A Banquet of Nectar: Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche’s Advice for the Rebgong Tantric Community
Following on from an earlier post where I offered a rough translation of a Tibetan praise-poem to the long-haired, white-robed community of non-celibate tantric Buddhist ngakpa and ngakma, I thought I would share an equally rough translation of another ཞལ་གདམས (zhal gdams, pronounced something like shaldahm/jaldahm) or ‘oral advice’ text for ngakpa – this time, one given by the great tantric yogi, scholar, treasure revealer and Dzogchen meditation master His Holiness Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche.
Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche (1910-1991) was born in Derge, Kham to an aristocratic family and was recognized at the age of seven as a reincarnation of the great Rimé or non-sectarian scholar-practitioner and treasure revealer Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo (1820-1892). Following the death of the previous Dudjom Rinpoche (1904-1987), Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche played the part of the official head of the Nyingma or ‘Ancient Translation’ school of Tibetan Buddhism, a position developed in exile, until his own passing three years later. Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche was widely recognized as one of the greatest masters in both the Nyingmapa lineage and in Tibetan history more generally, and also served as the current Dalai Lama’s primary Dzogchen or Ati Yoga teacher. As explained in the colophon, Dilgo Khyentse gave the advice text which follows to the Rebgong Ngakmang or ‘Tantrika community’ in 1951 at the start of the Tibetan Metal Rabbit year, as a supplementary teaching during his bestowal of the various and numerous empowerments for the Rinchen Terdzö or Treasury of Precious Termas (Revealed Scriptures), an anthology of texts that was compiled by Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche (1813-1899) in the 19th century at the request of Dilgo Khyentse’s previous incarnation Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo (See here for the website of the Ngakmang Foundation, a charity initiative under the chief auspices of yogi-doctor Nida Chenagtsang that supports the preservation and development of the Rebgong Ngakmang today)
Contemporary Nyingma lama Orgyen Topgyal reports that Dilgo Khyentse gave these empowerments to the Rebgong ngakpa community in lieu of his guru, the great Rimé master Khyentse Chökyi Lodrö (1893-1959). Orgyen Topbyal Rinpoche explains that since Khyentse Chökyi Lodrö considered there to be no difference between Dilgo Khyentse and himself, he encouraged him, at the tender age (for the task!) of forty years old, to go in his place. Dilgo Khyentse thus did as requested and went to Rebgong along with his wife and young daughter to bestow the Rinchen Terdzö transmissions for the first of five times in his life. The Rinchen Terdzö is a massive set of texts and teachings – bestowing all of the reading transmissions (which require an adept to read the entirety of the text to be practiced so as to be heard by would-be practitioners) and empowerments (special initiations that authorize and ripen a would-be practitioner of tantric methods so they may achieve full and beneficial results from their practice of these) for the Terma-collection takes weeks and weeks and requires enormous skill, knowledge and patience on the part of the lama doing the transmitting. That Dilgo Khyentse was deemed suitable for this task speaks volumes of his qualities and reputation. Readers of the following text may therefore be surprised to discover Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche’s great modesty and claim that he is ‘not an authentic or qualified ngakpa’. I would say that this is as much a general rhetorical strategy of humility as a mark of what is known to have been Dilgo Khyentse’s striking modesty despite his great ability and achievement.
“I stayed at Rebkong Monastery for about one year. While there I gave the Treasury of Precious Termas for the first time. At the place where Shabkar Tsogdrok Rangdrol [a great ngakpa and Dzogchen master from the region] used to stay there was a large stone with a tree behind it.
Shabkar often used to sit there and sing songs and the local people graciously offered me to sit upon the stone as well. When I gave teachings there many rainbows appeared and snowflakes fell from the sky like flowers which led people to believe that I was Shabkar’s reincarnation.”)
There are many points of interest in Khyentse Rinpoche’s words of advice. Rinpoche organizes his commentary by citing lines of advice from a terma source, as indicated by the colon-like terma mark that concludes each line he quotes and then explicates in the original Tibetan text (this online version was corrected and shared by co-founder of the Ngakmang Foundation, Dr Nida’s brother Hungchen Chenagtsang. Many thanks to him for editing and making these precious texts freely available!). Some of the points that stand out in his exegesis include the oft-repeated association between authentic ngakpa and siddhi or ‘spiritual accomplishments’ or what can be called somewhat less exactly and potentially misleadingly, ‘magical powers’. To be a ngakpa is not merely to hold binding tantric vows or samaya and to have received some instruction and to have practiced some teachings but to have obtained ‘accomplishment’ from these things – tangible results from meditation and ritual practice, undeniable spiritual capacities which can be put to use in mitigating the suffering of others. To call oneself a ngakpa then is not merely to say you have or use mantras and tantric rituals, but implies that when you use them, they work (for more on exactly how mantras work, see here).
