In WISDOM TEACHERS by Erik Pema Kunsang18 Comments

Rinpoche, would you please tell us about your life, teachers, and the retreats you have done?

Tulku Urgyen: I was born in Eastern Tibet, in Kham, in the area called Nangchen. The Dharma teaching of my family line is called Barom Kagyu. My grandmother was the daughter of Chokgyur Lingpa, the great terton, so my family line also practices the Nyingma teachings. Since I hold the lineages of both Kagyu and Nyingma, my monastery in Boudhanath is therefore called Ka-Nying Shedrub Ling, The Kagyu and Nyingma Place for Teaching and Practice.

From the time I was quite small until the age of twenty-one, I stayed with my father who was a Vajrayana teacher and tantric layman. His name was Tsangsar Chimey Dorje. My father was my first teacher and from him I received the transmission for the Kangyur, the entire teachings of the Buddha, and also for the Chokling Tersar, The New Treasures of Chokgyur Lingpa. Then, I studied with my father’s older brother, Tulku Samten Gyatso from whom I received also, among other things, the entire transmission of the Chokling Tersar.

Later on I studied with an incredible great master named Kyungtrul Kargyam and from him I received the entire Dam-ngak Dzo as well as Chowang Gyatsa, the Hundred Empowerments of Cutting Practice. He also passed on to me the reading transmission for the Hundred Thousand Nyingma Tantras and the Jangter Gongpa Sangtal, the Northern Treasure of Unimpeded Wisdom Mind. In particular, I received from him a detailed commentary and clarification of the important treasure of Chokgyur Lingpa renowned as Lamrim Yeshe Nyingpo, the Gradual Path of The Wisdom Essence.

From the time I was eight years old, I received teachings on the nature of mind from my own father, and I was lucky later on, to receive detailed instructions in the form of guidance through personal experience from Samten Gyatso on the teachings of Dzogchen, the Great Perfection. From my other uncle, Tersey Rinpoche, who was a close disciple of the great siddha Shakya Shri, I was also lucky to receive teachings on Dzogchen.

Moreover, I again received detailed teachings on Lamrim Yeshe Nyingpo from Jokyab Rinpoche, a disciple of Dru Jamyang Drakpa. The body of teachings known as Rinchen Terdzo, the Precious Treasury of Termas, I received from Jamgon Kongtrul, the son of the 15th Karmapa. As for the other of the Five Treasuries, I received the Gyachen Kadzo from my third uncle, Sang-ngak Rinpoche, the Kagyu Ngakdzo from H.H. the 16th Karmapa himself, and the Sheja Kunkyab Treasury from Tana Pemba Rinpoche. I addition, I have received the root empowerments of Jigmey Lingpa from our lord of refuge Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche several times.

In Eastern Tibet I spent three years in retreat just reciting the Mani. [Laughs]. Later on at Tsurphu, the seat of the Karmapas, I also spent three years in retreat and then again in Sikkim I was able to spend almost three years in intensive practice. Lately, I have been here at Nagi Gompa for a few years. That’s my life story.

What lineages does Rinpoche hold?

Tulku Urgyen: My family line is the holder of the Barom Kagyu teachings which originate from Gampopa’s disciple Barom Dharma Wangchuk. His disciple was Tishi Repa whose disciple was called Repa Karpo. His disciple again was Tsangsar Lumey Dorje. His disciple, Jangchub Shonnu of Tsangsar, is in my paternal ancestral lineage. The line of his son and his son again, all the way down to my father, is called Tsangsar Lhai Dung-gyu, the Divine Bloodline of Tsangsar. My incarnation line is called Chowang Tulku. With that same name I am just the second. My past life was said to be an incarnation of Guru Chowang. He was also said to be an emanation of one of the twenty-five disciples of Padmasambhava called Nubchen Sangye Yeshe, but who knows that for sure. [Laughs]. My former life, Chowang Tulku, was a secret yogi. No one knew how his practice was, but when he passed away his body shrunk down to the size of one cubit without decomposing.

What does Dzogchen mean?

