Clarity, Confusion, Science, Tibetan Buddhism – Being a Scientist, Being a Spiritual Seeker – Tsoknyi Rinpoche’s New Book

Readers of this blog and of my books tell me they like to hear about my personal psychological processes, how they affect my spiritual and scientific work, rather than only “Professor Tart’s” reasoned conclusions about such things.  It’s easy for me to write in the latter style, that’s what gets rewarded in science.  This apparent lack of the personal helps us, writers and scientists alike, keep up the illusion that we scientists are superior beings, Objective in our Search for Truth, not ignorant or biased like ordinary folks!  Not that there’s any monopoly in fields like science on trying to cover up our human shortcomings and to feel better about ourselves!!  But over the years, as, among other things, I continue my life-long research project, “Who is Charley Tart and why does his mind work the way it does?” I’ve found it actually communicates more effectively to occasionally be more personal and revealing, even while keeping progress toward more objective understandings as my goal.  So here’s an ongoing exploration, stimulated by a recent book.

Usually when I review a book, it’s a somewhat technical review: assuming I know a reasonable amount about the subject matter, is the book accurate?  And, of course, is it readable?  I would rarely recommend a book that had useful info in it but you had to work too hard to pull it out.  But I’ve never reviewed or recommended a book before where I’m “worried”  because I think the book is too clear, that it makes too much sense to me!

I’m three quarters of the way through lama Tsoknyi Rinpoche’s Open Heart, Open Mind: Awakening the Power of Essence Love, and delighted with it.  And a little suspicious of my delight…..

Spirituality and Science:

Two major passions/loves of my life, since I was a teenager some 60 years ago, have been spirituality and science.  Spirituality in the sense of a deep interest, personal and heartfelt as well as intellectual, in the meaning(s) life can have, the ideas and practices that can take us beyond (without denigrating or invalidating) ordinary animal/material interests, toward the deeper meanings of life.  Not so much religion, that socially organized outcome of spirituality that too often loses too much of the real and deep knowledge of spirit – religion is intellectually interesting, but not personally important to me, although as societies, as groups of people, we need healthy forms of it.  Science, in the sense of basic, wide-ranging curiosity, wanting to create, to learn, to better understand all aspects of reality and experience while being willing to discipline ourselves in that search so our understanding keeps touch with actual reality, not just emotionally and intellectually attached to appealing intellectual concepts.  For me, science is an integral and deep part of my spiritual quest; along the lines of that apocryphal saying “There is no God but reality.  To seek Him elsewhere is the action of the Fall.”  My best understanding at this time is that a truer and more useful spirituality always comes back to checking itself against what can be experienced, observed, created, not just ideas or feelings becoming dogmas, all of this interacting with love, humility and compassion.

I’ve studied some of the world’s great spiritual traditions over my lifetime, with particular interest in Buddhism as a spiritual system because it is psychologically based and fundamentally compatible with essential science – at least the kinds of Buddhism that most interest me.  Now I have to add a disclaimer I usually make – I’m not a Buddhist scholar or a lineage holder, I speak from my particular experience of various teachers and teachings, but I know human movements labeled “Buddhism” come in such varieties that anything I can say on the order of  “Buddhism is A but not B” can be contradicted by the teachings and activities of some group that considers itself “Buddhist.”  So when I talk about “Buddhism” or “Buddhist teachings,” I mean most simply my (hopefully evolving) understanding, that there was a person, Gautama Buddha, who lived about 2500 years ago and who I think of as one of the world’s first psychologists.  He had a lot of brilliant insights into the ways the human mind can and does function, especially in the ways that decrease or increase our own and others’ suffering.  One of his teachings, the Sutta to the Kalamas (some tribal group of his time) has always inspired me as showing his approach can be basically compatible with the essence of science.  Here’s a translation of that Sutta:

Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it.

Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations.

Do not believe in anything because it is spoken and rumored by many.

Do not believe in anything simply because it is found written in your religious books.

Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders.

But after observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with reason, and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it.

(from  Gates, 1989).

