Non-institutional Nyingma Life Today
attributes, characteristics, elements, customs
Over the years I think I have observed a few features that are characteristic of the Nyingma that I am familiar with as a U.S. based practitioner. I thought eventually it may be useful for telling people n the future about the Nyingma lineage, so I wrote a few things down as notes. The usual academic descriptions are not necessarily comprehensible by a new-comer.
You can give feedback now. I’m most interested in the observations of people whose lamas are strictly from a Nyingma perspective, not so much Sa-Nying or Ka-Nying, but of course others will have useful things to say.
I have almost no knowledge of the largest religious institutions in the Nyingma today; the six “mother monasteries,” (Mindrolling, Dorje Drak, Palyul, Shechen, Kathog, and Dzogchen) and their satellites and colleges (shedras). Each seems to have twin institutions now – a monastery that has been rebuilt in Tibet, and a new monastery in India or Nepal. It would be great if people affiliated with them would post.
So here goes, a few observations I have as a contemporary practitioner:
Guru Rinpoche is the towering central figure of the Nyingma tradition today. He is the main archetype of the guiding principle. Practice is generally based on treasure literature ascribed to him. Recitation of 10,000,000 or more Guru Rinpoche mantras is a lifetime is a very common practice, and in Nyingma families this is often completed after ngondro completion in adolescence. Since Guru Rinpoche is an emanation of Amitabha and Chenresi, large accumulations of his mantra (there are many actually) may possibly be even more common than the mani! I’ve heard there is even a word for new teeth that grow in for elderly people who recite 100,000,000 Guru Rinpoche mantras.
The three roots: The Nyingma iteration of the Three Roots are Guru, Yidam, and Dakini. These are three categories of creation and completion practice. The Lama practices (usually Guru Rinpoche or Longchenpa) are the root of blessing. The Yidam practice (often Vajrakilaya, Hayagriva or Zhitro—yes, Zhitro)
is the source of siddhis. The Dakini practice (there are many terma dakini traditions, such as Yeshe Tsogyal, Vajravarahi, Throma, Tara, Kurukhulla, Sarasvati and so on) is the source of enlightened activity. Other schools may refer to the three roots and mean something else. Strictly speaking each of us would practice all three kinds of practice each day, but then at other times lamas will say everything can be accomplished in one deity practice, or they may say that all practices are accomplished when one can abide in rigpa continuously.
Non-centralized authority – There is no central authority for the Nyingmas. Lamas are accountable to their own specific teachers and the senior holders of their specific terma or monastic lineage. An old lama, who everyone respects, is selected to hold the title of head of the Nyingma lineage to represent the school for the purposes of the Tibetan government in exile. This lama does not oversee or control all the Nyingma lamas.
It is generally believed that the best lama for individual to follow is a Dzogchen master (your personal Guru Rinpoche) who is a holder of one or more terma lineages. This often appears as a Tibetan or Bhutanese man who is both the son of a well-respected lama, and who is often the recognized tulku of a previous great lama. Inside Tibet, the most well known non-institutional teachers of today might be leaders of religious encampments (chö gar), or mountain hermitages (ri trö), or a monk founding a smaller monastery. In Europe, North America and South America such lamas may have centers or retreat centers, or dwell incognito. There may also be broadly respected Rinpoches who are the senior teachers of many other lamas. They will have a satellite group of lamas and the children of lamas around them. How things will look as the tradition gets assimilated into non-Himalayan communities, and Tibetans continue to intermarry with Westerners, is uncertain. There are many western lamas and teachers who have been asked to teach by their lama; notably, many women, but few have any institutional power. Two notable exceptions to this are Mindroling Khandro Rinpoche and Chagdud Khandro.
Tulku and Khandros -- With a few exceptions, all Nyingma lines of tulkus originate with Guru Rinpoche and the famed 25 disciples. [The most obvious inherent contradiction in this – that Dzogchen is famed for “enlightenment in one lifetime,” and yet no completely new lines of tulkus have started in well over a thousand years-- is not addressed.] While women are highly regarded, at this point in time, most of those recognized as tulkus seem to be male, the sons of lamas, and ethnically at least partially Tibetan.
At the same time, it is not uncommon in the Nyingma tradition in Asia to find women formally recognized as nirmanakaya dakinis. These girls and women are seen as a source of blessing, healing, advice– but rarely occupy formal teaching positions or give empowerment. Also, female Buddhist oracles channeling worldly goddesses are part of Tibetan culture in general.
Practice --The view of the Great Perfection is often introduced early, and applied to one’s practice from ngondro on up. From reading scholarly works, one may get the impression that each of the nine-yanas is practiced according to it’s own view. This is not the approach taken by current great masters—everything is approached with the view of the great perfection. Ngondro is generally the foundation of one’s practice, instead of shamatha-vipassyna practice, or the serious practice of outer tantras. Sutric principles are introduced within the context of one’s ngondro practice. It is common for a practitioner to continue reciting ngondro and the mahayoga practices of the three roots—guru, yidam, and dakini—daily throughout life, even later when their emphasis is on completion stage practices. A lama may take an individualized approach to the sequence of the practices a student does, rather than having a strictly uniform practice path for everyone. Tsog is strongly emphasized at all levels of practice, and offered at least twice a month (on Guru Rinpoche and Dakini Day), often six times a month, and some practice communities or families do it together every day. Tsok is the main practice one does in a group. In the Nyingma, it is the glue that binds a community together, reinforcing pure view. It is usually not a super-secret practice restricted to serious practitioners of the specific deity the specific liturgy is based on, as it is in other traditions.