Another noteworthy detail in Khyentse Rinpoche’s treatment is the importance of the mnemonic quality of non-celibate tantrikas’ dress and accoutrements, as when ngakpa are told to think of their Guru atop their heads (as they might visualize during formal tantric meditation sessions) while engaging in seemingly mundane behaviours such as tying up their dreadlocks into a bun or when they are instructed to remember and focus on the Dakinis and Protectors when they interact with their human wife, and friends or children (for further treatment of the question of hair and embodied mnemonics see these previous posts here, and here, which include translations of writing by Dr Nida Chenagtsang on ngakpa tantric practice). This approach reflects the deeply tantric premise of daknang or ‘Pure Vision’, the idea that dedicated tantric practice allows one to so thoroughly purify one’s body, speech, and mind that even the most mundane of experiences and perceptions collapse into the bliss of primordial and non-dual wisdom and re-emerge as enlightened appearances.
On a (seemingly!) more mundane level, we can note the similarly male-centric perspective of this advice text to the previous one – here ngakma or ngakmo are not the primary addressees and appear mostly as chungma or ‘wives’ to ngakpa. Also noteworthy is the importance for ngakpa of relationships with non-human entities, specifically tantric goddesses or Khandroma and Dharma protectors or Sungma/Chokyong. A ngakpa who does not regularly cultivate relationships with these spirits is no ngakpa at all, and Dilgo Khyentse makes clear that the ‘unceasing’ giving of offerings to helping spirits via Buddhist methods and motivation on set days of the ritual calendar is a primary part of the Ngakpa Path. Returning to the idea of ngakpas’ magical power, Dilgo Khyentse makes it very clear that the ngakpas’ efficacy derives from a full and proper understanding of Buddhism and its teachings. Aside from being admonished to not drink excessively or aimlessly or to consume tobacco (the Nyingma vice par excellence, see here for a translation of a tract by Dudjom Rinpoche on the specifically spiritual dangers of tobacco use), ngakpa are advised not to behave like (by implication, non-Buddhist) ‘border-peoples’. Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche and the traditional authorities that precede him make it clear that it is possible to practice magical rituals and achieve results without upholding a properly Buddhist morality, code of conduct or understanding of reality but that, nonetheless, true siddhis in the tantric Buddhist sense supersede these merely worldly, morally and philosophically deficient ‘pagan’ – or what are referred to in the text below as ‘Bonpo chant’ – varieties (for a few more stray thoughts on this sort of inter-religious politics of comparison and how it plays out in the defining of authentic versus inauthentic ngakpa see these earlier posts, this general discussion of ngakpa in exile and questions of proper conduct and this short reflection on the role of the ‘Savage Other’ in categorizations of magic and power).
Anyway, I hope that you enjoy this poor translation, and that it will be of some benefit. May any errors in it do as little harm as possible, and ultimately dissolve into the clear and luminous expanse of primordial awareness that is the true home of understanding!
Homage to the Vajra Guru Padmasambhava! Thus has it been taught, according to the advice given to us ngakpa by the glorious, great Master of Oddiyana – Ngakpas of Tibet, who have entered onto the path of the Secret Mantra –
The ngakpas so spoken of are those who have entered the tantric path of the Vajrayana, who behave as is required, and are thus in accord with the meaning of the word ‘ngakpa’. The proper way in which one should behave is as follows: first, as stated,
If you lack an authentic root guru on the path to liberation you cannot enter into tantric practice, so it’s very important that you first find a guru whose conduct is in accordance with the Dharma and that you serve them in every way you can via the three activities that please the guru. Then, as is stated:
If you have not received an empowered and authentic lineage then even just looking into the tantra of a meditational deity (yi dam) and its pith instructions is entirely inappropriate, to say nothing of practicing. So, if you have not obtained many empowerments, have not even obtained Vajrasattva, have not even obtained the empowerments of Shitro [the peaceful and wrathful deities of the intermediate state] or the ‘eight ordinance’ sadhana deities and peaceful and wrathful forms of the Guru [[[Padmasambhava]]], your approach-and-accomplishment practice will be entirely deficient.
If you obtain tantric vows via empowerments yet do not guard your samaya then rather than benefit these will surely cause great harm. Numerous distinctions are stated regarding this, but (basically) if you have relied on your root guru without going against their commands and without mental disturbance, have refrained from the taking of life, from breaking the observance of the tenth and twenty-fifth day of the month celebrations [[[Guru Rinpoche]] and Dakini days], and if you have visualized the form, chanted the mantras, and done completion stage practices for any of the three roots as much as you are able, then you are an authentic ngakpa who has comprehended the degenerate age and learns directly from the mouth of the guru of the lineage.
