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Home > Advanced Meditation > Dzogchen > Fundamentals of Dzogchen Meditation > 2 The Steps of Dzogchen Meditation

Fundamentals of Dzogchen Meditation

Alexander Berzin, January 2001

2 The Steps of Dzogchen Meditation

Recognizing the Alaya for Habits

In dzogchen meditation, we first access and recognize the alaya for habits, then effulgent rigpa, and then essence rigpa. How to recognize the alaya for habits?

The alaya for habits gives rise to seeing and hearing, as well as to imagining and verbally thinking. Imagining and verbally thinking give mental labels of "this" and "that" and follow things out. Seeing and hearing do not give mental labels and do not follow things out.

Like seeing and hearing, the alaya for habits also does not give labels or follow things out, but it is more subtle than seeing and hearing. It underlies them, as well as underlying imagining and verbally thinking.

Recognizing the alaya for habits, however, is extremely difficult. If we see shapes and colors as a face (either with or without an idea of who it is) or hear the sounds of consonants and vowels as a word (either with or without an idea of their meaning), this is not nonconceptual seeing or hearing, let alone the alaya for habits. It is conceptual mental cognition.

If we are able to recognize the milliseconds of nonconceptual seeing of shapes and colors, without mentally constructing or conceptualizing them into a "this" or a "that," this is still not the alaya for habits. The same is true if we are able to recognize the milliseconds of nonconceptual hearing of the sounds of consonants and vowels, without mentally constructing or conceptualizing them into the words "this" or "that." To recognize the alaya for habits during sensory cognition, we need to go deeper.

In dzogchen literature, such as Liberation through Hearing in the Bardo (Bar-do thos-grol, The Tibetan Book of the Dead), we often read of recognizing rigpa during bardo (bar-do). Bardo usually refers to the period in between death and conception into the next rebirth. Bardo, however, can be the "cognitive space in between" other things. Thus, rigpa – and here, the alaya for habits – can be recognized in the cognitive spaces in between moments of seeing, hearing, imagining, or verbally thinking.

Because recognizing the milliseconds of nonconceptual seeing and hearing is so difficult, let alone recognizing the cognitive spaces in between those milliseconds, we start with trying to recognize the alaya for habits in between moments of verbal thinking. This means trying to recognize it in between each word or syllable of a verbal thought.

Method of Meditating

To avoid distraction from sensory cognition, we meditate in total darkness and total silence with three immovables (mi-g.yo-ba gsum):

  1. immovable body – with body straight, hands either in the meditation pose in our laps or lightly resting on the knees,
  2. immovable senses – with eyes neither closed nor wide open, but gazing naturally in front,
  3. immovable mind – not actively thinking, with no thoughts of the past or future, and with no analysis. We just rest in the present moment of awareness, fresh and uncontrived, without being self-conscious about what we are doing. In other words, even if a thought arises, we do not follow it out.

Verbal thoughts simultaneously arise, abide, and cease. When we focus on that happening, we reach the "space in between verbal thoughts," which is the situation in which we can recognize the alaya for habits.

The meditation method, however, is not simply to stop verbally thinking by applying restraint or discipline. The simultaneous arising, abiding, and ceasing of moments of verbal thinking occur automatically. No effort is required to make that happen. Nevertheless, we need effort to recognize it and to stay focused on it with understanding. Otherwise, with mental wandering, we follow out thoughts, or with mental dullness, we fall into a daze and understand nothing.

The Need for Madhaymaka Analytical Meditation as a Preliminary

We do not gain understanding through an analytical process during the meditation. Dzogchen meditation is without analysis. To be able to focus, with understanding, on the simultaneous arising, abiding, and ceasing of moments of verbal thinking, the great Nyingma masters Mipam and the Third Dodrubchen explained instead that we need beforehand to have gained certainty of the voidness of true existence. We do this through the analytical method known as "searching for the hidden flaw of mind" (sems-kyi mtshang btsal-ba). We analyze:

  • where a moment of verbal thinking comes from – its origin,
  • the situation of verbal thinking itself – how a moment of verbal thinking abides or remains,
  • where a moment of verbal thinking ceases (disappears to) – where it dissolves or goes to.

Searching for the hidden flaw of mind resembles the Madhaymaka analytical process with which we analyze an event from the point of view of its cause, the event itself, and its effects. Only when we understand that moments of verbal thinking lack a truly existent arising, abiding, and ceasing are we able to recognize and experience, with understanding, the simultaneity of the three.

Moreover, we need also to understand beforehand the total absence (voidness) of an unaffected, monolithic, separate "me" as a boss making the arising, abiding, and ceasing of moments of verbal thinking happen, or observing them happen. This understanding enables us to recognize and experience, with understanding, that the simultaneous arising, abiding, and ceasing of moments of verbal thinking happen automatically, without any effort. To gain this understanding also requires Madhyamaka training.

With these understandings as additional preliminaries to

  • the six outer and six inner preliminaries,
  • enormous strengthening of our enlightenment-building networks of positive force and deep awareness (collections of merit and wisdom),
  • empowerment,
  • the keeping of vows, and
  • inspiration from our spiritual mentors,

we are then ready to try to recognize the cognitive space in between moments of verbal thinking.