Tulku Urgyen: Dzog, perfection, inclusion or completion, means as in this quote from a tantra: Included in one – everything is included within mind. Included in two – everything of samsara and nirvana is included within thisDzog means that all the teachings, all phenomena, is completely contained in the vehicle of Dzogchen; all the lower vehicles are included within Dzogchen. Chen, great, means that there is no method or means higher than this vehicle.

What is the basic outline of practice according to the Dzogchen path?

Tulku Urgyen: All the Buddha’s teachings are contained within nine gradual vehicles of which Dzogchen, the Great Perfection, is like the highest golden ornament on a rooftop spire, or the victory banner on the summit of a great building. All the eight lower vehicles are contained within the ninth which is called Dzogchen in Tibetan, Mahasandhi in Sanskrit and Great Perfection in English. But Dzogchen is not contained in the lowest one, the shravaka vehicle. So when we say included or complete it means that all the lower yanas are included or completely contained within the Great Perfection, within Dzogchen. Usually we say that Dzogchen, sometimes called Ati Yoga, is a Dharma tradition but actually it is the basic state of one’s mind.

When it comes to combining these following two points into actual experience, we can use the statement of the 3rd Karmapa, Rangjung Dorje: It is not existent as even the buddhas have not seen it. This means that the basic state of mind is not something that exists in a concrete way; even the buddhas of the three times have never perceived it. It is not non-existent as it is the basis for both samsara and nirvana. This is not a contradiction, it is the middle path of unity. Contradiction is like having fire and water on the same plate. It’s impossible. But that is not the case here. The basic nature is neither existent nor non-existent, these two are an indivisible unity. May I perceive the mind nature free from extremes. Usually when we say is it contradicts is not. And when we say non-existent it contradicts existent. But this middle path of unity is devoid of such contradiction. Attaining the unified state of Vajradhara actually refers to this.

This unity of being empty and cognizant is the state of mind of all sentient beings. There is nothing special about that. A practitioner should encompass that with a core of knowing. That is the path of practice. Again, the unity of being empty and cognizant with a core of knowing. The special feature of Dzogchen is as follows: Primordial pure essence is Trekcho, Cutting Through. This view is actually present in all the nine vehicles, but the special quality of Dzogchen is called spontaneously present nature, Togal, Direct Crossing. The unity of these two, Cutting Through and Direct Crossing, Trekcho and Togal, is the special or unique teaching of Dzogchen. That is how Dzogchen basically is. That’s it.

Dzogchen is very direct and doesn’t seem to have a linear quality in terms of the way one would approach it. In the other yanas sometimes one would first do the set of preliminaries, then a yidam practice and tsa-lung practice. It seems like Dzogchen is very immediate, like the essence is already present, available. Is there any kind of linear path in the way one would approach these teachings or is it always direct?

Tulku Urgyen: We do in the Dzogchen tradition have the gradual system of preliminaries, main part and so forth. But the special characteristic of Dzogchen is to introduce or point out directly the naked state of knowing, self-existing wakefulness. This is for students who are suitable, meaning those who have sharp mental faculties. Instead of going through a lot of beating around the bush, one would introduce them directly to their mind essence, to self-existing knowing.

Dzogchen is said to have great advantage but also great danger. Why is this? Because all the teachings are ultimately and finally resolved within the system of Dzogchen. This can be divided into two parts, resolving the teachings through intellectual understanding and through experience. To resolve through experience is the great advantage or benefit in the sense that having pointed out and recognizing directly naked knowing you simply take that as the main part of practice. That is the incredible great benefit because it is the very direct and swift path to enlightenment.

On the other hand, the great danger is when you just leave naked knowing as an intellectual understanding, that “In Dzogchen there is no thing to meditate upon. There is no thing to view. There is nothing to carry out as an action.” That becomes a nihilistic concept and is completely detrimental to progress, because the final point of the teaching is conceptlessness, being beyond intellectual thinking. Yet, what has happened is that you have created an intellectual idea of Dzogchen and hold on to that idea very tightly. This is a major mistake but it can happen. So, it is very important to bring the instruction into personal experience through the oral guidance of a teacher. Otherwise, simply to have the idea: I am meditating on Dzogchen, is to completely miss the point.

