Mahamudra: Intensive Meditation vs a Life of Service

Working to Benefit Others

As the Fully Enlightened Buddha has said, "Refrain from all negativities and build up everything positive. By relying on this, one becomes enlightened." This is a fundamental point of Buddha's teachings. We all wish to be happy, and nobody wishes any suffering or pain. To bring this about, we need to know the causes for happiness and the causes that bring about suffering. On that basis, we must build up and enhance these causes for happiness, and eliminate and avoid those causes for unhappiness and problems. The true causes for unhappiness and problems are our negative, destructive actions. The proper mode of behavior, then, is to restrain ourselves from doing, saying or thinking anything negative or destructive.

What is a destructive action? It is any action that does or can bring about harm to ourselves and/or others. What motivates such actions? Our disturbing emotions and attitudes motivate us to act in destructive ways. Therefore we need both to refrain from all negative, destructive actions, as well as curtail all disturbed and disturbing states of mind that would motivate us to engage in them. Likewise, we need to create a splendid array of everything positive and constructive. It is not sufficient merely to restrain ourselves from negativities and refrain from harming others. We need actively to engage in what is helpful for others. To do this, we need as motivation an attitude of wishing to benefit them. We must dedicate our hearts to others and to enlightenment – in other words, develop a dedicated heart of bodhichitta. With such a dedicated heart, we are able to benefit everyone. Bodhichitta, then, is the basis for achieving all splendid and positive virtues.

We can condense Buddha's message into two lines, "Try to help others as much as you can. And if that is not possible, at least do not cause any harm." Thus, if we are followers of Buddha's teachings, we try to help others as much as we can. We try to see clearly what any situation requires, and then do what is of most benefit to others. If we are not capable of such noble action, or there is nothing we can do that would help a situation, we at least do not aggravate it by causing any harm. We exercise restraint and self-control so as not to create any trouble, problems or difficulties for others.

There are many ways to benefit others, both temporarily and in an ultimate, deepest sense. The ultimate way of benefitting others is to lead them to a state of enlightenment – the state of a Buddha in which they have eliminated all their problems and their causes, and have realized all their potentials, so that they can be of fullest benefit to themselves and others. We strive to do this for others – even just simply for those around us with whom we have the most contact. We try to help lead them to enlightenment. Furthermore, we try to be helpful to others on a temporary level as well, aiding and assisting them in any way that we can. In this way, we try to bring them some sort of benefit, even if it is only a temporary one.

A Life of Intensive Meditation Practice Versus a Life of Service

It is difficult to work simultaneously at being beneficial to others temporarily and ultimately. Concerning this point, we need to differentiate two types of persons. There are some very special and rare individuals who, if they apply themselves single-pointedly to very intensive meditation, are able to devote all their energies to this undertaking, without major problems or blocks, and thus make rapid and significant progress on the path to enlightenment. In this way, they become able to benefit others in an ultimate sense. There are others, however, for whom it is more suitable and fitting to devote their physical, verbal and mental faculties to the immediate service of others, trying to be of help in whatever way daily situations demand. For such individuals, a life of service is a far more practical way of making progress along the spiritual path to enlightenment.

It is very important, then, to examine ourselves carefully and honestly to identify correctly which of these two types of disposition we have. Without romanticizing the spiritual path or entertaining fantasies about ourselves, we must accurately determine what our propensities are in order to know which type of life style and practice best suit us. If we are really someone who is capable of intensive meditation, we can make great progress like that. Such course of action, then, is appropriate for us. If, however, it suits us better to devote all our energies to humanitarian service, a life of such service is the appropriate choice. It is essential to have a very down-to-earth, pragmatic attitude toward this issue. We must evaluate our situation and potentials in a dispassionate, objective manner and choose a lifestyle for practice that is based on reality, not fantasy.

In Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior, Shantideva has stressed, on many levels, basing our practice on seeing reality. From one point of view, a dedicated life of service to others cannot, by itself, bring us to enlightenment. Compassionate service alone cannot counter our apprehending everything and everyone we encounter, as well as ourselves, as existing truly and inherently, which leads to our mind giving rise to disturbing emotions and attitudes, thus creating our problems. We need to supplement our practice of compassionate methods with the wisdom, or discriminating awareness, that understands voidness – the total absence of all fantasized and impossible ways of existing.

On another level, we also need to see reality in order to determine the appropriate course of action that is of most benefit for others in a specific situation. We need to be able to discriminate, for example, between those situations that call for more generosity and less stringent ethical self-discipline, and those that call for strict ethical conduct that is less generous. For example, a monk with the vow not to touch women must know to relax that prohibition when he sees a woman drowning. On the other hand, it is necessary to refrain from adultery even if a married person constantly begs us to have a sexual affair with him or her.

In making our choice of life style between intensive meditative practice and intensive service to others, we must not think that the latter is less productive and a waste of time. Take my own case. I read about the great meditators of the past who came from the same region, Amdo, as I do. They practiced meditation single-mindedly and achieved wondrous states of attainment. I sometimes think how splendid it would be to follow their example. But then I look at the situation around me and the scope of my abilities and talents, and evaluate what I can do on the basis of the position in society into which I was born. I see quite clearly there is a great need for me to engage myself in service for others. Thus, without any regrets, I happily devote my time and energies in this direction.

In short, we must each examine ourselves to determine which mode of practice accords with the reality of our life, our capacities and our disposition. If we truly find that we are best suited for intensive meditation practice and we have the opportunity and ability to engage in that as our life style, we should by all means go ahead with this course. For those like that, long-term, intensive meditation retreat is perfectly proper and productive. And if we are better suited to engage in some sort of humanitarian activity, such as social service, if we follow that course we also find it totally suitable and beneficial.

Engaging ourselves in serving society, trying to be of benefit to others, is not only helpful, but an excellent way to spend our life totally in accord with Dharma. Society and the environment exert a subtle influence on everyone. Therefore if we can make some contribution toward making either or both of these more positive, we are spending our time and effort in a very worthwhile pursuit. Therefore for those of us suited to this type of activity, it is excellent to try to contribute whatever we can toward making the world and society more positive.

Providing Ourselves with Strength to Maintain a Life of Service to Others

When serving society, or others in general, it is very important to set a proper motivation at the start of each day. When we wake up each morning, we reflect, "Today I am not going to come under the power of either attachment or hostility. Today I am going to be of benefit and help to others." Thus we consciously set the tone for the entire day so that we go through it within the context of a pure, altruistic motivation and attitude. If, during the day, we notice our mind giving rise to any problems of selfishness, greed or anger, if, as soon as we notice them, we apply opponent forces directly at that time, we are handling these problems in the best possible manner. But even if we cannot do that, we address them later, before going to sleep at night, by reviewing the activities of our day. We identify and acknowledge all the destructive things we did, said or thought – when we lost self-control – openly admitting that they were mistakes. Regretting them, we apply opponent forces to purify ourselves of their negative force. Then we review the constructive and positive things that we did, said or thought during the course of the day, and, without pride or conceit, rejoice in them. Such daily procedure gives us much strength in a life of service to others.

Sometimes, however, while living a life of service, we find our environment and situation overwhelming. We lose all energy and become depressed. At such times, it is beneficial to do a short meditation retreat to "recharge our batteries," as it were. Instead of going to the beach and lying in the sun, we gain far more positive energy to revitalize our work by retreating to a quiet place and engaging in meditation.

In short, except for a very few, rare individuals, it is best to remain part of society and actively serve it, rather than withdraw – particularly if we were to withdraw into a state of indifference toward others. But, whether we engage in short-term or long-term, intensive meditation practice, we need to focus on training our mind to change and improve its attitudes, not simply on training our body to gain physical improvement.

