Journey to Certainty - Selections

The Quintessence of the Dzogchen View: An Exploration of Mipham's Beacon of Certainty

Chapter One:
Introducing Mipham Rinpoche’s Beacon of Certainty

What Is Certainty?

The quality called “certainty” is an essential aspect of the Secret Mantrayana path, the pinnacle of which is the teachings of Dzogchen, or “the Great Perfection.” In fact, I would go so far as to call certainty the quintessence of Dzogchen. The difference between an authentic yogi who abides in the perfectly pure view of the uncontrived dharmakaya and the yogi who merely appears to abide in that view is whether his or her practice has been preceded by and developed upon the bedrock of certainty.

As with much of the language used in the Vajrayana teachings, certainty is a word that is not easily defined, because the meaning of certainty changes depending on the individual practitioner. Our understanding of the word certainty, like our actual experience of certainty, will evolve and deepen as we progress along the spiritual path. Accordingly, this book is organized and presented to lead a Vajrayana practitioner into the ever-­deepening and evolving experience of certainty.

In the beginning, certainty is merely an intellectual idea that is further developed through listening, contemplation, and often debate. If a practitioner is then trained by an authentic master of the Secret Mantrayana, certainty will naturally transition from an intellectual notion to an ever-­deepening experience. Once we gain some experience of certainty, we develop a feeling of conviction that helps us to cut through doubts about the meaning of the profound instructions and view presented in Madhyamaka (Skt.; Middle Way) philosophy, the Prajnaparamita texts, and the tantras. This is irreversible certainty. Finally, for the supreme yogi, certainty is imbued with the perfectly pure view itself. Thus we rest in certainty, and it becomes the experience of realization itself.

To perfect the ground, path, and result of Dzogchen, we must work on multiple levels—intellectual, experiential, and through resting in the view of meditation—to develop personal insight into certainty. Training in meditation cannot help us if we do not gain certainty in the experience of the perfectly pure view, including conviction as to what the view is and what it is not. We will remain mired in wildness or dullness, and overpowered by our habitual tendencies.

The great master Longchenpa said, “Until the state of duality sets into the vast expanse free of grasping, we must rely upon various methods of listening, contemplation, and meditation.” This means that we should never stop refining our practice until we reach this ultimate state.

The Bridge Between Sutra and Tantra

Many Buddhists in the West are only interested in the most profound Tibetan Buddhist teachings of Mahamudra and Dzogchen. These practitioners mistakenly believe that the sutra teachings of the Causal Vehicle—the Buddha’s teachings as presented in the first and second turnings of the Wheel of Dharma—are useless. They liken the study of the sutras to mere intellectualism that will not further their meditative experience. This is a mistaken way of thinking.

Many Westerners also undervalue the practice of tonglen, or sending and receiving; “Oh, I know that practice—that’s just a breathing technique. It’s a beginner’s practice.” This is also mistaken. These practitioners are not grounded in the teachings, nor is their energy grounded in practice. They seem to float from here to there, from one teaching to the next, and do not make much progress.

Buddhism in the West wears a very different face than the Buddhism of traditional Tibet. In Tibet, we understand the holistic, interrelated nature of the entire path, and that which comes earlier provides the foundation for what comes later. Outside of Tibet, though, much of this understanding has not penetrated deeply. As a result, we find that Western practitioners are confused about the importance of the sutras, and especially of Madhyamaka philosophy. As I see it, developing certainty is the great antidote to this problem. Traditionally, Mipham Rinpoche’s Beacon of Certainty provides the bridge between sutra and tantra. In other words, by developing certainty from the coarsest level to the most profound conviction, we learn to bring the wisdom of the sutras to the teachings of Atiyoga Dzogchen, apply them, and to then abide in a more profound, perfect, and complete experience. This is the real meaning of Dzogchen: it is the all-­inclusive, Great Perfection.

