Mahamudra Meditation on the Conventional Nature of Mind
The mahamudra realization is never "Just live naturally like an animal. Just see and hear, and have no thoughts." That is not it at all. Furthermore, even if we are able, through the initial mahamudra methods, to achieve the level of attainment at which we are not greatly disturbed by the contents of our experience, we should not fool ourselves into thinking that mahamudra practice is so simple, or that this initial level is all that there is. It is a step in the correct direction – a very big step – but it is not yet a profound understanding of mahamudra. To go deeper into mahamudra practice, we need to develop shamata, a serenely stilled and settled state of mind totally absorbed with single-pointed concentration on mind itself, first specifically on its conventional nature as mere arising and engaging. The Fourth Panchen Lama, in A Root Text for the Glorious Gelug-Kagyu Tradition of Mahamudra, begins his presentation of mahamudra meditation at this point.
There are two classic ways to describe the meditative procedure. One is that with mental consciousness we focus on the remembered experience of the mere arising and engaging of the immediately preceding moment of cognition. The other is that one aspect of mind focuses on the mere arising and engaging of its own moment of cognition. In either case, we use mindfulness to maintain the mental hold of our attention on mind itself and alertness to notice and correct any deviation from this focus due to flightiness of mind or mental dullness. When we have totally eliminated these faults from our meditation, we achieve samadhi – a state of absorbed concentration. We attain shamata when, in addition, we experience, accompanying samadhi, a serenely joyous sense of physical and mental suppleness and fitness at being able to concentrate perfectly on anything for as long as we wish.
Throughout the process of gaining shamata through mahamudra meditation, we focus only on mind itself, which is a way of being aware of something and not any form of physical phenomenon. Any moment of mind upon which we focus, however, has an object. Consider the case of sensory consciousness, in which the object apprehended by that consciousness is a form of physical phenomenon such as a sight or a sound. During the early phases of this stage of mahamudra meditation focused on the mere arising and engaging that constitute the conventional nature of sensory consciousness, our focus simply on sensory consciousness itself renders the sensory cognition with it inattentive perception. In other words, the sensory consciousness still gives rise to its object, for instance a sight, but because that sensory consciousness is primarily the object upon which our meditating mental consciousness is focusing, it does not decisively apprehend its object, the sight. It is inattentive of it, and thus our meditating mental consciousness does not give rise to a clear appearance of the sight. Eventually, as our single-pointed placement of mind on mind becomes perfected, our meditating mental consciousness gives rise only to the mere arising and engaging that constitute the sensory consciousness upon which it is focused. It does not give rise at all to any appearance of the object of that sensory consciousness.
This meditative experience is reminiscent of how the mind of an arya focused in total absorption, or "meditative equipoise" on the voidness of an object, for instance a sight, gives rise to an appearance of only the voidness of the sight and not the sight itself. Voidness, however, does not exist separately from its basis, for example the sight. It is only due to obstacles still affecting the mind of an arya in total absorption that his or her absorbed mind is unable to give rise simultaneously to both voidness and its basis as its objects of cognition. Similarly, sensory consciousness does not exist separately from its cognitive object, for example a sight. It is only due to obstacles still affecting the mind of a mahamudra practitioner, not yet enlightened, which is focused single-pointedly on the conventional nature of a sensory consciousness, that his or her totally absorbed mind is unable to give rise to both sensory consciousness and its sensory object as objects of its own cognition.
Next, consider the case of a mind, meditating on mahamudra, focusing on the mere arising and engaging of a mental consciousness, for example of a verbal or pictorial thought. The apprehension that the contents of the thought are merely something our mind is giving rise to at first weakens the enticing power of the contents. Eventually, however, the contents of the thought cease to arise as soon as we focus on the mere arising and engaging of the mind that is thinking them. The same obstacles preventing mind, totally absorbed on a sensory consciousness, from simultaneously giving rise to the object of that consciousness automatically block our mind from giving rise to the contents of a thought as soon as we focus on the mere arising and engaging that constitute that thought. Thus mind, focused single-pointedly on the conventional nature of mind, gives rise to the appearance – meaning the manifest occurrence, not a visual aspect – simply of mere arising and engaging, whether it focuses on the conventional nature of a moment of sensory or mental consciousness.
The Gelug-Kagyu tradition of mahamudra next prescribes meditation on the deepest nature of mind – its voidness or absence of existing in any fantasized, impossible manner. It precedes this with meditation on the deepest nature of "me." We need to see both with an exceptionally perceptive mind, vipashyana. We achieve such a mind when, on the basis of shamata focused on their voidness, we experience simultaneously an additional serenely joyous sense of physical and mental suppleness and fitness at being able to perceive and understand anything. Although we shall now explore these meditations on voidness in accordance with the Gelug-Kagyu explanation, let us look at them in a manner and context that allows for their application to all traditions of mahamudra – Gelug-Kagyu, purely Kagyu and Sakya.
