In INSIGHTS by Erik Pema Kunsang8 Comments

What is the real purpose of meditation? What is the difference between an enlightenment experience and enlightenment? What does the awakened state have to do with our consciousness? When after intensive meditation, or unexpectedly, you experience a totally naked state of mind, how do you proceed? What is real progress for a meditator and what is the main catalyst for progress? You will find the answers to all these questions in the following teachings by Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche.

Buddhist practice involves three steps known as intellectual understanding, experience and realization. Intellectual understanding occurs when, for instance, we hear that emptiness, meaning empty cognizance, is our nature. The mental idea we get of this is called understanding. In the case of experience, we are told how to recognize emptiness so that we can see exactly how this empty cognizance is. We have a taste of it, maybe no more than a glimpse, but, nevertheless, an experience of what is called recognizing mind essence. That is what the word experience means in this context. When this glimpse is followed by training in repeatedly recognizing the nature of mind and avoiding being carried away by thoughts, we gradually grow more and more used to this experience. In this case, by recognizing the empty nature we are disengaging from its expression, the stream of deluded thinking. Each time the expression dissolves back into the state of awareness, progress is made, and in this way realization finally occurs. Ultimate realization is when delusion has totally collapsed and there is no reoccurrence of conceptual thought whatsoever.

Thoughts are like clouds and can vanish just as clouds naturally disperse into space. The expression, meaning thoughts, are like clouds, while rigpa the awakened state, is like sunlit space. I use the metaphor of sunlit space to illustrate that space and awareness are indivisible. You do not accomplish or create the sunlit sky. We cannot push the clouds away, but we can allow the clouds of thought to gradually dissolve until finally all the clouds have vanished. Ultimate realization occurs when there is no trace of the cloud layers whatsoever.

It is not as if we need to decide, “I hate these thoughts. I only want the awakened state! I have to be enlightened!” This kind of grasping and pushing will never give way to enlightenment. By simply allowing the expression of thought activity to naturally subside, again and again, the moments of genuine rigpa automatically and naturally begin to last longer. When there are no thoughts whatsoever, then you are a buddha. At that point the thought-free state is effortless, as well as the ability to benefit all beings. But until that time it does not help to believe that you are a buddha.

Listening to this explanation is merely getting the idea. We intellectually comprehend that emptiness is empty yet cognizant and that these two aspects are indivisible. It is like going to a buffet where we don’t actually taste anything, but only receive a guided tour or explanation of the different dishes: “This is Indian food, that is Chinese food. Over there is French cuisine.” Without eating anything your knowledge of the food is only intellectual understanding. Once you finally put the food in your mouth, that is experience. When your stomach is full, that is realization. Realization is the total and permanent collapse of confusion.

Empty cognizance is our nature. We cannot separate one aspect of it from the other. Empty means not made out of anything whatsoever; our nature has always been this way. Yet, while being empty, it has the capacity to know, to experience, to perceive. It’s not so difficult to comprehend this; to get the theory that this empty cognizance is buddha nature, self-existing wakefulness. But to leave it at that is the same as looking at the buffet and not eating anything. Being told about buddha nature but never really making it our personal experience will not help anything. It’s like staying hungry. Once we put the food in our mouth, we discover what the food tastes like. This illustrates the dividing line between idea and experience.

In the same way, if we have correct understanding, the moment we apply what our master teaches, we recognize our nature. That there is no entity whatsoever to be seen is called emptiness. The ability to know that mind essence is empty is called cognizance. If it were only blank, bare space, what or who would know that it is blank or empty or nothing? There would be no knowing. These two aspects, empty and cognizant, are indivisible. This becomes obvious to us the very moment that we look; it is no longer hidden. Then it is not just an intellectual idea of how emptiness is; it becomes a part of our experience. At that moment, meditation training can truly begin.

We call this training meditation, but it is not an act of meditating in the common sense of the word. There is no emptying the mind essence by trying to maintain an artificially imposed vacant state. Why? Because mind essence is already empty. Similarly, we do not need to make this empty essence cognizant. All you have to do is leave it as it is. In fact, there is nothing whatsoever to do, so we cannot even call this an act or meditating. There is an initial recognition, and from then on we do not have to be clever about it or try to improve it in any way whatsoever. Just let it be as it naturally is, that is what is called meditation, or more accurately nonmeditation. What is crucial is not to be distracted for even a single instant. Once recognition has taken place, undistracted non meditation is the key point of practice.

