Dzogchen, the Transcultural Vehicle Encounters with the Elements of the North by Ngala Rig’dzin Dorje

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Good afternoon! I am still marvelling at having arrived in the only country in the world, outside Tibet, where the Nyingma consider themselves to be the Ancient Ones, the original Buddhists. This is the only conference I ever attended where Padmasambhava functions as a logo. That particular form is called Guru Nang-srid Zil-ngön, 'the Lama who completely overpowers the appearance of phenomena through splendour'. So in answer to an earlier question about 'how do you change reality', my answer would have to be in terms of becoming something like that; short of that, no chance.

I want to say thank you to Marju, and to Estonian Nyingma as a whole, for your broad-mindedness in finding a place for me in this eminent assembly. I have no position in any Buddhist institution or society, or at the other extreme any claim to academic status or scholarly objectivity; where I am between those two extremes, I leave it up to you to judge. In the same way my topic is neither the survival or the extension of Buddhist institutions as such, nor the migration of fragments of Buddhism into other peoples's institutions (such as psychotherapy, as we have heard). Instead, again from a middle way position, I speak solely as a Buddhist teacher concerned with ways of transmitting Buddhism into actual practice.

A few years ago my Root Teachers, Ngak’chang Rinpoche and Khandro Déchen hosted a retreat for the teachers and trainee teachers of our lineage. (I should mention that we are a a non-monastic lineage with a special custom of married couples teaching together.) They asked us each to give a presentation describing what we felt were our defining experiences of being teachers. My theme was a perennial one, as old as Buddhism. Until recently joined by my wife Tsal'gyur Wangmo I have been for twenty years a solitary traveller, a journeyman; a jovial Swiss friend called me ein Gelegenheitslama, a ‘jobbing lama’. Londoner I may be, where 27 languages were spoken at our nearest school, but no different from, for example, a Tibetan teacher I have been seeking lines of communication with people whose alanguage, culture, social background, parenting, education, religion, philosophy, psychology, personal history, profession, obsession, sense of humour, food fads, allergies, drugs of choice, preferred breakfast beverages and cereals etc. might be quite different from mine.

For instance, the first time I taught in Sweden, in 1996, I was presented with a bottle of vodka. The label bore a skull and crossbones, with the brand name BLACK DEATH, and underneath a slogan: THE PLEASURE OF THE NORTH. A website helpfully remarks this is 'not to be confused with Black Death Premium Deer Urine, a hunting decoy'. This was intended as my initiation into salmiac. I still marvel that someone from these parts once had the idea — or the necessity — of spicing up their diet with scrapings of crystals from the rocks around volcanic vents. How different, how very different, from the latitude of the Mediterranean where I currently live, where no one would eat anything scraped off a rock, unless it was actually alive.

Blackness was thus my entrée to the spontaneously arising vision of Nordland. A travelling Buddhist teacher, seeking as I've said the means of communicating with the strangeness of unprecedented visions, the varied manifestations of beings within phenomenal reality, takes inspiration from the best. First, Shakyamuni Buddha, his ability to migrate from the god realm to the human realm, able to act as the supreme spiritual teacher and social arbiter among the vain, idle, complacent, self-regarding, uptight and easily offended brahmins, both human and divine. Then from Padmasambhava, the Tantric Buddha, the Buddha of the Padma family, the Fire element, and thus the Buddha of the Human Realm, the liberator of endless insatiable desire. He travelled from Ögyen, the land of the dakinis, to Tibet, where the people deemed themselves the offspring of a monkey and a demoness; to all the dangerous, chaotic, demon-infested charnel grounds of ancient Asia; to the land of the rakshasas, the cannibal monsters; and thereafter into the presence of anyone in any realm anywhere who invokes him.