I cannot say there is no reason to study or practice at all if you do not know how to connect the wisdom of the sutras to the teachings of Atiyoga Dzogchen—but I will share with you a story that occurred when the great Indian yogi Atisha came to Tibet. At that time, all Tibetan people were practicing Dzogchen (or maybe they were just pretending to practice!), and when Atisha arrived, he discovered that the Tibetan yogis were actually practicing based on nothing more than a page or two of oral upadesha (Tib. man ngag; pith) instructions, with no other study or training as a foundation for these teachings.

Atisha advised the yogis that they should study volumes of the sutras and the more elaborate texts on Madhyamaka “as thick as the neck of a zo” (Tib.; hybrid cattle). We would all be wise to take Atisha’s advice. We are all lucky to have the chance to develop our meditation through access to teachings by authentic lamas and studying profound texts like The Beacon of Certainty. Let’s not waste this chance!

A Short Biography of Mipham Rinpoche

Reading the biography of a great teacher gives us a sense of trust or belief in what we are about to study. It helps us to realize that his or her teaching may hold a profound meaning for us. Mipham’s biography also provides a context for his teaching style. Mipham Rinpoche often uses a debating style as he writes. In other words, he refutes the assertions of some philosophical schools while affirming others in order to make his point clear for the reader. Mipham Rinpoche’s biography reveals his great respect for all four lineages of Tibetan Buddhism, his deep knowledge and understanding of their teachings, and also why he teaches from a particular point of view.

It is quite difficult to give the biography of a great bodhisattva like Mipham Rinpoche, because such a being’s Dharma activity always appears in accordance with the beings that perceive it. It is like the way that the autumn moon, shining full in the sky, simultaneously appears slightly differently in different types of water, depending on the quality of the water. In this way, the lives of great masters will look different to each of us. Accordingly, here we will look at Mipham Rinpoche’s biography in a way that is practical and supportive to our study.

Mipham Rinpoche was born into an extraordinary family lineage. The name of his family line is the Lineage of the Luminous Gods. His father was Gonpo Targye of the Ju Clan. Many great practitioners took birth from his father’s ancestral lineage—not just lamas and scholars, but siddhas (accomplished yogis) and mantric healers. Mipham Rinpoche’s great-­­grandfather was an emanation of the Medicine Buddha. His mother, Sing Chung, was of the Mukpo Clan, which descended from the great, enlightened King Gesar.

Interestingly, Mipham Rinpoche was not recognized as a tulku, an “emanation body” of a great lama, nor was he enthroned in a monastery when he was a child. He went through his training and education as an ordinary monk. His good qualities as a scholar soon brought him recognition in Tibet, however. This is very different than what happens today. In Tibet, children are now often recognized as tulkus when they are children; they are enthroned and treated specially. Some of these tulkus grow up to act worse than ordinary beings. But this was not the case with Mipham Rinpoche. He was recognized by others and revered simply because of his conduct, his intelligence, and his wisdom.

Mipham Rinpoche never claimed, “I am an emanation of Manjushri—I am special, I am smart.” People could see his extraordinary nature anyway. They could not help but to see it. That is why I personally have such strong faith in great masters like Mipham Rinpoche.

From the time that Mipham Rinpoche was born in Kham in 1846, he displayed the qualities of a tulku: great compassion, loving-­kindness, and selflessness. He did not exhibit arrogance or self-­importance. He expressed his uncommon nature even while he was a small child. As an example, when Mipham Rinpoche was around age six or seven, he memorized the text Ascertaining the Three Vows. He began to compose teachings on scholarly texts when he was ten years old. Around age fifteen, he went to a monastery called Sang Ngak Choling, a branch of the Shechen Lineage. There, he took getsul, or apprentice, monastic vows. He was given the affectionate name Tsun Chung Khepa, which means “the small master.”

