The Essential Jewel of Holy Practice - Introduction

An exquisite poem from one of Dzogchen’s greatest teachers.

 

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Patrul Rinpoche

Orgyen Jigme Chokyi Wangpo, better known as Patrul Rinpoche, was one of the most influential philosophers and meditation masters of nineteenth-century Tibet. He was an adept of the Dzogchen (Great Perfection) tradition associated with the Nyingma school and a scholar of both Madhyamaka philosophy and tantra. Patrul Rinpoche is the author of many influential and widely read texts, including his classic introduction to and synopsis of the Buddhist path, The Words of My Perfect Teacher. He was also renowned as a meditator and Dzogchen practitioner.

Patrul Rinpoche’s prose and poetry is profound, philosophically precise, eloquent, and yet completely accessible to advanced scholars and practitioners as well as to laypeople and novices. As one of his disciples noted, even if his teachings “are heard by a dull mind, still they are easy to understand” (Thondup, Masters of Meditations and Miracles, p. 209). The text we present here, The Essential Jewel of Holy Practice, conveys in lucid and evocative poetry the subtlest aspects of the phenomenology of liberation and the relationship between Buddhist philosophical tenets, the practice of the path to awakening, and the cultivation of moral sensitivity. Patrul Rinpoche speaks directly and powerfully, but intimately, to the reader without alienating her; the intimacy he achieves only enhances the reader’s connection to the text. Another great Dzogchen master of that time, the third Dodrupchen, wrote: “Patrul uses fearful and overwhelmingly tough words, but there is no trace of hatred or attachment in them. If you know how to listen to them, they are directly or indirectly only teachings. Whatever he says is solid like gold—it is true” (Thondup, 208).

Patrul Rinpoche was born in eastern Tibet in 1808. His spiritual biography (in the hagiographic style characteristic of this Tibetan genre) reports that he chanted the syllable oṃ immediately after he was born and clearly recited the full Avalokiteśvara mantra—oṃ maṇi padme hūṃ—when he was only five days old. This mantra, to which he refers in the present text as the “six-beat mantra” (yig drug), had special significance for Patrul Rinpoche. Most Tibetans believe that reciting this mantra develops the attitude of universal care embodied by the celestial bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara. Patrul Rinpoche is credited with disseminating the practice of regularly reciting this mantra, and hence with emphasizing the importance of the cultivation of an attitude of care in daily practice among the laypeople of eastern Tibet. The advice to “chant the six-beat mantra” is repeated over twenty times in The Essential Jewel of Holy Practice. The associated development of an altruistic attitude of universal care (karuṇā) and the aspiration to attain awakening for the benefit of all beings (bodhicitta) was at the heart of many of Patrul Rinpoche’s teachings. One of his daily practices was to chant Śāntideva’s How to Lead an Awakened Life (Bodhicaryāvatāra), a text that he taught frequently and on which he composed an influential commentary.

Patrul Rinpoche was a Dzogchen master. In the Dzogchen tradition, the recognition of the nature of mind requires the assistance of a teacher who will “indicate” or introduce the disciple to the nature of her own mind. Sometimes these “indication” instructions employ unconventional methods, as in Patrul Rinpoche’s case. According to his biography, one day when Patrul Rinpoche was meditating in his hermitage, one of his root teachers, Do Khyentse, visited him. When Patrul Rinpoche went out to greet him, Do Khyentse grabbed him by the hair and dragged him around. Patrul Rinpoche smelled alcohol on Do Khyentse’s breath and thought, “The Buddha expounded on the dangers of alcohol, yet even a great adept like him could get drunk like this” (Thondup, 202). Do Khyentse immediately released Patrul Rinpoche and spat in his face, shouting, “Alas, that you intellectual people have such evil thoughts! You old dog!” Patrul Rinpoche was astounded by both his own negative thoughts and his teacher’s clairvoyance. In that moment, it is reported that Patrul Rinpoche “meditated on the enlightened nature of his mind, and a clear, sky-like, open and intrinsic awareness awakened in him.” He realized, in other words, the nature of his own mind. In honor of this event, Patrul Rinpoche jokingly took Old Dog as his spiritual name.

Many of Patrul Rinpoche’s students were impressed by his honesty and humility. It is said that when he died, his sole possessions were one set of robes, an alms bowl, a yellow shawl, a lower garment, some food, and a few books. He collected so few possessions while alive that “wherever he was, when he stood up, he was ready to leave a place instantly” (Thondup, 209). Patrul Rinpoche did not store offerings that were made to him—except for a few days’ worth of food—and often left them in the place they were made. As a result, he was often followed by a band of poor people, the best beneficiaries of the offerings.

