Authors: Matteo Pistono
Whether the darkness of delusion has been eliminated
Is clear whenever we lie down to sleep at night.
Whether the flames of anger have been extinguished
Is clear whenever we’re struck by words of abuse.
Whether the mountain of arrogance has been leveled
Is clear whenever those of lesser learning honor us.
Whether the lake of desire has dried up and disappeared
Is clear whenever we spend time with a beautiful girl.
Whether the tornado of envy has been brought to an end
Is clear whenever our rivals gain the upper hand.
Whether the tight knot of stinginess has been loosened
Is clear whenever we gain some material wealth.
Whether the flower of discipline has blossomed
Is clear whenever we’re in the midst of common folk.
Whether we have donned the armor of patience
Is clear whenever adversity suddenly strikes.
Whether the steed of diligence has developed to its finest
Is clear whenever we set about accomplishing some virtuous deed.
Whether the fortress of meditation has been secured
Is clear whenever serious illness befalls us.
And whether the sword of wisdom has been sharpened
Is clear whenever the destructive emotions arise and unfold.
Nyala Pema Dündul told Sogyal to seek out Lama Sonam Thaye at a remote encampment in Drikok and to be as courageous as a lion, to pay no attention to any difficulties or bad news but, rather, “Diligently apply every instruction that Sonam Thaye gives you!”
The old teacher touched his forehead to Sogyal’s and transferred his blessing and realization to him. Even at his young age, Sogyal knew that Pema Dündul’s loving-kindness was so expansive that geographical distance mattered little. He waved to his mother, Drolma, as he rode away from Kalzang. She would not see him again for more than a decade.
Sogyal followed the Nyachu River north and then veered west to cross the canyons leading toward Drikok. He had never been in this area before, so when he came upon a group of hunters he asked for directions. The hunters knew Dargye and thought Sogyal was running away from home, so they did not want to tell him the route.
“You have to help me get to Drikok encampment.”
“Drikok is west, over that mountain pass of Ase Tu—but people die up there. Lose their way. Freeze solid!” one of the hunters said, pointing to a saddle between two snow peaks.
“In any case, I’m shit-scared of Dargye and don’t want any part of his kid running away. You’ll have to get on by yourself.”
Sogyal continued alone through wilderness and over the snowy passes where only the snow leopards dwelled, just like past saints who sought out abodes where others feared. For such saints who practice the pure spiritual path, assistance will always arise. Dakinis and local protectors appeared and led him to wild berries and mushrooms for sustenance and helped him pass through hazardous terrain, showing him the path to Sonam Thaye’s encampment at Drikok.
Sogyal trusted that Lama Sonam Thaye’s teachings would be the pillar upon which his meditation practice would be established. He bowed at the yogi’s feet and requested to become his disciple. Sonam Thaye accepted and directed his new student into strict retreat to study and contemplate the fundamentals of the spiritual path. Sogyal began each of his meditation sessions with recitations from the liturgy of
The Vajra Heart Essence of the Luminous Expanse,
praying to the lineage teachers:
Grant your blessing so that my mind may turn toward the Dharma.
Grant your blessing so that Dharma may progress along the path.
Grant your blessing so that the path may clarify confusion.
Grant your blessing so that confusion may dawn as wisdom.
Sogyal contemplated the preciousness of the opportunity he possessed, and then, to fuel his resolve to diligently apply his teacher’s instructions, he thought:
This illusory body that was born has the nature of death.
The movement of life of this individual is like a waterfall.
There are no positive or negative circumstances that haven’t led to death,
Therefore I shall cultivate meditative stability at this very moment!
After a series of visualizations with the recitations of various mantras, Sogyal prayed:
Glorious root guru, constantly dwelling inseparable from me,
In the center of my heart on a lotus flower,
Care for me with your great kindness
And grant me the spiritual attainments of body, speech, and mind.
With unwavering perseverance, Sogyal sat in meditation sessions month after month. In his simple hut on windswept plains and in limestone mountain caves, he discarded attachment to worldly pleasures and applied techniques to destroy his habitual patterns of self-cherishing. He followed his guru’s instructions and meditated before the sun rose, throughout the day, and into the night. Such spiritual training under Sonam Thaye had been prophesied by Padmasambhava, when the Great Guru told Nanam Dorje Dudjom how he would practice the Dharma in his future incarnation as Sogyal at Drikok.
You will place no importance on home, friends, food, clothing or wealth. You will only engage in spiritual pursuits and will not hold on to the mistaken view that anything is permanent. You will not follow desires, because you will not have strong attachments. You will not try to flatter anyone with praise, nor will you retaliate impulsively against those who try to harm you—so you won’t have shifty so-called friends nor will you have spiteful enemies. You will abandon negative thoughts as though they were poison and only cherish the path that leads to liberation. While practicing the bodhisattva vehicle and the higher tantras, you will never transgress a vow; you will work only for the benefit of others. Whatever you do for others, you will not have any pride, nor will you do something in the hope for praise in return. Seeing all phenomena as the non-dual display of awareness, the activities of your body, speech and mind will be infused with bodhichitta. Seizing the stronghold of the most profound Dharma, your wisdom will shine in all directions like the rays of the sun.
The encampment at Drikok had been blessed over the centuries by many hermit meditators and tantric practitioners. Sogyal found not only a guru in Sonam Thaye at Drikok but also a community of practitioners who shared the same intention. Sogyal was another jewel in a garland of gems of yogis who stayed for long durations of retreat. As Pema Dündul had said to Sogyal, “At Drikok you will not feel you have to please the rich and famous nor will there be anyone thinking the newcomers should be bullied.”
