The Nine Vehicles According to Nyingma

The Sutra Teachings

If we look at tantra in general, it’s not something that can be understood separately from the basic sutra teachings. It’s all built on the foundation of sutra, and therefore it needs to be practiced in the context of the basic sutra teachings. When you weave some cloth or a rug, there are the strings that you weave on, and the word tantra comes from the word for these strings that you weave on. So these are the practices in which we weave together all the things that we have learned in sutra. So when we visualize ourselves in the form of some deity, some Buddha-figure, all the arms and faces and legs represent all these different points from sutra.

Refuge in the Three Jewels

We all have a precious human rebirth. This is something very important to appreciate. It’s something which is very, very precious and very valuable because this is the only basis on which we can achieve liberation and enlightenment. And it’s not something that we should take for granted. As one of my teachers said, it is like we are on a temporary holiday from the lower realms, and we have to be very careful otherwise we’re going back to the lower realms.

Death will certainly come for sure. We never know when. And the only thing that’ll be of any help are the preventive measures that we have taken to avoid going back to the lower realms, and we certainly don’t want that. You can think of all the terrible sufferings – of how horrible it would be to be some sort of insect that’s being eaten alive by some other insect or a different type of ghost or these hell creatures. You all know about that – so being afraid of that. And afraid is not this paralyzing type of fear with which we feel just helpless and hopeless, but it is a situation where we know there is a way to avoid this downfall, which is to put a safe and positive direction in our lives, which is normally called “refuge.” And this is something which is very important not to trivialize.

So what is the actual source of this refuge, the source of how we can protect ourselves from worse rebirths? That’s the Dharma Jewel. So what does that mean? There are many different levels in which we can understand the Dharma Jewel. If we look at the deepest level, it’s referring to the third and fourth noble truths:

  • The third one is the true stopping of suffering and its causes. So what is that referring to? If we think in terms of dzogchen, we’re talking about rigpa, pure awareness. This is something that we all have. It’s individual; it’s not something collective that you plug into up in the sky. It’s referring to the subtlest, purest level of our mental continuum. And it is something which is totally free by nature of all obscurations – so true stopping of suffering and its causes – and it is rich, or full, with all positive qualities. However, as it says in so many of the Nyingma texts, this rigpa, this pure awareness, needs to “recognize its own face,” which means that although there is this pure awareness, we don’t realize it, and because we don’t realize it, we can’t really utilize it.
  • So we have the fourth noble truth, which is this gaining deep awareness so that we have full realization of rigpa. And so if we can gain access to this pure state and don’t have it clouded over by suffering and its causes (which are the first and second noble truths), then not only do we avoid worse rebirths, we avoid all uncontrollably recurring rebirths. Whether worse states or better states, either of them are still samsara. Samsara means uncontrollably recurring rebirth, over and over again. Uncontrollable in the sense that it’s under the influence of karma and disturbing emotions.

So this is the Dharma Jewel. This is the direction we want to go in. “I want to realize fully this rigpa which is within all of us and stay with it.” So Buddhas – the Buddha Jewel – are those who have achieved this in full and have shown us how to attain it, have shown and taught us how to do it ourselves. And the Sangha Jewel is referring to the Arya Sangha. The Arya Sangha are those who have achieved this in part, not fully like the Buddhas have done. So this is very important to understand.

When we speak about Buddha we’re not really talking about a historical figure like you have in our Biblical religions. In Biblical religions we have a figure like Moses or Jesus or Muhammad, and they receive some revelation, some instructions from God. They’re the only ones who received it, and so we need to believe in them and follow them in order to gain some sort of salvation. We can’t do what they did. We can’t become another Moses or Jesus or Muhammad. So this is a very important difference. We can become Buddhas ourselves. Shakyamuni, Guru Rinpoche – these are only some of the many, many, many beings who have achieved enlightenment, so it’s very important not to make them into a Moses, Jesus, or a Muhammad. We can all achieve enlightenment ourselves. And they can show the way, they can inspire us, we can ask for their inspiration, but it’s not like we open up and through their grace we become enlightened. That’s not Buddhism. We all have this rigpa. We all have this pure awareness. We all have the basis for attaining enlightenment. We all have what’s known as “Buddha-nature.”