Although a correct understanding of the voidness of both "me" and mind is necessary for ridding ourselves of unawareness of reality, the true cause of all our problems in life, it is also needed to overcome subtle faults that arise in any form of meditation. All Buddhist meditation, including mahamudra, involves (1) attention on an object or state of mind, (2) understanding it, (3) mindfulness to stay with both the object or state of mind and the understanding of it, and not to lose either of them because of flightiness of mind or mental dullness, and (4) alertness to detect these hindrances and correct them if and when they occur. But even with all these mental factors present, we must be able to focus on mere arising and engaging without conceiving of ourselves as being either the one who is observing their occurrence or the one who is making them happen and controlling them. Otherwise, we become self-conscious and therefore experience subtle forms of distraction. The only way to rid our meditation of such faults is to accompany it with an understanding of the conventional and devoid natures of "me."
Conventionally, "I" exist. "I" am thinking, "I" am experiencing, "I" am acting – not anybody else. This conventional "me," however, does not exist in any fantasized, impossible manner, for instance as a solid person, "me," inside our head who is the agent or controller of everything that happens, or the one who experiences it. Such a "me" is called the false "me," and does not refer to anything real. Thus the conventional "me" is devoid of existing as a false "me." Understanding this distinction is crucial for eliminating the obstacles preventing our liberation and enlightenment.
When we apprehend our mind to be something solid, we naturally imagine a solid "me" behind it who uses it to experience life. Such a view of ourselves generates self-preoccupation, self-importance and selfishness, which in turn give rise to all our difficulties in life and prevent us from being of fullest help to others. Thus the order of how the causes of our problems arise is that first we apprehend our mind and experience as existing solidly, and then a solid "me" existing behind them.
Even if we understand how our mind exists in relation to reality, in other words even if we understand the relation between experience and its contents, we could still imagine a solid, independent "me" behind such a process who is the agent or controller of the non-solid process, or the one who experiences it. Therefore the order of meditation practice to remove the causes of our problems is first to understand the deepest nature of "me" and then of mind or experience itself. The deepest nature of "me" is its voidness, namely the lack of the conventional "me" existing in the manner of a false "me."
The conventional and false "me"s in Buddhism are different from the healthy and inflated "ego"s discussed in Western psychology. The Western notion of these two sorts of ego is that they are types of awareness. The conventional "me," on the other hand, can only be an object of awareness. Being neither a way of being aware of something, nor a form of physical phenomenon, it is an existent variable that nevertheless affects our experience. The false "me" does not exist at all. Only an idea of one can exist. Thinking and acting on the basis of such an idea, however, also affects our experience.
Even though most people's healthy ego is normally mixed with an inflated one, for purposes of discussion we can differentiate the two. A healthy ego is an awareness or well-developed sense of "me" as an individual that allows us to organize and take responsibility for our life. Without a healthy ego, we would never get out of bed in the morning and dress ourselves. The "me" that is the object of focus of a healthy ego is analogous to the conventional "me" discussed in Buddhism. An inflated ego is an awareness or sense of "me" as the center of the universe, the most important person in the world who must always have his or her way. The "me" that is the object of focus of an inflated ego is analogous to the Buddhist false "me" in the sense that it is an idea of one projected onto and mixed with a conventional "me."
An inflated ego, then, is the closest Western equivalent for what we call in Buddhism "apprehending 'me' as existing solidly," which means apprehending or taking the conventional "me" to exist in the manner of a false "me." Inflated egos certainly exist, but the idea of a false "me" upon which such an ego is fixated does not refer to anything real. The understanding of the absence of a real referent to that idea of a false "me" is the understanding of the voidness of "me" – in other words, the understanding of the absence of the conventional "me" existing in the manner of a false "me."
But then if the conventional "me" does not exist in the manner of a false "me," how does it exist? When it appears to us that "I" am experiencing something – for instance "I" am thinking a thought, or feeling an emotion, or seeing a sight – what appears, or simply happens, is the experience of thinking, feeling or seeing, with its contents. On the basis of that experience, we use the word, mental label, convention or concept, "I" or "me," to organize, make intelligible and describe that experience. We can say or think, "'I' am experiencing this," although we do not have to do so in order actually to experience it in the Buddhist sense of the word "experience."
The "I" in this example is the conventional "me." It exists inasmuch as it can simply be mentally labeled or imputed onto any moment or series of moments of an individual's experience in order to organize, understand, describe and refer to that experience. The conventional "me" is not the word, label or concept "me," however. It is what that word, label or concept refers to when it is labeled onto and used to describe an appropriate basis, such as a moment of experience of a particular, individual mind-stream. The conventional "me" does not, however, exist as a solid "me" in our head as the controller or agent of our experience, or the one who experiences it. Such a solid "me" would be an example of a false "me," and does not refer to anything real.
Every moment of experience is accompanied with a certain level of the mental factors of motivation, intention and decisiveness, the combination of which is referred to by the Western notion of "will." The conventional "me" can be labeled onto any moment of experience accompanied with these factors such that we may say, "'I' decided to do that." However, that conventional "me" does not exist in the manner of a false "me," for instance as a solid agent who must always be in control of everything and so made that decision in order selfishly to have his or her way. The decision may have been accompanied by the mental factor of a sense of self-importance, but that does not imply a solid manipulator, "me," making that decision.
The conventional "me" can be labeled onto our mahamudra meditation on the conventional nature of mind in order to organize, understand, describe and refer to that experience as "'I' am meditating," "'I' am experiencing the contents of each moment of experience," "'I' am attentive and understand what is happening." But we need to understand that this conventional "me" does not exist in the manner of a false "me," namely as a solid meditator behind the meditation or a solid person behind an experience experiencing it.
