be in line with Buddhist thinking from thousands of years ago is really intriguing. Since time is zero, we can also say that the ultimate Buddhist teaching and Barbour’s thinking appear simultaneously and spontaneously.
On the interchange in multi-dimensional space and time, we can approach it from the idea of “Indra’s net” in Avataṃsaka Sūtra.
Indra’s net is a decorative piece in the palace in the Trāyastriṃśa heaven. Every knot in the net is decorated with a piece of jewel, each jewel, like a crystal, reflects the image from itself and all the other jewels in the net and every reflection is an image of itself and the reflections on all other jewels. Jewels and jewels reflect off of each other, reflections and reflections bounce off each other, repeatedly they becomes an infinite exchange of light and images.
Following Nyingma’s view, the Indra’s net is not limited to what Avataṃsaka Sūtra says as “one is many, many is one.” In fact, it symbolizes the breaking free of the interchange of multi-dimensional space-time continua.
We can explain with an example.
Say we only look at the image on one jewel. In sequence, we see an image of a baby in a cradle, then an image of a middle-age person, and finally an image of an old man dying. An ordinary person would interpret from the perspective of linear time and three-dimensional space, that this sequence reflects the flow from birth to death, and be attached to it as substantial.
Say instead we see the images in a reverse order, first the old man, the middle-age man and then the baby, then based on our perspective we would assume that the three images are unrelated, that they cannot be of the same person.
However, if the first image is the middle-age person, and the old man, and then the baby, we then may assume the middle-age man has aged and died and then there is a newborn again.
This is a very simple example. In it we make use of only three images. Because of the difference in sequence, we make up different interpretations because of our limitation in space and time.
However, Buddhists would say, the three images are simultaneously reflected on the jewel you look at. They are not separated by a gap in time. When you are looking, you are constrained by linear time, and thus there is a sequence in the images.
Why are we constrained by linear time? This is determined by the common karma of beings. Humans share the same karma and can only recognize a world of linear time and three-dimensional space. Within dharmadhātu there are many beings. Some beings, given to their common karma of multi-dimensional time, can recognize that the three images are spontaneous and are of one person.
This illustrates what Buddhists say as non-arising and non-ceasing, neither continuous nor discrete, neither the same nor different, neither coming nor going.
This is a realm that is beyond thinking beyond words. Just because we are attached to time as substantial, we feel that there is life and death, there is permanence and annihilation, there is coming and going. Because we are attached to space as substantial, which is why there is oneness and there is duality.
Because of our limitation and our attachments, we cannot see the true face of dharmadhātu. Once we can break free of such limitations, we can realize directly that it is all a delusion from the interchange of time and space. What we see is a sequence of the interchange but we are ignorant of the inter-reflections like the Indra’s net that are infinite and simultaneous. Depending on one’s karma, the images are interpreted based on one’s limitation.
From this example, we can begin to grasp what Buddhists refer to as karma.
For example, the Americans involvement in Iraq is not a fate. In the images in the Indra’s net, there is an image of the Americans attacking Iraq, but at the same time, there exists an image of the two heads of state opening a bottle of champagne, celebrating peace. Because of karma, there appeared the image of war. This image is insubstantial, but its appearance and its function are real. As a result, we see images of Iraqis dying, and the Americans proclaiming that human rights prevail.
We can also explain with quantum mechanics.
According to quantum mechanics, we cannot truly see the truth. When you observe a phenomenon, regardless of the tool you use, you have added energy on the phenomenon you observe, thereby changing the phenomenon. What we can see is the changed phenomenon.
This is karma.
When we observe the images on the Indra’s net, is it war or is it peace? This is determined by the “added energy.” This added energy is the common karma of us humans.
The future of human beings is entirely determined by the common karma. In the Indra’s net, there exists an image of humans thriving in future generations, there also exists an image of humans destroying themselves. Which image is to appear, we cannot observe because we do not know what kind of energy we are to add to the images or what sequence is to appear.
Buddha describes this as mahākaruṇā or great compassion. This great compassion pervades every world in dharmadhātu – all dimensions of space and time.
According to Nyingma, to realize the realm beyond space-time constraints, the three “natural liberations” (rang grol) are completed. They are the natural liberation of the mind, the natural liberation of reality, the natural liberation of equality.
Natural liberation is because all matters in dharmadhātu are natural arisings. Since they are natural arisings and not via an external force, what can be done about their natural liberation is also not via an external force.
The three natural liberations are completed in stages prior to the attainment of buddhahood. The completion of buddhahood is a completion of dhamakāya, sambhogakāya, and nirmanakāya. Lacking one in attainment is not the completion of Buddhahood (the completion of three kāyas).
Dharmakāya is the attainment of the nature of dhamadhātu; sambhogakāya is the attainment of the phenomenon of dharmadhātu; nirmanakāya is the attainment of the virtue of dharmadhātu. There are the “Three Sayings of the Great Perfection”:
The essence is primordially pure.
The phenomena-themselves arise naturally.
The great compassion pervades everywhere.
It is very difficult to explain fully the sayings. The explanation itself may require referencing many Buddhist texts and can get very dry. Here I will discuss the three natural liberations and see if the readers can grasp the spirit of it.
First, on the liberation of the mind itself. Our mind is trapped by space and time, and by the appearance and by the function. We become attached to our understanding as the truth. We cannot realize emptiness, such as time is zero.