Distracted means that once the attention wavers and loses itself, thoughts and emotions can take place. Distraction is the return of all these kinds of thoughts, in which the continuity of nondual awareness is lost. The training is simply to recognize again. Once recognition takes place, there is nothing more to do; simply allow mind essence to be. That is how the cloud-covers gradually dissolve.

Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche - early photo

Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche – early photo

The ultimate state is totally free from any obscuration, like the short moment of recognition. However, in the latter there is still the tendency for the obscurations to return. The state of realization, complete enlightenment, means that no cloud-cover can ever return; its causes are utterly and permanently eliminated. When the clouds vanish, what else can cover the sun? That is the final or ultimate realization, when there is only brilliant, pure sunshine throughout space without any cloud-cover whatsoever. In other words, everything that needed to be removed has been removed and everything that needed to be actualized is already present. The empty sky and the brilliant sunshine are not of our making. They have always been there and are fully actualized when the cloud-cover is eliminated.

Please understand that there are three steps: recognizing, training and attaining stability. The first of these steps, recognizing, is like acquiring the seed of a flower. Once it is in your hands and you acknowledge it to be a flower, it can be planted and cultivated. When fully grown, flowers will bloom; but the seed needs the right conditions. However, we must first acknowledge that it is indeed a flower seed. In the same way, the naked awareness that has been pointed out by your master should be acknowledged as your nature. This recognition must be nurtured by the right conditions. To cultivate a seed, it must have warmth and moisture and so on; then it will certainly grow. In the same way, after recognizing we must train in the natural state: the short moment of recognition needs to be repeated many times. As the support for this training, have devotion to enlightened beings and compassion for unenlightened beings. Devotion and compassion are a universal panacea, the single sufficient technique. A famous quote says, “In the moment of love, the nature of emptiness dawns nakedly.” Both compassion and devotion are included in the love mentioned here.

Training is simply short moments of recognition repeated many times and supported by devotion and compassion. In addition, there are practices called the development and completion stages belonging to sadhana. All these practices facilitate nondistraction. Repeatedly training in nondistraction is how to progress in the practice of mind nature.

Finally comes the stage of stability. When this moment of nondistraction lasts unceasingly, day and night, what will that be like? When the three poisons are obliterated and the qualities of wakefulness become fully manifest, will we be ordinary human beings or divine? A single candle-flame can set the whole of a mountainside ablaze. Imagine what it would be like when our present experience of the wide awake moment free from thought becomes unceasing. Is there anything more divine than possessing all the wisdom qualities and being utterly free from the three poisons?

We can deduce from this that training is needed. We must grow up, just like a new-born baby. The infant born today and the adult 25 years later is essentially the same person, isn’t he? He is not someone else. Right now, our nature is the buddha nature. When fully enlightened, it will also be the buddha nature. Our nature is unfabricated naturalness. It is this way by itself: like space, it does not need to be manufactured. But we do need to allow the experience of buddha nature to continue through unfabricated naturalness.

One sign of having trained in rigpa, the awakened state, is simply that conceptual thinking, which is the opposite of rigpa, grows less and less. The gap between thoughts grows longer and occurs more and more frequently. The state of unfabricated awareness, what the tantras call the “continuous instant of nonfabrication,” becomes more and more prolonged. This continuity of rigpa is not something we have to deliberately maintain. It should occur spontaneously through having grown more familiar with it. Once we become accustomed to the genuine state of unfabricated rigpa, it will automatically start to last longer and longer.