As for methods to tame and train our mind, we have the mahamudra methods as shown in our text for gaining a state of mind that combines shamatha and vipashyana focused on mind itself – in other words, a state of mind that is both serenely stilled and settled into its here-and-now, noncontriving state of mere clarity and awareness, and that is, at the same time, exceptionally perceptive of its deepest, devoid nature. Therefore, setting our motivation on learning a method that allows us to become of both temporary and ultimate benefit to others, we now listen to the continuation of these mahamudra teachings.

Broad Guidelines for Meditation

There are two ways to accomplish a combined state of shamatha and vipashyana. The first is to ascertain a correct view first and then gain a single-pointed meditative state focused on it. The second is to gain a concentrated meditative mind first and then a correct view with that mind. Here, the Fourth Panchen Lama explains the latter method. He divides his discussion into the preliminaries, actual methods and concluding procedures.

The general preliminaries to perform beforehand, on an extensive scale, are the four forward-leading practices, such as making mandala offerings and so forth. Then, for any specific meditation session for gaining shamatha or vipashyana, we begin with six preliminaries, which include cleaning our place of meditation, arranging offerings, sitting on a proper seat in the sevenfold posture of Vairochana, clearing out our mind with a round of nine tastes of breath, taking safe direction, enhancing our bodhichitta motivation and then practicing guru-yoga.

In general, the best time for meditation is early in the morning, preferably when the sky is just starting to become light. This is the main time we usually reserve for meditation because our mind is especially fresh and clear at that time of morning. That clarity, however, depends very much on not only how we have slept, but also on how much food we have eaten the night before. If we go to sleep with our stomach heavy or bloated, our sleep likewise becomes heavy and we wake up with our mind still heavy and not very clear. Furthermore, if we do not eat meat, but follow a vegetarian diet, we definitely feel an affect on our meditation. Thus daily behavior and habits are very important for successful meditation practice.

But, except for these being broad guidelines for meditation in general, they are not injunctions, like laws, that everyone must follow. We must each examine our dispositions, preferences, metabolism, health and living situation, and adjust these guidelines accordingly. Thus within his Dharma teachings, Buddha taught methods to suit every disposition, preference, metabolism and so on. We must examine ourselves carefully and choose a style of practice that suits us properly.

Furthermore, as Tsongkhapa has stressed in A Grand and A Short Presentation of the Graded Stages of the Path, before engaging in meditation, it is crucial to listen to the teachings properly and think about them extensively, not only concerning the topic of meditation, but also the methods for meditating on it. We must know the faults that can arise during meditation and how to eliminate them. We learn about these faults and the various supporting mental factors to employ in meditation by reading, studying and reflecting on the great scriptural texts and their commentaries. We need to have some understanding of all these points in order even to begin meditation. As we proceed with our practice, we compare what we learned with our meditation experience in order to deepen our understanding, particularly concerning the faults that arise to prevent absorbed concentration, and the function and employment of the factors with which to counter them, namely mindfulness and alertness.

There are many different forms of guru-yoga we may perform as a preliminary to mahamudra meditation, for example A Ritual to Honor the Spiritual Master, The Hundreds of Deities of Tushita or one in conjunction with The Six-Session Yoga. All are acceptable. But regardless of which recitation text or form we use, we must try to integrate our practice of guru-yoga with our mind-stream. When sincerely and properly done with strong feeling from the depths of our heart, guru-yoga has a very profound effect on our mind and thus on our meditation. Making heartfelt requests for inspiration, dissolving our guru into us and feeling that our faculties of body, speech and mind are inseparably integrated with those of our guru render our mind into an uplifted, inspired, joyous, more clear, subtle and intense state of mind than before. This is extremely helpful.

