In INSIGHTS by Erik Pema Kunsang24 Comments

Just as any other time in history, today here and now, the option to deceive oneself is wide open. Especially a very tricky and subtle type trying to disguise dualistic mind by pretending to be a member of Club Nondualité. It starts in all innocence and suddenly many years have passed; what to do?
Over the years people from all kinds of traditions—Advaita, Dzogchen, Mahamudra and Zen—came to see my teacher, Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche, and among them were some who had run into problems with their spiritual teacher. Rather than casting blame on their teacher or the person asking, he very kindly quoted an old statement from Padmasambhava: “In the age of kaliyuga you find no perfect masters, so be like a swan who can separate milk and water.”

In the age of kaliyuga you find no perfect masters, so be like a swan who can separate milk and water.
Then, with great kindness he explained, “It’s most unlikely to find a perfect master in our times, totally free of faults, and even if an ordinary person meets a perfect buddha today, he or she would not be able to see the perfection. It’s therefore much more important to extract the milk from the water.” Keep the message from the buddhas while filtering out the rest, and use the teaching to improve and deepen your understanding.

I have also seen thousands of people who call themselves Vajrayana practitioners, a huge number who regard themselves as Dzogchen meditators and a large number who says such and such teacher is my root guru or primary Dharma master. Sometimes even people try to find a primary guru before understanding the four seals of the dharma: impermanence, suffering, egolessness and total freedom. When asking just a few questions, I’m surprised at the replies: “He/she is my root guru because he gave me refuge.” That’s nonsense, that’s called a refuge preceptor, not a primary teacher. “He is my root guru, because I sat in the crowd when the empowerment was given.” That could be true, but mostly it’s not. Often people believe, because some urban legend is passed around, “now you belong to this master who gave the empowerment.” We may not even have understood a word during the empowerment, but still walk away with the belief that now have to be part of that mandala forever. That was true in the old tradition of giving initiation to only one, three or twenty-one people, but not in a crowd of thousands.

The word root guru has a sacred meaning, that my teachers define in a very specific way: the person who not only tries, but succeeds in bringing about a complete change in your mind to such an extend that the grip of duality is loosened and that the nature of mind is totally laid bare in its naked state and can be accessed whenever remembered for the rest of your life. Perhaps the meditator only finds out many years later who the primary guru was. The master may be someone famous and important, or someone insignificant, but it doesn’t matter at all. The important thing is very different: that the insight uncovered interrupts dualistic mind and, most importantly, it’s authentic, not make-believe.

Patrul Rinpoche wrote 150 years ago, that there are many Dharma teachers who point out the thoughtfree state of the all-ground as being the nondual nature of mind, and that is why people who believe it may train ten, twenty, thirty years without becoming stable in nonduality. Why? They have instead trained in the very basis for dualistic mind. I don’t think this problem was limited to the time of Patrul Rinpoche. When Nyoshul Khen Rinpoche was once asked to give pointing-out instruction to a group of many thousand people, he simply laughed of the absurdity, because nondual mind needs to be authenticated by the teacher and he knew that he couldn’t check thousands of people. When someone is being told, without being checked, “you have now received the pointing-out introduction,” it’s at best wishful thinking and, at worst, a direct lie.

The process of validation can be short or long, but it requires a competent master who knows you and listens to you while you reply specific questions, not from hearsay or book learning, but from present experience and not from a memory of a peak experience in the past. Then there can be certainty and this certainty can be put to the test next time you get angry, attached, proud, jealous or close-minded. If you are able to step out of that toxic emotion in an instant and stay in nondual mind, then it’s for real. Often a meditator is told by the teacher that nonduality is a quiet thoughtfree state of mind that holds no focus. This may or may not be true, because there is another state of mind that looks like it, just like a rhinestone may look like a diamond. That teacher may be kind and well-meaning, but that is not enough to call him or her primary guru.