How does this understanding apply to the manner in which we meditate on the conventional nature of mind and experience? It applies in the sense that such an understanding allows us to meditate without being self-conscious. Our understanding allows us not only to meditate but also to live each moment of our life without even a subtly inflated ego with which we self-consciously feel there is a solid "me" who is observing, doing or controlling the experiencing. When we have eliminated this level of self-consciousness, we no longer feel "alienated" from our experience.
In order to sustain a motivation of renunciation or bodhichitta, however, for not only our meditation, but every moment of our life, we need a healthy ego. Without a healthy ego, we could not organize our efforts in terms of "'I' wish to overcome my sufferings" or "'I' wish to achieve enlightenment in order to benefit all beings." We would be unable to take ourselves seriously or put any direction in our life. But, when we engage in mahamudra meditation, we are not manifestly self-conscious even in a healthy ego way. We can understand this through an analogy.
Total meditative absorption on voidness is not accompanied with a conscious bodhichitta motivation that we actively and directly focus upon at the same time as our absorption. It is merely held by the force of bodhichitta. This means it is apprehended by a mind that, having had some moments of bodhichitta as the immediately preceding condition for its arising, now has awareness of bodhichitta in either a latent or unconscious manner. The relation between meditation on mahamudra and a healthy ego is somewhat similar. When we are totally absorbed on either the conventional or deepest natures of experience, we are not self-conscious even in the sense of simultaneously being actively or directly focused on the fact that "I," in just the conventional sense, am experiencing this. But our meditation is, nevertheless, held by the force of a healthy ego. It is apprehended by a mind that has an understanding of the conventional "me' in either a latent or unconscious manner.
Having understood the manner of existence of "me" and applied it to our mahamudra meditation on the conventional nature of mind, we proceed to examine and understand the deepest nature of how mind itself exists. As the Fourth Panchen Lama has stressed, we must not leave our mahamudra practice simply focused on the conventional nature of mind as mere arising and engaging. We must supplement it with meditation on the deepest nature of mind, and then on the joint conventional and deepest level natures of mind inseparably.
It is preferable in our discussion not to use the terms "absolute truth" or the "ultimate level of reality." They give the impression that the conventional level is no good and must be rejected, abandoned and transcended. If we call it the "deepest level," we are less likely to conceive of it as something totally separate "up in the sky," the one we really want to reach and for which the conventional level was merely a stepping stone. Rather, there is a surface and a deeper level about everything, including mind, and both actually exist. But neither exists on its own. Just as there is no independently existing conventional level, likewise there is no independently existing deepest level. Although we can only focus on both levels simultaneously if we have first focused on each individually, one at a time, we must remember that it is incomplete to focus just on either of the two by itself. What is to be gone beyond, then, is not our seeing of the conventional nature of mind, but our seeing of that conventional nature divorced from seeing simultaneously mind's deepest nature. This is a crucial point.
For understanding the deepest level, we may examine a verbal thought – for example, "This is stupid." We think each word of it individually and slowly. What is the actual thought, "This is stupid"? Does it exist as something on its own, independently from a mind that is thinking it? What is its relation to the individual thoughts, "this," "is" and "stupid"? Is it simply equal to the sum of the three component thoughts? If it were, we should be able to think, "This is stupid," even if we think each of the component words with a month's interval in between. We should be able to think, "This is stupid," with those exact mental words even if we do not know the English language. On the other hand, is it something totally separate and different from each of its component words? If it were, we should be able to think, literally, "This is stupid," without thinking any of the three words. Furthermore, thinking the three words one by one could exist on its own without being the equivalent of thinking, "This is stupid."
Although we might be able to think something is stupid without having to say so in our head, what is the relation between thinking words and thinking their meaning? Does something's being stupid exist independently from being the meaning of the words that express and formulate it? What is the relation between words and their meaning? What is the relation between the meaning of individual words and the meaning of a sentence made up of those words? We examine deeply all these issues. In this way, we approach the understanding of the voidness of our mind and experience – they do not exist in any impossible manner. We apply our understanding of the conventional and false "me"s to discriminating between the conventional and false ways in which mind and experience could exist.
As a result of our mind's automatically making our experience of thinking a sentence appear in a manner that does not correspond to reality, we instinctively imagine – perhaps unconsciously – there is a little "me" inside our head, or our mind, who is the author of our mental voice. This solid little "me" seems to take in, experience and evaluate the information that comes in through the sense channels to "control-headquarters" in our brain and then seems to comment on it, make the decisions, press the buttons and control what we do. As a result of such a conscious or unconscious fantasy, we become very self-centered and selfish, generating all our problems. But our fantasy is not referring to anything real. There is no such thing as a little being in our head who is controlling everything. That is a vision out of some science fiction horror movie.
Of course we exist. Conventionally we experience life as "'I' am thinking; 'I' am seeing; 'I' am deciding to do this or that." Conventionally we describe what is happening in this way, and it is a correct description. "I" am thinking and deciding, not anybody else. This is conventional truth. But, what is absent is an actual, findable "me" sitting in our head doing all this. We do not exist in the manner in which we appear to exist – in the manner of existence our mind gives rise to an appearance of when it gives rise to an appearance or feeling of "me." When we understand voidness, we understand the absence of this fantasized, impossible way of existing. We understand that this way of existing does not refer to anything real.