So we think of all the different types of suffering:

  • The suffering of unhappiness and pain. Right? It’s mainly talking about the unhappiness that we could experience. Even when physically we’re feeling some pleasure, you could still be mentally unhappy. So nobody likes that. Nobody wants that. Nobody wants to be unhappy.
  • And then we have our ordinary happiness. That’s also something that is unsatisfactory, because it doesn’t last, it’s never satisfying, and we always want more. We’re always afraid that we’re going to lose it, so we grasp onto it. And if we have too much of it for too long, it turns into unhappiness and we’re unsatisfied. Like eating too much ice cream eventually makes you sick.
  • But the actual deepest suffering that we’re talking about overcoming in Buddhism is deeper than that. It’s the basis for experiencing the ups and downs of unhappiness and ordinary happiness. And that’s samsara itself, which is uncontrollably recurring rebirth with our ordinary types of bodies and minds which can experience this unhappiness and ordinary happiness.

And all of that comes about because of our basic compulsiveness of karma. When we talk about karma, it’s very important to understand what it’s referring to. We’re not talking about fate or something like that. We’re talking about compulsiveness. There’s a compulsive aspect to our behavior. Because of the habits of acting under the influence of confusion, then we like certain things, we like to do certain things, and we don’t like other things. This is what comes up in our minds – “I would like to yell at you,” “I would like to embrace you” – and then (this is where karma comes in) there’s a certain compulsion that drives us to yell or to hug somebody when it might be inappropriate. And it feels as though we have no control over it. It’s just that compulsively and mindlessly we act or speak or think in a certain way.

Karma is not referring to the action itself, even though the Tibetan word for it is the colloquial Tibetan word for action (las). If the problem was action itself, then all you would have to do is stop doing anything and you’d be enlightened. This is obviously not the meaning. What we want is for our behavior not to be compulsive but to be motivated by compassion. And it is compulsive because it’s under the influence of disturbing emotions – greed and attachment and desire, repulsion, anger, naivety, jealousy, pride, all these troublemakers. All of that comes because of our unawareness of reality. We are unaware of our pure natures. Because of our confusion, our mind makes things appear to exist in impossible ways, makes us appear to be some sort of solid thing separate from everything else. Like some little figure sitting inside our head getting information from the eyes and ears on some sort of screen and loudspeaker in our heads and pushing the buttons to make the body work, the author of the voice speaking in our head worried about: “What do people think of me? What should I do now?”

Because of our confusion – we don’t know our true natures – our confused mind makes this sort of appearance about who we are, and we believe it to be true; we believe that it corresponds to reality. And out of our confusion, it makes everything else seem to exist in impossible ways, as if everything were encapsulated in plastic, just existing by itself – there it is – independent of causes, conditions, concepts, relative perspective, independent of anything. Like a problem (“Oh, there’s this horrible problem”) encapsulated in plastic like a monster, and then we get all freaked out about it, all disturbed about it – “Oh, I can’t deal with it” – as if this thing, this problem, didn’t come from causes and couldn’t be solved by applying different measures.

So all of this comes from really not understanding, not being aware of, rigpa, of pure awareness. Rigpa is the source of all appearances. That’s part of what’s known as the “play of the pure awareness,” like sparkles on water or images in a mirror. When we have what’s called “obscuration,” “cloudiness,” this rigpa then becomes the source of all these appearances of what’s impossible. What’s impossible is that things exist encapsulated in plastic. Things don’t exist that way. There’s no little me sitting in my head.

