Beyond emptiness: Zen, Tantra, and Dzogchen

ox herding picture #8: emptiness
number eight: emptiness

Vajrayana Buddhism begins where Sutrayana ends: at emptiness. Vajrayana concerns the realms beyond emptiness, about which mainstream Buddhism (Sutrayana) has nothing to say.

Few Buddhist systems go beyond emptiness. This post is a humorous sketch of the differences among three: Zen, Tantra, and Dzogchen. (Mahamudra is another, which I won’t discuss.) I can’t write seriously, because my practice of Tantra and Dzogchen is pathetic, and I haven’t practiced Zen at all. The post is long, but I hope you will find it entertaining, and that it conveys something of the attitudes of the three approaches.

Vehicles fast and slow

It is said… that Hinayana is like a bicycle. It is slow, and carries only one person, but it’s cheap, simple, and gets you there in the end. Mahayana is a bus: when you drive the vehicle, you bring many people with you. Tantrayana is a sports car: it is fast, dangerous, and not for most people. Dzogchen is a teleportation booth: it’s instantaneous, but somewhat hypothetical.

This isn’t my analogy. It’s significantly misleading, in several ways.

It is said… that, when practicing Zen, first there is a mountain; then there is no mountain; then there is a mountain.

That isn’t my analogy. I’ll start with no mountain. Let’s say you live in a flat place—the Ganges plain of northern India perhaps—and you have never seen even a hill.

The path to emptiness, and what you find there

ox herding picture #2: finding the track
number two: finding the track

You hear rumors of a miraculous something, called “emptiness,” far off. Intrigued, you attend lectures with learned men, who totally fail to explain it in a way anyone can understand. Also, they disagree violently with each other about what “emptiness” is. Still, they all seem to think it’s wonderful.

Eventually, you decide that you’ll have to go see it for yourself. You get a copy of The Rough Guide To Emptiness, which explains how to get there, and you set off. (Not before your family says “Isn’t that an awfully long way to go?” and “I can see why you’d meditate a little, but don’t you think this is overdoing it?”)

It’s a long hard slog—several months, perhaps several years. Your knees and back hurt. Still, it’s a broad dirt track, and it’s well marked, and there’s plenty of footprints on the way. And it’s dead flat, of course, like everywhere you’ve ever been.

Finally, you come around a corner, and there is a huge billboard sign: !!! EMPTINESS Here & Now !!!… and, omigod, there it is!

You stand on the bank of emptiness and gape. It’s incomprehensibly vast, a featureless expanse of water stretching out seemingly to infinity. Wow! Wow. Wow. Wow.

You are jolted out of your contemplation by voices. Returning to normal perception, you realize that you arrived beside a parking lot, where a bus has just disgorged a load of Japanese tourists. They are talking excitedly in Japanese (presumably) and taking iPhone photos of themselves with emptiness in the background.

Looking around, you see other buses. A crowd of fat Americans with Hawaiian shirts and yappy little dogs is milling around one.

There’s also a group of athletic twenty-somethings leaning on their bicycles and showing off their leg muscles.

At the back of the parking lot, there’s a Dharma Burger® stand. A queue of Consensus Buddhists are waiting in line there, pretending not to check out the cyclists.


This is joking about “emptiness tourism.” There are people who decide they want to get sotapatti or kensho, and they do a three month retreat, and they see emptiness, and it’s really cool, and then they tick it off and move on to something more interesting. (I hear this is particularly common in Japan.) A few declare that they are now “enlightened,” and set up tour agencies, or publish maps.

The cyclists represent a recent athletic, goal-oriented trend in American Buddhism, led for instance by Daniel Ingram and Kenneth Folk. They encourage rapid personal progress on a path based in Hinayana (hence bicycles—but their methods probably actually go beyond emptiness).

“Dharma Burgers” are superficial pop-culture references to Buddhism.