"I" exist, but not in this fantasized, impossible manner. What am "I" and how do "I" exist? The only thing we can say is that "I" am or exist simply as what the mental label or word "I" or "me" refers to when it is labeled onto an individual stream of continuity of experience as its basis. Such a "me" exists like an illusion in that "I" appear to be a solid, independent entity, but am not. However, "I" am not an illusion. "I" can experience happiness or pain, an illusion cannot. There is a big difference between saying "I" exist like an illusion and "I" am an illusion.
Next we apply this understanding of voidness to mind itself. Experience, or the mere arising and engaging in contents of experience, does not exist in any fantasized, impossible way. It is not something absolute or transcendent that functions inside us, as either a solid or an abstract "thing." If it were, it should be able to exist on its own. But experience or mind has contents, and its continuity has sequence that arises dependently on previous moments of experience according to the principles of cause and effect. It cannot exist independently from these, all on its own.
How can we describe how it exists? We can only say that mind is or exists simply as what the mental label or word "mind" refers to when it is labeled onto a mere arising and engaging with contents of experience. Mind exists by virtue simply of mental labeling. The word "simply" does not imply that mind is merely the word "mind." A word signifies a meaning. It is not the same thing as its meaning. Mind can know something, the word "mind" cannot. Nor does "simply" imply that mind only exists when someone actively labels it and says or thinks "mind." If it did, we would hardly ever have a mind. "Simply" merely excludes there being anything solid or ultimately findable on the side of the mere arising and engaging that renders it "mind," independently existing on its own. We can say no more.
Understanding the Deepest Nature of Mind To Be Like Space and Its Conventional Nature To Be Like an Illusion
Next we focus on the voidness of mind that is like space, although not the same as space. The Buddhist notion of space does not refer to the space something occupies, its location, the space between objects, or even outer space. Rather, it is an unchanging fact about a material object that is the case about it so long as that object exists. This fact about it is that there is nothing tangible or physically obstructive on the side of the object – such as some eternal primal matter, as positing by certain non-Buddhist Indian schools of philosophy – that logically, if it were there, would necessarily impede that object from being manifest and existing in three dimensions. Likewise, there is nothing tangible or obstructive – in other words, findable – on the side of either objects or mind that logically, if it were there, would necessarily impede either of them from existing at all. This is the case about them, unalterably so long as they exist, whether we speak of their dependently arising existence in the sense of mental labeling – which entails the inseparability of words or concepts and their meanings – or in the sense of the inseparability of appearance and mind. Similarly, there is nothing from the side of objects impeding them from arising as objects of mind, and nothing on the side of mind impeding it from being able to give rise to an appearance of objects. Mind is not the same as space, however. Mind can know things, space cannot.
Finally, we focus once more on the conventional nature of mind with the understanding that it exists like an illusion, although not the same as an illusion. It only appears as though there are objects solidly "out there" and mind solidly "in here," with experience being the solid result of the interaction between these two solid things, and a solid "me" behind it all, controlling or experiencing the entire process. But none of these things involved in experience, or mind, exist in the manner our mind makes them appear to exist, as is the case with illusions. Our illusion-like mind, however, generates our problems and can realize liberation from them, whereas an actual illusion can do neither.
Not only must we gain an accurate understanding of the devoid nature of mind, we need to apply it to correct our meditation of faults. We have already seen how understanding the devoid nature of "me" is necessary for overcoming the fault of meditating on the conventional nature of mind – mere arising and engaging in contents of experience – from the point of view of the observer, agent or controller of the process, or the one who is experiencing it. Understanding the devoid nature of mind itself helps us overcome becoming infatuated with this process. The compassion we develop from seeing other beings, when not combined with this understanding, may momentarily rouse us to action, but is not enough to prevent the fault of infatuation recurring.
When we focus on the conventional nature of mind, even if we do so in a "non-self"-conscious manner, we inevitably, as a result of perfect concentration, gain what Karma Kagyu terminology calls "boon experiences." They are a boon in the sense of being like a bonus or extra gift. We become filled with a blissful experience of clarity or brilliance, and starkness or bareness. This is a crisp, vibrant, serene type of bliss pervading our entire body and mind. It is uplifting, but never disturbing, nor even exciting in the sense of rousing us to express our joy.
In the terminology of the Indian Buddhist masters, Asanga and Kamalashila, as explained in the Gelug tradition, the boon experience of clarity undoubtedly corresponds to the total elimination of all degrees of mental dullness, while that of starkness to the stilling of all levels of flightiness of mind. Starkness is equivalent to the bare absence of all distraction, such as thoughts. The boon of bliss undoubtedly corresponds to the serenely joyous sense of physical and mental suppleness and fitness that comes from perfectly absorbed concentration free of dullness and flightiness, and that is a defining characteristic of shamata.
