zondag 12 november 2023


The ‘Simultaneous’ Triangle of Dzogchen

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by Philip Renard


Within Tibetan Buddhism, Dzogchen occupies a position that you can call ‘the highest’. Literally it means ‘Great (chen) Completeness (dzog)’. Dzog also means ‘completion’, ‘perfection’, ‘finishing’. In other words: ‘you will come to your end’. You cannot go further or higher.

            For me, Dzogchen, as it reached me since the mid-1980s mainly thanks to Namkhai Norbu, is one of the clearest expressions of reality. Over the years, many details of this teaching have crystallized in me, especially through the words of Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche. So much so that I dare say that his form of teaching, based on the radical words of the great fourteenth-century teacher Longchenpa, has in recent years been the most important inspiration for what I myself pass on to others.

            Tulku Urgyen uses what I call a ‘stamp’ style in his speech. By that I mean he basically says the same thing over and over. The stamp remains the same stamp, and it always lands identically, at exactly the same spot. I often think of the well-known story about the drop of water that keeps falling on a stone, at exactly the same place. The story goes that the stone actually gets pierced, no matter how hard it is. So by simply continuing to stamp, the opening is provided.

            What is it that Tulku Urgyen keeps saying over and over?

            His emphasis is as follows. It’s all about recognizing: recognizing your true nature and learning to become stabilized in the recognition. For most people a one-time recognition is not enough – the chain of karmic tendencies can repeatedly obscure the view. Hence Tulku Urgyen says:


“In this entire world, there is nothing superior to or more precious than knowing how to break this chain.” [1]


Yes, how do you get a true insight into this, how do you break this chain? First of all, whatever your current situation or state of mind is, recognize what your essential, original nature is, in the midst of your current situation. At the moment of actual recognition there is an opening, an interruption. No more trains of thought, no story in which you are lured to the next fascinating detail. Here is the most profound invitation: leave your story for now, and look, allow this opening to sink in. You will then easily see that this is ‘no-thing’. Tulku Urgyen repeatedly says about this: “Seeing no thing is the supreme sight.” [2] You can also immediately see that this is indeed ‘yourself’. For you can immediately recognize that this no-thing is seen, that is, there is a continuous knowing principle – even though it is not an entity. It is precisely the combination of these two factors, seeing and no-thing, that causes neither of them to get the upper hand, one to nihilism, the other to taking a position, that is, identification with a subtle Something or Someone. The Advaitic statement ‘I am Brahman’ is here replaced by ‘I realize that my essential nature is No-thing – naked Knowing.’

            In Dzogchen, our essential nature is described as consisting of the following three aspects:


1.   empty, conceptless essence

2.   clear, cognizing nature

3.   unconfined, unobstructed expression


There are many triads in Tibetan Buddhism, but these three aspects make up the golden triad for me: unconfined empty cognizance. Everything is contained in this. Because I was so deeply moved by the simplicity of this trio, I started making drawings of it over the years, whereby the trio became a triangle. It is an equilateral or ‘simultaneous’ [3] triangle. The equilateral (and simultaneous) feels justifiable because all three aspects are ultimately equally important, even though the trio contains a hierarchical element. The point in it is mainly that it is about full inclusiveness. I would like to elucidate the three aspects just mentioned here a little bit.



First of all, the ‘essence’ (in Tibetan ngo-bo). The essence is just the essence, so you can’t say ‘the essence of the essence’ afterwards. No. It stops. That is exactly the function of this kind of language. The essence is immediately named as Emptiness (stong-pa nyid). Emptiness knocks all knowledge out of your hands, everything is taken away from you. So  IT   S T O P S – and that is the blessing. No-mind, No-thing and Emptiness mean the same thing to me. All emphasis here is on the termination of all concepts, of all mental and emotional structures, no matter how noble. In this respect even ‘love’ is a concept, and thus follows hierarchically only as one of the examples of the third aspect, being the expression of the essence.



This essence is inseparable from the cognizing principle, which is also referred to as Clarity (in Tibetan gsal-ba), and often as Luminosity and Lucidity. Beautiful indications, I think. It is the cognizing or knowing principle that matters – Awareness as such. You may say that the empty essence is the heart of the matter, but without the knowing principle you do nothing. In Dzogchen it is therefore emphasized that emptiness must always be knowing, otherwise you will get negative interpretations of the word ‘empty’ – from here many Vedantic prejudices against the Buddhists have arisen. In my view, Buddhism only became a real direct path of liberation when balance was found in China around the fifth century, by recognizing that everything and everyone is not only empty (which was the emphasis until then), but also has a true nature which is knowing. Dharmakshema, translator of the Nirvana Sutra into Chinese, called it ‘Buddha-nature’ (fo xing) [4]: it concerns the inseparability of no-thought (empty) and awareness (‘light-bestowing’) – in your actual presence.[5]

            The unity of empty essence and cognizing nature is the same as what in Advaita Vedanta is called the ‘qualityless Absolute’. Apparently there are two here, especially if you picture it, but in fact the concepts of empty and cognizing together form the most complete and inclusive designation for the ineffability of the Ultimate. They are respectively the negative and the positive way of denoting, and thus they let you feel the Great Completeness immediately – the idea of ‘two’ completely disappearing. This is how you descry Non-difference; there really isn’t any difference to be found here.

