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What is Dzogchen?

Jes Bertelsen: a talk on the spiritual dimension July 2003

Our lives have various dimensions, and three, in particular, are the focus of the teachings at Vaekstcenteret.

One dimension is the unfolding of the ego – the fact that we develop an ego, an identity, and a personality, and try to succeed in the world by getting an education, a job, a family, and a social life. And this is usually enough. Most people are primarily settled in that dimension of life.

Another possible dimension that most of us are in touch with has to do with personal growth. In this dimension we begin to use specific strategies and practices in order to unfold our potentials as human beings. We may do this through therapy, yoga, or other kinds of strategies for personal growth. This dimension is associated with degrees of social luxury. In many places on earth this dimension is simply not an issue as it is in the wealthy countries. In order to indulge in this, we have to be free of the constant concern about procuring the basic necessities of life.

The last dimension is the one we call the spiritual dimension. In principle it is available to all human beings. However, on a global scale not many people spend time on this dimension. Spirituality is not primarily about the ego or the self, it is, in a manner of speaking, about being sober. The idea is that ordinary life with its focus on developing the ego and the self is a kind of intoxication, which is extremely exciting and fascinating. But it is possible to sober up.

Another way to describe it is that it has to do with an openness in the heart and in the mind that is different from the one we normally experience, when we are tied up with our ego or engaged in the development of self. And it is this openness that many people long for. It is a deeper and more general kind of love or understanding, a kind of answer to the question of the meaning of life. This spiritual dimension, then, has to do with being centered in openness rather than in one’s ego, and it tends to manifest itself as a natural kindness to other people. This is rather unusual because we are so engaged in ourselves and in succeeding in our lives.

Objectively, not many people on this earth are interested in the spiritual dimension. Many people talk about it, and there is a lot of longing, but only a small number of people actually spend time practicing it to the degree where they begin to change their behavior, their ethics, and their consciousness. We are talking about less than 5% of the population of the earth. That is not a lot.

We must have a solid base in our egos and in ourselves to develop this spiritual dimension of life. We cannot skip a beat. That means that we must proceed very slowly. We have to work our way around a functional ego that is free to develop itself and free to enter into constructive social relationships. In addition, we need a deeper sense of how we are determined by structures in our culture, by our parents, our childhood. And knowing that, we need to know how to pry ourselves loose from this. That is why we use strategies from personal growth and therapy – to create a greater insight into the self, and a greater freedom. It is therefore essential to unfold the second dimension of personal growth if we want to embark upon a spiritual practice. So, it is not the easiest path to take - and it is a slow path.

But let us turn to the spiritual dimension, which is the issue at stake here.

Think of a baby. New-born babies have two characteristics that most people are able to experience. The first has to do with openness. Look into new-born babies’ eyes when they are awake and have had their basic needs satisfied, and you will see something in the eyes which you will not see if you look into the eyes of a grown up. It is as if we see an extremely expansive openness or space. Many people have described it as a cos-mic openness. It is quite fascinating, and all infants have it. This is a good spiritual exercise, because we get an impression of one of the ingredients of real spirituality, and we will find it in all infants for the first three weeks of their lives. They are awake, there is no ego as of yet, and there is no language. This is a very fine quality that all people have had and still have. In time we cover it with our egos and our language. We wrap our personalities around us. We can see it in each other’s eyes. We teach children to eat with knives and forks, and say yes and no and Mum and Dad, and in time they are positioned in their egos and personalities. And this has to be so, or they are lost. We tend to forget, however, that we have all been through this phase right at the start of our lives.

Another quality of the infant has to do with the heart. Babies are so vulnerable that for the sake of their own survival they have to be open. If we consider new-born babies right after they are born, we know that they will recognize their mothers. Many experiments have been made to affirm this. But babies are totally prepared to open their hearts fully to any other person that takes primary care of them, or they will die. They are unconditional in their hearts. We know that if the mother dies, and the baby is moved to an-other person, who attaches him- or herself to the baby, and opens his or her heart to it, the baby will open its heart in the same way that it does toward its mother. This means that babies are able to rely on their hearts in ways that adults no longer can. Very few of us have this ability to be unconditional in our hearts. We are so selective. We like this person and that one and that one, but all the others, which means to say, quite a lot of people, we keep at arm’s length.

So, new-born babies have two abilities. One is their openness, free of the veils that develop with their personalities and their ability to use language. The other is their ability to reach out with their hearts, unconditionally. The heart is open. And if you want to experience those two qualities just spend some time with an infant.