The great danger is that we become so infatuated with these boon experiences that we become overwhelmed and attached, and do not want to get up and leave them. They are very attractive and can therefore be seductive. Compassion from seeing others and their suffering, and not just visualizing them with imagination, provides us with the energy to get up and help them. But, with compassion alone, we have not dealt with our attachment to returning to the boon experiences once we have attended to the needs of others. We will want to climb back into the "warm, cozy bed," as it were, in our head. We need to apply the understanding of the devoid nature of mind and experience. Just as mind is inseparable from appearance, or experience from content, likewise mind is inseparable from bliss, clarity and starkness. Boon experiences do not exist separately from being a mere arising and engaging with contents; while focus, with understanding and absorbed concentration, on mere arising and engaging does not occur without its being blissful, clear and stark.
On one level, just as we could shift our focus from the contents of experience to the process of experience itself – the mere arising and engaging with the contents – likewise we could shift our focus from the contents of the boon experiences to the process of the experience of them. But this too may not be enough to overcome the danger of infatuation recurring. In order not to solidify or overinflate the boon experiences, we need to stop regarding them as existing in a fantasized, impossible manner, as something so special – as if they were existing all by themselves – that we become infatuated with them. If we see them as something that arises dependently on many factors, we deconstruct or "desolidify" them. We can then experience them without apprehending them to exist in a manner in which they do not, and thus without becoming detracted from our goal or lost in them.
It is not that we are striving to eliminate these boon experiences. It is just like we are not striving to eliminate the conventional level of reality. But we are trying to see and experience the conventional level of these boons as merely part of the experience of the nature of mind. Thus we try to experience them with the understanding of their devoid nature so that we do not reify them and become attached.
One of the most advanced levels of mahamudra practice is meditating on the nature of mind in a nonconceptual manner. But what does this mean? Nonconceptual means direct, not through the medium of an idea. An idea of something is a semblance of it used in thought to represent the item. The term is usually translated as "mental image," but a semblance of something need not have a shape and color, especially in the case of a mental representation of mind. For nonconceptual perception of mind, then, we need to rid ourselves of reliance on an idea of what merely arising and engaging with contents of experience is. We need to see and focus on the process directly.
Nonconceptual, bare mental perception of something, then, does not involve thinking, although of course mind is still functioning and there is mental cognition. The Western and Buddhist notions of "thinking," however, are quite different. The Western notion implies a sequence of conceptual, usually verbal thoughts, whereas the Buddhist notion of conceptual thinking is much broader. It not only also includes mental processes involving non-verbal ideas such as mental images, but also merely mentally focusing on something through an idea of it. A nonconceptual mental cognition of something is free not only of thinking in the Western sense of the term, but more extensively in the Buddhist sense.
Furthermore, nonconceptual does not mean without understanding. It means merely without relying on an idea of something – either a verbal formulation, a symbolic representation or even an abstract feeling. We can understand something without necessarily understanding it through an idea of it. But although we can understand something directly without mixing it with a verbal or pictorial idea, there is still understanding. This is the crucial point. We need not merely to see directly, but to see, both directly and with understanding, the conventional and deepest natures of mind – first one at a time and then both simultaneously.
To see something with our eyes is automatically nonconceptual. All sensory perception is nonconceptual. It does not, however, necessarily entail understanding what is seen, for instance seeing a foreign alphabet we do not understand. Mental seeing, however – and not in the sense of visualizing a Buddha – is something else. So far in our discussion we have been using the expression "to see something with our mind" to mean to understand it, and that is usually conceptual, namely through the medium of an idea. It is not at all easy to understand something nonconceptually.
We must be careful not to confuse a conceptual understanding of something with what Western languages refer to as an "intellectual understanding." An intellectual understanding can be one that is either derived consciously through logic or can be expressed in a logical manner. In this meaning, such an understanding is opposed to an intuitive one, which is gained as a result of more unconscious processes. But not all conceptual understandings are intellectual in this sense. An infant's conceptual understanding of who is its mother is not intellectual. Furthermore, intuitive understandings can also be conceptual, such as a mechanic's intuitive understanding of what is wrong with our car. In fact, almost all intuitive understandings are conceptual.
Another connotation of the Western notion of an intellectual understanding is one that we do not apply to transforming our life. We can understand intellectually that smoking cigarettes is bad for our health, but we smoke anyway. The fault is usually our lack of sufficient motivation, but may also be a lack of sufficient instruction, for instance on how to stop smoking. The fault is not that our understanding is conceptual. Yet even when we understand something, for instance how to cook, and we cook every day, our understanding of how to do so is still conceptual. We need to explore what does it mean to understand something.
First we need an idea of something in order to understand it. If we have no idea of what something means, how can we possibly understand it? Moreover, that idea has to be accurate and precise, not distorted or vague. This is true regarding the nature of mind as well. How can we possibly understand mind, yet alone focus on it in meditation, if we have no idea of what mind means or if our idea of it is fuzzy or mistaken? But then, once our understanding becomes very deep, we can focus on the nature of mind directly – and not through the medium of an idea of it – while still maintaining full understanding.
We begin mahamudra meditation, however, by first trying to stay with the conventional nature of mind – the mere arising and engaging with the contents of each moment of experience – by means of focusing on the process, as it occurs, from moment to moment, through some idea of it. That idea of it need not be a verbal formulation of the definition of mind that we say in our head over and again like a mantra. Nor does it need to be a mental picture of it or, in Western popular terminology, some sort of "intuitive feeling" about what it is.