Another thing is, why be in such a rush to label someone root guru? Could it be that the urgency stems from group pressure, or perhaps from the neediness of belonging to a elite group of initiated. The smugness and false security of being a nonduality person is exposed the very next time one of the five toxic emotions hijacks your mind. A genuine knowing of nonduality does not wallow in dualistic emotions, be it aggression or self-pity. Fortunately there is also no need for that, the buddhas have given 84000 different types of teachings, the medicine chest is vast and detailed.

There is no need to become someone else’s property and loosing personal freedom just because of wanting to be free. There is no need to limit empathy in order to give room to boundless compassion. There is no need to shut off the intelligence and power of reason in order to achieve wisdom. There is no need for someone else to cut down your ego, since there never was an ego to find anywhere. It was just a belief. There is no need to blindly believe what we are told, when we have eyes to see. The Buddha warned against following conventions and peer-pressure, instead he encouraged everyone to think for themselves and test a true path. As we proceed through kaliyuga, I don’t feel we should expect that everything will become more easy, on the contrary, there will be more deceit both from our collective karma and from self-deception. The only remedy I can come up with is intelligent sincerity. Let’s keep the eyes open!

Here is a little story about seeing one’s teacher as perfect. When Gampopa was about to leave after having received all the pith instructions from his guru, the world-renowned yogi Milarepa, he received this last advice: “There will come a time in the future when you see me as a true buddha. That is when you have reached enough stability in the view of Mahamudra to guide others.” It therefore makes sense that the demand to see the guru as a buddha is fine during meditation, but very difficult when living together and seeing the daily behavior. Until that, just as Gampopa, we can just try our best—from a distance.

Another point, if you discover what you thought was the state of nonduality is actually just a dualistic state of open, calm and clear panoramic awareness, there is no need to blame anyone, neither the teacher, the friends or yourself. Understand that the person who taught you that was not a primary master, but a meditation instructor, and you’re allowed to pursue authentic wisdom wherever you can find it. Within the Buddhist Vajrayana context, how can there be a samaya bond to a root guru, if you haven’t yet found the true nature of mind? To keep the dharma pure and make sure it will last for a long while, the most important is honesty. Be honest to yourself. Don’t believe in myths. Test everything. Don’t be in such a rush. Take the time it takes to be a good swan: give yourself time to filter the milk from the water and enjoy the beautiful scenery.

Tulku Urgyen on numerous occasions had to listen to people claiming that they had received initiation into nondual oneness. He listened patiently, asked a few questions and let the whole bravado fall apart. Then he would simply start from the very beginning, asking, “is body, speech and mind same or different?” He would continue from there, making sure that each insights was a mutual agreement. This is the age-old tradition, tried and proven, of transmitting certainty that follows the words of the Buddha:

Rely on the message rather than the messenger.
In the message, rely on the meaning rather than just the words.

In the meaning, rely on that which is really true rather than seemingly true.
Rely on the really true, not with dualistic mind, but realize within nondual wakefulness.

About the Author
Erik Pema Kunsang

Erik Pema Kunsang

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Translator of ancient Buddhist scriptures, author, bridge-builder to modern life, Buddhist teacher & meditation instructor. Board of director at 84000: Translating the Words of the Buddha. Founder of Rangjung Yeshe Publications and LEVEKUNST art of life. Other LEVEKUNST articles by the same author. Erik's website & retreats.

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  1. Big confusion, I don’t know, I don’t know 😊

  2. I am curious about the naked woman/ nature/emptiness of appearance image. the surface image of a naked woman carries a lot of baggage for me. Why did you choose it?

    1. Erik Pema Kunsang Author

      Thank you for your interest, Alanda.
      The image illustrates the dissolving of concepts in the mind, beginning with the head. It also has artistic sensitivity. We didn’t really notice her body being naked, but now that you mention it, nakedness is a timeless symbol for thoughtfree, wide open awareness. It can be shown as either male or female.