Because of his simple, coarse dress and his utter lack of pomp, people often failed to recognize him as a great lama. In fact, one well-meaning monk, not knowing it was him, once gave Patrul Rinpoche a teaching on one of Patrul Rinpoche’s own compositions! The third Dodrupchen remembered Patrul Rinpoche as treating “all people equally, neither flattering them in their presence nor backbiting them in their absence. He never pretends to be something or someone else . . . He is not partial to high people, nor does he have any disregard for ordinary people . . . He seems hard to serve, yet however close you are to him, it is impossible to find a single instance of dishonesty, dubiousness, instability, or hypocrisy in him.” Despite Patrul Rinpoche’s exacting moral standards, Dodrupchen also describes him as relaxed and easy to be around. He inspires such devotion and affection that “it is hard to separate from him” (Thondup, 208).

At the age of eighty, Patrul Rinpoche’s health declined. On the eighteenth of the fourth month of the fire-pig year (1887), he sat naked in Buddha posture. Eyes open in meditative gaze, his “mind merged into the primordial purity” and he died soon after. The impact of his life was great, not only because of his scholarly and poetic achievements but also because of the powerful example he set and the fierce compassion he modeled.

The Essential Jewel

In the colophon, Patrul Rinpoche tells us that The Essential Jewel of Holy Practice was written in the White Cliff Victory Mountain Cave (near the Chinese-Tibet border) in response to “the pleas of an old friend.” The poem discusses the perils of ordinary life in samsara and the urgency of cultivating moral and spiritual discipline in order to escape samsara and benefit oneself and others. The text offers a succinct, yet complete, view of the path of liberation as seen from the perspectives of Madhyamaka philosophy and Mahāyāna ethics refracted through Dzogchen. Our translation and explanatory notes emphasize the ways in which Patrul Rinpoche integrates the Madhyamaka understanding of emptiness and the Mahāyāna ideal of compassionate care with the Dzogchen perspective, yielding a sophisticated philosophical approach to meditative practice focusing on the nature of the experience both of emptiness and of liberation.

Dzogchen is a tradition of Tibetan Buddhism principally associated with the Nyingma (ancient, or original) school. According to the Nyingma tradition, Dzogchen teachings were first introduced in Tibet in the eighth century with the arrival of Padmasambhava, the Indian tantrika, who, along with the scholar Śāntarakṣita, brought Buddhism from India to Tibet. Padmasambhava himself is regarded by many Tibetans as a buddha. There does not seem, however, to be textual evidence of Dzogchen in early Indian Buddhist texts—the earliest known Dzogchen texts are in Tibetan and from the tenth century—and many scholars of Dzogchen consider it to be a uniquely Tibetan religious tradition. The greatest expounder of Dzogchen philosophy and practice was Longchen Rabjam (1308–1364), who, it is said, transmitted the central Dzogchen teachings The Heart Essence of the Great Expanse (Klong chen nying thig), four centuries later, to Jigme Lingpa (1730–1798). These teachings were the basis of Patrul Rinpoche’s classic text The Words of My Perfect Teacher.

Dzogchen, in Tibetan, is an abbreviation of rdzogs pa chen po, which literally means “the great perfection.” Perfection, according to Dzogchen, is not something we need to produce, achieve, or even cultivate; it is innate in each of us, and the goal of practice is simply to recognize it. In this context, “perfection” is understood to denote buddha nature, the qualities and capacities of a buddha that are already complete and latent within us. According to Dzogchen—and this is what differentiates it from other Buddhist traditions that share its emphasis on buddha nature—this recognition is best achieved by a simple, direct realization of the nature of one’s own mind (rig pa).

This realization is normally achieved in the context of meditation, which, in the Dzogchen tradition, is not the attainment of fixed concentration or single-pointed focus but rather the cultivation of open, nondistracted awareness. When we rest in this open awareness, Dzogchen practitioners say, we find that grounding every moment of consciousness, no matter how conceptual—and therefore necessarily distorting—is a basic, luminous, nondual awareness. Dzogchen practitioners are therefore encouraged to relax into this basic awareness, allowing their thoughts and feelings to arise and to cease. Therefore Dzogchen teachers such as Patrul Rinpoche often call on us to give up our frenetic activity and simply to relax. The language of naturalness, relaxation, and spontaneity is central to Dzogchen teachings, including Patrul Rinpoche’s, since our main obstacle to liberation, they say, is the habit of busying and distracting the mind and thereby failing to recognize its natural purity and power.