There are two types of ideas with which we conceptually think about something. One is an idea that involves merely a sound – either the sound of a word or set of words, or any other type of sound such as music or static on the radio – but of which we have no understanding of its meaning or significance. An example is thinking "mind" or the Tibetan word "sem" when we have only the idea of the sound of the word "mind" or "sem," but no idea whatsoever of what it means. To think about "mind" or "sem" with only such an idea of it would be, literally, meaningless thought.
The other type of idea is of the meaning or significance of something, such as of the word "mind." It may or may not be accompanied with a representation or indication of that meaning, such as a mental word, mental picture or an intuitive feeling, at the moment of actually thinking with this idea. It may be more abstract than that. But the idea of the meaning of the word "mind" obviously does not exist independently from the word "mind," nor independently from mind itself. Furthermore, ideas of the meaning of the word "mind" can have varying degrees of accuracy. Moreover, regardless of the accuracy of our idea, our focus on it can also have varying degrees of clarity.
The main difference between imagining our mother, which is a conceptual process, and either seeing her or dreaming about her, both of which are nonconceptual processes, is that imagining her is far less vivid that the other two. We can use this as a guideline for recognizing the stages through which we pass in order to focus nonconceptually on the nature of mind. Let us look at the stages for focusing, for example, on simply its conventional nature as the mere arising and engaging in the contents of experience.
For any level of meditation on the nature of mind, we need, of course, concentration, attention, mindfulness and alertness, in the senses in which we have already defined them. We are not just sitting and doing nothing while the process of arising and engaging in contents of experience is happening anyway. We are paying attention to it with concentration, but not as a separate observer or as the agent or controller making it happen. There is also understanding of what is happening, with whatever level of accuracy we might have, but without the mental distance of there being a solid "me" as a separate person who understands it.
In Buddhist technical terminology, we say that attention, concentration, mindfulness, alertness and discriminating awareness – what we have been calling "understanding" – are all mental factors that accompany mental consciousness focused on the mere arising and engaging with the contents of experience that is occurring each moment. Such a mental consciousness is, optimally, not accompanied by a mental factor of incorrect discriminating awareness that misunderstands this conventional nature to be some solid, concrete object existing separately from the mind.
To be able to focus on this nature with all these accompanying, non-deluded mental factors, and without either any verbal thoughts about something extraneous or even the "mental itchiness" to think such thoughts, is one of the aims of eliminating mental wandering and both gross and subtle flightiness of mind. But, of course, we need to stop as well our attention from flying off to any other object besides a verbal thought, such as a mental picture, or a sight, a sound or the physical sensation of an itch or a pain in our knees. Although the accomplishment of the quieting of the mind of all extraneous mental chatter and images is necessary for any level of accomplishment, and is not, in itself, something easy to achieve, we should not think that its attainment is that of a nonconceptual understanding of mahamudra. It is simply an indication of an early stage in the attainment of concentration.
We may even be able to focus on this conventional nature of mind through an idea of what it means but which is not accompanied with a verbal representation of that idea. In other words, we may be able to focus on the nature of mind without thinking verbally, "This is the nature of mind," or "mere arising and engaging." But, if our experience of the object is not vivid, our meditation is still conceptual.
What does it mean for our meditation to be vivid? We are not talking simply about our meditation being free of mental dullness. When we work to eliminate mental dullness, we are adjusting the state of mind with which we are concentrating by removing the mental factors of gross, middling and subtle mental dullness so that they do not accompany that concentration. We have eliminated gross mental dullness when our focus is clear, middling dullness when our focus is also sharp, and subtle dullness when our focus is, in addition, also fresh, not stale, in each moment. But even with all those factors removed, our meditation may still not be vivid.
Vividness, on the other hand, is a quality of experience that is not attained by simply removing an accompanying mental factor that, by itself, is adversely affecting the quality of our concentration. Rather, it is attained by removing an accompanying level of mind that is giving rise to an idea of the object of engagement of our mental consciousness and causing that mental consciousness to focus on both the idea and the object mixed together. The result is that the object is, in a certain sense, veiled, although not totally obscured, to that mental consciousness and, therefore, experienced in a non-vivid manner.
Ideas are static phenomena – usually translated as "permanent phenomena." This means they remain fixed so long as we think in terms of them, and do not undergo organic change from moment to moment. While we are thinking of our mother, for example, our idea of her does not become tired or hungry. We can imagine her walking, in which case our idea of her walking involves a semblance of movement. The sequence of images entailed, however, taken as a whole, constitutes a single idea. The mental pictures that compose this idea, like frames in a movie, are not actually walking.
Our idea of something, of course, may change, but this occurs in a special way. One idea is replaced by another. The latter version does not arise from the former through an organic process of depending on causes and circumstances, like a flower arising due to its dependence on a seed, soil, water, air and so on. Nor does an idea organically grow into a new one through a moment-to-moment process of transformation or change, like a flower aging and wilting.
We can now begin to understand why conceptual thoughts are not vivid. When we think of something that changes from moment to moment, such as our mother, through the medium of an idea of her, we are mixing our mother with an idea of her. Our mother changes from moment to moment, while our idea of her does not. The appearing object of our thought – the idea of our mother – and its object of engagement – our actual mother – are not in the same category of phenomenon. Because the focal object of our thought – our mother through the filter of our idea of her – is a hybrid object, the conceptual mind with which we think of our mother cannot give rise to a vivid appearance.