What is meant by stability, then? First, to gain stability, we need to have recognized genuine rigpa. We should have clearly ascertained the true state. Through training, we should have gained some degree of stability in this so that we are no longer carried away by circumstances. These conditions can be either positive or negative. Negative circumstances such as difficulties, mishaps or illness, are much easier to notice and not be overcome by. Thus, it is easier to practice during times of difficulty than it is when being successful. The worst obstacle for a practitioner is when crowds of followers begin to gather and say, You are so wonderful; you’re such a great practitioner. You are very special. Please give us teachings. Please guide us. Starting to have a large following causes the most difficult kind of obstacle because, unless one is the foremost type of practitioner, one will think, Hey, maybe I am special. Maybe there is something to what they say. Only the foremost type of practitioner will not be carried away by such positive conditions. When we reach the point of not being carried away by either positive or negative circumstances, we have gained some stability.

There are signs of accomplishment, such as having good health and long life or becoming famous and influential, but these belong to the superficial type of accomplishment. The true, unmistaken signs of accomplishment as established by the masters of the lineage, are to possess compassion, devotion and an acute sense of impermanence. Combined with this, thoughts grow less and less and the genuine awakened state lasts for increasingly longer periods. In the moment of unfabricated awareness thoughts do not have the power to remain, because that instant is totally free from the duality of perceiver and perceived. What we call sem, dualistic mind, is always involved in upholding the concepts of perceiver and perceived. Rigpa, however, is by nature devoid of duality. When the concepts of perceiver and perceived are not kept up, duality crumbles, and there is no way conceptual thinking can continue.

It’s not hard to gain some intellectual understanding of the Dharma; as they say, talk is cheap. Anyone can talk about it. One can easily say, The awakened state is amazing. It is endowed with all perfect qualities, totally free from any faults. In fact, nothing can ever harm the state of rigpa. It is totally untainted. And it is very easy to say, Everything is illusion. The whole world is merely an illusion. Nothing has any independent or true existence. It’s all magical trickery. We can deliver these words from our mouths, but this is not enough to destroy the state of confusion, to make our delusion fall apart. To do this, we need the genuine experience.

Experience here, means to recognize the essence that is like space. In the moment of rigpa, any deluded state is seen as baseless, illusory and rootless. The false nature of thought becomes totally obvious, in a very immediate and personal way that is not just an idea that we have heard. At that moment we directly touch the truth of those statements. By attaining stability in this direct experience, the great masters of the Kagyu lineage could make statements like, The rock here is totally transparent. Everything is the magical trickery of illusion. Due to their level of realization, these masters could pass through solid rock, drill themselves into the ground, walk on water, fly through the air and so forth. This was not because they had developed some special powers through their practice or because they were very strong or stubborn, but simply because everything is unreal from the very outset. Because of realizing the insubstantial nature of things, as it is, practitioners have been able to manifest such signs of accomplishment. Otherwise, we can study the teachings and say pithy things like, There is nothing to worry about in the bardo. Everything that then occurs is an illusion; there is nothing real about it. But when we eventually arrive in the bardo states, we will be completely embroiled in the raging river of our fear.

Let me reiterate the three steps, intellectual understanding, experience and realization. Intellectual understanding is, for instance, to have heard about the awakened state. Theory, is, of course, important, and we should definitely know the intent of the teachings. However, we should not leave it with that. We need to incorporate all three: theory, experience and realization.

Then there is recognizing, training and attaining stability. Of these three, recognizing is like identifying the authentic seed of a beautiful flower. Training is like planting the seed in fertile soil, applying water, and so on, not leaving the seed lying on bare stone. The seed needs the right circumstances to grow in. By applying these skillful means, nothing whatsoever can prevent the plant from growing. Likewise, we need to train in, to develop the strength of the recognition of mind nature. After applying water and creating positive nurturing conditions, the plant will certainly grow taller and taller. Eventually, it will fully blossom with beautiful brightly colored flowers, because this potential was inherent to the seed. But this does not happen all at once. In the same way, we hear about the amazingly great qualities of buddhahood, such as the fourfold fearlessness, the eighteen unique qualities of the buddhas, the ten powers, the ten strengths and so forth. We then wonder, Where are those qualities? How come they are not apparent in a moment’s experience of the awakened state! What is wrong! It can be understood in the following way. Within a few seconds’ glimpse of the state of rigpa, these qualities are not experienced the same as when recognition has been stabilized. Although inherently present in our nature, these qualities do not have time to be fully manifest. Just as the seed is the unmistaken element for the fully blossomed flower, so the moment of recognizing the awakened state is definitely the basis for buddhahood itself.