This is (or at least can be interpreted to be) a basically scientific approach, as it emphasizes the importance of direct observation, direct experience, over belief and theory, and keeping reasoning in accord with observation.  I’ve often described Essential Science as to be curious, to observe things as clearly as you can, to think about what that might mean, and to extend your thinking to predict new events, while sharing all steps of this process with peers.  If the new events occur under the predicted conditions, your theory is doing well.  If the events don’t occur, it’s time to reject or modify your theory, your reasoning and/or make clearer observations.  If your belief and theories don’t fit with what you and others actually can experience, too bad for your beliefs, back to the drawing board!  No matter how “elegant,” “intuitive,” “sensible,” or “fashionable” your theories were. Of course just as real science is practiced by human beings who get attached to particular beliefs, the same thing can happen in Buddhism or any spiritual paths, but we’re talking ideals here.

Science and Buddhism Practiced by Humans:

These are basics for me, but, of course, in 2500 years human beings have worked extensively with Gautama Buddha’s basic teachings and methods.  Some of these workers have been learned, intellectual types, with “learned” meaning ranging from people who had memorized much of the early teachings and continued them as a kind of dogma, Truths to be preserved, awkwardness to be pushed away, to more philosophical types who elaborated ideas, to more yogic types, to intensive meditators, who supposedly reached the same kind of understanding in meditatively-induced ASCs (Altered States of Consciousness) that the Buddha himself had attained.  In this latter case, Buddhists talk about an unbroken line of succession, a lineage, where the essential truths of Buddhism are with us because of living masters who draw directly on these experiences, where earlier masters certify which of their own students have authentically gotten enlightened, not simply possessing scholarly knowledge but inspired by direct experience.

Beginning with books and a little personal contact with Lama Anarika Govinda, a highly learned German who became a Tibetan Buddhist decades ago, I have studied off and on with a number of Buddhist teachers.  I wouldn’t call this my “lineage” in any traditional sense, as that would imply approval by these teachers of my understandings, whereas in reality many of the would not recognize my name and probably most, if they remembered me at all, would think of me as that psychologist/scientist who asked too many questions instead of being a devoted student…. 😉

Today my primary Buddhist teachers, in alphabetical order, are Shinzen Young, Sogyal Rinpoche, and Tsoknyi Rinpoche, and I have done a number of meditation retreats with all of them.  I have learned a lot – whether I have learned the “right” thing…..who knows?  I list them as “teachers” in the Western sense of the term, brilliant people I am learning a lot from, but not in the Eastern sense that I am a “disciple” of any of them, accepting whatever they teach without questions.  Questions, basic curiosity, are an integral part of my nature and essential to being a scientist – although I recognize how easily curiosity is perverted into a psychological defense mechanism, for me as well as people in general.

My Understanding of Buddhism/Dzogchen:

Tibetan Buddhism has been an especially rich source of stimulation and inspiration for me.  I like the Tibetans I’ve met, their tradition is very rich, and they strike me as happy people.  And challenging!  Sometimes I hear a brief teaching or read something and my reaction is on the order of “Yes, that makes sense, that’s how my mind often works,” or “I don’t fully understand that but it points in a direction that may make sense for me after I have certain experiences or the like.”  And other times my reaction could be best expressed as “Huh?”

This applies especially to Dzogchen, the Great Perfection, the forms emphasized by Sogyal Rinpoche and Tsoknyi Rinpoche.  Dzogchen is touted as the highest form of Tibetan Buddhism – a statement I like, shouldn’t a smart person like me be studying with the best and highest?  But I don’t pay much attention to this kind of statement, really, as all forms of the spiritual path I’ve explored claimed to be the best and highest….    I hope it’s all true!