Of the northern peoples with whom I ahave spent extended time--so far--the Finns have struck me as especially well-connected with the outer elements of Earth, Water, Fire, Air and Space. It's evident in their language, which due to its uniqueness and the nation’s tribal integrity has preserved its qualities of the elements of native place. It's a special pleasure to listen to Finnish speech even without comprehension, because one hears the elements speaking of themselves; the wind filtering through a forest, streams tumbling over stones, the grinding of rocks and gurgling sinkholes in the riverbed, waves lapping the shore, the crackling of a fire under the open sky, foosteps crunching through snow, metal chopping into wood.

In terms of how I have observed the elements playing out in the north, I would summarise it like this. From the yellow Earth element come the distorted qualities of constricted personal territory, and the inverted relationship with wealth called poverty-mind; but also the liberated qualities of loyalty, organisation, reliability and endurance. From the white Water element (I am using what is called the 'natural' system of symbolism, from the Dzogchen Vehicle, where the colour of Water is white not blue) comes the sense of being threatened, and the rage of the berserker, but also the ability to see one’s neighbour as a reflection of oneself. From red Fire element comes the sense of isolation, being out in the cold, trying to bring a little warmth into one’s existence through indiscriminate consumption, especially stealing warmth with drugs like chocolate, coffee, alcohol and tobacco; but also its reflex, spreading warmth indiscriminately through kindness, and the essence of compassion, communication: not for nothing is Nokia Finnish and Ericsson Swedish. Green Air (you cannot see the air move, but you see its movement in the greenery) gives rise to paranoia; in the deep dark forest, hatching idiosyncratic personal theories of life, the universe and everything but keeping them to oneself, breathing a word to no one. But Air also foments spontaneous accomplishing activity that blows steadily in one direction, never lets up till the job is done, and then looks for the next one; the work ethic that conquered the American wilderness. Space is the blues, the sense of empty vastness as mere senseless nihilism, overwhelming and infecting every particle of experience near and far, so that one introverts, in order, illogically and hoplessly, to put space between oneself and Space. But Space is also the ground of an emanated intelligence, out of nowhere, that has an instinct for the subtle connection between everyone and everything everywhere. In the lands of maximum mobile phone ownership, superfast broadband and virtual reality, coexisting with live shamanic traditions, I have found fewer conceptual problems about other dimensions and their inhabitants, the visionary relationship with a Mahasangha, and a view of life that bridges sentience and non-sentience.

Thus whilst beings are liable to communication breakdown, the vocation of the Elements is to be communicative. And black is the collision of all the elemental colours. Black is an ambiguous singularity, the ground and potential for colour, and at the same time the implosion and annihilation of all colours, the inseparability of big bang and big crunch. In Tantric symbolism, black is an intensification of dark blue. The near-blackness of the sky seen from great altitude is an intimation of space, the proximity of an awesome ambiguous zone, a bardo incapable of being grasped, a baffling state that lies in-between the possibilities for life; a void not supporting the survival of ordinary organisms, but at the same time the sole field whence organic life has germinated. Black is the skyscape of Dharmata, the dimension of suchness, festooned with the iridescent jewellery of the elemental essences, the thiglés; it is the infinity beyond the jejune image of a capsule universe, a container with its contents (sNod bCud, Tib.). In Dharmata everything conceivable and inconceivable is continually simultaneously arising and dissolving.

Black can be peaceful, joyous or wrathful, these being the three modes or speeds of the visionary beings, the yidams. I could specify two black yidam practices of my lineage that are popular in the north. The Chenrezigs of my lineage is black, a form of Padmasambhava, the Black Ögyen Chenrezigs. Even more sensitive than the familiar white form that is covered in eyes, he is black because he is described as ‘total retina’, an eye without an eye-lid, uncompromisingly open to the perception of the most remote and subtle glimmerings of the suffering of others; even to the extent of suffering which, like the light from a galaxy that expired millions of years ago, was born in some remote previous existence. This Black Chenrezigs is a yab-yum form, Padmasambhava in union with the Black Yeshé Tsogyel. The intensity of their passion has darkly suffused their faces, implying the black implosion of the senses as the peak of intensity passes through the clear light nature of mind. Black is a reflection of their potential to explode into compassionate activity, their lust for effectiveness, infinitely fragmenting their commitment to others in every direction, with endless reach, range and precision. This urgent emission of black shrapnel verges on wrath; black is the wrath beyond hot red rage and icy white-lipped viciousness; it is the terminal gravity of the the blackly implacable Dharma protectors, black holes into which vow-breakers are sucked by the gravity of their own karma, to be atomised into the scintillating coloured lights of their constituent elemental essences. Thus they can be ‘returned on the tides of rTsal to infinite pure possibilities’, as a sadhana text envisions it: out of the blue and into the black; out of the black and into the blue. We return on the tides of rTsal, primordial scintillation, from sleep, to the body of the night before, and from death, to a different body. This is the power of primordial radiance, an ultimate statement of blackness as the ground for optimism.

