Q: What is the way to open oneself to the blessing [of the teacher and the blessing of the deity practice]?

Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche: Basically with confidence and devotion. If you have a strong devotion to the teacher, then usually you experience the blessing of the teacher, or of the deities. To do this you need to develop a very open confidence toward the Buddha or toward a teacher. Practically, I think this has to do with an understanding of meditation. By meditating, you open up until one day it becomes possible for the teacher's blessing to wake you up. The teacher can then use different methods to give you blessings, but first you have to develop openness. This means working with your mind, developing confidence, and acquiring a strong experience of what is basic through meditation. Buddha nature has two qualities: one is luminosity, one is emptiness. They are inseparable. Luminosity is clarity of the mind, for the mind it is not absolutely blank. When this clarity is refined more and more, then we reach the realization of buddha nature.

Q: How is it that particular forms and rituals arise in Buddhism, and what is the relationship of these to sunyata?

H.E. Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche: Buddhist rituals are based on the understanding of sunyata. Without that, the ritual gestures, offerings, and all the rest become just an act, an external game with no content and no meaning. The nature of all ritual is that symbolic devices are used to create a certain mental attitude. When we offer our body, speech, and mind, we do this though a system of gestures that create that particular meaning. But if the ritual is not based on an understanding of emptiness, then it lacks meaning, and the symbolic gestures could cause confusion. For example, in the Mahakala rituals, meat and alcohol are used in the offerings. We are not really giving these to the deity, because Mahakala doesn't eat meat and drink booze. In this ritual the visualization of Mahakala represents the aspect of enlightenment called Rakshisa, and the offering is in deference to that meaning, not to the actuality of Mahakala. So in order to understand any of these rituals, it is essential to understand that emptiness is the underlying reality and ground for the ritual activity.

Q: You said that all the Buddha's teachings could be expressed as the syllable AH. I had always thought that OM was the most important syllable.

Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche: The syllable AH is the essence of all phenomena, known as sunyata or emptiness, which is absolutely unfabricated. The syllable OM embodies a slight fabrication or conditioned quality. If you know the Tibetan language, you can understand what we are saying. The written syllable OM starts with the basic AH syllable, then it has a NARO, which is what gives it the "O" sound, on top of the AH, and there is also the little circle above the NARO (which is called a NADA in scriptural Tibetan) which gives the "M" ending. By contrast, the syllable AH is completely fundamental and unadorned. This expresses that with OM there is the development of a very small fabrication. The idea of fabrication here does not mean something negative; it shows that from the ultimate nature of phenomena, which is dharmakaya, enlightened beings emanate to benefit sentient beings. That emanation is a slight fabrication which corresponds to the fabrication embodied in the syllable OM. Vairocana, if you are aware of that deity, is also connected with the syllable OM.

Q: Will ritual practices such as pujas and [traditional representations of Buddhist deities in the] thangkas stay the same in the West?

Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche: My approach to understanding Buddhism is to look at its early development. I always refer to the original Buddhism of ancient India. We should go back to this original sense, the original way of practice. Actually pujas are very much like notebooks describing the stages of practice--what you have to do first, what you have to do second and third, and what you have to do last. If you had an understanding of all the stages of meditation, then you might not need to read pujas. When we do not clearly understand these stages, the pujas help us through them without losing any part of the visualization. As for the thangkas, we need these to help us practice, and we don't need them if we are not practicing. We don't paint thangkas for decoration, but for practice. We have to get the thangka we need for practice, and then bring it to the right place. If it is a tantric practice, then we need to hang it in the shrine room; if it is a general thangka like the Buddha, then we can hang it in the sitting room.