In the early years of the Lam Rim Centre, the residents and those attending weekend courses were of various Buddhist persuasions. Some could be described as generic Tibetan Buddhists and nascent Gélug,12 others were Kagyüd,13 Theravada, and Zen – and it was this cross section of interest that Ngak’chang Rinpoche addressed in these talks.
As an introduction to one of the talks at Lam Rim Chö Ling, Ngak’chang Rinpoche spoke in detail with regard to linguistics, and this section is reproduced here as transcribed. These words preceded the teaching on refuge – establishing confidence in actuality.
Before I say anything about kyab,14 I’m going to say a little about the language we use—how it functions—and how we tend to treat words as a refuge from meaning. When anyone teaches anything they use symbols. The symbols they use are words. If you were to write the word ‘frog’ on a piece of paper it would not be a frog. When I pronounce the word ‘frog’ that is also not a frog.
This may sound obvious—to the point of tedium—but I believe it to be important – and so I am going to beg your patience in following this theme a little longer. Words are not in themselves what they represent. There were frogs in the world long before the sound of the word ‘frog’ came into being. In addition, it should be obvious that words have localised meaning – both in place and time.
For instance if you were to articulate the word ‘frog’ to a Tibetan it would be meaningless. Tibetans call them belwa15 or kyèl-çan.16 If you were to learn Tibetan, you would find that there is no letter ‘f’ in the alphabet. Tibetan has a few letters that are not found in English – but there is no ‘f’. Any Tibetan learning English therefore, would have difficulty pronouncing ‘frog’. It would sound like ‘prok’ – which is incidentally closer to their word for raven.
Tibetans—like us—have dialects and regional words. I discovered that bats are variously called cha-ma-chu, tsi-tsi-gambu, pa-wang go-go, and po-ngo leps depending on the region. In Western society some people think of bats as frightening, sinister, or unpleasant creatures – but in Tibet they are seen as delightful. They symbolise good fortune and happiness. Lama Yeshé Dorje Rinpoche 17 had a bat hanging in his home. He found it on the mountainside where it had died by some mischance and dried out in the sun. So much for bats.
Tibetans view frogs differently. Western culture in general, finds frogs charming. They appear often in children’s stories. Tibetans however regard them as wrathful creatures because of their eyes and somewhat startled expression. At this point I imagine that you have all heard enough of my semantic witch’s brew of frogs and bats – but it will have served as the basis of what I am to say next.
Semantics, words, definitions, connotations, inferences, implications, associations, shades of meaning, and nuances are important to me as a teacher because they are the tools of my trade. The way I explain therefore, pivots on certain terms I have chosen with extreme deliberation. It is true that we can say the same thing in many different ways, but each will have a colour, tone and texture of its own – and that will impart widely differing atmospheres of meaning. So when I choose a word I am trying to create an atmosphere that reflects as accurately as possible the particular quality of my experience of Vajrayana.
Words are a means of pointing at meaning. Sometimes when we hear a teaching the meaning of a term can seem as remote as a distant galaxy. Tong-pa-nyid 18—emptiness—for example, points to a fantastic depth of meaning which takes time, study, and the experience of meditation to comprehend. So if we want to reach a planetary system around a particular star, our starship has to take the right trajectory.
A mere degree out and we miss by a few light years. Even if we launch rockets intended to land on the moon, we have to make careful calculations. We have to choose the right time of year and the right time of day. The launching site has to be in the right place in relation to the position of the moon. It is the same with language when we discuss dharma.
Language is not static. It moves like a planet in space. Like time, language is not frozen. We may attempt to freeze language in the suspended animation chambers we term dictionaries – but because people rather than machines use words, they change. It is not possible to fix words or force them to be changeless in what they signify. If this tape is ever transcribed, how long will it be before the words I have used become moribund, obsolescent, or archaic?
Because of this problem, I want to make a point: however helpful these words may be today (30th of October 1982), in a hundred years—or even in fifty years—they may well just be patterns on pieces of paper. Whatever value they may have now may be lost. This is no matter for regret – but rather something to celebrate. It means that fresh dharma can be taught in new contexts. In India there are ancient Tibetan texts being eaten by silver-fish and—in a way—this is sad because it is often the texts belonging to more obscure lineages that disappear. Be that as it may, no-one can keep alive the knowledge of texts if they are not being lived.