We can perhaps understand this point better through the analogy of looking through the moving water of a stream at a stationary rock on the bottom. Although the analogy is not precise because our focal object in the example is something immobile mixed with the filter of something in motion – not something ever-changing mixed with the filter of something static – nevertheless we can appreciate from this analogy that a hybrid object cannot appear as vividly as one that is unmixed. But what about when we think of the nature of our mind?
Unlike our mother, the nature of mind, either on a conventional or deepest level, does not change from moment to moment. Each moment of our experience has the same conventional nature of being a mere arising and engaging with the contents of that experience and the same deepest nature of being devoid of existing in any impossible way. Although both levels of nature of our experience do not change from moment to moment, our experience having those natures does change from moment to moment. This is because the contents of experience are always changing, both in terms of focal object as well as accompanying mental factors.
The nature of mind cannot exist separately from actual moment-to-moment experience. Each moment of experience and its nature come in the same package. Although that nature does not change, the basis for that nature – each moment of experience – changes each moment. When we focus on an unchanging nature of an ever-changing phenomenon through each moment of its change, we find it very difficult to keep up with each moment of change. Naturally we focus on that unchanging nature through a static idea of it.
Mind cannot exist in a different package from its nature. Its nature, however, can certainly exist in a different package from an idea of that nature. Therefore, although mind's nature and an idea of that nature are both static phenomena, they are still in different categories of phenomena. This is because the former is always freshly together with each changing moment of experience, while the latter may lapse. Thus the mixture of the nature of mind and an idea of it is a hybrid object. As a result, a conceptual mind focused on such a hybrid object, even with perfectly absorbed concentration, cannot be vivid.
In short, it is extremely difficult even to recognize the difference between perfect states of conceptual and nonconceptual meditations on the nature of mind, yet alone transform the former into the latter. No wonder it takes, according to the sutra teachings, a zillion, or "countless number" of eons of building up positive force and cleansing of obstacles in order to reach this stage!
There are, in general, three levels of mind. The coarse level is that of sensory consciousness. The subtle level is the gross levels of mental consciousness, both conceptual and nonconceptual. The subtlest level is that which is totally devoid of the grosser minds and which provides the basic continuity from moment to moment and life to life. Known as primordial clear light mind, it has no beginning and no end. It is what continues into Buddhahood, becoming the omniscient mind of a Buddha.
With the methods of the highest class of tantra, anuttarayoga, we engage in mahamudra meditation with the subtlest level of mind. We gain access and activate that level through an extremely difficult and complex series of meditations. On the first, or generation stage of practice, we simply imagine we are using the subtlest level of mind. We progress to the second, or complete stage – sometimes translated as "completion stage" – when all causes are complete for actually manifesting clear light mind. We accomplish this by focusing on specific, vital points in the subtle energy system of our body and, as a result of previously having imagined or visualized the process, manipulating those energies. Since clear light mind is more subtle than the three levels of conceptual mind – the conscious and personal, the preconscious and primitive, and the subtlest unconscious levels, often translated respectively as "conceptual thoughts," the "eighty indicative conceptual minds" and the "three conceptual minds of white, red and black appearance" – our realization of mind with it is automatically nonconceptual. It is also the only level of mind with which we can focus simultaneously and directly on both the conventional and deepest natures of mind. For these reasons, the great masters have praised the path of anuttarayoga tantra as the quickest, most efficient path to enlightenment.
In summary, it is very easy to practice what seems to be mahamudra, but is in fact a method that does not go very deeply to root out our problems and their causes. The practice of mahamudra is certainly not simply to become like a cow that sits without moving, just seeing and hearing without thinking anything. But even if we just sit quietly and look and listen attentively – not inattentively like the cow – to whatever is happening around us, and even if we are able to do this without judging or mentally commenting on anything and, in fact, without any mental chattering at all, we are still not practicing mahamudra meditation.
There is no question that quieting the mind of all mental chatter and noise is extremely beneficial. Such thought prevents us from being attentive to anything around us. But we must be careful not to quiet our mind of understanding when we quiet the mind from its chatter. There can be no level of mahamudra meditation without at least some accompanying level of understanding of the nature of mind.
It is very important to be humble and not to belittle mahamudra, dzogchen or any of the very advanced, difficult practices by thinking they are so simple. For example, we learn an introductory practice that is extremely beneficial, such as quieting the mind of all judgments, comments and verbal thought, and staying with the "here-and-now." If we can accomplish this – which is certainly not easy by any means – we have the necessary foundation for not only mahamudra meditation, but any type of meditation, as well as life itself. But, if we think this is all there is to mahamudra practice, we are belittling mahamudra, making it into something small and comparatively trivial.
If we think we are a great yogi or yogini because we are engaging in this initial level of practice, and if we do not even conceive that we can go deeper, we are suffering from the fault of weak motivation. We lack sufficient strength of renunciation and bodhichitta to go beyond the initial levels of practice and accomplishment so that we can be truly free of our problems and best able to help others. As the great masters have said, a combination of renunciation and bodhichitta is essential as the driving force not only for beginning the spiritual path, but for sustaining our efforts all along its course and, in the end, for reaching its goal. Thus, with proper and sufficient motivation and sustained effort, mahamudra practice can bring us to the attainment of Buddhahood for the benefit of all.