Despite my gentle satire, there is nothing wrong with any of these. Like the Grand Canyon, it’s absolutely worth seeing emptiness once, even if you never come back. There is huge value in the hardcore approach to Buddhism (and it’s a major part of the system I practice in). I often enjoy Buddhist references in pop culture, even when they are commercialized and distorted.

Crossing the river

And so, you walk away from the crowd, down the bank, and stick a toe in emptiness. It’s cool to the touch. You stare for a long time out across emptiness. You lose track of time. Minutes pass, or years.

There’s something odd. At first you thought you saw a line of clouds on the horizon—but isn’t there a very thin dark line below them? Could it be that there is something there, beyond emptiness?

The word “mountains” comes into your mind, from a dream, or a forgotten fairy story.

You walk along the bank, away from the parking lot. The babble of voices fades. Twilight falls, and you come upon an old and extraordinarily ugly woman, sitting cross-legged on the bank and grinning maniacally. You approach with caution. She turns abruptly and points out into emptiness. There an enormous fish, striped yellow, white, red, green, and blue, leaps from the surface—and hangs, for an instant only, in the air. You open your mouth to speak, and suddenly find yourself back in the parking lot, in broad daylight, surrounded by tourists.

You walk the same way along the bank. Twilight falls, and you come again upon the extraordinarily ugly woman, still grinning maniacally. Again she points, and the fish jumps. “What—” you begin, and find yourself back in the parking lot.

Perhaps this happens three times, or a million times.

Then, one time, you simply sit beside her on the bank and look at the fish. You are the fish, after all. Also the river, and the bank.

And so you are sitting on the other side of the river. From the bank you had called “far,” it does not seem wide; no more than a brook. You grin maniacally across at the extraordinarily ugly woman, who nods vigorously. Then you stand up, turn around, and start into the mountains.


If you want to understand this metaphor, you may have to read the “beyond emptiness” and “vivid portal” chapters in Roaring Silence. It is an allegory of pointing-out instructions


ox-herding picture #9: reaching the source
number nine: reaching the source

Zen—“a special transmission outside the sutras”—goes beyond Sutrayana, and therefore beyond emptiness. Mostly, though, it takes you to emptiness. It doesn’t have much to say about what lies beyond, or what to do when you get there. “Marvelous! Ineffable!” is not hugely helpful advice. The rest is poetry and riddles. Or, at any rate, that’s my impression, having never practiced it and read only a couple dozen popular books. Still…

“First there is a mountain”—as ordinarily perceived. “Then there is no mountain”: it dissolves into emptiness. (This is where Sutrayana stops.) Zen continues: “and then there is a mountain.” It is the same mountain, and not the same, because its vivid appearance remains empty. (This is where Tantrayana begins, as the mountain returns.)

The eighth Ox-Herding Picture is blank; an empty circle. You have reached the end goal of Sutrayana; and some versions of the Pictures end here too.

But others continue. Their ninth picture is of a lovely landscape. This is the territory beyond emptiness.

The tenth picture is “back to the marketplace”: fully enlightened, you return to civilization. That’s true in Tantra and Dzogchen also.

But this page is mostly about number nine. The picture is nice—there’s a river, a willow, poppies blooming, mountains in the background. And so?

Zen seems not to have much to say. Some teachers explicitly reject the ninth and tenth pictures, saying you cannot go beyond emptiness.

The classic commentary by Kakuan Shien:

Too many steps have been taken returning to the the source; you see that you have expended efforts in vain. Better to have been blind and deaf from the beginning! A hermit dwelling in your true abode, unconcerned with what’s outside, the river flows tranquilly on and the flowers are red.

From point of view of Tantra or Dzogchen, this is terrible advice. Tantra and Dzogchen are about perception, exploration, and appreciation. Complacent Kakuan believes that having crossed over emptiness you’ve finished your work and can hang around being holy; but you’ve barely begun.