Without the transmission of human realisation knowledge becomes dead knowledge. We only cling to the past when the present seems impoverished and the future seems to hold no promise. The ambiance of now—in which I am being understood—is transient. It is like a dream or a mirage. It will soon evaporate and condense into another point-instant of time with its own unique characteristics. We will all leave this room before long and go our separate ways. Everyone will take something with them: some impression, feeling, memory – but the only thing that will last, will be what has made any sense at an experiential level. No-one can take the meaning of words away with them unless they have received the transmission of their meaning. Of course we can take notes – but if we have not had direct experiential contact with what those words mean, they may not even make sense when we read them again. This forces us either to live our understanding or lose it.
If Lamas communicate their understanding or transmit their realisation, they must constantly re-express it in terms that are new and fresh in relation to the situation. They must therefore be sensitive to where they are. They must be sensitive to current conceptual frames of reference – and to the unique nature of people’s individual experience.
This is the essential meaning of gTérma 19 – discovered awareness-treasure. The Tradition of gTérma is one in which ‘new teachings’ are continually discovered through realising the Mind of Padmasambhava.20 There are many discovered awareness-treasure practices, codified in the language of inspiration by Yeshé Tsogyel.21 These practices and teachings were written down by her at the instruction of Padmasambhava and concealed by him for future times when the teaching needed revitalising. The Tradition of gTérma is one which cuts through stagnant teaching and practice. gTérma in this sense are texts, images and objects that were hidden to be discovered by future generations.
However gTérma in the sense of gong gTér 22 constantly arise from the Mind of Padmasambhava. Padmasambhava in this context is not a name that is limited to the historical personage of the great lotus-born magician who instigated the tradition of gTérma. In its vastest sense this name signifies our beginningless unconditioned self-luminous wisdom mind. As Kyabjé Künzang Dorje Rinpoche 23 said, “Mind itself is Padmasambhava and Yeshé Tsogyel in union. Outside it there is no meditation or practice.”
The function of gTérma as awareness-revelation, is to flow with the changing external circumstances of the world. Without gTérma the power of the teachings would become ossified in outer forms, some of which would rapidly lose their relevance or applicability. gTérma exist wherever there are practitioners, they function as a dynamic aspect of all Traditions even though they may not name it as such.
Dung-sé Thrin-lé Norbu Rinpoche,24 although not widely known as a gTértön,25 lives and breathes gTérma whenever he addresses Western audiences. His message cuts through the tight constraints of tradition and reveals a staggeringly simple approach that always moves people and inspires them to practice the essence of the teaching.
This is a time when change is accelerating rapidly and it is vital in this time to communicate and transmit meaning in contemporary language. Meaning is crucial and words are transitory. When we listen or read therefore, we must break open the shell of the words with attuned intent and actualise their meaning – rather than taking refuge in vocabulary.
Language is a living medium of communication and words are slippery little devils at the best of times. Words acquire new meanings—or inflections of meaning—within a few years or even months. Often words become impossible to use as they have been used before. This year’s fresh new phrase is next year’s cliché.
It is not possible to describe a great Lama as ‘awful’ – even though it would be an accurate usage according to the Oxford English Dictionary. ‘Awful’ can mean ‘appalling’ or ‘that which causes terror or dread’, but is also means ‘worthy of, or commanding, profound respect, reverential wonder’. It also means ‘solemnly impressive and sublimely majestic’.
Although the word can be applied to a great Lama – I would not do so. The word has been stripped of its reverential meaning through popular usage. No matter how much I like the word ‘awful’ I can no longer use its reverential sense without sounding as if I am insinuating something – even to people who are familiar with the reverential meaning. It would do no good at all to voice angry opinions about the degeneration of the language because it would make no difference.
There are academic issues with regard to translation – and people will often insist on translating dig-drib 26—for example—as ‘sin’ even though the word ‘error’ is more appropriate. I would prefer to use the term ‘dualistic derangement’ because it tends to makes people stop and investigate the meaning.
Please do not misunderstand me, I am not trying to disparage accuracy in translation. I am merely pointing out that communication comes first. Words become so encrusted with connotations—which arise out of contemporary history—that they can become difficult to use. The ideas that are sparked off by these words can get in the way of the meaning even though their definitions are exact translations of Tibetan or Sanskrit terms.
Words like ‘spirituality’ and ‘truth’ have become so encrusted with distracting conceptual barnacles that it is difficult to use them without feeling that meaning is being insulted or degraded. I make this point because I feel it imprudent to become attached to fixed or traditional terminology. If we live the meaning of what we practice we will find that our manner of expression becomes increasingly fluid, and we can adapt appropriately in order to remain authentic.