One of the main themes of the Essential Jewel is that any mental state or activity—from perception and sensation to thought and emotion—can “self-liberate” (rang grol) on its own as it arises. He advises, “Leave things in their natural state. Don’t fabricate and clarity will arise on its own” (Essential Jewel, verse 39). This, we might say, is because the essence of mind—empty awareness—is already primordially liberated. The path to liberation is not a gradual cultivation of qualities one lacks, but rather a quest to recognize and to manifest the liberation already present. If we are able to reconnect with our mind and our being as it is, and to develop the stability to rest in that experience, there is nothing further that needs to be done to uproot affliction or confusion; if we persist in trying to change our own nature, we only erect obstacles to liberation. As Patrul Rinpoche puts it, “Only by doing nothing can we do all there is to be done” (Essential Jewel, verse 39).

The Dzogchen tradition distinguishes four aspects of liberation, each of which is articulated in the Essential Jewel: (1) primordial liberation (ye grol), (2) self-liberation (rang grol), (3) naked liberation (cer grol), and (4) instant liberation (shar grol). To understand the Essential Jewel one must have a sense of each of these aspects of liberation. The attainment of awakening in this framework necessarily exemplifies all four aspects.

We have alluded to primordial liberation, the fact that all mental experiences are already liberated because they are empty of intrinsic nature. The contemporary Buddhist teacher Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche writes that, for any experience we may have, “we do not need to re-create that ground of emptiness, because it is already there.” Whatever it is that we are experiencing—thought, perception, emotion, etc.—is not essentially afflicted, simply because it has no essence whatsoever. No state of mind has any intrinsic nature, and so each is already empty, with its emptiness always available for realization. In the context of Dzogchen philosophy of mind, primordial liberation is just this emptiness of mental experience.

Self-liberation, which Patrul Rinpoche discusses at length in the Essential Jewel, is the fact that afflicted experience can become liberation without the aid of anything external to it, “like a snake that simply uncoils itself from its own knot” (Dzogchen Ponlop, 108). This is true in the relative sense, since afflictive experiences, like all conditioned phenomena, are impermanent and so will cease; we do not have to do anything to make them impermanent. But this is true in a deeper sense: Our thoughts, emotions, and perceptions are themselves displays of the nature of mind, which is primordially liberated. By simply recognizing their primordial nature, we can become liberated from attachment to them and from the experience of our mind as intrinsically existent. This is self-liberation: because they are primordially liberated, afflictive experiences can self-liberate.

The third aspect of liberation is naked liberation, which is the liberation that occurs by virtue of the mind becoming aware of itself. Patrul Rinpoche describes this mode of liberation when he advises us not to pursue the object of our afflictive thoughts and emotions but instead to attend to the afflicted mind (Essential Jewel, verses 50-54). This kind of attention to the mind is called “naked” because it is attention that is not dressed up with concepts and narratives, or concerned with the contents of mind, as opposed to the mind itself; it is called “liberation” because the very activity of attending in this way liberates afflictive experience, transforming what was a source of suffering into a source of liberation simply by freely attending to it rather than being bound by it. We achieve instant liberation, the fourth and final mode of Dzogchen liberation, when we continue, moment after moment, to allow afflictive experience to liberate us and thus become able to rest stably in the nature of our mind, which we come to experience as nondual and boundless.

Patrul Rinpoche’s discussion of the liberation of affliction and the recognition of the basic nature of mind (rig pa) is grounded in the core Mahāyāna philosophical tenets of emptiness (sūnyatā, stong pa snyid) and compassionate care (karuṇā, snying rje). According to the Madhyamaka school, all phenomena are ultimately empty, which means that they lack any intrinsic existence. This is true of physical objects, persons, mental states, and even emptiness itself. Although they exist in a conventional sense, upon analysis we find that they have no intrinsic reality. On the Madhyamaka view, this emptiness of intrinsic reality needs to be understood intellectually, through philosophical analysis, and, more important, to be deeply and stably integrated into our experience, leading to a constant, immediate experience of the fundamental nature of reality.