Undoubtedly some Zen masters have gone far beyond emptiness, and returned to teach; but they seem to have written no systematic guides to what they found. Perhaps that’s restricted to oral transmission in koan study; I don’t know. (Maybe you do? Please leave a comment below!)


You leave the willow tree by the river-bank and struggle up a steep rocky slope. The butterflies are distracting, you are out of breath, and you could easily twist an ankle. Still, it’s entrancingly beautiful, and you are drawn on by glimpses of snow-covered peaks ahead.

Soon you come upon a paved highway. Looking both ways, you see that it snakes its way on up through the foothills.

Parked by the side of the road is a candy-apple red convertible, painted with flames in the Tibetan style. An elegantly-dressed gentleman steps out of the driver’s seat.

“You cannot hope to travel beyond emptiness without a vehicle, or without a map,” he says, in a somewhat disdainful tone.

“Oh,” you say.

“I suppose that, since you have made it this far, I might consider lending you my vehicle,” he says. “And I do have a map.”

“That would be extremely kind,” you say, “but I have never been in a car, and have no idea how to drive.”

“I’ll just give you the transmission,” he says, “and the manual is in the glovebox. Of course, there is the slight matter of the customary donation…”

That business concluded, the gentleman chants some gibberish, makes some mystic passes, and vanishes in a puff of smoke.

You sit for a while in the driver’s seat, reading the manual out loud. It seems quite useless. It’s written partly in some foreign tongue, and the bits that are supposed to be in English have sentences so contorted they might as well be Sanskrit. There are pictures and even diagrams, but they are of gods with too many heads and peculiar palaces, which doesn’t seem helpful.

Eventually you put the manual away and start randomly pushing buttons and levers. With one combination, the car roars to life and lurches across the road before stalling out, narrowly missing going off the edge. When your heart and breath return to normal, you try again, and manage to drive a couple of hundred feet, even making it around a curve, having figured out the steering wheel.

You consult the map. At the center is a golden palace marked “Enlightenment” in extra-large letters. The map seems to think that’s the place to go, so you take a deep breath, start the car, and head off.

The car seems only to go very fast, and it takes enormous concentration to keep it on the road. At times you are faintly aware that lush valleys and towering forests and remarkable rock formations are whooshing past, but your eyes are glued to the highway and the controls.

The clutch is finicky and, try as you will, you cannot avoid clashing the gears. Each time, there is an awful grinding noise and the car jerks terribly. Eventually, there is a final, worst gear-stripping noise; the car stalls, and you can’t restart it.

You consult the manual. Again it is no help.

There is a clap of thunder, and the slick gentleman appears. “Had a little trouble on your way to Enlightenment, then?” he asks. “What you need is a new transmission. That first one I gave you was kid stuff, anyway. There’s no way it would have gotten you all the way to Enlightenment. Of course, it might plant a seed for accomplishment in some future life… But now I can give you an extra-special and extremely secret and powerful transmission. Of course, such an extraordinary transmission requires a substantial customary donation…”

That business concluded, he disappears in a puff of smoke. You set off again, with the new extra-special transmission and an empty pocket. Soon you notice that the new transmission doesn’t seem to do anything different from the first one. Still, you are determined to reach Enlightenment, and resolve to shift gears extra carefully.

After driving for many years, you notice with a start that you are passing the same spot where you first found the car. And, worse, you realize you have passed it already many times before. You have, in fact, been driving in circles, and made no progress at all.

You stop and consult the map. You must have taking a wrong turn somewhere… But the map shows no junctions. The roads twist and turn, but each leads only to Enlightenment, where they all converge.

You begin driving again, gnashing your teeth now in annoyance with the car, the map, and the slimy bastard who sold them to you. Rehearsing in your mind the angry words you’ll say when you see him again, your attention wanders, and you head too fast into a curve. You slam on the brakes, the tires shriek, and the steering wheel spins uselessly as the car slides sideways. You close your eyes as you fly over the cliff edge, open them for an instant to see the world spinning, and black out with the crash at the bottom.