Readers who are unfamiliar with the ethos of Buddhism in Britain in the late 1970s and early 1980s, may wonder why Ngak’chang Rinpoche addressed issues such as linguistics. Readers may wonder why Ngak’chang Rinpoche stressed certain points in his talks that seem self-evident in the 21st Century. It needs to be borne in mind that Dzogchen27 teachings were not available in Britain at the time that these talks were given.
Because Dzogchen was almost unknown to his audiences, Ngak’chang Rinpoche’s teachings were met with a mixed response – ranging from incredulity and disbelief, to hostility. Gétsulma Tsultrim had received Formless Mahamudra teachings from the 16th Karmapa, and so she was glad to receive Dzogchen teachings, and gave reassurance to those who were anxious.
Even as late as 1983, a western student of considerable experience attending a retreat given by Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche,28 was thrown into confusion on the basis of his own preconceptions when hearing Dzogchen teachings. He attended the retreat as a cook, and was able to listen to the teachings whilst engaged in food preparation – but only did so for the first day. After that, he cooked in silence without having the teaching relayed to the kitchen, because he believed that what was being taught was not Buddhist. The cook declared, ‘This so-called Dzogchen is just some form of Taoism.’
This is hard to believe in 2009 – but he was not alone in this view. Several Tibetan language scholars stated that—because they had not come across such teachings—they could not exist. Dzogchen has an entirely different paradigm from Tantra,29 and so Ngak’chang Rinpoche’s explanations addressed the uncomfortable juxtaposition of the attitudes that he met.
Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche’s book The Crystal and the Way of Light was only published in 1986, and although Namkha’i Norbu Rinpoche had been teaching in Britain since the late 1970s relatively few people knew of him. The word Dzogchen was known – but very few knew anything of its terminology or the structure of the three series it contained.
Dzogchen was almost inaccessible – but Tantra was also widely misunderstood. Many people had ideas that were in opposition to each other, due to the fact that they had received teaching from different levels of Tantra. Because they approached Buddhism as a ‘religion of truth’—like Judæism, Christianity and Islam—rather than a religion of method,30 they had no way of understanding the differences between the Buddhist vehicles.31 Often sectarian bigotry resulted, and hence Ngak’chang Rinpoche approached the subject as he did in order that greater tolerance would prevail.
The other difficulty Ngak’chang Rinpoche faced with some people at that time, was the idea that dharma is only dharma if it is a direct translation in traditional syntax.
The few Tibetan Lamas therefore, who taught dharma in contemporary English, were accused by some people of teaching ‘some kind of psychology loosely based on Buddhism.’ These people declared it—dismissively—as a useful basis for dharma – but it could not be called dharma if it wasn’t evidently Eastern in its terminology and semantics.
The final issue Ngak’chang Rinpoche faced, is still with us – that of sectarian dispute. Ngak’chang Rinpoche was committed to a non-partisan approach – as was Gétsulma Tsultrim. It was the deep respect they both felt for all schools and traditions of Buddhism that was the basis of their friendship.
12. dGe lugs
13. Ka rMa bKa’ brGyud
14. sKyabs – refuge
15. sBal pa
16. rKyal can
17. bLa ma yes shes rDo rJe rin po che
18. Tong pa nyid – Skt: shunyata
20. Padmasambhava, the Second Buddha, who—with his consort Yeshé Tsogyel—established Vajrayana Buddhism in Tibet in the Eighth Century. Padmasambhava and Yeshé Tsogyel are the central Tantric Buddhas of the Nyingma tradition.
21. ye shes mTsho rGyal
22. dGongs gTér – Mind treasure
23. sKyab rJe Kun bZang rDor rJe rin po che
24. gDung sras phrin las nor bu rin po che
25. gTér sTon – discoverer of awareness-treasure
26. Dig sGrib
27. rDzogs chen – the most subtle of the inner Tantras. Dzogchen is divided into three ‘series’ (dé, sDe): sem-dé (sems sDe) – the series of Mind; long-dé (kLong sDe) – the series of space; and men-ngag-dé (man ngag sDe) – the series of implicit instruction. These three contain progressively less conceptual content.
28. nam mKha’i nor bu rin po che
29. Tantra – the path of transformation.
30. Thab (thabs) – Skt: upaya
31. In the Nyingma School nine vehicles are described: Skt: Shravakayana, Tib: Nyan Thopa’i Thegpa (nyan-thos-pa’i theg-pa); Skt: Pratyékabuddhayana, Tib: Rang Gyalwa’i Thegpa (rang rgyal-ba’i theg-pa); Skt: Bodhisattvabuddhayana, Tib: Chang-chub Sempa’i Thegpa (byang-chub sems-dpa’i theg-pa); and the six Tantras: kriya, upa, yoga, maha, anu and ati.