On the other hand, there is something that new-borns do not have and that we adults have. And that is the ability to know. Infants do not know that they have that openness in their eyes, in their hearts. They are openness, but they do not realize this. We, on the other hand, know who we are and where we are. We can all say our names and we can all describe how and where we are at the moment. We all know it, unless we are extremely disoriented. So, we know, and strangely, we know in two ways. We can tell ourselves: I am Peter and I am sitting in such and such a place. We know in language. But we also know beyond language. We are able to know without using language to explain, without commenting as if we were sports commentators. Infants do not have this ability.

In other words, infants are capable of something that we have been capable of too. They are capable of being completely open in their gaze, their consciousness, their attentiveness. Completely open, because they are awake, they are happy; they have no linguistic veils, and no identity. They do not know their own names. No name, no form, complete openness and an open heart. That is what infants are capable of. And we are not. What we have that infants do not have is the ability to know who we are and where we are without using language. This is a very basic ability.

If these two abilities come together, we have an enlightened human being. An enlightened person is as open in his consciousness and as unconditional in his heart as an infant, and he knows. When these two abilities come together, we have a person who is fully awake. And that is what we understand by a spiritual human being.

We have the ingredients. But we have distanced ourselves from them, cut ourselves off, so to speak, so that we are no longer able to find them. We have distanced ourselves from openness in the heart because we have been hurt too much. We have discovered that we are not liked by everybody, some people hurt us, and we do not always get what we want. Therefore, we grow anxious, the heart contracts, and we close down. We no longer know the ingredients, so if I tell you to find openness, you will not be able to. We have grown so used to being persons of language, full of identity and feelings, constantly interacting with other people and with the world. As a result, we have distanced ourselves from the level of complete openness that was our natural condition the first few weeks after we were born.

Instead we possess the ability to know beyond language, that is to know who we are without language, without comment, but we do not use that ability very often. And we do not couple it together with fundamental openness, because we cannot find fundamental openness.

So, what is spirituality?

If human beings begin to gain a little more control over the ability to know beyond language, we may witness what is going on without interfering – linguistically or in any other way. If we train and find the ability to glimpse the wide-open expanse of the mind and heart and succeed in combining the two – knowing and openness – something may begin to happen. And it happens quickly.

In a way it is simple. And it is available to all human beings. But people are only vaguely interested. Seriously, few people are interested in this training. Because we have become so fascinated by what we can do with our egos and our language, and how we can interact with other people and with society. We spend all our energy developing an ego and interacting and unfolding our lives in work, love, and other kinds of social relationships. And we do that until we die. Perhaps there are the occasional glimpses of something else that makes us go to church, to the temple, read Lao Tzu or whatever. We suddenly remember: isn’t there something else? And there is! We had it as children, as new-born babies. But we did not know about it then, so that did not help much. Now we are able to know but no longer have the openness. So, we do not get the chance to couple the talent that we have developed along-side the ego, that of knowing, with the talent for openness.

If those two talents combine in a person, he or she will wake up. A fundamental change will take place in the working of the heart and the mind. To know beyond language the unbounded space of the heart and the mind – that is Dzogchen. Unadorned by gods and altars. Dzogchen means the Great Perfection. And this is how it is experienced. The moment the two come together, one understands that ego is meaningless, that life is meaningless, and that it is ok because there is something else: there is non-verbal knowing of the endless space of the heart and the mind, the heart-mind. And that is what it is all about.

One has to train on three levels. One is to start training the ability to know, without interfering and beyond words. You must understand that we all have this ability. It is one of the benefits of having developed an ego, a language, a clear and subtle adaptability to our bodies, our minds, our environment, people, parents, children, lovers, people we meet in the shopping centers, etc. Throughout this process a fruit has developed in our minds. A precious fruit that the infant does not possess. And the fruit is knowing or being aware, right now, this very moment, without interfering or using language, just being aware. This is a formidable ability, a very fine quality of the mind that has developed unawares through our ego and the use of language. Thus we have been given a gift that has never been explicitly laid out to us by our teachers, nor by our mothers and fathers: to know how to be aware of oneself without interference, to know unimpeded wakefulness – to know everything about the present moment: the sky, the light, the room we are in the people around us, ourselves. And we do not comment, we do not attempt to change things. We just leave everything to itself, ourselves included.

Try it now.

You do not need to sit in a particular position. You may stand on your head or lie down; you may hang from your feet. Whatever position you are in, you are able to do it. It is a question of stopping the wandering of your mind for a moment, just stopping and taking everything in through all your senses, through your eyes, your ears, your nose, taste, body, everything – everything that is. Inside the mind and outside.

Everything is ok as it is. Just feel it. Do not comment. Try NOW!

Usually we cannot hold this awareness for very long – a few seconds. Then we begin to think and associate. It is not an effort; it is not something that some of us can do and others cannot. We all can. If I can explain it right, you will understand what it is, and you will understand that we can all do it.

