Q and A: Nyams in Dzogchen

Q & A: Nyams in Dzogchen

Dzogchen regards nyams as opportunities to recognise rigpa. This transcript (excerpted from vision issue 11, Autumn 1998) discusses several varieties of nyams. Sem nyams are the experiences of form and emptiness discovered through the practices of lha-tong and shi-n in the Dzogchen sem-d ngndro. Zap-nyams are subtle sensations discovered through practices of Dzogchen long-d, such as sKu-mNy.

Questioner When you say that in the case of nyams, the psycho-physical elements ‘relax into their own condition’, is it true that ‘their own condition’ is rigpa?

Ngak’chang Rinpoche Yes.

Q Then I don’t think I understand why nyams are supposed to be disregarded, if they are manifestations of rigpa. And I’m sort of losing the distinction between regular nyams and zap-nyams. I think I must be confused about something here . . .

NR It is not that nyams are a manifestation of rigpa – it is that nyams are the psycho-physical elements relaxing into their own condition. One could say that this condition is the same as rigpa, or one could say that this condition is the nature of the pure non-dual elements as they exist within the central channel. These different approaches depend on whether one is peaking in terms of Dzogchen sem-d or Dzogchen long-d. In Dzogchen long-d, we speak of the central channel – so maybe that is the nature of your confusion. Nyams are disregarded within Tantra because if one engages with them, one becomes a seeker-of-nyams. As soon as one grasps at nyams, they cease to relax into their own condition. But within Dzogchen there are specific nyams which are employed as foci for trk-chd. In Dzogchen sem-d the sem-nyams are used. Hdwa [‘shock/amazement’] is used. In Dzogchen long-d the zap-nyams are used. [laughs] This is something of a massive question, really . . . but I think that what is most important is that you do not get categories confused with each other. This is what seems to be happening. You must remember that every way of explaining is in itself a method, and there will be a principle and function in relation to the terms used.

Q When you make the distinction between ‘spaciousness’ and ‘emptiness’, does that mean that ‘spaciousness’ is equivalent to non-dual space – the space that is not separated from that which manifests as form?

NR Yes.

Q And ‘emptiness’ is the nyam of npa [discovered via shi-n]?

NR Yes.

Q  . . . as differentiated from form?

NR Yes.

Q All right! So spaciousness is connected with what you said about taking the sky to be the perfect state – ‘and yet to be without clouds is not the nature of the sky’.

NR Yes.

Q I just have to say that this sentence still totally knocks me out!

NR I’m glad it doesn't seem like a gaol [jail] sentence.

Q Rinpoche, I’ve heard Dzogchen masters speak of dwa nyams, selwa nyams, and mithogpa nyams – would these fall into the category of ‘spiritual’ nyams?

NR Yes. However, nyams of bliss [dwa], nyams of clarity [selwa], and nyams of the thought-free state [mithogpa] are all nyams in which the presence of awareness can be found through the practice of trk-chd. They relate to attraction, aversion, and indifference – in terms of the non-conceptual dimension. Once one realises rigpa through these nyams, they become ornaments of rigpa.

Q If these nyams become ornaments of rigpa, does that mean that in the state of rigpa one would not distinguish between them as separate experiences?

NR Yes and no. They would not be experienced as separate from rigpa, in that one would not distinguish them as separate. But that would not mean they would no longer have individual manifestations.

Q So they would be perceived as aspects of a single unpartitioned experience, by analogy with the sem-nyams?

NR Yes.

Q So . . . these nyams are special opportunities to recognise rigpa?

NR Yes.

Q Then . . . could you clarify the reason some Dzogchen texts describe them as obstacles? Is it because they’re easy to mistake for rigpa, if one only apprehends them with ordinary mind?

NR [laughs] Looks as if you’ve clarified your own question.

Q Would one have to experience rigpa in the empty state first, in terms of direct introduction, before one could self-liberate thought?

NR No. That would be to imagine that emptiness & form were different.

Q So one would not need to be in any particular state at all for direct introduction to take place?

NR That could be said.