Self-existing wakefulness is present within the mind-stream of all sentient beings since primordial time. This presence should not be left as theory, but acknowledged though experience. First recognize it, then train and attain stability in it. Then Dzogchen has great benefit. There is actually no greater benefit than this. Great danger means that when this is left as words of mere intellectual understanding you don’t gain any experience but merely hold a concept about it and lack the nonconceptual quality. Conceptual mind is merely theory whereas to remain in the continuity of naked knowing, growing used to it, is called experience.

It is the same principle in Madhyamika, Mahamudra or Dzogchen. The Bodhisattvacharya Avatara mentions, “When the intellect holds neither the concept of concreteness nor inconcreteness, that is the state of not conceptualizing.” As long as you are not free from concepts, the view remains as mere intellectual understanding and the Dzogchen view is mere theory. You might then think “Dzogchen is primordially empty, it is free from a basis. There is nothing to meditate upon, no need to do anything. If I meditate in the morning, I am a buddha in the morning. When I recognize at night, I am a buddha at night. The destined one does not even have to meditate.” Actually, Dzogchen is the way to purify the most subtle veil of dualistic knowledge, the cognitive veil. It is really incredible. But if you only imagine it, if it is just theory, thinking “I don’t need to do anything, neither meditate nor practice,” you have completely missed the point. Many people have made this mistake in the past.

Compared to straying into an intellectualized version of Dzogchen, it is much more beneficial to practice according to Madhyamika or Mahamudra where you move along step by step, alternating theory and experience within the structure of theory, experience and realization. Proceeding gradually in this way you become more and more clear about what is to be resolved and then finally capture the dharmakaya throne of nonmeditation. In this graduated system there are some reference points along the various paths and levels. But in Dzogchen the master will from the very beginning point out the nonconceptual state, instructing the student to remain free from concepts. It then happens that some students will think, “I am free from concepts, I am never distracted!” while walking around with vacantly gazing eyes. That is called straying into intellectual understanding.

Later on, when we have to die, mere theory is no helpat all. Tilopa told Naropa, “Theory is like a patch. It will wear and fall off.” After dying, we undergo various pleasant and unpleasant experiences, intense panic, fear and terror. Intellectual understanding does not destroy those fears; it cannot make confusion subside. So, merely to generalize: my essence is devoid of confusion, is useless. It’s only a thought, another concept, which is ineffective at the moment of death,when it comes to deal with confusion.

What will help then?

Tulku Urgyen: You need to recognize the view that is your essence. If you haven’t thoroughly acknowledged the correct view but only constructed it from concepts, this intellectual understanding will be useless. It’s like knowing that there is a delicious meal to be eaten. Without putting it into one’s mouth one will never know what is tastes like. Likewise, you need to be totally free from the merest flicker of doubt concerning the state of naked knowing. Jigmey Lingpa said about having stability in naked knowing: at this point there is no need for 100 panditas and their thousands of explanations. You will know what is needed. Even when questioned by these scholars, you will not be in doubt. So the main point is to be stable in naked knowing through experience.

This naked knowing is not introduced through an intellectual understanding, as an idea. When a qualified master encounters a worthy student it is like iron striking flint, creating fire immediately. When such two persons meet together it’s possible to be free from doubt. When you have no doubt no matter how much you try, that is the proof of having recognized mind essence. But if it’s possible to start doubting, thinking “I wonder how it is, what shall I do?” that is the proof of having mere intellectual understanding. This difference between theory and experience is the basic key point in saying that Dzogchen has both great benefit and great danger.

When a practitioner is introduced to naked knowing he or she will be able to attain enlightenment in that very body and lifetime. This is because in the moment of recognizing the essence of naked knowing, the cognitive veil is absent. This is called touching the fruition. In this respect there are three ways: taking ground as path, taking path as path, and taking fruition as path. Receiving the pointing-out instruction means taking fruition as path. That is why it is so precious. Don’t let it stray into mere theory.