Rigpa is the source all appearances. And the analogy that’s used is that it’s like the play of light on water. It’s part of the nature of this pure awareness:

  • It has these appearances; they spontaneously establish themselves (this is the technical jargon).
  • And energy communicates out. This is known as the compassion aspect. It’s basically communication.
  • And it’s pure by nature. It was never stained by this confusion. It’s never stained, in its deepest level, by confusion.

You know, basic dzogchen teachings. However, because of our beginningless habits of confusion, this rigpa gets clouded, like the sky is clouded – the clouds don’t disturb or harm the nature of the sky, but the clouds are there. And because of the clouds, this filter, then rigpa functions as a source of all confusing appearances. Right? But these appearances don’t correspond to reality. So when we talk about voidness, or emptiness, we’re talking about how there’s no corresponding reality. That’s completely empty, void, absent, to what these appearances seem to be. My confused mind may make somebody appear to be a monster, for example, if we use an easy example. But there is no real monster that corresponds to what appears. So that’s what is absent when we talk about voidness. There’s something absent.

We can also speak about other-voidness (gzhan-stong), another type of voidness, which is talking about this pure awareness, rigpa, in its pure nature being void, or absent, of all these grosser, confusing levels.


So what we need to develop then is what’s called “renunciation.” That’s this determination to be free. To be free of what? The first and second noble truths – suffering and its causes. What is that referring to? That’s referring to these confusing appearances and my belief that they correspond to reality and all the disturbing emotions that come from that belief, like: “Oh, I’m afraid” or “Oh, this appears so wonderful. I have to have it,” etc. So determination to be free. “I’ve got to be free of this. This is horrible.”

Not only is it horrible – it’s completely boring. If this renunciation is on the basis of anger – “Oh, it’s so stupid. I’m so stupid for believing this” – it doesn’t work. All right? Because that’s still a disturbing emotion. What you have to develop is just complete boredom: “This is so boring. It just goes on and on beginninglessly. Enough already.” This is actually the emotional state that helps us to develop this renunciation.

It’s like if you’re into drugs or alcohol, and you’ve been taking it for so long. If you want to get out of it because you’re angry with yourself – “Oh, I’m so stupid for doing this,” etc. – then even if you give it up, you’re always afraid that you’re going to get back into it, because there’s fear mixed with this anger. But to really be able to give it up, you have to find it so boring. “It’s always the same. Each time I get drunk, each time I get high, it’s the same. Boring!” And then you say, “Enough already.” Then you have a much less disturbed state of mind. This is very important.

The Three Higher Trainings

So okay, we want to get out. How do we get out? We have to get rid of karma, this compulsiveness in our behavior. To do that we have to get rid of our disturbing emotions that drive it. And to get rid of that, we have to get rid of our unawareness, or ignorance. And to stay with that awareness, that understanding, we need concentration. And to be able to have concentration, which means to avoid being dull and avoid our mind wandering all over the place, we need discipline. And we gain that discipline from ethical behavior, restraining ourselves from destructive actions of body, speech, and mind. So first using this discipline, concentration, and understanding. Then we have to get rid of the first level of this confusion, and that’s the confusion about how we ourselves exist, we and others. And if we can break through that, then we gain liberation, liberation from uncontrollably recurring rebirth.


But what about everybody else? We are completely interconnected with everybody else, and everybody else is suffering. So we develop love, compassion, recognizing the interconnection between everybody. And we take responsibility: I definitely will try to help them to overcome samsara. And the only way that I can do that is if I become enlightened. If I can remove all the obscuration from rigpa, from my pure awareness, then I would uncover this ability of rigpa, this quality of rigpa, to understand and know everything, specifically to understand cause and effect completely so that I can understand what are all the causes, what’s the whole background of everybody’s present samsaric situation, and what would be the effect of anything that I teach this person. If I teach you this, how will this affect not only you but everybody else that you interact with? Because unless we can understand the consequences of anything we teach, we don’t really know what is the best thing to teach each person to help them to reach liberation and enlightenment. So that’s what we need to strive for, why we need to reach enlightenment ourselves.

