When we enter the path, we are working at the level of relative truth, and with practice we may gain insight into the absolute. But we don’t enter the final stage of practice, says Tsoknyi Rinpoche, until we realize these truths were never separate.
The art and beauty of practicing dharma becomes more and more subtle and profound as we learn the dance of the relative and absolute truths. Since the natural state is timelessly present in both, their indivisibility or inseparability is like a single thread interwoven throughout all the teachings, functioning at every level and stage of practice.
It is important to recognize that practice solely at the relative level, or even at the level of the absolute, is not so difficult when we keep it separate. The real art comes in uniting the relative and absolute in practice.
When we first start practicing, we are typically at the conventional or relative level, which when practiced well can eventually lead to a
realization of the absolute. However, the final stage, which we are speaking about here, is the realization of the inseparability of the two. When we talk about this unity or indivisibility, it’s not that we have to somehow figure out how to fit two separate, distinct things together, like gluing two blocks of wood into one piece. That would be forcing a conceptual notion of emptiness to connect to clarity.
In Dzogchen, rigpa, or recognizing mind’s essence, has three qualities or aspects: empty essence, the lucid or cognizant nature, and their indivisible unity. When our meditation practice strays from rigpa, two things can happen: we can overemphasize the empty aspect, causing a kind of blockage, because although it is thought-free, it still involves subtle clinging; there is a kind of stuckness—a lack of naturalness, fluidity, and awareness of the unconfined capacity or totally open nature of genuine rigpa. If, on the other hand, we overemphasize the clarity or lucid aspect, we can become fixated on that and lose the awareness of inner space. Therefore, this subtle art involves unifying the experience of empty nature and lucidity such that the “third” quality of inseparability (the union of emptiness and clarity) may naturally and spontaneously manifest.
The inner space, or empty aspect, is completely free from any of the four or eight philosophical extremes taught with great precision by Nagarjuna and others. It is also free from birth, abiding, and cessation and from the three divisions of time: past, present, and future. It has neither center nor circumference and is completely devoid of all reference points. When the conceptual mind is dropped, there is still a nonconceptual cognizance, which is without reliance or dependence upon conceptual signs and symbols and is aware of its own nature as emptiness, or inner space.
Mind then has two aspects: its own basic nature, which is primordial wisdom, and dualistic consciousness. One way of putting this is that it can either be confused lucidity or the lucidity of wisdom. In either case, the empty aspect is always completely open and free.
In the Tibetan language, this naturally lucid or clear aspect of mind is called salwa, and it is emphasized mostly in the Vajrayana tradition. In the sutra system, the emphasis is more on the empty nature, and of course when we speak about the indivisibility of lucidity and the empty nature, then it is the same for both sutra and tantra. The differences in emphasis are related to where we are on the various stages of the path. In the Vajrayana system, when we talk about the fundamental luminosity of mind, it is described as the vajra heart, and in Dzogchen, it refers to clear light or luminosity. In these teachings there’s more emphasis on the clarity or lucid aspect.
Terminology can be a bit confusing, so keep in mind that the Tibetan word salwa is translated variously as luminosity, lucidity, cognizance, consciousness, knowing, or clarity, depending on the translation and the specific teaching context. But the basic point here is that salwa can either be confused or not, and the empty aspect is always free and open.
Normally our day-to-day experience is at a gross level of consciousness in which there’s no awareness of the inseparability of the empty nature and lucidity. The natural state of mind appears divided, and the natural unity of the two truths is mistakenly separated into seemingly distinct entities of subject and object. However, within that split mind there is a seed of primordial wisdom through which we can realize the indivisibility of the empty and lucid natures. Through the timely methods and direct instructions of a genuine teacher, confused mind is cut through, allowing us to experience a taste of what I call “baby rigpa,” which with continued practice goes through various stages of growth and development.
Excerpted from the Fall 2014 issue of Buddhadharma: The Practitioner's Quarterly, available on newsstands and by subscription.