Experience is said to be the adornment of naked knowing, present within all beings. Whoever has mind has this knowing since it is the mind’s essence. The relationship between thinking mind and knowing is this: the thinking mind is like the shadow of one’s hand while knowing is the hand itself. In this way, there is not one single sentient being who does not have basic knowing. We might hear about this knowing and think “I understand, knowing is just such and such.” This mental construct is totally useless. From the very first the absence of mental fabrication is crucial. As is said, “Within the naked dharmadhatu of nonfabrication.” Introducing basic knowing means to point out the absence of mental fabrication. Otherwise it becomes an introduction to mere discursive thought. [Laughs]

What is the difference between the practice of Dzogchen and that of the Anuttara Yoga Tantra in the system of the New Schools, Sarma? It was taught that all the eight lower vehicles are contained within Dzogchen, so how does the difference come about?

Tulku Urgyen: The New Schools have four tantras:f Kriya Tantra, Charya Tantra, Yoga Tantra, and Anuttara Yoga Tantra. The fourth is divided into Father, Mother and Nondual Anuttara Tantra. This correspond exactly to the structure of the Old School, Nyingma, in that father tantra of Anuttara is Mahayoga, mother tantra is Anu Yoga and the nondual tantra is Ati Yoga, Dzogchen. However, there are no explicit teachings on Togal in Anuttara. That is the main difference. It is also taught that there is no difference whatsoever between Essence Mahamudra and Dzogchen in meaning, only in terminology. Concerning the inclusion of the lower vehicles in the highest, all phenomena of samsara and nirvana are included with the expanse of naked knowing. That is the meaning of inclusion.

There are many kinds of conceptual practices in Anuttara Yoga such as visualization and manipulations of the nadis and pranas. How do they fit into the Dzogchen system?

Tulku Urgyen: These practices actually belong to the systems of Mahayoga and Anu Yoga. However, in Ati Yoga which should be effortless, free from fixation, these practices are applied as means for enhancement.

From where does the tradition of giving the transmission of the pointing-out instruction originate?

The first origin we call the mind transmission of the conquerors. After that there was the sign transmission of vidyadharas and today we have the oral transmission of great masters. The mind transmission of conquerors is a manifestation aspect of Samantabhadra appearing in bodily form and the buddhas of five families recognize dharmata by merely seeing this bodily form. This is mind transmission through simply manifesting as a deity without the need for any conversation. This mind transmission seems to have gradually degenerated. Following that, by means of the sign transmission of vidyadharas such masters as Prahevajra, Shri Singha and Padmasambhava recognized self-existing wakefulness through a simply gesture such as a finger pointing at the sky. Finally, Padmasambhava, the eight Indian vidyadharas as well as the Tibetan king Trisong Deutsen, Vairotsana and Yeshe Tsogyal, and others gave teachings through words. This oral transmission which comes from India and is not a Tibetan invention; it was originally imparted by whispering through a copper tube such as in the case of Vairotsana into whose ear Shri Singha whispered the sentence, The single sphere of dharmakaya, self-existing wakefulness, inconceivable reality, is present within the mind of every sentient being. Oral transmission literally means transmitted into the ear.

In the case of the Kagyu lineage, Tilopa stated, “I have no human masters. My master is Vajradhara himself.” Vajradhara gave the teachings to Tilopa and Tilopa transmitted them orally to Naropa who then passed then on to Marpa. He gave them to Milarepa and he again to Gampopa from whom they were orally transmitted through the four great and eight lesser lineages.

In the case of the Nyingma lineage, Padmasambhava, Vimalamitra and Vairotsana passed the teachings on chiefly as an oral transmission to the twenty-five disciples. Here Dzogchen was transmitted as the pointing-out of the play of naked knowing; not to mere knowing but to its expression which is dharmata. From this point, the twenty-five disciples passed the teaching on to eighty Tibetan siddhas and others through oral and treasure lineages, so that this transmission has been uninterrupted down until our own root guru. If the lineage had been broken there would be no pointing-out and no recognition of naked knowing.

Why is this pointing-out instruction considered so important?

Tulku Urgyen: That is self-evident. Isn’t naked knowing the actual path for attaining enlightenment? There is nothing more important than recognizing it and become a buddha. If you put all the riches in the world on one side and the pointing out of naked knowing on the other, this knowing is more valuable for enlightenment.

Having received the pointing-out instruction and recognized, will that itself be sufficient or how should one train?