So we develop what’s called bodhichitta. Bodhichitta is based on love and compassion. Love, the wish for everybody to be happy and to have the causes for happiness, and compassion, the wish for everybody to be free of suffering and its causes. But bodhichitta is not love and compassion. This is often some confusion that people have. They think when they’re meditating on compassion they’re actually meditating on bodhichitta. It’s not the same. Bodhichitta, what is it aimed at? What are we focusing on? We’re focusing on our own individual enlightenment, not Buddha Shakyamuni’s enlightenment, not enlightenment in general, but our own individual enlightenment, which has not yet happened but which can happen on the basis of Buddha-nature, the pure nature of our minds. Okay. So now this is what we’re focused on with two intentions – to attain it so that it’s presently happening, not not-yet-happening, and to benefit all beings by means of that.


How do you focus on your own individual not-yet-happening enlightenment? You have to represent it by something. Buddhas don’t just have a mind. It’s not just Dharmakaya. A Buddha has physical appearances and communicates (speech). So we can represent our not-yet-happening enlightenment with a figure that’s visualized in front of us that can appear in the form of Buddha Shakyamuni or Guru Rinpoche – there are many, many other forms it can appear in that could represent this – but remember we’re not trying to attain their enlightenment; we’re trying to attain our own enlightenment.

In order to become a Buddha, we have to achieve this mind, body, and speech ourselves. So here’s where tantra comes in. Rather than representing our not-yet-happening enlightenment by a figure in front of us, that figure comes into us, dissolves, and we take on the form of this Buddha-figure. Right? This could be one of thousands of different forms. Buddhas can appear as anything. So we can appear as Guru Rinpoche, we can appear as Manjushri, as Chenrezig, any yidam. All these arms and legs and so on are just to help us keep in mind what they represent. You know, like the six paramitas, these far-reaching attitudes – generosity, discipline, patience, etc. There are many, many things they can represent. As a Buddha, we would need to have all of these simultaneously because these are all the qualities of rigpa. Rigpa has all of these. Rigpa has all these good qualities.

So it is impossible to practice tantra properly without bodhichitta, because the figure that we are imagining ourselves to appear as represents my not-yet-happening enlightenment, which I am imagining that I have now in order to more quickly attain that. And we imagine that with mantras our speech is like that of a Buddha. And we imagine lights going outwards and benefiting all beings the way that a Buddha does (Buddha activity). And it’s very important to understand that this appearance is an appearance coming from rigpa, from pure awareness. And even though in my present, confused state it might not appear like that – it might appear as something solid – it’s not. If we believe it’s really solid, then we’re no better than some crazy person thinking they’re Napoleon or Cleopatra.

So renunciation – we’re renouncing the ordinary level of appearance that my mind creates out of confusion. And we have bodhichitta; we are aiming for this not-yet-happening enlightenment represented by this figure that I appear as. And voidness, that these confusing appearances don’t correspond to reality; an actual referent is absent, never was there. And this pure awareness itself is devoid of all these confusing levels of mind. That’s basically what we’re doing in tantra.

Now, in order to be able to cut through this confusion, we have to not only understand the so-called common preliminaries that I’ve just explained – common in the sense that it’s shared between sutra and tantra – but we need to build up a tremendous amount of positive force and at least provisionally clear away some of the negative force. And that is done with the ngondro (sngon-’gro) – the preliminary practices of prostration, Vajrasattva, etc. – and then an empowerment, or initiation, which is to activate and stimulate the Buddha-nature potentials, and then keeping very, very strictly the vows – bodhisattva and tantric vows – and doing the various practices of tantra.