Having managed to rely on the guru, you will obtain every spiritual accomplishment or siddhi of the Tantric Path through solely relying on him/her. Having confidence that, whoever your root-guru might be, they are inseparable from, are one and the same as Guru Rinpoche, never forget to chant the [[[prayers]] of Guru Rinpoche, i.e.] the seven-lined prayer, the prayer that spontaneously accomplishes all wishes, or the prayer that dissolves obstacles on the path, and chant the prayers of Guru Yoga.
Since the meditational deity is the guru manifesting in Sambhogakaya form, relying exclusively on Vajrayogini, Yamantaka, Vajrakilaya or whichever of the higher deities they use and cherishing these as they would their own heart, superior practitioners should achieve signs of accomplishment (‘heat’) in the Creation and Completion stages, average practitioners should do one hundred million individual accumulations, and inferior practitioners should accumulate at least ten thousand successive recitation-visualizations of their yidam deity without break and without letting their prayer-beads once slip from their hand.
Just like the body and its shadow can never be separated from each other, if you are an authentic ngakpa, you accomplish the practices of the Dakinis and Dharma Protectors and cleave to them. You should make tantric feasts (for fulling the pledges) and give light offerings for the Dakinis and offer torma cakes as part of vow-fulfilling and confession rituals for the Protectors unceasingly – daily, monthly and annually.
You should cherish as you would your own eyes the empowerments and binding samaya pledges of the Secret Mantra, the ‘approach-and-accomplishment’ accumulation practices of the three roots, the collected rites (associated with the yidam etc), the esoteric oral instructions and practices, all the deeply meaningful and subtle classifications of the Ground, Path and Fruit, the tantras and sadhana practice texts, and all the statues, sacred representations and ritual objects which are supports for sadhana practice. Cherish these as your own eyes and take on and reject what is necessary for them and think of them as authentic conditioned phenomena as befits your own diligence of mind.
Guard and value the profound essence (of the teachings) like the inner-most breaths you count –
Since the source of the gods’ magical efficacy and power and every method (for obtaining) siddhis involves the reciting of mantras, recite the mantras of the accumulation practices for whichever meditational deity you rely on day and night unceasingly, like an ever-flowing river. Cultivate the profound Creation and Completion Stage practices like you would your own body and life-force. Whether or not you gain confidence in the Creation and Completion Stage practices depends on (the extent of) your dedication so you shouldn’t expect to become a mahasiddha in just a couple of months or years but should exert yourself as much as possible in this human lifetime in the practices of the two stages.
The results of the View, Meditation, Conduct are thoroughly accomplished –
You need to have experienced the ultimate meaning of the levels of the indivisible results of (tantric) conduct and vows, of the two stages of Creation Stage and Completion Stage meditation, of the vital points and view of Vajrayana which is the swift path (to realization), which are the indivisible truth of purity and equalness, or at least to have developed a true understanding of these. You must dispel all superimposed misunderstandings and doubts and wholly master these by listening to and contemplating the proscriptions and lineage and oral instructions direct from the mouth of a lineage-holding guru. It has been taught that by having a definite and subtle understanding of this View and Meditation and by chanting deity meditation mantras this swift path (can) perfect in one instant the accumulations of multiple eons, so it is a very important path.
Risk your very life for the sake of the Dharma. Since it is impossible for beginners of inferior capacity to practice the ‘union’ and ‘liberation’ practices of the Secret Mantra, give up the ten non-virtues, the primary wrong view that cuts one’s life-force as much as you can, and accomplish the life-saving ten virtues however you can. Do not quarrel with your parents, with your wife or children, but set them up in Dharma as much as you can. In sum, abandon those sorts of activities that go against the rules of the ngakpa community: drinking beer wantonly, taking in tobacco through the mouth or nose, or committing wrong or perverted sexual behaviours [rape, adultery etc.] and acting like border peoples [[[barbarians]]]. In brief, if you never give up cherishing the pursuit of conduct which is in accord with the Dharma you will accomplish the Dharma most forcibly.
