Have I experienced rigpa?
Updated: Aug 13, 2021
Have I experienced rigpa has to be the most important question a student of Dzogchen ever asks. However, despite the necessity of recognising rigpa to be practising Dzogchen, for many of us it remains an elusive experience and even a source of anxiety. We may ask ourself, did I get the pointing out? Do I rest in rigpa at the end of the Guru Yoga and when I practise contemplation in general? For myself, though practising for years, I have also nursed doubts about the authentically of my meditation. Is this rigpa I am experiencing? So here I would like to explore contemplative practice and try to say something helpful about the problem of knowing rigpa, overcoming doubt and resting in non-dual, intrinsic awareness with confidence.
Firstly within the Dzogchen tradition we may gain our first minute glimpse of rigpa during the introduction to the nature of mind, or the ‘pointing out instructions’, given by the teacher to the students. However, despite the centrality and importance of this initiation there is no guarantee that to be present at a pointing out means that one will on that occasion recognise the non-dual nature of mind. I have been to many pointing outs where many people have been left unsure about their experience, myself included. There are undoubtedly many individual and personal reasons why we are left unsure but I guess the general reason is that our causes and conditions were not entirely ripe for recognising rigpa just at that moment. Disappointing as this may be it is a fact and of course it does not mean all subsequent pointing outs will be experienced the same.
Secondly it is extremely difficult for most of us to recognise something we have not consciously known before. Generally when we learn about something entirely new we initially cloak it in what is already familiar. In this way we begin to build a bridge across, at first having a very inaccurate understanding but with time and exposure becoming increasingly clear. Thinking about the first time I heard of the concept of Shunyata – emptiness, it took a long time before I cognitively understood what was meant and before I got to this point I had all sorts of strange ideas that now, when I look back, were obviously wrong. It is the same with rigpa. Hearing of rigpa we instantly have an idea of what is meant and then when we are told it is about to be pointed out to us we unconsciously expect to experience what we have already imagined. However what is different here is that rigpa by definition is not another concept that we can use previously known concepts to reach. Being entirely non-conceptual it cannot be known by our thoughts, it can only be known – and here comes the trick – by rigpa itself. Put another way: I cannot know I have recognised rigpa using my usual thinking process, “Did I recognise rigpa, yes or no?”, but only by being in rigpa where rigpa then knows and confirms itself. This of course is infuriating, I can only really confirm my experience at the point where I no longer need a confirmation because the experience itself is so self-confirming!
Thirdly, having said that rigpa is self-confirming does not mean that when we then think about the rigpa we believe we have just experienced that we will immediately have confidence that we have really experienced it. Though rigpa is known instantly, not by stages, the depth and stability of the rigpa does change and mature with practice. This means that at the earliest stage rigpa is unstable and fleeting and so we may find ourself in the position of feeling we may have experienced it but are not entirely sure. We have had a direct introduction but as yet do not remain without doubt. At this point it is extremely tempting to worry about our rigpa, going back and forth in our thoughts about whether we have truly experienced it or not. Listening to teachings and experiences of fellow students may not even help because it is hard to be certain how what they describe relates to our own experience. This state of concern about what Tsoknye Rinpoche calls “baby rigpa” returns us squarely to my second point above. Rigpa may only confirm itself, thinking about it does not help. What does help is more practice and practising with an attitude of not initially caring too much whether we have entered rigpa or not.
Fourthly, as with all Buddhist practice, dealing with the obstacles that arise is the name of the game. This means that even when we have begun to rest in a baby rigpa for short periods of time many things will happen in our mind to disrupt it. Thinking about this here is a selection I have noticed in myself:
Finding rigpa I am not confident that it is rigpa and try to improve it by doing something else or more. Intentionally trying to relax is an example. This all of course is contrary to the instruction to do nothing as rigpa does not arise from causes.
Finding rigpa I become anxious that rigpa is fading or is lost and grasp at it. This definitely means I have lost it already.
Conceiving of rigpa and then trying to match my experience to the concept. This is a particularly tricky obstacle if we already have had an experience we considered rigpa. The temptation is to try to construct another experience that matches the memory of the earlier one. What is also difficult is that we are made in a way so the tendency to pre-empt rigpa with an anticipatory fantasy of rigpa is extremely strong.
This leads to having inflated fantasies of rigpa. It all sounds pretty far out – some concepts such as ‘non-dual’ cannot even be thought about accurately because they are beyond dualistic subject and object thinking. However rigpa is not sometimes called ‘ordinary awareness’ for nothing. Rigpa is an awareness of our ordinary awareness and not a transcendental, alternative reality nor radical shift in consciousness. It is not something more or something additional to what I already experience but the field of awareness in which everything is already arising.
Because of this it is very easy to miss rigpa when I look for it because it is very subtle and yet obvious. Look too hard and I go right past it.
Perhaps for this reason the ‘best’ rigpa happens when I stop practising and am about to get up, resting for a moment in this interim space where I no longer have any intention to practice and no expectations is frequently the most clear and fruitful time of the whole practice.
Lastly, despite these little times when a moments confidence might dawn, I remain vulnerable to doubt. One way I have noticed I can protect myself from this discomfort is by giving up practising entering rigpa and just doing secondary practices instead. However this for me, when motivated by feelings of defeat around the primary practice, never feels quite right. Something inside of me knows I have lost the view.
I have now arrived at the point where I can no longer speak with authority. As anyone who has tried can confirm, it is much easier to say how not to practice rigpa than to say what it is and how to recognise it. But help is at hand! I have discovered four very small books called the Healthy Mind Interviews in which the physician and anthropologist Henry Vyner interviews a variety of accomplished Dzogchenpas including the Dalai Lama and Lopen Tenzin Namdak about their meditation experience. Unlike the more usual books on how to practice these interviews are extraordinary because they describe in enormous detail and in many different ways exactly how they personally recognise rigpa, do not remain in doubt and continue with confidence. Vyner asks very detailed questions enabling an intimate and practical description of inhabiting the enlightened state which I found fascinating and also a real help to my own practice. For a Dzogchen practitioner still in doubt these interviews are priceless.
For volume one:
Nigel Wellings 2011