If the flower-seed is planted and nurtured, it will without question grow. But do not expect the moment of rigpa to be an amazing or spectacular experience. Actually, there is one aspect of the awakened state that is truly amazing, the fact that conceptual thinking and the three poisons are totally absent. If we look around, apart from rigpa, what can really bring an end to thought, the very creator of samsara? We can drop a million nuclear bombs on this world and blow everything to smithereens. If that stops conceptual thinking and delusion, let’s do it! But it doesn’t. It would be fantastic if we could simply blow up all the confused samsaric realms and end them permanently, but unfortunately that’s not possible. Is there anything in this world that stops deluded thinking? Nothing other than the moment of recognizing the awakened state can truly cut through the stream of deluded thinking. That’s quite amazing.Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche (1920–1996) was a master in the Dzogchen tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. Teachers of Dzogchen, the Great Perfection, regard it as the innermost essence of the Buddha’s teachings. During the last decades of his life, Rinpoche’s hermitage above the Kathmandu Valley was frequented by visitors from all over the world. Today, his many monasteries and retreat centers are managed by his four sons who are his lineage holders.
This is adapted from 
Rainbow Painting by Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche, translated by Erik Pema Kunsang, and reprinted with permission from Rangjung Yeshe Publications. 

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.

Photo of Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche by Erik Pema Kunsang.
Recommended reading: books by and about Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche.

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  1. Avatar

    This text about the dzogchen “path” is so clear, accessible and likable. Simply love it.

    Nevertheless sharing and discussing it with sangha members i’ve often had a hard time: The notion that the production of thought stopps, when recognizing empty awareness or nature of mind, and continues, when losing it, seems to be not easy to be agreed upon. Often it was objected that it would be simply impossible to stop the production of thoughts and that the point would be to not identify with any of them. Well, surely that’s a good way of dealing with thoughts if they occur again or if you are “preparing to enter” empty cognizance, but following my experience i would agree to the claim of this text. But i have to admit that on a cloudy day this resistance of other buddhists confuses me to a degree that i wonder whether i’ve jumped on some misleading train instead of having (for some moments) really reached the genuine state.

    Well, if you should feel to be drawn to merge your clouds with mine or let the the sun dissolve them – you’re welcome!

    Warm regards, Frank

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    „The expression, meaning thoughts, are like clouds, while rigpa the awakened state, is like sunlit space. I use the metaphor of sunlit space to illustrate that space and awareness are indivisible. You do not accomplish or create the sunlit sky. We cannot push the clouds away, but we can allow the clouds of thought to gradually dissolve until finally all the clouds have vanished. Ultimate realization occurs when there is no trace of the cloud layers whatsoever.“

    A very beautiful description of the awakened mind 🙂

    “Enlightenment, or Nirvana, is nothing other than the state beyond all obstacles, in the same way that from the peak of a very high mountain one always sees the sun. Nirvana is not a paradise or some special place of happiness, but is in fact the condition beyond all dualistic concepts, including those of happiness and suffering. When all our obstacles have been overcome, and we find ourselves in a state of total presence, the wisdom of enlightenment manifests spontaneously without limits, just like the infinite rays of the sun. The clouds have dissolved, and the sun is finally free to shine once again.”
    ― Namkhai Norbu, Dzogchen: The Self-Perfected State

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  4. Nadja Prætorius

    Thank you for sharing Erik Pema, – so helpful to be in the presence of priceless teachings

  5. Avatar

    Thanks for sharing! He presents such subtle and profound teaching in a reachable way. Its almost so direct you forget these are the most esoteric teaching in the world.

  6. Avatar

    Hi Erik,

    I ‘m a great fan of dzogchen and particular of Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche, and translated some of his English texts in Dutch (see But my topic is a bit different today. I really like the quality of your site, the articles and images. (as I enjoyed a lot books and text you translated).
    I only wonder why the images on the site and in the articles are so huge? They almost overrule the text. For my taste the could be a bit smaller.
    Regards, Ramo.

    1. Erik Pema Kunsang Author

      Dear Ramo, many people love the art work. Sometimes a picture says more than a thousand words.

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