First we practice preliminaries such as prostration and, especially, guru-yoga and making heartfelt requests for inspiration. When done with proper understanding and motivation, these help weaken our fixation on the contents of our experience, such as the pain in our legs while prostrating or the guru as some omnipotent idol "out there." Thus they help weaken the mental blocks preventing our understanding the nature of mind, and help build up the positive force to bring us success in this venture.
We begin our formal mahamudra meditation with initial exercises examining the various contents of our experience of each of the senses and of thoughts and emotional feelings. We realize that from the point of view of the conventional nature of experience, namely from the point of view of there occurring merely an arising and engaging in the contents of experience, there is no difference at all between seeing a pleasant or unpleasant sight. This allows us not to become so caught up in the contents of our experience that we become upset and cause problems to ourselves and others. We do not become so dissociated from the contents, however, that we do not react to them in an appropriate manner, such as by moving out of the way of an oncoming truck that we see in front of us.
On this level, however, we deal with the problem of being caught up in the contents of our experience only when we are already caught up in them. When we are already upset about hearing traffic noise from our room, we compare it with hearing the chirping of birds and then disengage our obsession with the noise by switching our focus to the conventional nature of the experience itself. We need to go much deeper in meditation, however, to prevent that deviation of focus onto the contents from ever arising. We must develop absorbed concentration and a serenely stilled and settled mind.
We therefore focus next on the conventional nature of mind itself. We focus on the mere arising and engaging with the contents of experience that occur in each moment, but without making that process into a solid, concrete object or ourselves into a solid, concrete subject who is the observer, agent or controller of that process or the one experiencing it. By focusing in this manner, freshly each moment, with perfectly absorbed concentration, we weaken even further our tendency to lose sight of this conventional nature and, consequently, to become caught up in and upset by the contents of our experience.
In order to avoid the dangers of apprehending or taking ourselves to be a solid "me" – either during meditation or, in general, while living our life – we next focus on the conventional and deepest natures of ourselves as "me." We need to see that although conventionally "I" am meditating and experiencing the contents of every moment of experience of my life, that conventional "me" does not exist in the manner of a false "me." Its deepest nature is that it is devoid of existing as some solid, concrete observer, agent or controller of the experiences of life, or the one experiencing them, either in meditation or at any other time as well. Such realization enables us not only to meditate more properly on the conventional nature of mind and experience, but also eventually to free ourselves from self-preoccupation and selfishness, which cause us to create all our problems for ourselves and prevent us from effectively helping others.
Once we have understood the deepest nature of how "I" exist, we need to apply that understanding to how mind and experience exist. If we no longer become caught up in the contents of our experience, yet apprehend our mind itself to exist as some solid, concrete "thing," we again cause problems for ourselves and prevent ourselves from being best able to help others. We become infatuated, for example, with the boon experiences of blissful clarity and starkness that come with perfectly absorbed concentration on the conventional nature of mind. We need to see that mind itself is devoid of existing in any fantasized, impossible manner.
At first we focus on the conventional and deepest natures of mind conceptually, through an accurate idea of them. But eventually, when we are able to focus on each of them directly and barely, we achieve a mahamudra meditation that is nonconceptual and vivid. Our meditation then becomes potent enough, in combination with the force of our joint motivation of renunciation and bodhichitta, to actually eliminate forever, step by step, the various grades of our apprehending impossible ways of existing with respect to our mind, experience, its contents and "me."
Finally, when we have eliminated the obstacles that have been preventing our mind from being able to give rise, directly and simultaneously, to both the conventional and deepest natures of each moment's experience, we directly and fully engage them both at once. Our mind thus becomes the omniscient, totally compassionate awareness of a Buddha. Our body and form of communication likewise transform so that as an enlightened being we are best equipped to benefit others.
This full ability to benefit others is the result of our elimination of all obstacles preventing our liberation and omniscience, namely our confusion about the nature of our mind and experience, and the instincts of that confusion. We eliminate these by realizing and focusing, first conceptually, then nonconceptually, on the conventional and deepest natures of our mind, one at a time. To do so properly, we need to work on eliminating our apprehending "me" as existing solidly. We approach that task more effectively if we have disengaged ourselves from being so caught up in the contents of our experience that we become upset by everything that occurs in our life.
We build up the ability to shift our focus from the contents of our experience to the experience itself, and weaken our mental blocks that would prevent us from so doing, by engaging in preliminary practices. We transform every aspect of our life into a preliminary practice by living our life "straight up and down, not sideways" – not complaining and not making an ordeal out of anything. We gain the strength to do this when we become so concerned about the welfare of others that we decide we definitely must overcome all our problems and shortcomings and realize all our potentials so that we can be of best help to them all.
We are able to develop this dedicated heart of bodhichitta as motivation only if we have become sufficiently disgusted with our problems so that we definitely decide we must free ourselves from them. We can only conceive of doing this if we acknowledge our problems, recognize their causes and gain the confidence that if we eliminate these causes, our problems never recur. As the deepest cause of our problems is our confusion about the moment-to-moment experiences of our life and their contents, it is essential to understand the nature of mind. The path of mahamudra is one of the most effective methods for accomplishing this goal for the benefit of all.