In the northern winter season, ornamented by the clarity of the Water element, black is the definitive X-ray of skeletal trees exposed against a blanked-out indeterminate sky. Black is the reality-mirror of a pool encountered in the depths of a forest, a mirror that holds the whole of the sky. Black is a rock polished by rain till it shines like the obsidian wisdom-mirror held up by Padmasambhava, when he manifests as another black yidam, the Wrathful Black Ögyen Manjushri. This is the mirror ‘which sucks whole solar systems of self-obsession into itself’. Black is mämmi, the Finnish dessert of rye and molasses. It is eaten out of a birch-bark box dappled with yes and no, at an ambivalent time of year, on the cusp of Lent and Easter; mämmi is bitter with regret at the purging of old karma, and sweet with indestructible confidence in liberation. Black is ‘black dog’, as Winston Churchill called it, depression deeper than the blues, a black hole in which light has expired and from which the sound of song cannot escape, in which the thought of singing the blues does not arise, where there are no other people to sing for, and where the senses are so self-enclosed that song is not even heard; the deep, dark forest-mind that turns winter into a white lie, an alibi for solipsistic withdrawal.

In the north, Dorje Legpa, a major chökyong (Dharma protector) of the Nyingma Tradition, is specially eminent. There seem to be connections between Dorje Legpa and Thor, both of them wielding blacksmith hammers and being transported by goats (in the more wrathful form of Dorje Legpa). According to Scandinavian folk tradition, Father Christmas, with whom there seem to be further parallels, also used to ride a goat. Coincidentally I happened to write this on the edge of the Arctic Circle, in Rovaniemi, Finland, the home of Santa Claus Village and his official airport. Our lineage possesses a body of martial arts practise which come from gTérma visions of the warrior king Ling Gésar; it is said these teachings should be revealed initially in the north, because of the association with and the protection of Dorje Legpa. The iridescent black stone spectrolite is a special resource of Finland; noted for its play of colours from red through to blue, it is used for making the end-beads of tengars (rosaries) used for the practise of Ling Gésar in vision and mantra.

Black is self-sufficient, a northern virtue that colonised America. The blacksmith makes his own tools. The blacksmith plays with the form quality of impact and the emptiness quality of heat, hammering rigid cold black iron into plastic hot red iron, from which he emanates effective black agencies of cool skilful means. Black meteorite iron (nam-chag, sky-iron), which is brittle and difficult to work, is prized for making phurbas, the three-bladed dagger of emptiness, and sword blades. Perhaps it is because of the association with weaponry, with disturbing the elements through mining, and adapting them through violence, that the blacksmith's profession is regarded as low caste in the Himalayas, despite the patronage of Dorje Legpa. One of my Lamas' Root Teachers, Kyabjé Chh'imed Rig'dzin Rinpoche, was born the son of a blacksmith, and he was the Mind incarnation of Padmasambhava.

Black clouds announce the proximity of the thunder god. The Mahasiddha Aro Yeshé, previous rebirth of my Root Teacher Ngak'chang Rinpoche, used to cause all manner of sky phenomena, including thunderstorms, to appear when he taught, in which people found transmission. It has been a valuable practice for me, at Ngak'chang Rinpoche's suggestion, remembering to engage with thunderstorms in this way. The interplay of lightning and thunder is an invitation into the non-dual interplay of emptiness and form; in the space of meditation, the sky of mind, lightning and thunder display as the energies of one's own solar and lunar channels. One night during the summer retreat in Porvoo this year there was a tremendous storm across southern Finland which cut off the electricty supply; I told this story, and we sat in the dark with the practice all evening.