The Nine Vehicles

We hear about different levels of tantra practice. And in general in Nyingma we speak of nine vehicles. What does vehicle mean? It’s a vehicle of mind; it is a level of working with the mind to bring us somewhere, like a vehicle. Of these nine, the first three are dealing with basic sutra level, and then there are six tantra levels.

The Sutra Vehicles

So in terms of sutra we have what’s called the shravaka, pratyekabuddha, and bodhisattva vehicles.

The Shravaka Vehicle

A shravaka is a “listener” to the teachings. These are people who either listened directly to Buddha or to teachers who followed Buddha. And they are aiming for their own liberation from uncontrollably recurring rebirth, samsara. And this is a small vehicle, or modest vehicle – that’s the word Hinayana – because the goal is modest; it’s for their own liberation. Of course they develop love and compassion – you can’t achieve anything without love and compassion – so we shouldn’t think that they don’t have that, and we shouldn’t think that they’re selfish either. It’s just that their goal is small, just their own liberation. So what they need to overcome for that is the confusion about how they themselves exist.

The Pratyekabuddha Vehicle

Pratyekabuddhas are those who live in the times when there are no Buddhas and no Buddha teachings available, so they have to rely on instincts from previous lives in order to practice the Buddhist path. They don’t have teachers.

There’s confusion here because some people think that: “Oh, I can study without a teacher, I can practice without a teacher, like a pratyekabuddha” now. But teachers are available now. The teachings are available. And although we might have instincts from previous lives, Dharma instincts, so intuitively we have some understanding, we still need teachers. That intuitive understanding usually manifests as what some people call the “of course” test of Dharma. The intuitive understanding manifests in the form of when we hear a teaching, we say, “Of course. Of course that makes sense.” That’s an indication that we have heard this before – “Of course” – and we’re just being reminded. But we shouldn’t think that we can only rely on intuitive understanding. This is a mistake. The teachers are living examples of what it is that we are trying to attain, and so their living example is very, very inspiring, and it’s that inspiration which drives us, which gives us the energy to work to achieve this ourselves.

The Tibetans have a very good saying: “The best teacher is the teacher who lives three valleys away.” The teacher who lives three valleys away you don’t see very often. You have to go over big high mountain passes to get to this teacher, or for them to come to you, so you don’t see them all the time, which means that you don’t see shortcomings in them. You see them in an optimal situation, and this helps you to always focus on their good qualities and get inspiration from that. So if you only have teachers coming here a few times a year, don’t complain about that. That actually is helpful. If they were here all the time, you would find a lot of faults in them.

So, anyway, pratyekabuddhas are these very brave beings who live in these dark ages when nothing is available. And they also work just for their own liberation; even if they wanted to teach, nobody would be receptive.

The Bodhisattva Vehicle

And then the bodhisattva vehicle, those who work for enlightenment to benefit all beings, but without this additional practice of imagining themselves already in the form of a Buddha.

The Tantra Vehicles

Kriya Tantra, Charya Tantra, and Yoga Tantra

Now in terms of tantra, we have first of all kriya tantra, then charya tantra, then yoga tantra. When we hear in the New Schools – Kagyu, Sakya, and Gelug – about four classes of tantra, these three classes (kriya, charya, and yoga) are the first three classes of the four class division. These are systems of tantra practice in which you’re not actually aiming to activate and gain access to rigpa – you’re still working with grosser levels of mind – but as tantra you’re working with imagining yourself in the form of a Buddha.

Kriya tantra emphasizes external, ritual behavior. So this is our usual Tara and Chenrezig and Manjushri type of practice. There’s a special diet that you have. There’s special practices of keeping clean. These type of ritual practices.

Charya tantra, the second class, has a combination of these rituals and more internal practice.

And yoga tantra has much more emphasis on the internal practices, but with a lot of mudras, these hand gestures, a tremendous amount of them, and quite complex mandalas. A mandala is a system of all these different deities.

