I am reading Sam Harris’s new book ‘Waking Up‘ and in the chapter entitled Meditation (page 138) he talks about the practice of Dzogchen in relation to Zen practice he says ‘Dzogchen is not vague or paradoxical.It is not like Zen,wherein a person can spend years being uncertain whether he is meditating correctly.’ Can you elucidate on this ?
On my Facebook page a few days ago, the following comment appeared:
Nice article, thanks for sharing Brad. I’d like to comment on “I’ve tried to coerce teachers into giving me more instruction than that, but they never do. I was really frustrated with this for years.” This is typical in Soto-Zen and I think it’s a big mistake. I’ve been sitting that way for 10 years and simply didn’t get it. I thought I got it but I didn’t. Fortunately I listened to some Dzogchen teacher who was able to directly point out what the meditation thing is all about. Didn’t take more than 5 minutes and I got it. I’ve seen people who are sitting for 25 years and still are unclear about consciousness….
I don’t know anything substantial about Dzogchen. All I know is that it’s part of the Tibetan tradition and that, like Zen, it’s central practice is meditation. From what little I’ve read about their style of meditation, it seems to be much more methodical than Zen. For example, one of the first webpages that came up when I did a Google search just now begins “In dzogchen meditation, we first access and recognize the alaya for habits, then effulgent rigpa, and then essence rigpa.”
I don’t know what a rigpa is, but I’m sure I could look that up. I know alaya is the Buddhist idea of the “storehouse consciousness,” which is roughly analogous to the subconscious as defined by modern Western psychology. The Buddhist idea of the subconscious is more far-reaching than the psychological one since in Buddhism the alaya is not considered to be limited to the particular individual. The very superficial aspects of it are related to one’s immediate personality, but the deeper levels are universal. Our connection to the mind of the universe is mostly buried within our subconscious.
I won’t pretend I understand Dzogchen. I’m sure that, like Zen, it would take years of training to really get it. But as a long-time zen practitioner the idea of “meditating correctly” strikes me as deeply absurd. Yet, also as a person who has undergone “years (of) being uncertain whether he is meditating correctly” I understand the appeal of something that’s supposedly going to give you solid answers rather than being merely “vague and paradoxical.”
In fact I recall the first time I heard Dzogchen being talked about by a person who sat with my teacher Nishijima Roshi’s group in Japan. I was like, “Oh! I want to try that!” It sounded so much better to finally get some gosh darned answers about what the hell it was I was supposed to be doing when I sat on my little cushion waiting for the damned bell to ring announcing it was over.
Alas, I couldn’t find a Dzogchen group to sit with so I was stuck with Nishijima Roshi’s vague and paradoxical Zen. Heavy sigh!
Yet I’m glad I followed the path that circumstance forced upon me.
I don’t know how teachers in the Dzogchen tradition make their students clear about consciousness. But I know that every answer is the wrong answer, every certainty is a mistake, and every correct way to meditate is an error. I’m sorry if that sounds paradoxical and vague. That’s just the way things are. Read the quote in the image I put on top, “Uncertainty is an uncomfortable position. But certainty is an absurd one.” It amazes me that Sam Harris, of all people, cannot see this when it comes to meditation.
I could tell you what I think consciousness is. In fact I just spent about an hour trying to do that in a passage for my forthcoming book. I’ve done it to one degree or another in every book I’ve written. They all sound different so people who read me probably think I’m just confused. Which is fine.
Some incorrect answers are better than others. I suppose you could get a bunch of people together to agree that one particular set of almost-correct answers is worth pursuing and indoctrinating to others. You could explain it all if you wanted. But it would just be yet another house of cards waiting to be knocked over by the next little breeze.
The guy who commented on my Facebook link also complained that, “nowadays zen teachers seem to be unable to do this with their own words. Instead there’s an endless discussion and reading of Dogen’s writings which are cool but out of date and hard to understand nowadays.” Unlike, say, discussions of alayas and rigpas, I suppose. Heavy sigh again.
Certainty never seems to lead anywhere good. It seems to harden the mind into shapes imposed by teachers and traditions. Dogen, in his out of date and hard to understand writings, talked of returning from his training in China with a soft and pliable mind.
When the mind is hardened with certainties, it doesn’t know what to do when inevitably confronted with things that don’t fit into the shapes it has hardened into.
I know the Zen way can be frustrating. Believe me, I know! I’ve spent years being frustrated by it. Just like those poor people Sam Harris pities for being uncertain if they’re meditating correctly.
Then I realized I had been meditating correctly all along.
I fell backwards into uncertainty.
I’ll just leave you with this.
“Sometimes when you no longer see yourself as the hero of your own drama, expecting victory after victory and you understand deeply that this is not paradise. Somehow, especially the privileged ones that we are, we somehow embrace the notion that this veil of tears, that it’s perfectible, that you can get it all straight. I found that things became a lot easier when I no longer expected to win. I tried to put this into that song called A Thousand Kisses Deep. When you understand that, you abandon your masterpiece and you sink into the real masterpiece.” — Leonard Cohen
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I’m on my way to Europe soon. I’ll get paid for most of the events I’m doing, but often it’s just barely enough to get to the next place. Your kind donations help out a lot. Thank you!
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Here’s my upcoming events schedule:
Oct. 1 Turku Panimoravintola Koulu, Finland– Movie screening
Oct. 2 Helsinki, Finland — Lecture Event
Oct. 3-5 Helsinki, Finland Zen retreat at Helsinki Zen Center
Oct. 6 Movie Screening in Espoo, Finland
Oct. 8 Lecture in Munich, Germany
Oct. 10-11 Retreat in Munich, Germany
Oct. 12-17 Retreat at Benediktushof near WÃ¼rzburg, Germany
Oct 18-19 Retreat in Bonn, Germany
Oct 20 Hamburg, Germany
Oct 24: Lecture in Groningen, Netherlands
Oct 25: Day-long zazen in Groningen, Netherlands
Oct 26: Movie screening in Eindhoven, Netherlands at Natlab
Oct 27: Evening zazen in Eindhoven, Netherlands
Oct 28: Evening zazen in Nijmegen, Netherlands
Oct 29: Lecture in Amsterdam, Netherlands at “De Roos” bookstore from 19.00-21.00 (P Cornelisz Hooftstr 183)
Oct 30: Lecture in Utrecht, Netherlands at “De wijze kater” bookstore from 19.00-21.00 ( Mariaplaats 1, Utrecht)
Nov 1-2: Retreat in Utrecht, Netherlands
Nov. 2: Movie screening in Utrecht, Netherlands at ACU
Nov 6-8: Retreat in Hebden Bridge, UK
Nov 9: Noon — 5pm Manchester, UK