Cherish the ‘approach-and-accomplishment’ practices of your principal yidam with earnestness and as your chief priority: on the fifteenth (full moon), thirtieth (new moon), eight and twenty-third days of the lunar month, hold tantric gathering-feasts (tsog), offer torma cakes and make vow-fulfilling (expiation) prayers. Do not behave presumptuously or like low-caste people, rely on the Beneficent Master [[[Padmasambhava]]]. Do not engage in Bonpo ritual activities or chants, conform to (Buddhist) practices and meditation. Strive for excellence in the four modes of ritual or magical activities of the ‘approach-and-accumulation’ practices in accordance with (scriptural) tradition –
This principal religious holiday generally and specifically entails continuous feasting and giving of offerings on the tenth day of the waxing and waning lunar cycles – it is Guru Rinpoche’s holiday and since tantric vows are an extremely necessary part of it, it is unquestionably important. Without taking up or rejecting conduct based in unrealized views (remember that) your own mental fabrications and presumptions have nothing to do with the esoteric oral instructions of tantra, so study by relying on a teacher who is a practitioner of the lineage of the Lotus-Master. If you recite tantric rituals without having empowerments and the Creation and Completion Stage approach-and-accumulation practices then your rituals are little more than so-called ‘Bönpo chants’ for drawing wealth and this is wrong. Rely on a qualified guru, complete the approach-and-accomplishment practices of the yidam – if you have pure and total faith then you will have entered onto the tantric path properly, so practice like this! If anything should happen that goes against this approach do Vajrasattva meditations and recitations and perform rites of confession by making expiatory feast offerings. Restoring your pure state and vows through self-empowerment rites is very important.
Abandon second thoughts or doubts about the purity of the Secret Mantra. Don’t sell or try to proliferate the riches of the Secret Mantra. If you accomplish the practices for and by yourself, you will attain whatever siddhis you can imagine. I now go the way of Padmasambhava, I enter on the path now and later in the future I will reach his state – Tibetan ngakpa, hold this intention in your hearts! –
Doubt is the greatest obstacle to ngakpas’ spiritual accomplishment so it is very important to accomplish the vital points of the esoteric instructions for the deity and mantra practices free of doubt and with single-pointed faith. This name ‘Secret Mantra’ signifies that in order to accomplish the practices you have mastered them in a hidden way by yourself without displaying them to everyone, that you have accomplished the various stages of the esoteric oral instructions of the deity and mantra practices secretly, without spreading them around. You do not teach or reveal them even a little to individuals who have wrong views or who are full of doubts. You should teach them to holders of your own Dharma lineages, provided disclosing practices to them will bring others benefit. In sum, if you renounce all adverse conditions and are able to accomplish every favourable circumstance for practice in accordance with tradition then you will surely accomplish the supreme siddhis of the four magical activities. Accordingly, you should not sell off the tantric empowerments, teachings, and esoteric instructions for money, you should not perform the magical rites of the yidam carelessly or motivated by your own or others’ worldly desire and hatred.
If you accomplish the practices for the sake of the teachings and for sentient beings you will achieve various everyday actions such as the gaining of long life, of wealth, the making of rain, protection against frost and hail, and the pacification of sicknesses and demons. You will achieve various supreme actions like direct attainment of (the form) of the meditational deity through adhering to its practices and the generation of the realization of the Great Seal. In sum, the esoteric oral instructions for accomplishing whatever you might desire are found generally in the Spoken Ordinance (Kama) and Treasure (Terma) canons and are particularly numerous in the Ancient Translation school context, and the oral instructions of the lineage-holding guru have remained unbroken. So, it is very important to attain the approach-and-accomplishment procedures if you can put them into practice in order to make definitive accomplishments.
I will now briefly explain the ultimate significance of the direct oral instructions which were given to those ngakpas from among the Tibetan disciples to whom direct oral instructions were given when these disciples arrived at Guru Rinpoche’s South-Western Copper-Coloured Mountain:
The biggest point from among these is the idea that “pure view and true (meditative) experience are indivisible” – if one explains this in easy-to-understand terms it means that by not realizing that the five elements of the external ‘container’ of outer phenomena are the Five Mothers/Consorts of female Buddhas, the five heaps or aggregates of its inner contents or inhabitants are the Five Buddha families, the (six) cognitive senses and conditions of time and space are the Eight Bodhisattvas and their consorts, and despite the fact that the four Views and Four Times have abided primordially in the mandala of the deities of the eight classes of peaceful and wrathful gods of the three seats of pure consciousness, we have become deluded. This delusion, and not currently realizing the view of reality-as-it-is, is the suffering of conditioned samsaric existence. If you realize the basic condition of reality-as-it-is you go beyond pain into purity (i.e. experiences nirvana). It is taught that impure and dualistic Samsara is experienced as ultimate, pure and unified reality (dharmata) without any distinctions of accepting and rejecting. In order to realize this, mantras are recited and the five elements of the outer ‘container’ of external phenomena are meditated on as pure realms and inestimable celestial palaces, the inner contents of the five aggregates are meditated on as the peaceful and wrathful meditational deities of the Five Families through the collected rites of whichever of these deities you rely on. If you understand that all of that also derives from the nature of the primordial wisdom of the great bliss of indivisible non-dual appearance-emptiness rather than being the conventional or vulgar mind of any ordinary individual being then, as is stated in the Guhyagarbha Tantra, you:
For realizing the View, study the instructions for the four thoughts that turn the mind away from Samsara as taught in Jamgon Mipham Rinpoche’s Mindroling and Longchen Nyingthig lineage preliminary practices and then do the preliminary practices of arousing bodhicitta and taking refuge five or fifteen hundred thousand times. By training your own mind via the genuine practices found in the traditional instruction manuals and managing to focus (on the essence of these teachings) you should understand them.