Tulku Urgyen: Once you receive the pointing-out instruction you can either recognize it or not. But a student who actually recognizes has enough for this entire lifetime in the single sufficient instruction. The same goes for the bardo state. Yet, one can still apply the paths of Mahayoga and Anu Yoga for enhancement and for clearing away hindrances. Once you recognize your essence, it is like a fire that only will blaze up more intensely the more firewood is added; the fire will never diminish with the adding of wood. Similarly, there will be benefit from applying the paths of Mahayoga and Anu Yoga; even Hinayana practice is beneficial.

According to your ability you can apply what you feel inclined to, like gathering honey from many different flowers. Or, simply cultivate the recognition of naked knowing; that alone will be sufficient for attaining enlightenment within this body and lifetime. All the different practices of Mahayoga and Anu Yoga, as in the system of Jamgon Kongtrul the First, are for the purpose of attaining stability in naked knowing. Furthermore, while benefiting beings one can become more stable in naked knowing. As I already mentioned, fire blazes up and increases the more wood is added. Having recognized your essence, sustain its continuity. There will be no benefit from simply leaving it with I have recognized. You must maintain the continuity of naked knowing until all confusion and conceptual thinking is finished. That itself is the measure; when there are no more thoughts then it is enough. There is no more need for meditation or for sustaining the continuity.

Rinpoche, although you have a large monastery in Boudhanath, Kathmandu, I notice that you spend most of the time up at Nagi Gompa Hermitage. 

Tulku Urgyen: It is said, In this age of degeneration, carry the load of the Dharma. If you cannot, simply worry that the teachings will die out. I built a monastery with a gathering of monks, – as just a reflection of the Dharma, with the hope that they will practice. Whether or not the monks individually do so is their own business. If they just wear the robes, cut their hairs and gather together in a group, even just four monks, a benefactor will benefit by accumulating merit and purifying veils through respect, faith and donations, no matter how insignificant the contribution or faith may be. This is independent of whether or not the monks misbehave. It is for this reason I took the effort to build a monastery. Moreover, this age is the time when Buddhism is slowly dying out, like the sun setting over the mountains in the west. Combined with having received the command of the Gyalwang Karmapa, we have constructed this insignificant monastery.

Nagi Gompa was initially build by the meditator Kharsha Rinpoche as a hermitage for his following of monks and nuns. After he passed away, the place was offered to Karmapa who then placed me as a caretaker. So I, this old man here, is just a caretaker [laughs]. That is the only reason why I live up here; I am not at all like Milarepa, living in mountain retreats and caves after renouncing samsara. But I have a nice spot to sleep on and a warm place in the sun [laughs]. That is how I live.

What is the benefit and purpose of doing retreat practice?

Tulku Urgyen: With many distractions one is not able to practice the Dharma properly. Distraction means a lot of business, noise and things to do. In secluded places there are less distraction. That is the reason for retreat. In addition to that, if you can keep some discipline, remaining in solitude without allowing outsiders to visit and not going out, there will be no other distraction than that made by your mind. External distractions have been eliminated. That is the purpose of seclusion. When distractions are abandoned you can exert yourself in the practice. Through exertion you can destroy confusion. When confusion falls away, enlightenment is uncovered. That is the whole reason [laughs].

Finally but not least, does Rinpoche have any special advice for the readers?

Tulku Urgyen: They should first of all receive the pointing-out instruction and recognize their essence. Having recognized, they should refrain from losing its continuity and then mingle that with daily activities. There are basically four kinds of daily actions: moving, sitting, eating and lying down. We don’t always sit or only move about; we alternate between the two. In addition we eat, shit and sleep. So there seem to be five kinds [laughs]. But at all times, in all situations, try not to lose the continuity of practice. Try to mingle practice with daily life. While getting more familiar, daily life activities will only cause naked knowing to progress and activities become the adornment of this undistracted naked knowing, beyond being obscured or cleared.