This is not how Tantra should work, of course. It’s a satire of how it often goes wrong in America in 2013. This is what we are up against, and why reinvention is urgent. Taught and practiced properly, Tantra actually is a fabulous ride.

But the story also illustrates some of the inherent limitations of Tantra as compared with Dzogchen. I’ll say more about that later in this post.

In case my metaphors are not clear:

A paved highway: Tantra has narrow, precisely-defined paths. Deviation from the road is considered fatal.

You cannot hope to travel beyond emptiness without a vehicle, or without a map: The vehicle is Vajrayana, which includes detailed maps of paths beyond emptiness.

I’ll just give you the transmission: Many lamas see this as their main, or only, religious job. “Transmission” and “empowerment” are ceremonies that supposedly enable you to engage in tantric practices. Often Westerners find them baffling and useless, because they contain no explanation for how to actually do the practice. (“Transmission” means quite different things in Tantra and Zen, by the way.)

Gibberish and mystical passes: These are the mantras and mudras of the ceremony.

Vanishes in a puff of smoke: Most lamas fly around the world constantly. They may visit a city for a day or two, give an introductory dharma talk, perform an empowerment, and disappear for six months or a year. You are lucky if you can get two minutes to talk with one personally.

Reading the manual out loud: Most “tantric practices” given to Westerners consist of reading manuals (“sadhanas”) out loud. This is mainly pointless unless you know how to actually do the practices the manual mentions (but does not explain).

Sentences so contorted they might as well be Sanskrit: books about Buddhist Tantra are mostly like that. Quite unnecessarily difficult.

Kid stuff vs. an extra-special, extremely secret and powerful transmission that doesn’t seem to do anything different: This is a bait-and-switch scam, pretty much. Westerners who “practice tantra” (i.e. read manuals out loud) for a few years often find that nothing much is happening. What has gone wrong? Well, that was only a beginner’s sadhana. If you show enough commitment (especially to fundraising and center-building), you can get a fancier one. This produces a never-ending cycle of hope and disappointment as you progress through supposedly ever-more-secret “practices,” which all amount to chanting interchangeable manuals. “Enlightenment” is the ever-receding carrot on the end of the string.

You have, in fact, been driving in circles, and made no progress at all: The test is whether Tantra has actually changed your life—or if you still find yourself doing the same stupid, mean things you did years ago.

Gnashing your teeth in annoyance, your attention wanders, and you head too fast into a curve: Hostility to your teacher is the “first root downfall” of Tantra, and the main way to screw it up. Often it leads to pride, and distraction from the narrow path, and going too fast in the wrong direction—and that actually can be disastrous.

You fly over the cliff edge and crash at the bottom: This is the traditional analogy for Tantra going wrong.


You regain consciousness hanging upside-down in the driver’s seat. Everything hurts, and you are too dazed to move.

There is a horrible tearing noise, and the car wobbles. You turn your head to see the extraordinarily ugly woman you met by the river. She rips the driver-side door off its hinges and tosses it aside. Then she unbuckles the seat belt and carries you a few paces from the car.

It explodes in a satisfyingly cinematic fashion. She snickers at it.

You sit with her and watch it burn.

“I was trying to get to Enlightenment,” you say. She snickers at that, too.

“What’s so funny?” you ask.

“You were born there,” she says.

“I… What? Um… should I go back, then?”

“You never left.”

“I… What? Has this all been a dream?” Your brain doesn’t seem to be working, and you feel like a child, unable to make sense of anything.

Like a dream, perhaps… But there is nowhere other than Enlightenment. Your home is Enlightenment, emptiness is Enlightenment, and you’ve been driving around Enlightenment in circles.”

“Oh… have my efforts been expended in vain, then?”

“Been reading that Kakuan fellow, have you? No, not in the least.”

“Because… because I have learned a lesson?”

“I’ve no idea… did you enjoy the effort?”

“No!” you say, thinking of the years of hard slog across flatland, and the years of driving nowhere.