Broadly speaking, I myself am neither an expert scholar nor an accomplished practitioner – anyone who in no way at all possesses the enlightened qualities of an authentic guru and who hasn’t liberated their own mind should not be dispensing oral advice on esoteric matters. Even so, I have lain my head previously at the lotus feet of more than fifty pure and saintly non-sectarian teachers and I have obtained every desired lineage and its empowerments and teachings. I have written about the meaning of the teachings for those with little experience and so if you make use of this oral advice as described doing so will be in accord with the Dharma and you will thus naturally and inherently obtain a genuine Dharma connection, you will perceive it directly with your eyes and hear the words. In sum, this is my advice for all those high and low in the Ancient Translation Nyingma school who bear the title of ngakpa – even though many of you have been around for a long time and have obtained many empowerments and teachings you still might have not had any further explanation than this so I am disseminating this text to all and (think that) it is very important that everyone exert themselves as diligently as they can in line with its message.
Generally speaking, so-called ngakpa are very few in number and ngakpa who act in accordance with the tantras are very rare. Even though I am not an authentic or fully qualified ngakpa I have studied the tantric texts a little and have received a few teachings on them. I have written down what essential points of the teachings I have understood and ngakpa ought to make these the heart of their practice.
When you hold your prayer beads or ritual phurba dagger in your hands you should visualize and recite mantras while meditating on the yidam deity. If you obtain genuine siddhis, then you are a ngakpa!
When spontaneous pure visions arise take the vital-point of these appearances onto the path and they will fully emerge. If you understand the meaning of these appearances in this way, then you are a ngakpa!
It’s very important that throughout your entire life, without being diverted by household duties and livelihood and with taking care of your children and wife, you are able to take these genuine practices on and practice Dharma a little. Let everyone take this firmly to heart. If you understand the profound vital-points of the Path of the Secret Mantra then misfortune, unforeseen circumstances and all the behaviours of Samsara will be a friend to you on the Path. In order to obtain siddhis truly and without fail, make worthwhile use of the support of a human body which you have gained. You do not know when the enemy of the Lord of Death will appear, in this degenerate age misfortune and obstacles abound. Turn your mind to the Dharma as swiftly as you can. Bring all of your actions and activities as much into accord with the Dharma as possible.
This vagabond by the name of Jigme Khyentse Odzer (i.e. Dilgo Khyentse) who has come from Derge, Kham to the North has spoken these words. They have been written down with an undeniably good intention. I pray this prayer unceasingly (‘without forgetting’) – May it truly come to pass that you ngakpa who conduct yourself in this way will be taken up as disciples by the Great and Glorious Urgyen Rinpoche, may your path be free of obstacles, may you enjoy conducive circumstances for practice, may you come together on the Glorious Copper-Coloured Mountain as one inseparable family of disciples and arise as a host of Awareness-Holder Vidyadharas! May auspiciousness, virtue and goodness spread and increase!
This oral advice was given by the tantric Vidyadhara from Derge, Eastern Kham, Jigme Khyentsi Odzer during the conferring of the empowerments for the Rinchen Terdzo to the great gathering of 1900 phurba carrying ngakpa in Rebgong in Northern Amdo entirely at the request of Amdrin Tulku, Milay Tulku, Ngakchang Tashi Palden, Tsering Gyal, Trowo Palden and many other ngakpa. It was given at the Sho’ong Sangngak Dargyeling temple in the Metal Rabbit year (1951) on the first day of the waxing moon in the month of Chotrul Duchen (Buddha Miracle Day) and was committed to writing by Jamyang Sherab Gyamtso and was engraved (into woodblocks) by the tantric priest Jigme Trinley from Dentig.