Dzogchen is a Tibetan word that means Great Perfection. On the outer level it refers to a method of meditative practice that enables us to recognize our true nature. Ultimately, great perfection is that very nature: the natural, primordially pure nature of mind.
Here, our ultimate nature is understood as pure, primordial, naturally-arising timeless awareness. Although this intrinsic awareness, called rigpa in Tibetan, has no form, shape or color, it is capable of perceiving, experiencing or reflecting all the forms of phenomenal existence. Though it reflects the forms, the experiences, the good and bad feelings of everyday life, this pure intrinsic awareness of rigpa–which is our true nature–remains unstained and unaffected by them. Thus it is said that one’s nature is like a mirror: it naturally reflects all that arises with complete openness, but the mirror remains unaffected by these reflections.
The method of practice of the Great Perfection is designed to awaken us, to instigate a direct recognition of this pure, unstained nature–who we really are. It is a practice that is grounded in compassion and loving-kindness, bodhicitta in Tibetan. Compassion is both the motivation for embarking on the journey, and the natural, spontaneous expression of the awakened mind. In this way the Great Perfection is the union of perfect wisdom (the recognition of our true nature) and perfect compassion (the spontaneous activity that heals the suffering of ourselves and others.)
What prevents us from already being awakened is ordinary conceptual thinking, which is rooted in the obscuring emotions of desire, aversion, anger, self-grasping, and the misunderstanding of the way everything arises merely as the momentary result of ephemeral causes and conditions. These mental habit-formations obscure the truth that is so close that we can not see it.
The meditation practice of the Great Perfection is specifically designed to break up these obscuring mental habits of mind; at that moment what is revealed is what is really there: the pure mirror-like nature of intrinsic awareness, uncontaminated by the desire, aversion and frustration of conceptual thinking. In meditation we just relax and rest in that true nature. In this unlimited, sky-like mental space we can observe how thoughts spontaneously arise, abide, and disappear; we see that the exact same thoughts that cause us so much anxiety, aggravation and animosity when we cling to them, have no more reality to them than does writing on water.
In meditation we discover that no effort is required to dissolve thoughts. We discover that the very same thoughts that cause all of our problems actually arise by themselves and dissolve by themselves; all we have to do is relax and let them be.
In meditation we relax and rest in this state of the simultaneous arising, abiding, and disappearing of all mental phenomena: we abide in the natural state of the mind. We rest in the space between thoughts.
Because we merely recognize what is already there it is called the meditation of non-meditation. Because obscuring conceptual thoughts automatically disappear with their own arising – we do not need to make them disappear – it is called effortless.
Because cultivating this experience of the simultaneous arising and disappearing of thoughts undermines the negative emotions, and the negative actions that arise from clinging to those emotions, it is like a unique medicine that can cure all of our ailments.
For more than a millennium Tibet was an isolated laboratory for the exploration of the mind through meditative practice. With the Tibetan diaspora in 1959 Tibet’s greatest spiritual masters emerged into the modern world, bringing with them proven techniques for realizing the ultimate human potential.
Lama Surya Das was among the earliest spiritual explorers to encounter these great teachers in India and Nepal. Realizing this priceless opportunity he embarked on an intensive two decades of study and practice, which included more than eight years in secluded retreat. His teachers included the 16th Karmapa, Kalu Rinpoche Dudjom Rinpoche, Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche and Lama Thubten Yeshe. He began his teaching career in the U.S. in partnership with Nyoshul Khen Rinpoche, who formally authorized him to transmit to Westerners the highest practices of the tradition: the teachings of Dzogchen: the Great Perfection.
When a student sets out on this path it is essential that a qualified teacher transmits to them the view of the Great Perfection. This pointing out of the nature of mind takes many forms and has been accomplished by Dzogchen teachers in innumerable ways for students of various capacities. Many students have found that this is Lama Surya Das’s special gift: his ability to transmit the very pith of these instructions with expansive warmth, poetry and abundant good humor. He has often said “my mission is transmission.”
