A non-statement ain't-framework

At a certain time, in a certain pleasant place, a certain teacher has been going on for quite a while, at certain students, about a certain teaching.

Vivid image of irises blooming
Irises courtesy Erzsébet Vehofsics

Teacher: … So, for Dzogchen, we are always already nothing other than all-pervasive, unchanging, beneficent, luminous, impersonal space.

Student: Um… sorry to interrupt, but… Does this mean that Dzogchen is a form of panpsychism?

Teacher: No.

Student: I mean, isn’t “all-pervasive” a claim that everything is conscious? Like, even rocks, a little bit? And “impersonal” means we’re all part of the One Mind? And what you said about “luminous” earlier sounds like you think reality is an illusion created by the One Mind?

Teacher: There is no claim here. This is not metaphysics, or psychology. Those have claims about mind and matter that are supposedly true or false. “We are always already nothing other than all-pervasive, unchanging, beneficent, luminous, impersonal space” is not about the mind or matter, and it is not true or false. It is an instruction.

Student: Well, it doesn’t seem that I am just space. And in Western science, we know a lot about how minds and brains work, and it’s not like that. We know that meditation can put you in an altered state of consciousness. Different parts of the brain quiet down, which produces some experiences that might be important, and that’s why I am here. But I guess I would need a lot of evidence to accept that this is true about objective reality, not a subjective brain state.

The teacher sticks a finger in her ear and rotates it to scratch an itch. She examines the fingertip and wipes it on her skirt. She looks up at the sky for a while, wrinkling her nose.

Teacher: So… we’ll have to take a few steps back here. When I say “Dzogchen” I usually mean “semdé,” which means “the approach to Dzogchen that points to awareness.” Sem is the ordinary Tibetan word for “mind.” I’ll translate as “approach.” But semdé isn’t “the approach based on understanding the mind”; it’s the opposite. It’s the approach based on finding awareness. “Awareness” is a rough translation of semnyi, which is literally “mindness.”

Student: So, like mindfulness?

Teacher: No. I don’t think so. As far as I can tell, “mindfulness” is supposed to be something to do with the mind. Or maybe mayonnaise.

Semdé keeps contrasting sem, mind, with semnyi, awareness, and keeps telling you that whatever you think semnyi is, it’s not that, because that thing is just more sem. It says you are looking in the wrong place, namely your mind.

In Western psychology, awareness is considered one thing the mind does. In Dzogchen, the mind is considered one thing awareness does. Awareness is not among the mental contents. It is the unbounded container of all things.

Student: But… you lose awareness when you faint, or get anaesthesia for surgery. It’s something the brain does, maybe, not the mind?

Teacher: Well, the problem here is that “awareness” isn’t a perfect translation of semnyi. But actually that’s not the problem. The problem is that Dzogchen isn’t making any claims about semnyi, or about anything.

It sounds like it is, but it’s just instructions, not claims. “We are always already nothing other than all-pervasive, unchanging, beneficent, luminous, impersonal space” is syntactically declarative, but the semantics are imperative.

Student: I don’t understand… what is the instruction?

Teacher: The instruction is “find that you are always already nothing other than all-pervasive, unchanging, beneficent, luminous, impersonal space.”

Student: But you said that isn’t supposed to be true! …So it’s a metaphor? It’s a poetic way of saying something that is true, but that is hard to express in ordinary language? Because it’s a subtle subjective experience?

Teacher: No. It’s an instruction. It’s a pointer. It’s like a road sign. 🚸 is not a metaphor. It’s imperative. It’s pointing out what to look out for: children crossing. You probably won’t see any, but it’s a pointer to a possibility.

The version I gave you is actually much too long. There’s a lot of extra verbiage in there. The actual instruction is “find awareness.” That’s the whole of Dzogchen. Or of semdé, anyway.

Student: But… I’m always aware?

Teacher: Yes.

Student: So… I already knew that. I don’t need to find it.

Teacher: Right. Well, at any rate, you don’t need to look for it, because it’s always already here.

Student: I don’t understand. This seems obvious.

Teacher: Yes. It is obvious.

Student: So… what’s the big deal?

Teacher: It’s not a big deal.

Student: So… why is it made out to be a big deal? I mean, why are we even here?

Teacher: Well… it’s a nice sunny day, and this a lovely mountainside, and we are enjoying each other’s company, I hope… Do you find that awareness is all-pervasive, unchanging, beneficent, luminous, and impersonal?

Student: No, it’s not like that. My awareness changes all the time, and it’s just mine.

Teacher: That’s sem, not semnyi.

Student: So… there’s supposed to be some other, special kind of awareness that’s luminous and stuff?

Teacher: It’s the same kind of awareness… sem is just stuff semnyi does.

The teacher grins. The student notices, not for the first time, that the teacher’s teeth are quite extraordinarily pointy.

Student: I notice that I am confused.

Teacher: Excellent! So now vee may perhaps to begin. Yes?

I said that all of Dzogchen is instructions, not claims. Let’s begin with men ngak. I translated that term as “instruction,” but it’s the opposite. Ngak means “statement,” and men means “isn’t.” Men ngak could be translated as “non-statement,” “inexplicit injunction,” or “mere indication.”

Student: So the instruction is “find awareness”?

Teacher: Well, it’s a non-instruction, because it doesn’t work. I told you to find awareness, and you found mind instead.

Student: So what does work?

Teacher: That’s the question, isn’t it? No one knows… Eventually you find awareness despite the non-instructions.

Student: So really the instruction is “forget about psychology and metaphysics and just meditate?”

Teacher: Excellent! Yes, except meditation doesn’t work either. Although… chance favors the prepared mind. You are more likely to find awareness if you meditate a lot. However, lightning can strike from an empty sky; a non-meditator may find awareness in a hardware store.