The week-long elaborate Great Accomplishment (drupchen) group practice is revered, and many practice communities offer it once a year or more if they can do it. In general, there seems to be an emphasis on merit producing work – such as cleaning, pushing a wheelbarrow, tsog set up and break down, tormas, dancing, costumes, art, ritual, and text production, for the accumulation of merit.
The particular liturgies with which one undertakes the practices are not handed down from teacher to disciple going back to the time of Buddhist India, as they may be in other lineages. They are usually the revelations of enlightened Tibetan awareness holders that usually hearken back to Guru Rinpoche. As I understand it, the terma deity practices usually relate to actual Indian tantric practices, especially the eight main yidam practices (Ka gye, most notably Vajrakilaya and Hayagriva/Varahi), the Guhyagharba (the antecedent for the Zhitro practices) and the Vidyadhara Guru (the antecedent for Guru Rinpoche sadhanas).
The entire scope of one’s life is experienced as Wisdom Deity and Mandala -- as a representation of rigpa and its radiance. This wheel principle can be expressed in many different ways, such as your lama as Guru Rinpoche encircled by his disciples, or Vajrakilaya (or Hayagriva) at the center, and the concentric circles of his emanational army on the battle field defeating the maras, and so on, ad infinitum. Your life is then viewed though this lens. The lived-through experience of this is a gateway to ongoing recognition of one’s own self-sprung wisdom.
Practice valued above theory – Someone who sincerely and humbly practices Dharma every day, whether illiterate or highly educated, is respected for it. While Dharma education is valued, the idea of institutions churning out intellectuals who merely study Buddhism, and don’t practice it, is abhorred.
Faith and devotion – Vigorous respect and devotion of your lama, whether he or she is famous or not, coupled with pure view of both the lama and one’s vajra sisters and brothers, is viewed as main key to enlightenment.
Secrecy – In general, one is advised to not talk about one’s practice, or one’s accomplishment. Talk is thought to quickly and thoroughly undermine progress on the path, even wiping out one’s accomplishment. The higher the level of one’s practice, the more secret it becomes, in proportion to how precious it is. For example, one might talk about ngondro with others, if it is beneficial, but it is considered a major fault to publicly broadcast that one is an anu or ati practitioner, or disclose these practices to others. The exception is when one lama asks one to teach because one is a master of anuyoga or atiyoga.
On the other hand, non-institutional Nyingma lamas often freely give access to “advanced” mahayoga retreats, teachings and practices that would be reserved for a select group of people – for example those who complete three-year retreat – in other lineages.
Most commonly, the transmission of the highest teachings, Dzogchen proper, takes place behind closed doors and pre-requisites or personal approval of one’s readiness by the Dzogchen master is required for participation. At any time one can be introduced to the nature of one’s mind by the master.
Apolitocalness - Involvement in “politics” is not viewed as a good for practice, and most Nyingmapa lamas and students avoid this. Being political is thought to sully one. To Tibetan Nyingmapas the word seems to mean one is too close to the government-in-exile in Dharamsala, or to the Communist party in China, or to quixotic activism for the reinstatement of Tibetan nationhood, or to fights for power between monasteries or powerful high lamas. In addition, it is generally advised to avoid befriending powerful people in general, including politicians and high lamas (those with a lot of institutional power), even if they are good, because it is easy to become trapped. On the other hand, what westerners would call political, causes such as opposing the death penalty, environmental destruction, war or killing, may be encouraged, as long as they are not approached with a dualistic mindset.
Joy and relaxation– Joy and relaxation are said to benefit all levels of practice. Joyful group activities that are fun for many people, such as preparing art and offerings for a drupchen, cham dancing, and singing, are emphasized – and generally grueling, grim, driven approaches to practice are de-emphasized.
Inseparability from family life – Dharma is incorporated in family life, and men, women, and children are all regarded as having the potential for enlightenment. Enlightenment is not reserved for Lamas, monks or nuns, or yogins in retreat. Folks in Nyingma families have a sense of dignity and confidence in this.
Locations – Significant Nyingma practice communities are in Bhutan, Nepal [Pharping, Bouda, and the border areas with Tibetan China], Orissa, India, Sikkim, and throughout the Tibetan regions in the Chinese domain, especially Kham, Golok and Amdo [Sichuan and Qinghai provinces, China]. In Europe, the greatest Nyingma presence is in France. In the U.S., California, Oregon, and New York state have multiple Nyingma centers. Brazil has several growing centers.
Lama – The lama title, or authority to teach, is not usually bestowed based on completion of any particular program, such as a formal three year three month retreat, but based on one’s lama’s view of your capacity to benefit beings through teaching. Thus, one person may go through three consecutive three year retreats and not be asked to teach, and another may study, serve, and practice independently with a lama over a period of many years and be asked to teach. On one extreme, in Buddhist communities in the Himalayas it may be that people will call someone lama out of respect because their qualities are obvious, even though that person’s lama has not asked them to teach. On the other extreme, some lamas will never give the lama title to anyone, because it seems to be an obstacle to practitioners’ progress on the path, and there is a greater need for fully enlightened Dzogchen masters than titular lamas.