Although the dense and multi-faceted world of Tibetan Buddhism is hard for many Westerners to penetrate, Lama Surya Das offers direct access to its most powerful insights, its most transformative practice, in its simplest form. You don’t need to be a Buddhist to benefit from these teachings, you don’t need to sit cross-legged on the floor; you only need to open your eyes, open your ears, open your heart, discover the natural perfection of your true nature, the utterly lucid awakened mind.
Read more about Lama Surya Das here.
Since the first Dzogchen retreat with Lama Surya Das in 1989 in Switzerland and 1990 in the USA, we have evolved a rhythm that creates an experience that is relaxed but focused, quiet but joyful, intense but expansive.
When you look at the daily schedule posted on the bulletin board each morning you will see the day broken up into sessions with these labels: Group Practice, Individual Practice, Teachings, Yoga, and Meals.
One important point that a newcomer to our retreats needs to know is that nothing is compulsory. Our practice is to awaken the Buddha within, and it is implicit that our retreatants are mature individuals who know how to use their time most productively. For some, coming to retreat is a precious opportunity to sit in silent meditation for many hours a day. For others, it is important to get outside, walk the trails around the retreat center and open up to the natural world. For most, it is the combination of these elements that make Dzogchen Center retreats so powerful.
Teaching- There are three teaching sessions each day: mid-morning, afternoon, and evening. Lama Surya Das will teach most of these sessions; about a third of the teachings will be from specially invited guest teachers and senior students.
The rhythm of one of Lama Surya’s sessions generally involves chanting, silent meditation, his teaching, and an extended question and answer session. Lama Surya’s teaching methods are designed to transmit the essential insights of the Great Perfection tradition in a direct and accessible manner. He uses the question and answer sessions to tailor the discussion to the particular needs of the students in the room, and he encourages everyone to bring their questions so that others can share in the benefit of the dialogue.
Group Practice – These are meditation sessions, about 45 minutes each. A practice leader will open the session with a short dedication prayer or some chanting; then silent meditation, practicing the methods that Lama Surya has taught. While most people sit on cushions on the floor, comfortable chairs are also available.
Individual Practice- At summer camp this would be called free time. But here we are on retreat, with a precious opportunity away from the distractions of our worldly lives. We don’t want to waste time. We do whatever we need to do during this time – take a walk in the woods, exercise, lie down and rest, or sew on a button – but we do it with the clarity of present awareness.
Yoga- This mind and body will not be separated until death. Every Dzogchen Center retreat offers methods of cultivating the mind through physical practices.
Meals- Vegetarian meals are offered at the Garrison Institute, and the food is very good. Since we eat in noble silence, you can really taste it, and enjoy it.
At Dzogchen Center retreats we keep “noble silence.” It is of utmost importance the this time honored tradition be honored and adhered to while on retreat. At the ground floor of all spiritual practice is mindfulness: a developing awareness of what is arising in the mind, and the actions of body and speech that are driven by those thoughts. To quiet the mind, to let it settle to its natural state, the words have to stop. We stop the verbal chatter of constant conversation so that we can reduce the mental chatter that distracts us from seeing the true nature of mind.
There is so much to be learned when we stop talking. So much to discover about ourselves and the way we live our ordinary lives when we pull up short and catch ourselves before we say another word. From the first evening of retreat until the closing circle on the last morning, we keep noble silence.
The Buddha answered certain types of questions with “noble silence”: metaphysical questions that had no answer, or useless questions that contributed nothing to the real Buddhist project, which is to free ourselves of delusion and suffering. The noble silence we maintain in retreat permits us to see how much of our ordinary activities of body, speech and mind are self-created obstacles to our own liberation.
Although on the outer level a retreat appears to be a social situation, with many others around us, on the level of practice, we are alone with our minds. Keeping silence is “noble” because it elevates us, it gives us the space to develop mindfulness, and mindfulness grows into present awareness, which blossoms in awakening.