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According to the Dzogchen tradition of Buddhism, we are all already perfect and complete. But what does this actually mean on a practical level? And if we’re already perfect, then why do we have to practice?
According to Dzogchen teacher Anne C. Klein (Rigzin Drolma), this is the central paradox of the Buddhist path. In her new book, Being Human and a Buddha Too: Longchenpa’s Sevenfold Mind Training for a Sunlit Sky, Klein takes up the question of what it actually means for each of us to be complete, as well as what happens to our humanity when we seek awakening.
In a recent episode of Tricycle Talks, Klein sat down with Tricycle’s editor-in-chief, James Shaheen, to discuss how she has come to understand buddhahood, the difference between wholeness and perfection, and how wholeness honors the variety of human experience. Read an excerpt from the conversation below, and then listen to the full episode.
To start, what inspired you to write this book? In 2007, Adzom Paylo Rinpoche taught [Longchenpa’s sevenfold mind training], and it was my first acquaintance with this teaching. It hasn’t been taught in the West that often, and I really enjoyed it.
[As I was working with this teaching,] I reached back to a kind of koan that I’ve been chewing over since high school when I first heard this idea that you somehow were a buddha, which sounded insane and yet was compelling. Of course, it’s absolutely pivotal to Dzogchen. Adzom Rinpoche will ask new students, “Do you think you could be a buddha in this lifetime?” And it’s kind of a wake-up call: Do I think that? And if I don’t, why not? And if I do, really? So these are things that were on my mind that I wanted to bring forth in some way, and it felt like this was the way to do it.
The theme of wholeness is something I’ve been reflecting on a good bit. What does wholeness mean to an ordinary human being? Because I’m clearly a human being, but there’s a buddha too that’s actually not separate. This is what I’m exploring, and I would say it’s been a continuing exploration.
You write that Dzogchen understands all paths to move toward a natural state of wholeness. Can you say more about this state of wholeness? This state of wholeness is one of the central symbols of Dzogchen. For example, think of the vast ocean. There are waves that are catastrophic, there are little ripples, there is water crashing on the shore, but it’s all unquestionably ocean. The ocean is whole. I think this is one of the reasons humans love to look at the ocean: somehow the usual sense of “me” and “that” dissolves naturally. There’s still some kind of subject-object sensibility there, but it softens. And there’s something about that that we as a species fall in love with. We love that vastness, and there’s actually a very deep yearning for it. [We’re] nourished by the experience of wholeness.
You say that this wholeness is already accessible to each of us, yet Dzogchen also has a very highly structured path of practice. This may seem paradoxical: If we are already whole, then why do we need such structured practice? How do you understand the relationship between wholeness and the path of practice? This is the central paradox of the path. You’re a buddha. You’re told this from the beginning. You also don’t understand that. How can that be? How could you be that which is utterly perfect, the ground of everything in which everything arises? But everything arises in your experience also. Your experience is in some sense the expanse in which everything arises. This is not an esoteric thing: you’re happy, you’re sad, but it’s all part of the domain of your experience.
The mind is of infinite variety, and that’s important to recognize. This kind of wholeness is the ultimate creative space. Everything arises in it and never leaves it. Dzogchen practice helps open our radar to flux and change and lightens up our desire for things, especially “me,” “mine,” to be permanent. Then it takes us through various kinds of permutations using vivid imagery and imagination, allowing things to arise in fullness of color and drama and emotion and then dissolve. It’s seeing that kind of process over and over again in daily practice that really opens us up to the wholeness—to the ground that is actually always there and never shaken because nothing ever happens to it. But in some sense, a lot of stuff happens, and we can’t ignore that. Life is not just looking at the sky. The sky has clouds; the ocean has waves. Wholeness without arisings in it wouldn’t be wholeness; it would be some kind of exclusive zone. Practice is a way to reckon with that experientially.
Right, you say that this completeness is not the same as sameness in that it doesn’t erase difference. So how does Dzogchen honor and celebrate the vast diversity of human experience while also acknowledging completeness? We tend to think that difference has the last word, and this blinds us to the wholeness. But wholeness is not a dead expanse with nothing in it. Wholeness is the open space in which everything occurs, which is boundless and unlimited. Within this state, anything can occur without in any way leaving this unnameable wholeness.
This is central to the Dzogchen approach: nothing ever leaves this state. It’s like the waves in the ocean—they never leave the ocean. The clouds never leave the sky. They arise there, they dissolve into it, they don’t disrupt it. And in some ways, the more clouds and lightning and thunder and rainbows and birds that you can see in the sky, the more you can appreciate its openness and boundlessness. It is often said that for a developed practitioner, the more activated your mind can be, the more you can notice that this wholeness is not getting disrupted.
Variety is like the blossoming of wholeness and creativity. Dzogchen means the Great Completeness, and it’s great because there’s nothing outside of it. Nothing. Not your worst enemy, not your worst fears. It’s all a wave in the ocean.