Mipham Rinpoche’s supreme yidam (Tib.; tutelary) deity was Manjushri. Between the ages of sixteen and seventeen, Mipham Rinpoche went to stay in a hermitage named Gyunang, and completed an eighteen-­month solitary retreat on the Manjushri practice called Jampa Malseng. As a result of this retreat, he gained the ability to understand the meaning of the sutras and tantras merely by reading them, even without receiving empowerments, transmissions, or upadesha instructions.

Even though Mipham Rinpoche attained this extraordinary ability and did not really need to receive any more teachings, he relied on many, many masters. He received as many lineage teachings as he could to avoid the faults that can befall a practitioner who does not rely on great masters and also to keep lineages from being cut.

Mipham Rinpoche became the heart son of many great lamas, but two in particular were Patrul Rinpoche and Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo. His relationship with these lamas was such that it was like pouring the vase or the contents of one master’s mind to the other; the qualities of their realization were indivisible. Mipham Rinpoche particularly relied upon the great master Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo with body, speech, and mind, doing exactly what his lama requested at any time. There is not even one account of Mipham Rinpoche failing to fulfill the request of his lama.

This is a difficult example for us to follow, but one thing we can take from this is to remember that when a lama asks us to do something, the lama is not doing it for his or her own benefit, but is pointing out something that could help us. Because Mipham Rinpoche had the wisdom and other good qualities to see this, he was able to put all of his lama’s instructions into practice without questioning them.

One of the most important acknowledgments of Mipham Rinpoche’s realization was his enthronement as an emanation of Manjushri. On the day of his enthronement, Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo made four enlightened declarations: that Mipham Rinpoche’s realization was the same as the Buddha Maitreya’s; that his knowledge and wisdom were equal to Manjushri’s; that his ability in logic, debate, and philosophy was equal to Dharmakirti; and that his wisdom would penetrate all corners of the globe. At the end of the ceremony, Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo presented him with a pandita’s hat. Mipham Rinpoche then was asked to compose texts for the benefit of all beings. In particular, he organized the teachings of the Nyingma tradition—which had been mainly a practitioner’s tradition up until that point—so that they could be systematically studied.

He effortlessly and freely composed texts on topics from the hinayana up to the most profound teachings of Atiyoga Dzogchen. It was said that he spent all day in meditation and composed texts during his tea breaks. Along with the omniscient Longchenpa, Mipham Rinpoche is considered to be the source of the Nyingma doctrine.

Mipham Rinpoche also studied with another famous master of the Kagyu and Nyingma lineage, Jamgon Kongtrul Lodrö Thaye, from whom he received both ordinary and extraordinary teachings. With this lama, he studied not only Dharma teachings but also grammar, logic, and the arts and sciences.

Mipham Rinpoche was so brilliant that he designed many things that we see in modern technology today, such as airplanes. He developed elaborate plans for his new inventions, but after reflecting, he thought, “If a great scholar such as myself makes technology as important as Dharma practice, ordinary Tibetans will lose their faith in Dharma and they will simply start to follow after materialism.” For this reason, Mipham Rinpoche destroyed all of the technological innovations that he designed. But we should know that his vast knowledge was not restricted simply to Dharma; it was all-­encompassing.

Actually, I am very proud that Mipham Rinpoche is part of my heritage. Not only Western people are good at science! We Tibetans also had a technological genius among us!

The Eight Treasures of Courage

The last line of the prayer to Manjushri called “The Great Treasure of Blessings” references the attainment of the eight treasures of courage, sometimes called the eight treasures of liberation. These qualities are manifested by a person who truly embodies or expresses the energy and the heart-­mind of the yidam deity. It results in being able to effortlessly accomplish many activities that benefit beings. Mipham Rinpoche spent over thirteen years in retreat in meditation on his yidam deity Manjushri and attained all of these eight treasures as a result.

The first treasure is that of not forgetting words and meanings. The remaining treasures are the treasure of completely blossomed intelligence, the treasure of realizing the complete meaning of the sutras and tantras, the treasure of holding in the mind all things heard or studied, the treasure of courage to provide all beings with excellent teachings, the treasure of Dharma that enables one to protect the doctrine, the treasure of bodhichitta that is continuously inseparable from the Three Jewels, and the treasure of accomplishments that gives one the patience to forebear abiding in the unborn nature of the dharmakaya.