In places empowered by local practitioners, symbolic objects are formed out of pockets of iron and copper in the ground when they are struck by lightning; these tok-chag (lightning-metal) often take the shape of dorjes, thunderbolts. The dorje is called adamantine because its hardness is capable of shattering every form of unenlightenment. Tok-chag in the form of yundrungs (sarvastikas, swastikas) are also common. In western culture iron used to be regarded superstitiously as inimical to local elemental beings; we would say it would be more realistic to treat iron with awe because of its connection with such beings. It is hard to imagine how the swastika emerged as the symbol of Thor's lightning (I would say--rather than his hammer) unless it migrated to the north through vision, rather than some overland route. Interestingly, it is drawn poised on a corner, the same style adopted by the Nazis, not on its side, as found in the Hindu, Bön and Buddhist iconography. In the Sambhogakaya it seems there is a more fluidity than one might imagine between traditions. Hindu and Bonpo deities, even Christian saints, are held in different Nyingma lineages to act under oath to Padmasambhava as Dharma protectors, and supply their forms as meditation visions; conversely some visionaries have found forms of Padmasambhava in Siberian shamanism, in Bön and even in the Sikh tradition. I was delighted by Dr. Sommer's presentation on how Confucius appears as the Peaceful Emperor in the Bön tradition.

Prominent in the iconography of the Dharma protectors are the black ravens and wolves which also belong to Odin, together with other black creatures (dogs, buffaloes, bears, horses and birds) forming the auspicious retinue. The raven population across Nordland seems to be vast. It is especially the crows and ravens with vivid blue-green iridescence, like spectrolite, which are associated with the protectors. Their luminosity is a symbol of the Sambhogakaya, the dimension of indestructible energy. They are specially taken to indicate the presence of the black protectors Mahakala and Mahakali. In our lineage, as in other Nyingma traditions, there exists a method of oracle divination based on the appearance of crows and ravens according to the time of day, the direction, their behaviour and their numbers. Numbers of ravens are constantly in the air above the cave at Yang-le-shod outside Kathmandu, where Padmasambhava manifested as Dorje Phurba. On pilgrimage through Zanskar in 1991 we were circled by ravens at the foot of a mountain sacred to six-armed Mahakala; all through the night, the sadhana of Mahakala could be heard in wrathful voices emanating from the top of the mountain. In 1995 on pilgrimage to the caves at Maratika in the Kathmandu valley, where Padmasambhav and Mandarava received the empowerment of long life from Amitayus, we were accompanied by a black dog who stayed with us when we camped overnight. We gave it food, imagining it belonged to one of the guides. But the guides said it belonged to none of them, and after we arrived at the monastery we never saw it again.

Finally, in the north I find the greatest rapport with our practice and attitude of Celebration, by which I mean something specific. When we gather for the Tantric practice of feast-offering, Tsog-khorlo, the female and male practitioners, the khandros and pawos, robe themselves as heroines and heroes, to celebrate having gone beyond all relative constraints. The traditional costume comprises Tantric bone ornaments, of which each section represents a Vehicle of practice accomplished; and at the same time the ensemble represents the bones of ones former self as a previously unenlightened person. In the same way, the Mahasiddhas are known by the names of their old problems and neuroses, because those had been their drupthab, sadhana, their paths of practice and means of accomplishment. The northern rapport with Celebration comes out of an instinct for the immanence of Valhalla, where the fallen are transported by the valkyries who are so very reminiscent of dakinis. In Celebration we hold the View that we are those who fought in the great battle; we fell and died. We lost the battle, of many lifetimes, against enlightenment. Enlightenment finally won, and so, we celebrate.

– Rovaniemi, Arctic Circle, Finland, April 2010