Beginning with Sogyal Rinpoche’s retreats back in the 1970s, Dzogchen has been my focus.  Sogyal Rinpoche teaches Vajrayana Buddhism, the Diamond Vehicle, too, but it’s not my style, so even though many fellow students regularly practice these exercises, I seldom do more than a few minutes of any of them (mantra chanting or praying, e.g.) as a way of stimulating my devotion and caring.  It’s the mindfulness emphasis of Dzogchen I care about, and I have written three books about mindfulness that have, I’m told, been helpful to people (Waking Up: Overcoming the Obstacles to Human Potent­­ial. Boston: New Science Library, 1986; Living the Mindful Life.  Boston: Shambhala,  1994; and Mind Science: Meditation Training for Practical People.  Novato, California: Wisdom Editions, 2001, and I will teach the first of several online workshops on core mindfulness training and meditation starting this August (GlideWing).

So what is Dzogchen (remember, just my opinion to date, no authoritative answers)?  On some days, I think I understand, both intellectually and experientially, that’s it’s like what G. I. Gurdjieff called waking up, it’s a focus on clearly perceiving what’s actually happening at the moment with concentration, clarity and equanimity, a focus on sensations and initial internal reactions in the here-and-now, rather than being lost in our reactions to our reactions to our reactions.  Ordinary mental functioning, samsara, illusion, means confusing reactions with actual realities of the moment.  To illustrate….

– Right now I hear some yard work being done next door, a gasoline powered string trimmer running – so far so good, I think this is an accurate perception of what’s actually going on at this moment

which bothers me, as I’m trying to think and write this material, not be annoyed by that darn trimmer going off and on – I’m leaving simple sensory reality now, the focus is on my consciousness now, on me being annoyed and reasons (rationalizations?) for being annoyed. My potential conscious control of my mind is slipping too as annoyance takes over guidance.

– Spreading into a generalized annoyance, why do there have to be so many damned distractions when I’m trying to say something?  And all the damned distractions I’ve had to put up with the past few weeks! – examples from memory popping into my mind for moments, another replacing it, etc., etc.  Alas, poor me!

Hmmm.  A minute ago I was a relatively awake mind, focused on a writing task which I thought could be of benefit to others, now I’m drifting into self-pity….poor poor me…..

So again, what is Dzogchen (remember, just my opinion to date, no authoritative answers)?  It’s about a small but real intention or effort to stay close to what’s happening in the present moment, and, as one result, not having my “stories” and neuroses and hopes and fears running my mind so strongly.  When I’m being closer to reality I’m usually happier, more intelligent (perceiving what’s relevant, rather than going off into stories and the past or future), more effective in terms of actions being based more on reality and less on fantasy, my samsara, my stories.

So again, what is Dzogchen (remember, just my opinion to date)?  There are those many other moments and days when the answer is indeed “Huh?”  What are they talking about?  There are lots of Big, vital terms in Dzogchen.  Pure perception?  When is my perception pure enough to qualify?  And if I’m asking that question, aren’t I doing what’s called fabricating in Dzogchen, pushing my experience into an (arbitrary) form rather than really paying attention to the reality of the moment?  Rigpa, the nature of mind, the essence of Dzogchen being resting in the nature of mind?  Right now my mind is churning a lot of words around, trying to see what best describes my actual experience – but this could hardly be the nature of, the essence of mind?  Word churning is me – so true, it would make a nice bumper sticker!  Emptiness?  Another one of those key Buddhist terms that sometimes I think I understand, too many other times I can’t make any sense of it in the contexts I hear it in…..

The Book: Open Heart, Open Mind: Awakening the Power of Essence Love

Which finally gets us back to Tsoknyi Rinpoche’s Open Heart, Open Mind: Awakening the Power of Essence Love. With everything else I’ve read on Dzogchen, the many teachings I’ve heard, I constantly bounce back and forth between “I basically understand this and have a little skill at practicing it” and “What are they talking about?”

But just about everything I’ve read in Tsoknyi Rinpoche’s book so far – and I’m almost done – makes immediate, obvious sense to me, intellectually and experientially.  How can that be?  What’s my problem? Is there a problem?

My best guess is that I’m so habitually concerned about using words correctly, about not misleading others or not being misled by thinking I understand when I really don’t, is that Rinpoche has hardly used any of the big, important Tibetan buzz terms at all in the book, he’s stayed with straightforward English – so I haven’t been trapped into worrying about what I do and don’t know! Clever!