Stages of Focusing Mind on Mind

With this state of mind, free from any expectations or fears, devoid of any thoughts concerning the past, present or future, we focus single-pointedly on mind's nature of mere clarity and awareness – the here-and-now, noncontriving mind itself. We use focusing on coarse primordial mind itself as our method for achieving shamatha. To do this, of course, requires correctly recognizing, from personal experience, the conventional nature of mind and then placing mind vividly on this. As for how to achieve a mind focused on mind, in Notes from a Discourse on the Gelug Tradition of Mahamudra, Gungtangzang has explained that we focus on the feeling – in the Western sense of the term – that remains of our experience of the immediately preceding moment of mind with the immediately following moment of mind. Gungtangzang's teacher, Yongdzin Yeshey-gyeltsen, on the other hand, in his own Notes from a Discourse on the Gelug Tradition of Mahamudra, recording the teachings of his guru, the Fourth Panchen Lama, and Clearly Indicating the Main Points from the Oral Teachings of the Gelug Tradition of Mahamudra, has explained that we focus on mind with a mind that is within the same moment as it.

Although Gungtangzang's text is based on a discourse by Yongdzin Yeshey-gyeltsen, his explanation here probably follows a guideline from another of his teachers, the Second Jamyang-zheypa, Konchog-jigmey-wangpo. After our mind gives rise to the experience of mind as mere clarity and awareness, it apprehends or holds that experience with mindfulness – the mental factor of remembering. The next moment of mind then takes as its object of focus that experienced feeling of the previous moment of mind apprehended or held by mindfulness – in other words, it focuses on the feeling of the remembered experience of the previous moment of mind

In either case, we now hold this mere clarity and awareness as our focal object with strong mindfulness and keep watch on our concentration with alertness. If our mind gives rise to conceptual thoughts, we apply various methods, such as recognizing the thought for what it is so that we are not caught in it and it disappears. Alternatively, we consciously cut it off as soon as it arises. With either method we automatically arrive back at our object of focus – the sphere of mind as mere clarity and awareness.

Eventually, our mind no longer gives rise to thoughts in our meditation. We are able to focus single-pointedly on mere clarity and awareness that is mind itself. The longer we remain focused on this, the more vivid and vibrant the clarity aspect of mind becomes that appears before the face of our absorbed concentration. This is an indication that our perception of mere clarity and awareness is becoming more straightforward and non-conceptual.

It is best not to make our meditation sessions too long in the beginning, otherwise there is a greater danger of experiencing mental dullness and other difficulties. It is therefore better, at first, to have short, but frequent sessions. As we become able, with growing familiarity with this practice, to have frequent short sessions that proceed very well, we gradually increase their duration. At the conclusion of each session, we dedicate the positive force built up from the practice for all beings to attain enlightenment, crowning our dedication with whatever level of understanding we have of the correct view of voidness – the absence of true and inherent existence.

Boon Experiences

When we have achieved this level of settling our mind single-pointedly in this manner, we eventually experience our mind giving rise to a clarity before the face of our absorbed concentration that is so pristinely vivid and vibrant, unobstructed by anything, that it seems as though we are seeing it as vividly as seeing a wall, or something made of atoms in front of us. At this point, our body and mind feel totally light, and our mind gives rise to a tone of serene bliss unlike anything else. With this attainment, we achieve a state of absorbed concentration having the so-called boons of bliss, clarity and non-conceptuality or starkness.

If we have been practicing the yogic methods of anuttarayoga tantra's complete stage, we now apply special, inspiring, skillful methods to progress beyond this non-conceptual absorbed concentration having features of bliss, clarity and non-conceptuality. Through these methods we are able, on the basis of absorbed concentration focused non-conceptually on coarse primordial mind, to make manifest subtle primordial mind. But, whether we apply these special methods or not, in general if we gain a mind of shamatha focused on mind – even with boon experiences of bliss, clarity and non-conceptuality – we have only achieved a fully concentrated mind, with all its attendant good qualities. This is an attainment common to both Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike. Absorbed concentration like this, with bliss, clarity and non-conceptually, cannot bring, by itself, liberation from samsara. Therefore, the Fourth Panchen Lama states emphatically that this attainment has not reached to a state of mahamudra focused on voidness, the deepest nature of mind, but only one focused on its conventional nature.

