Interview with Ngak’chang Rinpoche
Questioner: Rinpoche, what is Lama’i Naljor, and what is the essential purpose of practicing it?
Ngak’chang Rinpoche: Lama’i Naljor (Guru yoga in Sanskrit) is the most important practice of Tantra. It is also the most important practice of Dzogchen. The word Lama has the meaning not only of the external teacher but also of the individual’s own realized nature. The word Naljor has the meaning of union. Lama’i Naljor therefore means the practice of unifying; with the Mind of the Teacher and recognizing that the Mind of the Teacher and one’s own Enlightened nature are identical. Lama’i Naljor is very important as a method of practice because we seem to find some difficulty in trusting or believing directly in our own Enlightened nature. It’s easier to trust in the enlightened nature of the Teacher since it is he or she who has inspired us to practice. In this sense, the Teacher’s enlightened nature is a reflection of our own enlightened nature. So Lama’i Naljor is really a way of coming to trust your own Enlightened nature. Lama’i Naljor authenticates the relationship between Teacher and student and it also enables you to authenticate the sense in which your Enlightened nature can be momentarily experienced. Through experiencing transmission as often as possible we are able to make complete use of the Teacher in our lives. We practice Lama’i Naljor to experience that sense of unification with the Enlightened mind of the Teacher; and through this experience we realize that our own enlightenment is the same as that of the Teacher. Lama’i Naljor is really the heart of Tantra. If it were possible only to do one visualization practice then it should be Lama’i Naljor.
Q What is the difference between Lama’i Naljor and other visualization practices Rinpoche?
R As with all Tantric practices the difference lies in how their devotional / inspirational characteristics are given direction and impetus. When you’re entering into a process of self-arising, the Teacher is not necessarily being specifically considered, but with Lama’i Naljor you take Empowerment in exactly the same sense as you would with the external Lama. With the Machig Labdrön Lama’i Naljor (a practice within the Aro gTér), for example, a process of Empowerment by ‘self-initiation’ is occurring through Transmission of the coloured light Seed Syllables. This is the same as the Four Initiations given by a Lama during a ritual Tantric Empowerment. The distinction between Lama’i Naljor and other visualizations does not lie in the choice of Awareness Being. It lies firstly in the inspired sense of devotion that one holds toward the Awareness Being as being the embodiment of one’s own teacher and secondly in the taking of Transmission from the Awareness Being. The same Yidam can thus be used both for self-arising and for Lama’i Naljor practice.
Q Could you say more about Empowerment and the Four Initiations?
R A ritual Tantric Empowerment is composed of three parts. They are the Wang (Transmission through the power of symbol), Lung (Transmission through sound), and Tri (Transmission through explanation). The Wang is broken down into many different sections according to the tantric vehicle. The vehicle that concerns us is the Inner Tantra system of the Nyingma School. In this system the Wang is composed of the Four Initiations, these equate to the Four Kayas:
From the perspective of the Svabhavikakaya, the three Kayas are ornaments of the Svabhavikakaya – so there is either Emptiness, Vision, or Manifestation.
The First Initiation is the Jug or Vase Initiation. This is the one where you receive the water and is connected with purification but also this establishes the cause for Realization at the Nirmanakaya level, or Realization whilst in Form.
The Second Initiation is usually where you are shown a picture of the Awareness Being relating to the type of Empowerment being given. This establishes the cause for Realization at the Sambhogakaya level or level of Energy or Vision.
The Third Initiation is being shown a picture of the Seed Syllable relating to the Awareness Being and this establishes the cause for Realization at the level of Dharmakaya or Emptiness.
The Fourth and final Initiation is being shown the crystal representing the Svabhavikakaya, which establishes the cause for complete Realization.
Q Why did you choose Machig Labdrön as the Lama’i Naljor for your students?
R Because this practice is very important in the lineage of His Holiness Chhi’mèd Rig’dzin Rinpoche, one of my main teachers. In one of his previous lives, he was the son and chief disciple of Machig Labdrön. In that life he was called Gyalwa Thöndrup. When he was young he requested a short and easy Lama’i Naljor of his mother and this is what she wrote for him. She gave him this precise tune. The tune by which we chant this Lama’i Naljor. His Holiness Chhi’mèd Rig’dzin Rinpoche remembers this Lama’i Naljor in his own mind with complete clarity. He actually hears her voice in his memory as if she had chanted it to him days ago rather than lives before. This is the main reason why I chose this Lama’i Naljor. Such direct transmission makes it a very powerful practice. Then... there’s the link with Chöd. If any of my students wish to practice Chöd in the future, they’ll at least be able to handle the Chöd drum and bell.
Q Could you expand on the importance of Lama’i Naljor in Dzogchen?
R Lama’i Naljor is often practiced in Dzogchen. In that system Lama’i Naljor is practiced using only the letter A. For example this is used as the conclusion of the Machig Labdrön Lama’i Naljor, we also use it at the end of ‘Seven-Line Song’ and many other songs in our practice. The A is visualized at that point as being the union of all your teachers and you find the Presence of Awareness in the dimension of that letter A. This is also used at the beginning of Machig Labdrön. The sequence of the Machig Labdrön Lama’i Naljor is as follows:
It starts with the Dzogchen A. Then it goes into Mahayoga – seeing Machig Labdrön as external with the coloured seed syllables on her body. Then Anuyoga – becoming Machig Labdrön through the unification of the seed syllables on her and your own body. Then finally the Dzogchen or Atiyoga phase with the White A – the exploding of the visualization is the Atiyoga phase too. This is what the kangling is used for in this practice. The function of the kangling, or thighbone trumpet, is in this instance to explode the visualization and to bring greater clarity. This is in fact a Bardo experience – at the point of blowing the kangling there is just the Emptiness between ‘then’ and ‘when’.