Now it’s a mixed “blessing” to be as concerned with proper word use as I am.  On the one hand, it’s been one of the keys to my success as a writer and teacher.  People often write me and thank me for being so clear and specific about what I mean, and contrast that with the ambiguity common in so much spiritual writing and teaching.  Such ambiguity often can’t be helped in many cases, of course, the terms are fuzzy, used in different ways by different writers or even in different senses by the same writer without it being made clear that meaning has changed.  Or the words may point in a useful direction, but what’s being talked about can’t be adequately caught in words anyway.  Have you ever seen a satisfactory definition of the taste of “vanilla ice cream” that would fully convey the experience to someone who had never tasted it?

I often tease people that when I become World Tsar of Word Usage, I’m going to outlaw the use of “meditation.”  There are so many contradictory and confusing uses that it’s too likely to confuse rather than educate or communicate.  Don’t say “I meditated,” e.g., get very specific, say something like: “Given certain background expectations and conditions (spell out), I tried to follow this specific mental practice (C-CAPs, Consciously Controlled Attention Practice is the term I’m trying to introduce, but I don’t expect much success in the real world), and “succeeded” or “failed” in such-and-such specific ways and experienced so-and-so, perhaps as a specific results of this C-CAP).”

So one conclusion I can draw about this book is that its author has succeeded masterfully in introducing the basics of the Dzogchen approach for mindfulness and liberation to English-speaking beginners, without trapping them in special Tibetan terms.  I might need to modify this conclusion though – perhaps all my years of struggling with Tibetan terminology and practice has given me a preparation for following this English version. The words are excellent, but perhaps not that excellent if you don’t have enough prior Tibetan background?  I don’t know, and we will see from the reactions of newcomers reading the book.  And/or perhaps I can just say this is a great English-language review of the essentials (again, as I understand them so far) of Dzogchen….And perhaps if you are an experience student of Tibetan Buddhism and you find this book too “elementary” you might wonder if you are somewhat attached to being “special,” an “advanced student?” I think this book gets quite deep into the core aspects of the teachings….

I also noted at the beginning of this essay that “I’ve found it actually communicates better to be more personal and revealing, even while keeping more objective understandings as my goal.” Tsoknyi Rinpoche takes a similar tack in his book, relating many personal incidents.  Not to show he’s a special kind of person, but rather to share his humanity.  After all, if he is too different, how can we really take his advice too seriously?

I remember Shinzen Young talking about coming back from many years of meditation study in the East, coming back as an ordained monk and beginning to teach in Los Angeles. He noticed something, though. Because he was a monk, he got lots of respect from students, but at some level they didn’t take his teaching to seriously, after all he was a monk, he was special. So he changed it. He let his hair grow back in, ditched the monastic robes for blue jeans, and got a girlfriend, now he wasn’t so different and people felt closer to him and his teachings….

I especially resonated with Tsoknyi Rinpoche’s many recollections that he was a happy child, a typical boy, having a lot of fun, and how much he had to suppress himself in order to be a tulku once he was so designated, a reincarnation of the previous Tsoknyi Rinpoche, and so having enormous responsibilities to preserve Tibetan Buddhism and his lineage.  He suffered a lot – I wish he hadn’t had to!  There are still lots of times I’d prefer to be my childhood self, Teddy Tart, and just have some fun, instead of Professor Tart, authority on consciousness, – and the demands on Professor Tart are a lot easier than on Rinpoche Tsoknyi Rinpoche!     😉

Whichever of my understandings is correct, this is an excellent book and I highly recommend it, whether you’re a Buddhist student or simply curious about the workings of your own mind…..


  1. “Word Churning”, emptiness, ideas that strike a chord with me!

    What would it be like to not have words?

    Pleasant perhaps, for a while, words are not the thing. Just a vehicle for remembrance of it.


  2. Fascinating review, Dr. Tart. Indeed, I always appreciate your “personal” approach to spirituality and science. A gift! Thanks!

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