Try something else.

Look at your right hand. Move it up to the right, describe an arch, and down again. You can do that – but lo and behold – were you aware, non-verbally, of doing it?

Now, do it again, this time commenting on your movements: now I am moving my right hand up describing an arch and down again. This is not how to do it either.

Now, try to move your hand a third time, being aware but not commenting. Did you manage?

You have now tried it in three different ways. The first one was completely unawares. Without any conscious awareness of doing it just as we do 99% of all movements – walking, riding our bikes, standing, getting up, brushing our teeth – we just do it. We do not comment, we do not speak, but neither do we act with awareness. One might say that it happens in a kind of intoxicated, somnambulistic dream state.

The second way is to comment on our movements as we do them: now I am lifting my arm, etc.

The third way is to be conscious of the movement while doing it – but with an awareness beyond language. It is possible to expand this awareness to encompass not just a movement but everything inside and around us. And any-thing you experience is ok.

You may sit exactly as you please but do sit as comfortably as you can. And then try to be open to everything that is, open to all your senses, take in everything around you, the light, the people, everything. And now try to be aware and know everything that is without commenting. Do that NOW!

This exercise is basic to Dzogchen. You may practice wherever you are, not just in sitting meditation. And what you train is an ability that you possess already to be fully aware of everything inside and outside of yourself – without the use of language. Do it for a short while and then relax. You are using ordinary mind for this.

Do not accept this as a matter of faith. Examine it and keep working at completely understanding the difference between doing something una-wares, commenting on it, and being fully present without words. And when you have got it, you will know without a doubt. It is called Vipassana or witness meditation and many other names.

There are two other aspects to train in Dzogchen. One is to find the door to unconfined openness. The openness that infants have, and that we can see in their eyes. We need to discover it – we already have it, but we have camouflaged it. It sounds easy, but it is not. We have hidden it so well, and we have committed ourselves so intensely to our identity and to our language; we have turned so decisively away from it that it is hard for us to find it again. Therefore, one of the main concerns in Dzogchen is to give people strategies and teach them to start the process of discovering the unbounded spaciousness of the mind that is unconditional and beyond language.

This is not easy. Spiritual traditions have tried all kinds of strategies to help people discover it. But it remains difficult. Many people lose faith after some years of searching – “I won’t find it, it’s a lie, it’s not true” – and then give up. But some people are adamant about the search. They do not give up. They keep on searching. Some of them end up discovering it, and some do not, even though they search for the rest of their lives. And do not forget you are looking for something you already have! It is like searching for my left thumb and not finding it, though I keep trying.

The problem is that what we are looking for is constantly moving about. It keeps shifting because we keep shifting. Our minds are constantly on the move, now full of one thing, now another. I look this way and see someone who is looking at me, and I look that way and see a magnificent view, I look at the floor, I have an itch. We are forever on the move. And the door to unbounded spaciousness has become a blind spot. Dzogchen is about discovering that door. The fun part about it is that when we have found it, we discover that it was there all the time! So, the second part of the training is by far the most difficult one, namely, to discover the unconditional openness of the mind.

The last part of the training is to train the openness of the heart. This is not something that we can discover, because we have closed our hearts. We cannot just force our way through the shield that protects the heart and find what is inside: vulnerability and the ability to love. Do you see the difference? With the mind, once we find its openness, it is fully there, but with the heart it is a slow road. If we wish to practice Dzogchen, we need to deal with the blocks and wounds and shields that we have put into our lives and into our hearts. We have to go back and rediscover how unhappy we were when lover number four left us, or how sad we were about the abortion we had even though it was the sensible thing to do. We will discover how long it keeps disturbing the heart. And if we have not cried enough or dealt with it properly in therapy, it stays put. Or we may discover that our mother left us, or our father did not take proper care of us, or that our brothers and sisters teased us, or that we were not treated well at school. We all have a long list of wounded feelings, of rejections and experiences of not being seen or understood, which has contributed to our anxious hearts. Our very, very cautious hearts that we only open a little to very few people. That is the general picture although there are, of course, exceptions. So, if we wish to retrieve the original openness of our hearts, we need to prepare for a long process of going back and working at it, crying, separating the anger from the feeling of love and knowing all the different sensations in the heart. It is a long process.

So, Dzogchen is the combination of three abilities: the unbounded spaciousness of the mind, the unconditional openness of the heart, and the ability to know beyond language.

Excerpt from INDBLIK 6 – a theme publication on DZOGCHEN IN A MODERN WORLD, texts by Jes Bertelsen, Vaekstcenteret 2006