  3. Erik Pema Kunsang Author

    From Drubwang Tsoknyi Rinpoche’s Fearless Simplicity:

    What is the difference between the real state of rigpa and the imitation? Check whether or not there is any clinging, any sense of keeping hold of something. With conceptual rigpa you notice a sense of trying to keep a state, trying to maintain a state, trying to nurture a state. There is a sense of hope or fear and also a sense of being occupied. Understand? The keeping means there’s a sense of protecting, of not wanting to lose it, in the back of the mind. This is not bad, it’s good, and for some people there’s no way around training like that in the beginning. Through training in this way, that conceptual aspect becomes increasingly refined and clarified.
    So you practice more, more, more. Now you have more of a sense of openness, but still you’re holding this openness. All right, then, let the openness go. Let’s say that after two months you let it go. But still you’re staying within the openness — so then you practice letting go of the staying. And somehow there is still a remnant of wanting to achieve it again. So you let that go as well, and slowly again let it go, let it go, until you become very much “just there,” and finally very free and easy.

    – Tsoknyi Rinpoche

  4. Hello brother Erik

    Thank you for this precious sharing. This is absolutely absolutely insightful and beneficial for this bag of old bones.
    A Great Big Whack on the old head….eeheeee… it helps me with a little more understanding..
    Do you have give online teaching on the Great Perfection ?

    Thank you.
    with metta,

  5. Thank you. This article is beautiful, and comes to me at the right time.

    I would like to have information about the artwork in here; specifically the image partway down, of the twig-brained/bird-headed woman. Who is the artist?

    Thanks very much.

    1. Erik Pema Kunsang Author

      Thank you for bringing this to our attention. We always seek to credit every artist.

      The stunning photo is Double Exposure by Laurence Winram.

      Thank you, Laurence.

  6. Timely article but maybe thirty years too late

    1. Erik Pema Kunsang Author

      Better late that never. But tell me one thing, why is confusion always fresh, here & now?

  7. Thank you so much Erik! After 20 years of study and practice, I am at last learning what should have been made clear at the very beginning!

  8. I usually love what you write but this post leaves me baffled.

    For example “There is no need for someone else to cut down your ego, since there never was an ego to find anywhere. It was just a belief. ”

    This seems like pure nonsense. By that logic there is no need to practice the Dharma since there was never any delusion to find anywhere, it is just a belief. Buddhism is filled with stories, mostly from the Vajrayana and Zen traditions, of wise teachers doing all sorts of unusual things to cut down, destroy, interrupt the students ego, or sense of self or habit of believing.

    Another example is the way you seem to imply that teachers can’t or won’t give pointing out instruction in large groups. Yet I was present when your own root guru Kyabje Tulku Urgyen did exactly that. You were even the translator! Other Lamas have told me that it was a sign of Rinpoche’s realization that he was able to introduce so many people at a time. When I was there in Nepal getting these sublime teachings most of the 200 of us never got a chance to clarify anything with Rinpoche and yet it changed our way of practicing forever.

    So sorry, normally I really respect what you say, but this article just seems strange, has more than a few logical inconsistencies and perhaps is being taken seriously by people who look up to you. I think all this article accomplishes is add to the confusion about the student teacher relationship at a time that it seems like too many people are too willing to treat that sacred bond far too carelessly.

    1. Erik Pema Kunsang Author

      Dear Totally Befuddled,

      Thanks for bringing up this point, which may at first seem to be a paradox. Actually it isn’t. There is nothing new in writing “There is no need for someone else to cut down your ego, since there never was an ego to find anywhere. It was just a belief.” The insight into the nature of our existence reveals exactly that: the search for a real ego ends in not finding. That not finding has been the discovery for several thousand years for millions of meditators. And it is precisely for that reason that there is a need to practice the Dharma, to uncover this timeless insight of egolessness. Moreover, this insight into egolessness needs to be addressed and uncovered before entering the paths of Mahayana and especially Vajrayana to ensure an authentic journey.

      About pointing-out, different teachers have different approaches.

  9. Thade Correa

    Thank you so much for this lovely, moving, lucid piece, Erik.