It is easy to read nihilism into Madhyamaka texts by mistakenly taking the claim that all phenomena are empty of intrinsic existence to mean that nothing at all exists. But to experience the world as a Mādhyamika is not to experience things as nonexistent; in fact, this kind of nihilism is a danger all Buddhist schools admonish us to avoid. Instead, emptiness is offered as a philosophical analysis of the way in which things exist—they exist only conventionally—and not as a denial that they exist at all. To exist conventionally is to exist as posited in the framework of human thought, language, and conceptual structures; it is to be causally and mereologically interdependent, and to be dependent for identity on conceptual imputation. This kind of existence, Mādhyamikas argue, is the only existence there is; there is no deeper, ultimate existence.

It is important to remember that, for Mādhyamikas, things exist conventionally because they lack intrinsic existence, and not in spite of this fact. Emptiness and dependent origination—the idea that phenomena exist dependent on conditions—are identified in Madhyamaka philosophy, as argued by the second-century philosopher Nāgārjuna in his classic treatise Fundamental Verses on the Middle Way. In that text, Nāgārjuna argues that there is no ontological distinction between the two truths: samsara and nirvana are identical; conventional and ultimate truth are merely two sides of the same coin. This identification of the two truths and the doctrine that even emptiness is empty—not an alternative reality standing behind an illusory conventional reality—undermines any nihilistic interpretation of emptiness in Madhyamaka philosophy. Our goal, according to this tradition, is to experience the empirical reality of phenomena and their ultimate emptiness simultaneously. As Patrul Rinpoche says many times in the Essential Jewel, all phenomena, including the self, are simply “empty appearances”—they are empty, but they are still appearances.

To experience ourselves in this way is an enormous conceptual and phenomenological challenge, for even when we seem to be able to take external phenomena to be empty of essence, interdependent, impermanent, and selfless, we often do so by implicitly taking ourselves to be the intrinsic ground of that mere imputation. No matter what we think about external phenomena, there is still a powerful cognitive instinct to take ourselves as the foundation of our experience; denying our own intrinsic existence seems, then, like cognitive suicide—like the denial of the reality of the very subject performing the denial. But it is not. It is simply to realize that we as subjects, like the objects we experience, exist only in interdependence and have an identity that is only conceptually imputed. To see subjectivity itself not as the primordial ground of reality but as one more groundless reality is the goal of a Madhyamaka understanding; the transformation of consciousness this realization entails is so profound as to be literally inconceivable until it has been achieved.

Following the Dzogchen tradition, Patrul Rinpoche argues that to understand emptiness is to realize directly the emptiness of one’s own mind and mental constructs. “Your mind, nondually aware and empty,” Patrul Rinpoche tells us, “is the embodiment of truth” (Essential Jewel, verse 39). The Essential Jewel can be understood as deep personal instruction in recognizing the empty nature of one’s own mind (rig pa). In this text, Patrul Rinpoche often uses more phenomenological descriptions of emptiness, referring to clear, naked, nondual, empty awareness. These expressions characterize the experience of emptiness as opposed to emptiness itself. According to Patrul Rinpoche, because the nature of mind is empty, if we recognize that basic nature, we’ve recognized emptiness, and if we achieve a stable recognition of the nature of mind, we thereby achieve a stable understanding of emptiness. To understand the nature of mind, then, is to understand the nature of reality.

To understand the nature of mind as clear, open, luminous, empty awareness is therefore radically transformative, and this transformation extends to one’s moral capacity and sensitivity. Recognizing the nature of mind allows our dysfunctional mental states to self-liberate: when we recognize the emptiness of our mental states, our attachment to them simply disappears. These dysfunctional states, which include confusion, aversion, attraction, and envy, are major obstacles to loving and compassionate care for other sentient beings. For this reason, the Dzogchen imperative to rest in the nature of one’s mind has profound moral power, since this way of being in the world allows one to spontaneously manifest the Mahāyāna commitment to care for all beings with love and compassion (karuṇā).

Our innate dysfunctional states cause, maintain, and are maintained by egocentrism, which inhibits a more realistic, wholesome, productive mode of interpersonal experience and interaction. When we are in the grip of such states, not only do we fail to generate any love or compassion, but the love and compassion that we may already have can’t be utilized; for our loving care to be actualized it can’t be blocked, warped, or hijacked by egocentricity. A mind in which this kind of primal confusion and dysfunction does not take hold is a mind that can be sensitive to the needs to others and that can care for them. One of the major lessons of the Essential Jewel is that the recognition of the nature of mind is a moral accomplishment, a fact that is further emphasized by Patrul Rinpoche’s repeated encouragement to recite the six-beat mantra, the mantra of universal care.