She frowns.

“… but then… also yes,” you add. Seeing emptiness for the first time; the miraculous fish jumping; the butterflies and vistas as you walked up to the highway. Even the car salesman and the ugly woman herself were interesting at least.

“I wish I had taken more time to enjoy the scenery,” you say.

“Perhaps you did learn a lesson, then,” she says. “Not much chance for sight-seeing in one of those things,” she says, waving at the smoldering wreck.

“Are they useless, then?” you ask.

“No, not if you want to go somewhere specific in a big hurry,” she says. “And if your destination is on a road—the most interesting places aren’t. But even then, you need someone to teach you how to drive; someone who will sit beside you and explain the controls, and give directions, and watch you screw up, and tell you what to do instead.”

“Oh… can you teach me?”

“Me? No! I’m not in a hurry, and I don’t like roads.” She looks fierce, and you notice how sharp her teeth are.

“Oh… sorry… so how do you get around, then? He said that you cannot travel beyond emptiness without a vehicle, or without a map.”

“Mostly I walk. What was on his map?”

“Now that I think of it… nothing except roads. Plus Enlightenment at the center.”

“There you are, then. If you want to see roads, you can use a map… otherwise, I can suggest some directions to head that you may find interesting.”

“Like the palace of Enlightenment?”

“I suppose you could visit there if you really want to. Overrated, if you ask me. It is a silly place, with ham and jam and—”

“So where should I go?”

“That all depends on what you like! And what you happen to find along the way. I like collecting fungi. There are some remarkable species in the Northeast; some toadstools are so big you can live inside them.”

“Oh… so I can just wander off anywhere?”

“You can—but I wouldn’t advise it! There are places you shouldn’t go until you really know what you are doing. Oblivion Gates are no picnic. Besides that, you need equipment, and training.”

“Like what?”

“Depends where you are going and what you want to do there. For the central North, you’d want warm clothes and perhaps skis. Those take some lessons and practice. It’s rocky; you could take a pickaxe if you plan to mine the gems and precious metal ores there. The Southeast is a swamp: disease-infested, but full of interesting botanical ingredients. If you head that way, I can give you a bag of potions, and show you how to use a calcinator and alembic.”

“I guess I still don’t understand. There’s no place I’m supposed to go, but I’m not supposed to just wander around, so I’m supposed to find work here? What for?”

She sighs. “There is no supposed to, because there’s no one to tell you what to do. I’m not your goddamn mother. But since you are asking… Do you see the village down there?”

She points. The mountainside you are sitting on forms one wall of a broad river-valley. At its mouth, in the distance, you can see a rocky ocean harbor, with a cluster of brightly-painted houses. Jetties run out into the bay, with boats tied to some. You can just make out tiny people, wearing white skirts.

“They are bards—fisher-folk on the Sea of Stories. They catch narrative fragments and stew them into songs and novels and YouTube videos. Then they take them back to flatland to inspire those who will never come as far even as emptiness.

“There’s endless things to do here… I find poisonous plants, extract the active ingredients, and turn them into medicines.

“So… you may want to have a good look around the territory first, admire the landscape, become familiar with some regions. And then you’ll probably find that you want to make beautiful or useful things.”


Dzogchen and Zen both say you are always already enlightened, so there is nothing you need to do to become enlightened—except notice it, perhaps. But Zen advises that there is then nothing more to do. Dzogchen is all about useful and enjoyable things you can do once you have noticed. A Zen master may be described as an aimless wanderer; a Dzogchenpa has places to go and things to do. In terms of spaciousness and passion, Zen seems, from a Dzogchen point of view, to underemphasize passion relative to space. Presumably this is because Zen is is rooted in Sutrayana, whereas Dzogchen grows out of Tantra.

Tantra has a definite goal, and a specific route to get there. From a Dzogchen point of view, it overemphasizes passion relative to space. Dzogchen is action-oriented but open-ended (ideally, balancing the two). A Dzogchenpa may have plans, but also acts spontaneously in response to opportunities as they arise.