And like the bodhisattva path, the bodhisattva vehicle, the result of [this pinnacle of] these three vehicles is enlightenment. So not only getting rid of the obscurations – what’s called the emotional obscurations – concerning the self, which you need to gain liberation (the shravaka or pratyekabuddha), but also what’s called the cognitive obscurations regarding how everything exists. Okay, so all of this brings you to enlightenment.

Mahayoga Tanta, Anuyoga Tantra, and Atiyoga Tantra

Now, in the New School classification, the fourth highest class of tantra is called anuttarayoga tantra, “highest yoga tantra.” And in Nyingma what corresponds to anuttarayoga tantra is divided into three vehicles – mahayoga, anuyoga, and atiyoga. Another name for atiyoga is dzogchen.

In anuttarayoga tantra, we speak of the generation stage and complete stage. Generation stage is when we’re working with our imagination to do all these visualizations of ourselves as these Buddha-figures, and we imagine that we are doing all these activities to benefit others, and we imagine that we have non-conceptual cognition of voidness and a blissful mind. So in other words, that we have a blissful mind that understands voidness, with a body appearing as a Buddha-figure, as a yidam, and all these lights going outwards and benefiting everybody. And we aim to have this with perfect concentration, combining with it generosity and patience and perseverance and discipline and all these qualities – love, compassion – everything all at the same time. It’s actually extremely difficult.

When we get perfect concentration with this – which means perfect concentration for four hours straight, no wandering, no dullness – that’s the gross level of the generation stage. And then the subtle level is when we can imagine – visualize – the complete mandala, with all the figures and so on, in a tiny little drop at the tip of your nose for four hours perfectly. So don’t think the generation stage is easy; it’s not.

And then the complete stage. Some people translate it as “completeness” or “completion.” It’s not completion. It’s “complete” in the rigpa sense, that now everything is complete for being able to actually make it happen, not just in our imagination. Now everything is complete. We have all the materials, all the realizations, that will enable us to make everything that we’ve been imagining actually happen.

Now, to make it actually happen, we need to be able to access rigpa, which means that we need to be able to stop these grosser levels of mind that make these confusing appearances. So how do we do this? In New Tantra, the New Schools, we have two ways of doing this:

  • One way is working with the subtle winds and energy, what you call tsalung (rtsa-rlung) in Tibetan. So you try to centralize and dissolve all these winds that are going crazy around your body in the channels, try to get them to dissolve into the heart chakra so that we activate this rigpa level that is always there.
  • The other method is working with increasing levels of blissful awareness within the central channel. So that’s this practice of tummo (gtum-mo), inner heat. We shouldn’t think of this as talking about ordinary sex. It’s completely something different. It has to do with the central channel.

So in new tantra when we talk about the difference between mother and father tantra, father tantra has more emphasis, more detail, about the wind practices, the tsalung practices; and mother tantra, more emphasis on the bliss aspects.

This complete stage has several stages itself. And eventually in New Tantra you get to what’s called the “clear-light” level, which is non-conceptual and equivalent, in a sense, to rigpa (slight difference, but no need to go into the detail). And then you have to work further in order to be able to stay with this clear-light understanding of voidness with the actual appearance of a Buddha. So that’s the New Tantra system.

We have the equivalent in the Nyingma division of maha-, anu-, and atiyoga. As Dudjom Rinpoche explained very clearly, all three of these vehicles are complete in each other; the only difference is the emphasis:

  • Mahayoga tantra has the emphasis on the generation stage, which means more practice in terms of these visualizations. But it has the other practices as well with the channels and winds and with dzogchen, rigpa.
  • “Anuyoga” has much more detail about the tsalung practices, the practices with the channels and winds. But of course it also has generation stage practices with visualization, and it also has rigpa practices.
  • And atiyoga (what is formally called dzogchen) practice puts the main emphasis on this level within what is called the complete stage in New Tantra at which you actually get the non-conceptual cognition of voidness with the clear-light mind. So the non-conceptual level, the actual rigpa level. But of course it has a generation stage type of practice (visualization type of practice) and work with the channels.