When able to mingle practice with activities, the activities will then be beneficial and devoid of any harm whatsoever. That is when you have already recognized your  essence correctly. Without the correct recognition you will get carried away by daily activities and have no stability. Lacking stability is like a strand of hair in the wind bending according to how the wind blows. A needle remains stable in the wind no matter how small it is. Once you have truly recognized your essence you cannot be carried away by the activities of daily life. Dualistic mind is completely unstable, like a hair that is just ready to move by the tiniest breeze; it falls prey to the five external sense objects. Naked knowing, on the other hand, when properly recognized, does never fall subject to sense objects. It is like a needle that is unmoved by the wind.

The interview with Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche was recorded on the 16th day of December, 1985, at Nagi Gompa, outside of Kathmandu. When Rinpoche was asked if he would grant an interview for the Vajradhatu Sun in Boulder Colorado, his reply was, “What is the use of the tiny light of a firefly when the sun has already risen in the sky?” referring to Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche’s presence in the West.
—Interview and translation by Erik Pema Kunsang, 1985. 
Parts of this interview appeared in the Vajradhatu Sun magazine. Some of the questions were asked by Dana Chubb.
Featured image: Noah Gordon.

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. Avatar

    Erik, what a delight finding and reading this lovely interview. I had the great fortune of being in weekend retreat and taking refuge with precious Tulku Urgyen many years ago. I’m eager to read the other articles you’ve written about him.
    My heart swells in gratitude as I remember his teachings and his Presence.
    I have a Q for you:
    The phrase, Self-existing wakefulness, is referred to many times.
    What is the Tibetan word that this is translated from?
    Many thanks for your awesome service to the teachings.

    1. Erik Pema Kunsang

      Yes, dear Glenda, Tulku Urgyen touched the heart of many people deeply. The phrase is rangjung yeshe. All my other articles are inspired by his teachings. All the stories about him that are not included in Blazing Splendor will be included in my biography. All the best.

  2. Pingback: Misturando fogo e água: Entrevista com Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche - Revista Bodisatva

  3. Avatar

    Thanks so much Erik for sharing such amazing teachings !!! No words can describe my gratitude for your generosity in sharing precious Dharma _/\_

  4. Avatar

    Thanks Erik, amazing !!!

  5. Avatar

    Thank you so much Erik for this wonderful gift to help to remind us of this Great Teacher and his teachings. Love Tsultrim

  6. Avatar

    Hej Erik,

    Vi sås sidst 1978, da du inviterede mig op for at møde Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche. Nu er jeg tilbage i Kathmandu. Det er fantastisk at se, hvor alt dette har taget dig. Jeg har været så langt væk, så længe. At læse dette er en fornyelse. Der er noget, jeg vil spørge dig om. Er du i Nepal nu?

    Mik, ham med sherpaerne

    1. Erik Pema Kunsang Author

      Hej Mik. Jeg tænkte lige på dig for et par dage siden. Sidste gang vi sås var rundt om stupaen. Nu bor jeg i Danmark. Du kan skrive til levekunst@gmail.com.

      PS. Har du et billede af Tubten Choling, anno ca. 1977?

  7. Avatar

    Wonderful, thank you, Erik and Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche!

    In the absence of receiving pointing-out instruction from a master, are there instructions for meditating on self-existing wakefulness?

    1. Erik Pema Kunsang Author

      Yes, Patrick. There definitely are.

      1. All instructions are given to lead the mind to realize its own nature, so every practice when taught, understood and trained in correctly lead to being ready for recognizing and further stability in self-existing wakefulness.

      2. In lieu of genuine self-existing wakefulness, at the end or beginning of a meditation session or formal chant, try again and again to remain simple and present.

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    Excellent, Erik, as always
    Thank you
    Your dedication is Exemplary.

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    Beautiful interview and I don’t feel/see his view different from what Advaita Masters and Zen Masters have said….direct path. Only the words/concepts used by him are different but the essence is exactly same 🙂
    Questions related to other paths shown by Masters of other religions should also be asked to such Masters.

  10. Sonia Gomes

    Just no words to so much wisdom revealed… I bow to Rinpoche 🙏🏼🙏🏼🙏🏼
    Thank you Erik , for this amazing teaching !

  11. Avatar

    Any words by this Master of Ati are like nectar ….never tire of reading his essential instructions on mind nature …the juicy words of a true practioner ,not the dry intellectual lenthy works of a Pandit …..Thank You ….

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