            This is called Rigpa in Dzogchen, Empty Awareness. The inseparable unity of No-thing and Knowing. You can consider Rigpa as the most important in Dzogchen. The point that matters.



The unity of No-knowledge and Knowing (or Emptiness and Awareness) is consistently described as inseparable and uninterrupted, allowing for an expression that is completely unobstructed (in Tibetan ’gags-med). Because there is no obstruction or obstacle, the expression occurs immediately; there is no such thing as a time difference yet – time arises precisely here. In this approach there has never been a Fall.

            The third aspect entirely concerns this Expression of the Empty Awareness – that is, its manifestation. An indication such as ‘the core of the matter’ can still remain abstract, as some ‘knowledge’, but as soon as the core manifests itself abstraction cannot remain. The Tibetan word for this aspect is thugs-rje. In Dzogchen this term is interpreted as ‘capacity’, ‘resonance’, ‘responsiveness’ – and also ‘energy’. Thanks to the capacity of Awareness there can be manifestation, presence, experience.

            There is in fact not yet any difference between Emptiness and Awareness, but as soon as this Non-difference comes into manifestation, difference is born (and time, and cause-and-effect), and with lightning speed there is also the possibility of the difference between freedom and non-freedom, between reality and illusion. As soon as you are, and experience, preference can set in, and possibly a getting stuck. A moment ago there was still freedom, and suddenly there is something that triggers, so that you can become completely occupied, and glued to an emotionally tinted story. It feels like a primal split, in which fortunately the question can arise again and again: What do I really want? Do I want true freedom, or do I actually just want to take it easy and have fun and pleasure?

            Nisargadatta Maharaj has devoted much of his teaching to clarifying this point of ‘the manifest,’ which he often referred to as ‘I am’ or the birth principle. There is no question here of a person or individual, but of experience-in-itself – in which the primal split takes place, which is based on the chain of karmic inclinations mentioned. I once sketched this primordial split in a circular shape, like a pill with two halves.[6] Tulku Urgyen called it a ‘fork in the road’.[7] Do you want to come to realization, or do you leave it at that, and continue to live a life that essentially amounts to non-realization?

      When drawing the triangle, at a certain point I decided to add the drawing of the crossroads circle. After all, once you start expressing yourself, duality is a given. If there were only the essence, then of course nothing needs to be investigated in order to arrive at liberation. The essence, Empty Awareness, is always already free. There is nothing to achieve in this. It is about realizing this naked Awareness in your present existence, in the midst of your own expression, however confusing it may be. Your thoughts and emotions must be seen through as nothing but a temporary expression of your innate timeless nature. So: recognize the empty essence within your thoughts and emotions.

            With the combination of triangle and circle you can show the connection between the essence and its expression. On the drawing this is emphasized as a pair in capital letters. Tulku Urgyen has spoken about this repeatedly, including the crossroads character contained in the phrase:


“The only possibility of recognition lies in the expression. The expression (rtsal) of this essence (ngo-bo) can either know itself or not know itself, that is the whole importance of knowledge – in Sanskrit, prajña, in Tibetan, sherab. It is said that when the expression dawns as sherab, as knowledge – when the expression knows its own nature – it is liberated, there is freedom. When the expression moves as thought, as thinking, it is bewildered – there is delusion. In this distinction lies the whole difference. In other words, whether the expression is liberated as knowledge or confused as thinking is determined by the practitioner knowing or not knowing his own nature.” [8]


To me, this is the core of all teaching. By actually allowing this key point into your life, the karmic chain will be broken. This emphasis contains the whole matter, completely and directly, without any accumulated knowledge. May this emphasis, possibly with the help of triangle & circle, work as a true stamp. May the stamp fall again and again, brand new, at a receptive spot.



 1. Tulku Urgyen, As It Is, Vol. I (Rangjung Yeshe, Boudhanath 1999); p. 75.

2. See, for example, As It Is, Vol. II (Rangjung Yeshe, Boudhanath, 2000); p. 76.

3. ‘Simultaneous’ (Tibetan cig-car) is a term to indicate the immediate nature of Dzogchen, so that the inseparability of the three aspects can be seen at a glance. The triangle shows the coincidence of time and the Timeless, in a visible form. On this showing the simultaneous in visible form, see also Rolf Stein’s article in Sudden and Gradual (Peter Gregory, ed., University of Hawaii Press, Honolulu, 1987). Herein, on p. 55, he quotes a passage pointing to the contrast between ‘plastic arts’ as being instantaneous, ‘wherein everything is available to be seen at once’, and literature and music, ‘which imply a succession of events’.

4. The monk Daosheng (Tao-sheng, 360-434) is credited as having been the first to emphasize this point of immediate availability of Buddha-nature for everyone. See Whalen Lai, ‘Tao-sheng’s Theory of Sudden Enlightenment Re-examined’, in Sudden and Gradual (Peter Gregory, ed., University of Hawaii Press, Honolulu, 1987); p. 169-200.

5. In the words of Tulku Urgyen: “Buddha-mind is the unity of being empty and cognizant, utterly without fixation. As It Is, Vol. II; p. 189.

6. This pill is explained and depicted in ‘I’ is a Door (Zen Publications, Mumbai, 2017); p. 54-59.

7. Tulku Urgyen, As It Is, Vol. II; p. 47 and 196-197.

8. Tulku Urgyen, As It Is, Vol. I; p. 146. See also p. 202; and in Vol. II p. 47 and 168.


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