We have discussed this previously. What I want to point out is how we trap ourselves.
We trap ourselves by being attached to a self (“me”), and from the perspective of “me” we distinguish all phenomena and their function (“mind”). Buddhists call this grasping, the self is the grasper, the appearance and the function are the grasped. The “grasped” becomes knowledge and experience, some even consider it the truth. Our mind is trapped by this grasping. The completion of the natural liberation of the mind is to realize the emptiness of this grasping.
At this stage, Buddha and bodhisattvas are treated as symbols. Every symbol carries a special meaning. For example, Mañjuśrī symbolizes wisdom, Avalokiteśvara represents great compassion. Such symbolic meanings are what Buddhists refer to as “convenient constructs.”
One can question the motivation behind a bunch of symbolic constructs.
Buddhists say, we all live in a world of constructs. Each construct has its function. We have latitudes and longitudes, as such airplanes can determine their flight paths. We have the traffic light, the traffic flow becomes orderly. Similarly, with the symbols in one’s practice, they can transform one’s state of mind. As well, the practitioner can realize emptiness. The construct itself is insubstantial, but relying on it in the practice, one can get a glimpse of its appearance and its function.
Extending this meditative experience to our everyday living, practitioners can realize the emptiness of our conventional world. Most important, through such practice, one does not fall into the trap of pessimism and negativity, because all matters are functioning as such. Obviously, the practitioner must also fulfill his or her duty in society.
The natural liberation of the mind is exactly this way, where one sees all matters as natural arisings, even the self, the “me”, is also a natural arising, then the mind does not become distorted by grasping, and becomes free from attachments. Once the traps are broken, the mind is naturally free.
Now on the natural liberation of reality. The premise of the natural liberation of the mind is not truly free from space and time of our world. Even if a person who has perfected the liberation of the mind, one can still distinguish between saṃsāra and nirvāṇa, in that one prefers nirvāṇa over saṃsāra.
With such bias, the concept of nirvāṇa becomes a trap. To become liberated is to become free from the space and time in realizing emptiness. Buddha says, dharmadhātu includes all worlds. “All worlds” include infinite space-time continuua regardless of dimensions. All these phenomena are merely the natural arisings within dharmadhātu, whether it is saṃsāra or nirvāṇa.
The natural liberation of reality is exactly this way, where the teaching rests on the zero-sum of space and time. This idea was very difficult to explain in the past. One could only illustrate this “zero” as the absolute that is free of all relativity. Many sects believe that this “absolute” is the ultimate Buddhist teaching. Nyingma’s teaching of the Great Perfection thinks differently: one more natural liberation is required.
Finally, we are on to the natural liberation of equality. Buddhists speak of equality all the time, but the meaning in the natural liberation is not merely about “equality.” There is a special meaning.
Many scholars in Buddhism, when approaching Nyingma’s “natural liberation of equality,” tend to be careless in handling “equality” and as such, underestimate the importance of the liberation in the teaching.
One cannot fault the scholars for such mistakes. Modern writing on the Great Perfection, the special meaning of “equality” is never mentioned. The only exception is in Dudjom Rinpoche’s writing, where he pointed out that for a practitioner of the Great Perfection, the precept is not to step over the samaya (vow) of “insubstantiality” and “conventionality.” This is to point out the meaning of “equality” with great seriousness.
What does this all mean?
“Insubstantiality” is the emptiness of essence. By “conventionality,” what pervades all worlds is universal and conventional. From the perspective of emptiness, all worlds are equal, all natural arisings are conventional.
A tantric text called Garuda-tantra has the following verse:
The naturally arising of primordial wisdom
All pervading and free from conceptuality.
“All pervading” means it pervades all worlds; “Free from conceptuality” is that regardless of the arising, its existence is a natural, perfect match with the space and time it abides in, and hence “conventional.” All arisings are naturally as such and conventional; one is not superior over another.
At this stage of practice, through the interchange of space and time one is to thoroughly realize the essence of dharmadhātu. The realization is not only the “zero sum” of space and time, but also the whole dharmadhātu that is full of life.
Dharmadhātu is primordially immovable; the entirety of space and time is zero.
This dharmadhātu is immovable, yet it becomes the foundation of all natural arisings. Because space and time are multi-dimensional, and in each of them has its natural arisings, all things exist as such.
This dharmadhātu embeds within everything, they are all equal. The interchange of time and space is full of life, and as such everything is a reflection of this life force, and therefore they are all equal.
I wrote this to point out the non-duality in the Great Perfection teaching and why it is beyond comprehension and beyond words. One can not only transcend space and time to realize emptiness, at the same time, one can also realize the life force in dharmadhātu through the change of space and time (and thus become free from their constraints). The two levels of transcendence is not only to show the attainment beyond comprehension, the teaching itself is beyond comprehension as well!
Modern physics has transcended space and time, but it has yet fully entered into the territory Nyingma’s teaching. We do see the field is inching closer and closer. Julian Barbour’s proposal of time as zero can be viewed as the second revolution in physics. Perhaps it has knocked on the door of Nyingma.
Nyingma has described its teaching as “the Thunder of the Heavenly Drum.” This is the only metaphor given the space and time of our world. Listening to the knocking of a modern physicist is like listening to such a heavenly thunder. May this thunder bring joy to all beings!