Q Could you talk a little more about Bardo?
R Bardo can be misunderstood as just being the interval between successive rebirths, but Bar-do really means ‘gap’ or ‘space’. Bar means some kind of ‘flow’, ‘river’, or ‘movement’; and do means ‘island’. So it’s like a space or particular point. There are many Bardos... there is the Bardo of Death and the Bardo of Life. There is the Bardo of Visions that arise in the Death state and the Bardo of Becoming, of Dream, of Meditation. So Bardo is a very interesting concept. There is the Bardo of every day, of a particular job, a particular relationship, a particular sequence of events; everything is Bardo in that sense, in the sense of a contained experience. Like the Bardo of this interview – here in this tent. This will be followed by the Bardo of the walk to the shrine room and so on. Its like a space or field of a particular quality of experience, which is followed by space, which is followed by space. Each following space has its own unique flavour. Each space is somehow separate and discrete according to the experience of Bardo. When one really enters into Bardo then this is all there really is – it’s really just one Space – here, in this point instant, but stretching out into eternity. Bardo is essentially now. If you’re distracted... say you’ve got something on your mind... then this is not the realized experience of Bardo.
Q What is it then, Rinpoche?
R It’s the Bardo of duality. The Bardo of duality wants to homogenize the individual quality of these endless appearing and disappearing Bardos into some sort of solid ground where nothing ever changes. The authentic experience of Bardo is a kind of bubble experience – it’s there, and then its gone... and there’s another one, then another one, and another one. That devolves into smaller, smaller, smaller, and smaller fields of experience until there is only Now. So... there are bubbles within those bubbles. These bubbles of experience, these Bardos, are linked by Emptiness – when you know that... it’s called Enlightenment (laughter). When it’s concept that links Bardos... this is known as Unenlightenment! So... when it’s concept that links these experiential spaces, you want to blur the Bardo experiences out so that there are no different Bardos. You want to have continuous experience rather than have discontinuous experience. This is’ the desire to experience continuity – but there is no continuity apart from Emptiness! That is the continuity... which is why the translation of Tantra (Gyüd in Tibetan) is ‘thread’ but, it’s Empty Thread.
Q Rinpoche, is there any particular point in a practice session where it is best to practise Lama’i Naljor?
R You can practise Lama’i Naljor on its own. Or if you’re practising other practices, then Lama’i Naljor is usually placed before you do the extended period of silent sitting – that’s in order to rest in the Empty state... you arrived at that through Lama’i Naljor practice and then you simply remain. You can, of course, do lesser periods of silent sitting after every phase of the practice, but Lama’i Naljor is usually done before an extended session of silent sitting. This is, however, an emphasis rather than some terrible rule!
Q If you have limited time, Rinpoche, is it best to do Lama’i Naljor rather than another practice, for example, instead of singing Dorje-tsig-dun (Seven Line Song)?
R Well Dorje-tsig-dun can, of course, be Lama’i Naljor if you take the Transmission of the light Seed Syllables! So one should always practice Lama’i Naljor. But the Lama’i Naljor you practice does not always have to be that of Machig Labdrön. It could simply be that of Singing the A at the end of Dorje-tsig-dun, if you have the sense of the A being the union of all one’s Teachers and if you find the Presence of Awareness in the dimension of the White A. This is Lama’i Naljor at the Dzogchen level. So you can do it that way. It really is vital that a practitioner engages in Lama’i Naljor every day. Furthermore, this type of practice can be done many times a day. In the New Translation Schools, especially in the Gélug, they talk about Six-Session Guru Yoga. In the Nyingma School they talk about Four-Session Guru Yoga. These sessions are what we call Thuns – a Thun being a period of practice as a basic tantric commitment. But this does not mean that four or six times a day is enough. The idea is that it is interspersed throughout your day. If you know how to practice Lama’i Naljor with this White A then you can do it hundreds of times a day – there’s no limit... Lama’i Naljor is not just the recitation of a text, it is the actual sensation or experience of unification with the Mind of the Teacher. It’s this experience of unification that’s important and that doesn’t have to take very long. So, to put it simply, it can be having a memory of your Teacher. It can be Singing A and finding the Presence of Awareness in the Envisionment of the White A as being the Mind of your Teacher. That’s actually essential. That can be practiced frequently. Four or six times a day really just means ‘often’. The real meaning is that you live in a more integrated way. You live in the presence of the Lama. You live with that sense of awareness. It permeates your existence. So... the more you can practice it, the better. Lama’i Naljor can be abbreviated according to your knowledge. Let’s take an example: you could visualize Machig Labdrön while sitting on a bus. You could silently take the Three Empowerments through the three coloured lights and with the syllables: Om, A’a and Hung. Then you could unify with the visualization – that would be Lama’i Naljor. So, there are many ways of practicing Lama’i Naljor, but the important thing is that you do practice, that you do it, however abbreviated it is.
Q Rinpoche, is the remembrance of your Teacher equally as important as the visualization in Lama’i Naljor?
R Oh yes... if anything... I’d say it’s more important. Unless I happen to be the Lama that is [laughs]. Then you’d be far better off practising Lama’i Naljor.