Mipham Rinpoche Was a Scholar of all Four Lineages

Mipham Rinpoche’s study and interaction with great lamas of every Tibetan lineage demonstrates what it truly means to be “nonsectarian” (Tib. ris ­med). The idea of nonsectarian teachings is very popular these days. It is difficult to truly be free of prejudice or to avoid thinking your own way is the best. In Tibet, we say, “Claiming you are nonsectarian is really just a way to cover up your own prejudice.”

There are wonderful stories about Mipham Rinpoche receiving teachings from various lamas who represented all four lineages of Tibetan Buddhism. In one story, he received a transmission of Entering the Middle Way from a Gelugpa geshe (Tib.; master scholar) named Bumsar. The Gelugpa lineage has a very beautiful tradition of testing you right after you receive a transmission. Mipham Rinpoche had only received a transmission—no commentary or teachings were given. When Bumsar Geshe asked questions, Mipham Rinpoche gave an entire commentary on the transmission he had just received. Bumsar Geshe was so surprised that in the middle of his monastery he announced that he had studied Madhyamaka and logic his entire life, but what he had learned in the past could not be compared to the knowledge that he had gained from the commentary that Mipham Rinpoche had just given him on the spot. This shows that Mipham Rinpoche was not a prejudiced scholar. He was the student of many great masters and he had no feeling that “my way is the best way.”

Mipham Rinpoche not only studied with Gelug geshes but there are also stories of him becoming the student of great masters of other traditions. Once, the great Sakya master Loter Wangpo gave him a transmission of Sakya Pandita’s Treasury of Reasoning. When he asked questions to test Mipham Rinpoche’s understanding, Mipham Rinpoche composed a commentary of the text right on the spot as well. And this was not a one-­time occurrence—actually, he was able to fully penetrate the meaning of any text right on the spot. I already mentioned that Mipham Rinpoche was the student of the great Kagyu-­Nyingma master Kongtrul Lodrö Thaye, so we should remember that Mipham Rinpoche actively studied with masters of all four Tibetan Buddhist lineages.

We must examine the teachings of all Buddhist schools openly and honestly. It is important to realize that the ones we are drawn to study are dependent upon our own karma. It does not mean, for example, that the Nyingma teachings or the presentation of the Nyingma view is the best. But if we have a habitual tendency to practice this view, it is the best one for us. Because it is the best for us, we should study a text like The Beacon of Certainty, because Mipham Rinpoche’s presentation is unmistaken and easy to understand. We should not think of our preferences as an absolute, however. The teachings that we connect with and choose to study are not absolutely better, they are just better for us.

When we examine the arguments of great scholars of different traditions, we make the teachings beautiful, real, and alive to us. There is no prejudice involved in this activity. It is simply a way that Buddhist scholars interact with each other. We can think of the four sects of Tibetan Buddhism as four paths to the top of a mountain; you can climb the mountain from any side. But again, you have to find the way that is right for you. When you use valid cognition to engage in a thorough examination of the path, it helps to find your way up the mountain. We’ll explore the idea of “valid cognition” more in the next chapter.

Question and answer, debate and refutation, are the tools that help you find your way. In the same way that a precious stone becomes more and more beautiful with polishing, we use debate and refutation to make a particular teaching’s precious qualities self-­apparent. Although each of the schools of Tibetan Buddhism present the view differently, it is helpful to remember that these teachings were first given by great, realized siddhas, who experienced the view in a specific way. While their teachings were given as methods for others to follow and use, they are not necessarily the naked, direct meaning of the siddha’s words. When followers took up the method, they may not have fully grasped the profound realization of the siddha’s mind. So we can think of Mipham Rinpoche as clarifying or helping us to better understand the view through his text.