The Importance of Realizing the Devoid Nature of Mind

Taking the conventional nature of mind, seen and focused upon in this way, as a basis characterized by voidness as its deepest nature, we now meditate on the devoid nature of mind. As the Fourth Panchen Lama presents the meditations for gaining a decisive understanding of mind's devoid nature as a separate topic in his text, he begins his discussion with another promise to compose as a way to connect it with what he has explained before. He then divides his presentation into two sections, an explanation, in general, of the different methods for recognizing the deepest nature of reality, and an indication, specifically, of their essence.

Citing quotations by Saraha and Drugchen Lingraypa in his autocommentary, the Fourth Panchen Lama stresses that whether we experience the uncontrollably recurring problems of samsara, or a state of nirvana liberated from them, depends on whether we are unaware or aware of the abiding nature of reality. Thus unawareness or awareness determine and create samsara or nirvana. Unawareness or awareness here is of the abiding devoid nature, in general, of all reality, but, most importantly, of the mind. As we commonly say, "The root of the three realms of compulsive existence is just mind."

Chandrakirti has written as much in A Supplement to Nagarjuna's "Root Verses on the Middle Way," "Through mind itself, all variety of worlds and beings inhabiting them come about. Thus Buddha has said that wandering beings, without exception, are born from karma. If you rid your mind of unawareness, you no longer have any karma either." This is because karma is inseparable from the unaware mind. Nagarjuna has also said the same in his various texts on The Guhyasamaja Tantra, "All depends on the diamond-strong scepter of mind." Thus the root of all impure or pure appearance-making and appearances of samsara or nirvana comes down to mind itself. Therefore, it is extremely important to gain a decisive understanding of the devoid nature of reality in general, but specifically of mind itself as a basis characterized by voidness as its nature.

Five Traditions for Cutting Down to the Deepest Nature of Mind

The Fourth Panchen Lama now explains, in the autocommentary, five traditions for meditating in order to cut down to the foundational state of the deepest nature of mind. When we look at the words with which some of these methods are expressed, we find they do not stand up to logical debate and are not readily or clearly understandable. The words of such highly accomplished meditators as the founders of these traditions, however, are unmistaken since they are based on valid meditation experience. This is despite the fact that the manner of expression of some of them opens them to the danger of misinterpretation because they are imprecise and unclear. Therefore we must take care when learning about these methods so that we do not become confused.

There are several situations in which an imprecise manner of expression in teaching can occur. One is when a great meditation master's words are not intended primarily for critical examination with logic to find any faults. Another is when, out of necessity, the master must explain in a manner that suits the capacity, disposition and preferences of the disciple. In this latter case, the master's choice of words is with the intention of suiting the disciple, but the master's own intended meaning is not the same. The intended meaning of the master and of his or her words are different. In the former case, the intended meaning of both is the same. The master is speaking from personal meditative experience and the choice of words is intended to bring an immediate, direct understanding for that specific disciple at that specific occasion. This is often the case with traditions indicating a view of reality based on experience, as we discussed before. Therefore, just because the manner of expression of some of these following meditation traditions is imprecise and can be logically faulted, this does not render them inept instructions to be smugly dismissed. We cannot say that these highly accomplished, great meditation masters did not know what they were talking about.

Once a teacher of logic and debate came to Milarepa and accused him of the faults of inattentive perception, contradiction and irrelevancy. Milarepa replied, "Sir, your mind-stream being mixed with irrelevant disturbing emotions and attitudes is your fault of irrelevancy. Your inattention to the fact that the appearances of external phenomena you see are merely appearances produced by your mind is your fault of inattentive perception. Your mind-stream being in contradiction to the Dharma is your fault of contradiction." His curt answer is really helpful for our minds. To hit on these points when we search for contradictions and irrelevancies is real Dharma practice. As Milarepa also once said, "Explaining exactly with the words of the scriptural texts, there is no hope. But explaining directly with words that suit the occasion, there is definitely hope. Decisively understand the meaning of the texts!"