  10. Très belle Erik, and I might add, and if could all emulate Erik’s tone with whatever we do or say, if we simply remember in this Kaliyuga, “don’t harm the hearts of others.” Even with trace insults, ever. If we get into righteous indignation with religion or politics, we polarize and breed hated and war, and we all know that that is not the Dharma and the cascading effects of even one tweet can as we see, harm or help the world. As best as we can think before writing “how will that person feel, how will the entire sangha feel, will this help each other or harm, is there possibly a middle way?” Garchen Rinpoche says “Samaya is Love” and it would be so great if we could keep that.

  11. Thank you for this Erik. Incredibly clarifying and direct. After just spending 2 weeks with Phakchok Rinpoche this gave me great confidence.

  12. Michael Tweed

    Well stated, my friend.

  13. “The process of validation can be short or long, but it requires a competent master who knows you and listens to you while you reply specific questions, not from hearsay or book learning, but from present experience and not from a memory of a peak experience in the past. Then there can be certainty and this certainty can be put to the test next time you get angry, attached, proud, jealous or close-minded. If you are able to step out of that toxic emotion in an instant and stay in nondual mind, then it’s for real.”

    I like this phrase because combining the Gestalt Therapy approach and Buddhist study and practice for some decades now, my therapy- and personal work focuses on exactly that point – ceasing to be reactive. Being reactive here means an immediate, automatical reaction to a trigger, trying to defend oneself or prevent being hurt.

    Although most clients don’t (want to) meditate, I let them exercise their awareness and mindfulness by very short exercises they can do in their daily life, with the goal to be able to recognize their reactive emotional behavior (with its counterproductive results for themselves and others) and cut through it.

    I already experienced myself that being able to disconnect from internal emotional movements and external behavior was a sign of development on the spiritual path. I do use it, amongst other aspects, to establish my progress.

    Thanks for your clear text!

  14. Frans Stiene

    Perfect Erik, love your straight to the point and clear teachings about this.

  15. Your article makes such sense. I’ve had a teacher for nearly 20 years. He’s pointed out the nature of mind many times, through words, sounds and for me, most importantly, through creating an atmosphere. This has all been done mainly in public or large groups. If you get it, you get it, if you don’t, you don’t. This master has a heart son who knows more about the Lojong teachings than anyone I’ve ever met, I’ve learned from him about Lojong particularly in the past 4 years. For the past 5 years this master has slowly got to know me on a personal level and slowly tested this understanding in a variety of situations. As the years have past, he has got to know my habits and hidden faults and created situations designed to heighten those to a point where they completely take me over. At that point when my neurosis has been completely heightened, this master has cut through that powerful habit, so that I’ve experienced nature of mind. But this cutting through has been done in ways which have been either quite ordinary or would not making sense to an outside observer. It took my master a few different attempts and prods before he discovered my main fault, which is quite hidden! But then my experience has been a sudden separation of powerful emotions and my mind’s true nature, awareness. And then in a split second I’ve experienced the whole thing collapse. The prods might have ‘hurt’ but my Master always showed immense love, particularly afterwards. This sort of work can be best done one to one and with a master who has got to know you personally. I’ve been lucky enough to be quite close to the master and his main disciple for the past few years and as a result, although I do practice sadhana, I believe the Lojong teachings combined with remembering the View hold the answer to most questions in life. I am an ordinary person, a single mother, who holds down a normal job, I don’t live in a monestary or a temple, I spend a lot of time studying and doing what some people might see as empty samsaric activities, I often choose to be with my family over going on retreats and a lot of people I know don’t know that I’m a Buddhist. Yet in my heart, I carry my gratitude and remember the teachings everyday. For example if you remember that everybody is dying then your whole way of seeing life and interacting with people changes. I prefer it this way. I think this sort of opportunity occurs once in a blue moon.

  16. Although I’ve studied Buddhism a fair amount, your article makes me see that I surely do not understand all the subtleties. Thank you for this, dear Erik.

  17. Awesome article, Erik. It’s a relief to hear such sanity, and a needed clarification on what a root guru truly is and the pitfall of mistaking alaya for rigpa. In my experience individuals rarely get the checking part.

  18. Sonia Gomes

    So amazing article Erik ! Thank you for sharing and bringing such a “fresh air” and deep thoughts for us to reflect on!

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