You need to work with imagination and work with these channels so that when you actually manifest rigpa in the dzogchen practice, in the atiyoga practice, the appearances that it gives rise to will be appearances of these Buddha-figures. That’s why we do the visualization practices before; otherwise it gives rise to all appearances, but we want an appearance as a Buddha. And we imagine these figures in union and we imagine having blissful awareness so that the rigpa itself when it manifests will be with its full form of bliss.

And when we focus on the rigpa itself in the dzogchen practices, at that time you’re not working on dissolving the winds. We recognize rigpa underlying each moment of our awareness – which is unbelievably difficult to do – and at that point all the winds and the grosser levels of mind will dissolve. Anuyoga practice, the practice with the channels and winds, is done before that in order to, in a sense, grease the channels, grease the inner mechanism, so that when we focus on rigpa, everything automatically dissolves.

This is how Dudjom Rinpoche explained the interconnectedness of maha-, anu-, and atiyoga tantra. We shouldn’t think of these as being totally separate. And they’re all on the basis of the bodhisattva vehicle.

So this is the general presentation of the sutra and tantra path as explained in Nyingma. Sometimes you might hear that dzogchen is above tantra, but this is just words, a classification, because dzogchen is practiced totally on the basis of sutra and all the usual tantra practices. It’s not something separate. And it is completely harmonious with what’s practiced in all the schools of Tibetan Buddhism, not something separate. It has its individual characteristics, but even within one school, like Nyingma, there are many different variants. That’s what makes life interesting, doesn’t it?


Alayavijnana, Rigpa and Clear-Light Mind

Are rigpa and dharmadhatu the same?

In many ways, yes. Dharmadhatu means the “sphere of reality.” Dharma is all phenomena, so “reality”; and dhatu is the “sphere.” So the rigpa, this pure awareness, encompasses all things in the sense that it is omniscient; it has all positive good qualities complete. So in that sense it is the sphere of reality.

We speak in terms of the five types of so-called deep awareness – mirror-like, equalizing, individualizing, accomplishing, and dharmadhatu. So in one sense you can see it as part of this system of five when we talk about dharmadhatu. Or you can see it encompassing all. Or you can think of dharmadhatu in terms of being voidness, the voidness of all phenomena or the voidness of rigpa. So there’s slight differences. And then if we speak of Dharmakaya, you add the omniscient awareness aspect to it.

I think what you have to keep in mind is that these terms are used in many, many different contexts. In some contexts they have one meaning. In another, a slightly different one. In many contexts they overlap. In some contexts they’re talking about some slightly different emphasis.

What is alayavijnana?

Alayavijnana, or foundation consciousness, is the level of consciousness which carries the habits and tendencies of karma and disturbing emotions and unawareness or ignorance. In the Chittamatra (Mind-Only) system, it has truly established existence. But in the dzogchen system – it’s not at all the same as Chittamatra, so don’t think that it is – it is referring to when rigpa doesn’t “recognize its own face,” so then it functions as an alaya, perpetuating confusing appearances, samsara, etc., with the tendencies and habits of karma and disturbing emotions. It functions as an alayavijnana, but it doesn’t have truly established existence, so it’s different from Chittamatra.

Dzogchen talks about achieving rigpa, and Gelug talks about achieving voidness. What is the difference? Is there a difference?

Rigpa is the subtlest level of mind, which has never been stained by obscurations or unawareness or confusion, and it’s complete with all good qualities. It has three aspects (three different types of nature, to be precise):

  • One is that it spontaneously establishes appearances.
  • Its compassion aspect: it communicates outwards.
  • And then this term kadag (ka-dag), pure from the beginning, primally pure (ka is the first letter of the Tibetan alphabet). So that corresponds to voidness.