Q I asked that question because the impression given by the dramatic stories of informal transmission in the yogic tradition is that the disciple is certainly capable of emptiness and apparently in the empty state in the moment that it is being described.

NR Yes, but that could not be understood as a prerequisite – especially within informal transmission. Certainly the disciple needs to be able to eperience the empty state, or any sense of transmission may be short-lived – but there can be no fixed rule. Transmission can happen ‘any time any place anywhere’ . . . To return to these stories – it’s usually the empty state which is described as being the base for receiving transmission, because it’s easier to describe transmission in that manner. Otherwise, one would have to deal with non-dual possibilities, and that would not work well in conventional language. But the Vajra Master could just as easily give transmission by intruding into a welter of conceptuality. It’s rather more a matter of devotion, too, I would say.

Q The paths of the different vehicles describe the fruit in terms of something-and-emptiness – appearance and emptiness, bliss and emptiness, awareness and emptiness. So if non-duality is non-progressive, and if you don’t need emptiness first, what – if anything – do you need, apart from devotion?

NR [grins] . . . A sense of humour.

Q Rinpoche, I’m confused about the difference between rigpa and yesh, and also the difference between yesh and sem-nyid.

NR Yes. That is because they are the same. You could also add kadag – primordial purity. The difference is in the way in which these terms are employed to discuss the path and fruit. We should actually discuss this in the context in which these terms arise. However, ‘rigpa’ can be employed to discuss the fruit or the momentary experience of the fruit. ‘Yesh’ can be employed to discuss the primordial base – ‘that which has always been’. ‘Sem-nyid’ can be employed to discuss the manner in which sem, or ‘small-m mind’ arises and dissolves within the nature of Mind – ‘sem-nyid’. When we speak of ‘kadag’, we are speaking of a state which has never known duality, so one would not use that term for the realised state if one were including the possibility of having strayed from that state.

Q So then is sem-nyid emptiness? Or would it be better to describe it as the spatial dimension?

NR Sem-nyid is non-dual. In fact, ‘sem’ is also non-dual – when one recognises that sem cannot be separate from sem-nyid. So yes – ‘spatial dimension’ rather than ‘emptiness’. ‘Emptiness’ is one aspect of sem-nyid, and ‘that which arises’ is the other. That is the spatial dimension.

Q In terms of the analogies you have given with regard to ‘mind’ and ‘the nature of Mind’, sem-nyid would seem to equate with emptiness . . .

NR In terms of the analogies – yes. But no. When one discusses sem, it can appear that sem (as form) is being contrasted with sem-nyid (as emptiness) – but this is not the case.

Q So sem-nyid is non-duality.

NR Yes.

Q I understand you to be saying that the nature of form is that it is non-dual with emptiness . . .

NR Yes.

Q Is this different from the way the Sutric teachings say that the nature of form is emptiness?

NR Actually – no. If one understands the Heart Sutra, one also knows the heart of Dzogchen.

Q And would Tantra express itself distinctively too?

NR Yes – for those who see a difference between ‘form is emptiness’ and ‘emptiness is form’ [laughs]

Q Rinpoche . . . you said self-liberation of thoughts did not mean that thought ceased to exist. If it doesn’t dissolve back into emptiness . . . what happens to it?

NR It is, as it is. It is simply no longer a reference point.

Q Why is it stipulated so clearly in the Aro gTr foundation practice that one needs to stabilise shi-n, the absence of thought, before moving on to lha-tong? That isn’t stated so emphatically in other Dzogchen traditions, is it?

NR It is one approach. It is a perspective which is pecular to the ngndro of Dzogchen sem-d rather than to Dzogchen itself. Other Dzogchen traditions have more the perspective of Dzogchen men-ngak-d – which is not to say that the Aro gTr does not also have that perspective. It is simply that Khandro Dchen and I emphasize the ngndro of Dzogchen sem-d in terms of arriving at the base of Dzogchen. We do not tend to teach a great deal from the perspective of Dzogchen long-d and Dzogchen men-ngak-d until people have sufficient experience of shi-n and lha-tong.

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