As the focus on the six-beat mantra suggests, the Essential Jewel is as much about practice as it is about philosophy. But the practices recommended in this text are subtle, especially compared with the Mahāyāna and Vajrāyāna practices described in Patrul Rinpoche’s other works, including The Words of My Perfect Teacher and his commentary on the Bodhicaryāvatāra, which advocate practices ranging from radical generosity to complex visualizations. These ethical practices are not at odds with those suggested in the Essential Jewel. (Indeed, Patrul Rinpoche most likely assumed at least some of them as a context for the text.) But they are not explicitly thematized here.

Instead, the Essential Jewel focuses on more subtle shifts of attention and mental orientation from the outside to the inside, from objective phenomena to the structure of subjectivity—for instance, the shift from attending to the object of our envy to attending to our own envious mind (Essential Jewel, verse 53), or the shift from taking for granted the reality of our confused thoughts to recognizing our own confusion (Essential Jewel, verse 54). These reorientations from the object to the subject side of experience have radical consequences, since they allow our states of mind to self-liberate.

After explaining the Dzogchen view of liberation, Patrul Rinpoche concludes the Essential Jewel with the heartfelt plea to put the view into practice. The practice he envisions involves changing our usual priorities, taking the goal of achieving liberation to be paramount and recognizing the relative triviality of most of our other concerns. It also involves rewriting our narratives about our own lives, accepting our roles as agents of our own suffering and as potential agents of our own liberation. Patrul Rinpoche argues that if we really understand this text, we should be motivated to undertake this radical transformation.

Radical transformation sounds hard and the reader may wonder if such a demand is reasonable. Patrul Rinpoche asks such a reader, “Where have your habits and activities gotten you so far?” (Essential Jewel, verses 65-71). Not to awakening, clearly. To motivate the radical change that the path to liberation requires, Patrul Rinpoche relies on a common argument in Buddhist ethical texts: Although we know that death is certain, the time and manner of our own death is uncertain. So we must do what is important—practice the Dharma—in the precious time that we have left in our human bodies: “There is no time! No time! No time to spare! When the Lord of Death suddenly arrives, what can you do? Right now, and from now on, please practice the divine Dharma. Right now, with haste, chant the six-beat mantra” (Essential Jewel, verse 72).

Notes on the Translation

We approach the Essential Jewel both as a masterpiece connecting Madhyamaka and Dzogchen philosophy to practice and as a brilliant and moving piece of poetry. In Tibetan, Patrul Rinpoche’s verses are alive with evocative metaphor, alliteration, and rhythm. But unlike much Buddhist philosophical poetry, he eschews classical ornament, technical terminology, and elaborate construction. His language is direct and colloquial; the beauty of his poetry is its simplicity and intimacy. Nonetheless, the poem is marked by recurrent poetical devices. We have therefore tried to translate this more as a poem than as a precise philosophical treatise, sometimes sacrificing lexical precision in favor of poetic device. This seems appropriate, as Patrul Rinpoche himself has clearly opted for poetics over precision in many places. (On the other hand, Patrul Rinpoche does sometimes explicitly employ technical vocabulary from Buddhist philosophical and Dzogchen traditions. Where he does so, we have kept our translation precise, reflecting that technical vocabulary, sometimes at the cost of poetic felicity.)

It is impossible when translating in this way to transpose Tibetan poetic devices directly into English; the languages, the syllabic structure, and the prosody are just too different. Instead, we have used English poetic devices that are structural analogues of those Patrul Rinpoche deploys in Tibetan. We have attempted to convey as much as possible of the earthy beauty of the original by preserving alliteration whenever possible, providing an English cadence that does in English what the Tibetan cadence does in Tibetan. We have kept notes to a minimum, providing what we hope is enough to make apparent to the English reader what would be apparent to Patrul Rinpoche’s Tibetan audience, but allowing the poem to speak as directly as Patrul Rinpoche intended it.

Thanks to Pema Tenzin for help tracing the names of Avalokiteśvara. We thank Thomas Doctor, Douglas Duckworth, and Sonam Thakchöe for extensive and careful comments on an earlier draft of this translation. They each corrected errors and suggested more elegant formulations than we had found. Thanks also to You Jeen Ha, Halley Haruta, and Emma Taussig for extensive editorial assistance and many useful sug- gestions regarding the notes and translation. We thank Blaine Garson and Surya Pierce for helpful critique, and Asha Pierce for teaching us to cultivate patience in the final preparation of this manuscript. This translation is much better for their assistance. Any errors that remain are our own; we are keenly aware of the shortcomings in our own understanding of the ideas Patrul Rinpoche explores.