Mipham Rinpoche did not often speak about his skills or his experience to others. For example, when he was sixteen or seventeen, he directly saw a manifestation of Manjushri, the bodhisattva of transcendent wisdom, his yidam deity. He did not advertise this publicly, but he did tell a very few close students who later recounted it to others. In the same way, he did not brag about his own knowledge, unmistaken and flawless as it was. Instead, he often mentioned the good fortune he had to receive teachings from so many great scholars, even though he may not have had time to study, receive commentary on them, or to master them. When Mipham Rinpoche spoke of his own realization, he attributed it to his strong faith, diligent practice of the yidam deity, and putting the instructions of his lamas into practice.

Mipham Rinpoche recognized that he had developed uncommon certainty in the Dharma, but he never attributed that to his own effort alone.

The Purpose of Composing The Beacon of Certainty

To properly understand The Beacon of Certainty, to make the teachings meaningful and rich, we need to understand its background and the context of the times in which it was written. It is helpful to understand the philosophical arguments that Mipham Rinpoche responded to, and the general climate that surrounded him.

This particular text was composed at the request of Mipham Rinpoche’s lama, Jamyang Khyentse Wangpo. At the time the request was made, there were other texts that explained the meaning of Dzogchen and the perfectly pure view. However, the specific request was to create a text that described the union and interconnection between the sutras and the tantras so that practitioners could properly listen to, contemplate, and meditate on teachings. The text was also to be written in accordance with sutra, tantra, and the upadesha instructions—the tradition of orally transmitting the pith instructions in the Secret Mantrayana—without contradicting any of these three, and to bring them all together as one.

Mipham Rinpoche had a pure motivation to fulfill his lama’s request. This text was especially written for people who are good at talking about philosophy and meditation, but not quite as good at understanding how to put the teachings into practice. The topics in this text are explored by debate and an interchange of ideas. The debate does not come from a motivation of anger or contentiousness; rather, this kind of debate is used to dispel doubts and help clarify our understanding of each philosophical position. Also, we should not conclude that there is even a hair of negativity within this text despite the fact that there is a debate going on.

Mipham Rinpoche himself said that he felt no negativity toward the others he engaged in debate with while he composed his text. He also said that if a text is composed while completely free of anger, then it becomes an ornament of the teachings, a profound method to master the teachings—but anger is a corrupting force that takes away these good qualities.

We can make an analogy to scientific research, where engaging in academic debate actually improves scientific understanding over time. In this same way, a book—especially in this format—that engages in research, gathering information or ideas about other schools, and offers question and answer in debate, actually refines and makes the teachings much more profound because of the type of dialogue being engaged in.

As an example, a Gelug geshe named Geshe Losang Rabsel debated Mipham Rinpoche through a series of letters. The debate was not very friendly or kind-­spirited in the beginning. There was disagreement and no real sense of mutual respect. Over time, however, the great qualities of both masters were revealed, and they became very great friends and ultimately became single-­minded in their assertions about Dharma. They were not like ordinary people who get angry and fight or harbor resentments for a long time. They transcended all prejudice and partiality.

Losang Rabsel wrote the following verse in praise of Mipham Rinpoche:

The clouds of Dharma-­wealth gather in the sky,
In the golden mandala of the place called Kham,
[Above] the one whose fame resounds like the great drum of the gods,
I rejoice in the Dharma-­king of definitive meaning!
By the spark which ignites and burns the grass of all afflictions,
The faults arising from them are essentially destroyed.
Because of this, I decorate the expanse of sky
With this stainless offering scarf of divine fabric,
As white as the clouds, to the one whose body embraces the earth.

People who have spent time around Buddhism may have heard that there are philosophical disagreements between the Nyingma and Gelug schools, and you may have even heard that Mipham Rinpoche did not speak kindly of the Gelug lineage or vice versa. That is absolutely not true; there was and is a great sense of mutual respect between masters of these lineages.