Student: So this is an experience of sudden, unexpected enlightenment?

Teacher: Finding sometimes gets described that way… but there is no enlightenment and no non-enlightenment. And it is not sudden, because you have always already been nothing other than awareness. And there is no experience or non-experience, because experience is a sem thing.

Student: I think I may be getting more confused.

Teacher: Sorry about that! … You sound frustrated.

Student: Yes!

Teacher: If you think it’s frustrating to try learning Dzogchen, you should try teaching it… there’s nothing sensible to say. We try to be helpful, but we haven’t got anything. Just “Hey, wow, LOOK AT THAT!

Student: So this is like those Zen riddle things, where the point is that it’s a contradiction that you can’t understand conceptually, but if you try really really hard, at some point your brain snaps and you are suddenly enlightened?

Teacher: No, you can understand all this conceptually. Dzogchen is completely logical. It has no internal contradictions, and it’s quite simple and straightforward. It sounds paradoxical and complicated because it’s unfamiliar. However, you can get a complete conceptual understanding while also completely missing the point, because it’s not statements, it’s non-statements that are non-instructions.

The conceptual understanding is quite cool on its own, though, even if you are missing the point. And having the conceptual understanding probably makes it more likely you’ll get the point and find awareness.

Since “find awareness!” usually isn’t helpful and doesn’t work, the rest of the non-instructions are about where to look for it, and what it looks like when you find it, so you’ll know when you have.

Student: So, where do you look?

Teacher: You can find the presence of awareness when you drop a brick on your toe. You can find the presence of awareness in a decaying fox’s corpse. You can find the presence of awareness in the gap behind the sofa between thoughts.

Student: So the point is to stop thinking?

Teacher: No… thinking is a thing awareness does… But it is easier to find awareness when you remain uninvolved in thoughts, which like to distract you from it. That’s what opening awareness meditation trains you in.

Student: I’ve been doing that… or trying to… but I’m finding it difficult.

Teacher: It is difficult, and also easy. You don’t have to do anything at all. Then you find awareness.

Student: I’ve heard that Dzogchen is supposed to be very difficult.

Teacher: It’s easy, because it’s right here, right now, and you are already nothing other than it.

Student: Then why is it difficult?

Teacher: It is difficult to find awareness because it is too close, too accessible, too present, and too simple.

Student: How can that be?

Teacher: I don’t know, man, I didn’t do it.

Student: I came on this retreat because I’ve been meditating seriously for a couple of years, and I’ve got third jhana, but I started having some questions about where that framework leads. I started reading about other meditation systems, and talking to people online who practice different things, and Dzogchen sounds really inspiring. It’s the fastest way to enlightenment, and it seemed so brilliant and clear when I read about it. But now I’m really confused, and I don’t know what the point of this system is any more.

Teacher: That’s good! You see, Dzogchen ain’t a system.

Student: It “ain’t”?

Teacher: It’s an ain’t-system. In men ngak, men is a slangy contraction of ma yin, which means “not is.” So: “ain’t.” Dzogchen is an ain’t-theory, an ain’t-framework, an ain’t-system. It’s made of ain’t-statements and ain’t-instructions. It has a beautiful logic, but there ain’t no structure. There ain’t no path on which you do this, then you do that, and so you get further along. There ain’t no stages of accomplishment. There ain’t no way to enlightenment. There ain’t no goal, because you are already at the goal.

Student, plaintively: But then what is the point? I mean, why try to find something that isn’t enlightenment, that isn’t a big deal, that everyone already knows all about? And that there’s no way to find?

Teacher: Well, maybe someone else here could answer that.

She looks around: Why are you here?

Another student, slowly, trying to find words, addressing the first: Well, I think my experience was very much like yours… I got pretty deep into another system, but more and more it seemed like a dead end. It was very good at first. I found peace of mind, an escape from all the insane crap in everyday life and a relationship that wasn’t really working. I’m glad I did that.

But eventually the practice seemed increasingly flat and dull. Meditation was claustrophobic. It was about finding a blank empty space inside my head. Equanimity is fine, but I’m an active, outgoing person, and I want to make a difference in the world. I started wondering why I was doing it, where that was leading. I was losing touch with my emotions.

So, like you, I started looking around at the Other Leading Brands, and Vajrayana sounded good, and within Vajrayana I’d just as soon not do deals with demons, like in tantra, so that left Dzogchen. I wasn’t sure what that meant, but I went on a retreat, and the teacher was inspiring even if I couldn’t understand more than a tenth of what she said, so I started doing the practices.

And somehow they work, even if I still don’t really understand what they’re about. Like, maybe I understand half of what she says now, instead of a tenth. But I feel alive and engaged with life in a way I never did before. People who know me say “You’ve changed a lot recently! For the better!”

There are moments, when meditating, of extraordinary, inexplicable beauty. I don’t know about semnyi, but I’ve had glimpses of something. It’s not a big deal… but it’s a big deal. So I keep doing it. And, well, here I am.

Teacher: Thank you. Addressing the first student, and pointing: So, if you want enlightenment, LOOK OVER THERE, by the stream. Do you see the irises blooming on the bank?

The student looks. The teacher snaps her fingers—and the irises snap into focus. The sunlit scene, suddenly brilliant, seems shockingly vivid. The electric-blue blossoms become enormous, and the student’s stomach drops out as he feels himself hurtling toward them, or them toward him, —

The teacher snaps her fingers again. There is a jolting crash of thunder, and a moment later the flash of lightning. The scene shades, and the student shakes his head, trying to find his mind again.

Clouds appear in the empty sky, and rain torrents begin.

Teacher: It seems to be time we went inside to meditate.