Voidness is that it’s devoid of impossible ways of existing. Things appear to exist in impossible ways as if they’re isolated by themselves, and that doesn’t correspond to reality. That in some systems is called self-voidness (rang-stong), voidness of a self-established nature. Mipam, the greatest author of Nyingma commentaries, in some of his writings he only asserts this voidness, which is the voidness discussed in terms of, let’s say, Gelugpa. In other commentaries, he writes also about how this rigpa level is devoid of grosser levels. That’s called other-voidness, zhentong (gzhan-stong) in Tibetan. So that’s corresponding to the clear-light mind in New Tantra. In New Tantra we talk about accessing the clear-light mind, which is the subtlest level.

Now here’s the difference between the clear-light mind and rigpa. Clear-light mind is speaking about rigpa both in its pure state and when it doesn’t recognize its own face and has the habits of ignorance (and when rigpa doesn’t recognize its own face, it functions as an alaya). So clear light is referring to both. And rigpa itself is referring to just the untainted state. So they’re talking about the same thing, just a different way of classifying it.

So when we speak about just voidness of impossible ways of existing, that is this one way of explaining the kadag, the purity aspect of rigpa. That kadag, that purity awareness, is both the voidness of impossible ways of existing and, according to some commentaries, voidness of grosser levels of mind. Kadag is this primal purity. So it’s pure in two senses:

  • It’s pure of impossible ways of existing. That’s our usual voidness.
  • And it’s also pure in the other sense, being pure of the grosser levels of mind. And that corresponds to clear-light mind in New Tantra.
So voidness is larger than rigpa?

I wouldn’t say that it’s larger. It is one aspect of rigpa. Then you also have the appearance-making and the compassion (energy going outwards). So rigpa has all these qualities. With rigpa we’re talking about the whole package of what will become enlightenment, and one part of that package is voidness.

The Dalai Lama

Have you had the good fortune to meet a person who abides in love and in calmness and in self-control to such a degree that he doesn’t fear anything – nothing can change his state of love, even if he’s threatened; he accepts it like it was just the wind blowing?

Yes, I have. His Holiness the Dalai Lama and his teachers. The only time when you see them really upset, let’s say, is based on compassion. For His Holiness the Dalai Lama, he said this happened twice. Once was with the original uprising in Tibet when he left and he knew how many people were being killed. And a few years ago when there was again an uprising in Lhasa, he was giving some teaching that I was attending, and he said that this was really very upsetting for him when many people were being killed. But otherwise, no – no problem, no change in his mood. And obviously he was moved by love and compassion.

What did he do when he was upset? Did he just say it, or did you notice something?

He said that his sleep was disturbed, and his teachings then took a different turn from the original topic.

Adapting Buddhism to the West

How can we recognize what in Buddhist practice is specific to Tibetan Buddhism and what is substantial and should not be changed? How can we adapt Buddhism to the West without losing its essence?

The essence of the teachings of course is love, compassion, refuge, renunciation, bodhichitta, the teachings on voidness, the teachings on rigpa (pure awareness). These are the essential aspects, and they need to transform our personality; it’s not just something you do as a hobby and has nothing to do with your life. The whole point is to use the teachings to help us to overcome anger, attachment, jealousy, and naivety, etc., to help us overcome selfishness, to develop more concern for others. This is the essence.

What is more cultural would be all the aspects of the ritual. Ritual is helpful for giving some structure to our practice – we don’t throw it out completely – but the form that the Tibetans do it is different from the form that the Indians did it. And that can be again modified to fit more with Western mentality in terms of music, offerings, the tormas (gtor-ma, ritual cake). The Indians didn’t have tormas. These prayer flags – that’s completely Tibetan. So these are the cultural aspects.

Also it’s very important to do the practices in your own language. Tibetans don’t do it in Sanskrit. What’s important is to do the practices with understanding, not just a blind ritual where you don’t understand what you’re doing. Those are the main points.