Sogyal quickly became known for accepting comfort and discomfort, and happiness and suffering, with the same stable state of mind. He did not look for the faults in those who were devoid of mindfulness and awareness, nor did he needlessly dwell in the busyness of being hopeful or fearful for anything in the future. By contemplating how his ultimate contentment was dependent on alleviating the suffering of all sentient beings, he began to genuinely regard others’ well-being as more important than his own. Though he had little material wealth, as a sign of true renunciation, he adorned himself with inner contentment. Sogyal would later say, “Your material wealth will be matched by obstacles. However much you increase your riches, your downfalls and non-virtue will follow. However much you work to increase your assets, you will receive in equal amount others’ scorn and evil eye. Even if you are spared such negativity in this life, your family and children will incur ceaseless illness and disturbances. So whatever wealth you accumulate, in order to benefit other beings, present it as an offering to your precious teacher. This will increase your virtue and merit. It is far superior to use wealth for the resolute intention toward enlightenment. Therefore, the constant striving to grow one’s savings should be stopped immediately. Unless you have the wealth of the realization of the teachings and holy books to study, nothing else is of value. Give it all away—offer it to your guru.”
For the five years he stayed in retreat at Drikok, Sogyal continually had visionary encounters of Nyala Pema Dündul. Pema Dündul bestowed tantric empowerments and meditation instructions upon him. Pema Dündul and Sonam Thaye were leading Sogyal on the path of the secret Vajrayana that involves two stages. The first stage of the tantric path is receiving empowerment, which matures a disciple and initiates him or her into a particular meditation practice. Just as a candle wick gives light when lit, an empowerment awakens the student’s enlightened potential. The second stage of the path involves the instruction, the pithy know-how that liberates the disciple.
“When I saw my guru Pema Dündul in visions, whatever he told me and predicted all arose in the script of the dakinis,” Sogyal said. Sogyal practiced just as the master had once sung:
The View is like the sky
Always afterward what it was before
Forever unmoving and unchanging
And Dzogchen is simply this.
Meditation is like a vast ocean
Nothing to get rid of, nothing to maintain
And Dzogchen is simply this.
Action is like a spear whirled through empty space
Unobstructed in all direction
Anything that arises liberates by itself
And Dzogchen is simply this.
Fruition is like a great eagle soaring through the sky
Naturally no hope, no fear
Samsara and nirvana liberated in the ground of being
And Dzogchen is simply this.
During the fourth month of the Water Monkey year (1872), Sogyal was continuing his meditation retreats. Early one morning, he had an unusual vision of Pema Dündul. The elder master appeared as a body of light, seated in meditation posture with his hands in his lap and a single thin cotton shawl draped around him. As if Pema Dündul’s body were spiraling into his own heart, the light body dissolved. Sogyal awoke from the dream with a feeling of joy tinged with a sense of loss. A few months passed before Sogyal realized that in his vision he had presciently seen the passing of Pema Dündul. Sogyal was later told about the last days of Pema Dündul and how the master had called for his disciples to assist him in walking to a small tent on the mountainside.
“Be determined and have courage on the spiritual path,” Pema Dündul told his students. “Sew up the door of my tent, and do not come near for seven days.”
Fierce rainstorms came that evening and continued for a week, interspersed with rainbows. Three minor earthquakes shook the area while the sky was painted with spheres of light. Nomads in the area heard horns and cymbals, and a sweet fragrance filled the air. After a week, as the disciples climbed the hill, they saw a rainbow arc from Pema Dündul’s tent all the way to his throne at Kalzang Temple. When they opened the tent door, they looked toward Pema Dündul’s meditation carpet and immediately bowed their heads, because all that remained were the master’s hair and fingernails in a pile. His body had vanished, dissolved into light. Pema Dündul had attained the supreme realization of a Dzogchen yogi.
The Tibetan medical tantras teach that the process of dying begins when a person’s breathing stops and the five elements of the corporeal body—earth, water, fire, air, and space—progressively dissolve into one another. The death process takes anywhere from a few hours to a few days. While the death process of the body is occurring, the consciousness is suspended between death and the next rebirth. During these in-between
states, the consciousness has different kinds of visionary, auditory, and emotional experiences, which are intense and seemingly real. These visions can disturb the person’s consciousness because the physical body, which is held so dear and is the source of so much attachment, is disintegrating. As the death process continues, the sense faculties that engage the world cease to function. When the final stage of death happens, the consciousness departs the corpse and is blown by the karmic wind of delusion into its next rebirth, entering the mother’s womb at the time of conception. Where the karmic wind blows the consciousness to be reborn—whether among the blissful gods, demigods, humans, animals, or the extreme suffering of the hell realms—depends on one’s previous actions.
The process of death and the in-between states cause great trepidation for someone unfamiliar with their own mind. The consciousness experiences an array of unfamiliar, intense visions, which tend to create fear in the dying person’s mind. Accomplished yogis, however, are not perturbed; because they remain in a state of meditation while the body’s elements dissolve, they are not overcome with the fear of death. The inner experiences happening at the time of death do not disorient the yogi, who has trained for this moment during life. Such yogis have the power to exert control over death’s process as their consciousness departs the body. They are not simply blown into their next existence, but rather consciously direct where they will be reborn. This is how the Dalai Lamas, Dorje Dudjom, and many other meditation masters in India and Tibet have in past centuries reincarnated to continue the work from their previous lives. Reincarnation, the migration of a consciousness into another body, is analogous to the way a flame from a single candle can light another, where the second flame is both the same, yet different, from its source. These masters choose where they will be reborn. Because the principal purpose of reincarnation is to complete the unfinished work started in a previous life, reincarnation is a very practical way for bodhisattva yogis to continue the job. Their job description is straightforward—to bring about the enlightenment of all sentient beings.