Video games provide a useful metaphor. Some games take the player through a fixed path or sequence of experiences, requiring specific tasks at each stage. These are analogous to Tantra. Others offer an open landscape for the player to explore freely, and a vast variety of possible activities, like Dzogchen. The Elder Scrolls games are my favorite example, and I’ve alluded to them in various parts of this story. I suspect that which type of game you prefer may predict whether Tantra or Dzogchen will be the more attractive path for you.

You never left; there is nowhere other than Enlightenment: The allegory speaks about the “realm beyond emptiness,” but that is nothing other than our everyday world—when you relate to it properly. There is no separate, spiritual existence that is any better than this one. Enlightenment means perceiving everything as miraculous and sacred, and acting accordingly.

I can suggest some directions to head: a teacher of Tantra shows you the road to Enlightenment. (Whatever that is supposed to be. It’s only a model.) A Dzogchen teacher has explored enough of the territory beyond emptiness to point out major regions and landmarks and to explain what’s to be done in those places. To make my metaphor a little more explicit, by “regions” I mean typical patterns that energy takes as it is unclogged by unifying spaciousness with passion.

My posts “On the path” and “Off the path” are relevant.

You need someone to teach you how to drive: You can’t learn Zen, Tantra, or Dzogchen from a book. It’s not because they’re secret, it’s because they are ways of being, not information. Ways of being are non-conceptual know-how that can only be transmitted by apprenticeship. You can’t learn to drive from a book, either. Driving is a mode of attention and bodily engagement, not a procedure.

You need equipment, and training: A Dzogchen teacher supplies you with a backpack full of specific methods, useful concepts, general advice, and funny stories that you realize only years later also explain something important about non-dual experience. Then it is up to you to head out into the wilderness, and to use what you’ve been given. What she puts in your backpack depends on where you want to go and what you want to do there. There are far more practices than any one person can use, and they have quite different purposes.

There are places you shouldn’t go until you really know what you are doing: the territory beyond emptiness is not safe. A teacher can warn you of particular dangers and suggest ways of dealing with them if they arise, but ultimately it’s up to you to stay sane and act responsibly.

Mine the gems: A traditional metaphor for new Buddhist teachings. Dharma is constantly re-formed by those who explore the non-duality of emptiness and form, and bring back new expressions of its essential principles. The bards are another way of putting the same point: non-duality is a fount of creative energy. (Their white skirts signify that they are ngakpas and ngakmas.)

Turn poisonous plants into medicines: This is a triple metaphor. Tantra is often described as the alchemical method of turning poisons (the kleshas, or negative emotions) into medicines (the non-dual wisdoms). I’m also alluding to the practice of alchemy in the Elder Scrolls games; a calcinator and alembic are essential equipment there. Finally, I’m alluding to my own experience working in pharmaceutical research.

ox herding picture #10: return to the marketplace
number ten: return to the marketplace

You’ll probably find that you want to make beautiful or useful things: Tantra and Dzogchen value action in the world, as the manifestation of compassion. The compassionate activity of a Sutric Bodhisattva is limited to pointing the way out of the world, into nirvana.

Tantra and Dzogchen are about appreciating the glory and horror of the world as it is. That appreciation automatically leads to artistic and practical expression. I wrote about this in “Mastery”:

Westerners often have the idea that “spirituality” is the opposite of “worldly concerns.” They are surprised, baffled, and even annoyed when they see how much energy Tibetan teachers put into creating useful or beautiful things. “High lamas” turn out to be accomplished experts in unlikely disciplines like carpentry, target shooting, or film-making.

Tantra is anti-spiritual, though. It is mainly about “worldly concerns,” so this is no contradiction.

In the tenth, last Ox-Herding Picture, our hero offers, in a basket, something wonder-full he has brought back from the territory beyond emptiness.