We should always examine our motivation when we want to compare the four schools of Tibetan Buddhism. We should not think that our school is superior to another, or make ourselves feel somehow special. This is a big mistake. People should not make those kinds of judgments between the schools and between teachers or Dharma groups. Be sure of the lineage you have a karmic connection with and follow that lineage seriously; take up that path with diligence—but do it all without disparaging others. Receive teachings from the other schools as a support to your main practice, following Mipham Rinpoche’s example of impartiality.

Always use the path of Dharma for virtuous, good results. We should not use one path to denigrate another path—for doing so truly degrades the Dharma.

A Brief History of Khenpo Kunpal from Dzogchen Monastery

The author of the most well-­known commentary on The Beacon of Certainty, which I have used as reference for these teachings, is a great scholar and Dzogchen master named Khenpo Kunzang Palden. Although there is disagreement as to the year of his birth, I believe he was born around 1862 because he was a close student of Patrul Rinpoche, who passed away in 1888. If he were born in the 1870s as some sources indicate, he would have been too young to receive extensive teachings from Patrul Rinpoche.

Khenpo Kunpal, as he is called, was born in Dzachukha Valley, in Kham. As a small child, he expressed great loving-­kindness and deep compassion toward all beings, and was described as an ornament of bodhichitta. Based on renunciation, he took monastic vows and entered the gate of the Dharma. He relied upon the great Longchen Nyingthig master Onbo Tenzin Norbu as his first teacher at Dzogchen Monastery, receiving teachings on the sutras, tantras, and the traditional arts such as poetry. As he was very poor, without enough money for butter lamps to see by at night, he followed the moonlight throughout the night in order to continue his intensive studies. By dawn, he would discover that he had climbed to the top of a mountain peak, having followed the light of the setting moon. Many of his fellow monks teased him, saying that worldly people followed the sun to the peak of the mountain to take care of livestock during the day. However, Khenpo Kunpal and the moon went together to the top of the mountain in order to illuminate the meaning of the scriptures.

His uncommon lamas were Patrul Rinpoche, Mipham Rinpoche, the Fifth Dzogchen Rinpoche, and Jamyang Khyentse Wangbo. From these great masters, he received transmissions, empowerments, and teachings on the entirety of the kama and terma, the long lineage of teachings passed directly from the Buddha Shakyamuni and the “short” lineage of rediscovered treasures. Patrul Rinpoche was his uncommon root lama from the point of view of directly pointing out the nature of indivisible wisdom.

Khenpo Kunpal was incredibly poor. He wore tattered clothing and no shoes. During the winter, his feet became frostbitten; his skin split and bled. Seeing his bloody feet, Patrul Rinpoche blessed him, saying that because of his great diligence, one day he would have the ability to benefit many beings.

Later, Khenpo Kunpal went to the Kathok region where he became the first khenpo to give teachings and spread enlightened activity at Kathok Shedra, the monastic university in Kathok. There, he gave extensive teachings, sometimes teaching more than ten classes a day—and he never took even a single day off! His teachings always began with teachings about the importance of aspiration prayers and an uncontrived motivation of bodhichitta, and finished with a pure dedication of the merit. Khenpo Kunpal’s teachings grew out of his great bodhichitta; he taught based on his own experience and realization of the teachings of Patrul Rinpoche and Mipham Rinpoche.

Khenpo Kunpal was a lama to many great masters who followed, including Pöpa Tulku, Kathok Sidu, Shechen Gyaltsab, Khyentse Chokyi Lodro, and the two Kathok Khenchens: Ngagchung and Nuden. He was also a lama to my own root lama, Kyabje Tsara Dharmakirti Rinpoche.

Khenpo Kunpal is well known for many great compositions, including his commentary to The Beacon of Certainty and a commentary to Shantideva’s Entering the Way of a Bodhisattva that was composed in accordance with Patrul Rinpoche’s own words. He dissolved into the dharmadhatu (Tib. chos dyings; basic space of phenomena) around age eighty-three.

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