[See: The Major Facets of Dzogchen.]

We meditate on progressively subtler levels. These include focus on the simultaneous arising, abiding, and ceasing (disappearing) of

  1. moments of verbal thinking,
  2. mental images,
  3. feelings of happiness, unhappiness, or neutral feelings,
  4. attitudes, such as hope, expectation, disappointment, and boredom,
  5. the nonverbalized conceptual construct of the blankness we perceive as being a truly existent "this" or "that." This conceptual construct is a "feeling" of true existence.

Being Helped by Our Dzogchen Masters to Recognize Rigpa

As the above meditation methods may still not enable us to recognize the alaya for habits, let alone rigpa, we need further help. Our dzogchen masters may help us to recognize it by introducing us directly (ngo-sprod).

There are two major methods for introducing us to rigpa:

  1. without relying on key points (gnad) – namely, simply through the outer circumstance of inspiration from the dzogchen master and the inner circumstance of basis rigpa as Buddha-nature,
  2. in addition to these outer and inner circumstances, relying on one of six key points that use a method that fits the disciple's meditation practice:
  1. holding the mind's attention,
  2. having the mind be at rest, i.e. remaining stable in its own place,
  3. getting to the root of the matter,
  4. getting rid of a sense of substantiality, so that after having made a thorough examination, mind no longer follows out an object (like a thought) and then has nowhere to go,
  5. using the interval between awareness and its objects,
  6. causing distraction, such as by shouting "phat."

The sixth method is the most common. When distracted or startled, we stop thinking.

In most cases, we do not recognize rigpa at this stage, but merely the alaya for habits. We recognize it in between moments of verbal thinking, as the cognitive space giving rise not only to moments of verbal thinking and imagining, but also to the milliseconds of seeing colors and shapes and hearing the sounds of consonants and vowels. It is calm, steady, does not follow out objects, and does not mentally label anything as "this" or "that." Nevertheless, the alaya for habits is still sem (limited awareness) and, as such, it has a dumbfounded or bedazzled factor of not knowing its own face.

Recognizing Effulgent Rigpa

We must be careful not to confuse and take the realization of the alaya for habits to be the realization of rigpa. Further, we need to be careful not to confuse and take to be the realization of rigpa a decisive awareness (nges-shes) of either the conventional nature (the mere producing and perceiving of cognitive appearances) or the deepest nature (voidness) of the alaya for habits. To do so would be confusing dzogchen meditation with Gelug/Kagyu mahamudra.

We need to go deeper and subtler, so that we experience and recognize a cognitive inbetween space that has deep awareness of its own two-truth nature. If we succeed, the factor of dumbfoundedness stops accompanying our meditation and the alaya for habits becomes rigpa. Because of having "greased" the pathways of our energy-channels with previous anuyoga practice and synchronized the winds with mantra recitation, then in the process of this meditation, all grosser levels of mental activity – and specifically the alaya for habits – automatically dissolve.

We do this by recognizing effulgent rigpa. This is rigpa in its aspect of actively giving rise to cognitive appearances and actively cognizing them, with the former more prominent. We focus now on the simultaneous arising, abiding, and ceasing of the milliseconds of seeing and hearing the cognitive appearances of what are not truly existent as "this"s and "that"s, which the alaya for habits gives rise to. When we recognize effulgent rigpa, we access the simultaneously arising, abiding, and ceasing of milliseconds of pure appearances of the state beyond the periscope field of perception of limited awareness.

Recognizing Essence Rigpa: The Stages of Break-Through and Leap-Ahead

After recognizing effulgent rigpa and being able to stay focused with it, we recognize essence rigpa. This is rigpa in its aspect of being the open space (klong) or cognitive sphere (dbyings) that allows for the arising of appearances and the cognizing of them, with the latter more prominent. When we recognize and stay focused with this, we attain break-through (thregs-chod), the path of seeing (mthong-lam).

Then, as the result of practice with Buddha-figures in mahayoga, effulgent rigpa gives rise to and cognizes itself as a rainbow body (' ja'-lus), rather than with ordinary aggregates. Thus, on the leap-ahead stage (thod-rgal) – equivalent to the path of accustoming (sgom-lam, path of meditation) – through four stages, effulgent rigpa becomes more prominent while simultaneously maintaining prominent essence rigpa.

Primordial Mindfulness

When we access rigpa, we access its simultaneously arising innate quality of primordial mindfulness of having dropped down to the natural state (rang-babs gnyug-ma'i dran-pa), also called deep mindfulness from having dropped down (ye-babs-kyi dran-pa). The attention automatically holds on to or maintains itself in rigpa. Consequently, dzogchen meditation on rigpa is called effortless meditation, non-meditation, or non-deliberate meditation.

This does not mean that before we access rigpa and thus attain the path of seeing, we meditate without mindfulness. Meditating with sem and without any mindfulness, we experience mental flightiness (rgod-pa, mental agitation) and mental dullness (bying-ba). When practicing dzogchen, it is crucial to apply specific instructions only to the level of meditation and behavior for which they are intended.