The first of the five traditions is, "within a state of absorbed concentration, to scrutinize mind to determine if it is established as external or internal, or as something that arises, abides or ceases. When one sees that it cannot be established as any of these, one has cut down to the foundational state of mind. One has recognized mind. One has reached the meaning of mahamudra. The backing support for this is a doha, 'When you search for any mind or appearance, you cannot find one. There is an absence of even anyone searching. This absence that neither arises nor ceases in any of the three times, and which never alters, is the abiding nature of natural, greatly blissful awareness. In this way, all appearance-making and appearances are dharmakaya – a body encompassing everything.'"

The second tradition is, "when one searches for mind, to look for it within the body, from the crown of one's head to the tip of one's toes. It cannot be established as any part of the body." In other words, when we search for an actual basis with the defining characteristic making it our mind, we cannot find any part of our body, from the top of our head to the tip of our toes, that satisfies that. Thus mind cannot be established as any of these. Mind, having a nature of mere clarity and awareness – a nature of being something that cognizes – is something distinct from body. Thus no part of the body can be given the name "mind" since none of them is a basis having the defining characteristic that would make it a mind.

Furthermore, because mind is not a form of physical phenomenon, it has neither shape nor color. The text therefore continues, "When one sees that it cannot be established as any form of physical phenomenon having shape or color, one sees the nature of mind. The backing support for this is a quotation from Zhang Rinpochey" – referring to ZhangYudragpa Tsondru-dragpa, Gampopa's disciple who founded the Tselpa Kagyu lineage – "'The seed for everything, the nature of your mind, is inseparable from that of the minds of all Buddhas and their bodhisattva offspring. There is no difference. It appears as jnana-dharmakaya – a body of deep awareness encompassing everything.'" Here, if we take clear light mind as dharmakaya, the statement that the nature of our mind is the same as that of the minds of all Buddhas applies equally to the conventional and deepest abiding natures of mind. The quotation from Zhang Yudragpa concludes, "'Not established as anything material, it is clear and makes clear by virtue of its natural state. Not established as a functional phenomenon, it is a colorless, measureless absence or void.'"

Surely no one would consider simply mind's absence of shape or color due to its not being established as any form of physical phenomenon as mind's deepest nature. This manner of expression, then, is intended to lead us to a deeper, more profound understanding and is certainly not saying, as the words literally imply, that the deepest nature of mind is its lack of color or shape! As a root or starting place, however, for being led, in stages, to the understanding that mind, by nature, is devoid of true and inherent, findable existence, we first look for where mind might be. Is it somewhere inside or outside our body? Is it any of the parts of our body from the crown of our head to the tip of our toes? Can we see anything that could be mind? These, then, are merely stages in a meditation method that ultimately leads to understanding the abiding nature of mind to be only an extinction of concrete, findable, true and inherent existence.

The third tradition is, "without following the track of thoughts of the past or scouting ahead to meet thoughts of the future, simply settle in the present moment of resplendent, here-and-now, noncontriving mind. This is bare, straightforward seeing of the nature of mind. With it, one has cut down to the foundational state of mind, one has recognized mind itself. The backing support for this is a quotation from Saraha, 'Settle, in a fluid and flowing manner, in the here-and-now, noncontriving state,' and one from Drugchen Lingraypa, 'Settle in the here-and-now, noncontriving state and mind gives rise to understanding and realization. Cultivate this like a flowing stream and mind gives rise to its full expansion. Yogis, always absorb your concentration fully into the state rid of all defining characteristics at which to focus.'"

The fourth tradition is, "no matter what appearance of objects, such as sights or sounds, to which mind gives rise, and no matter what thoughts of good or bad, constructive or destructive, to which mind also gives rise, neither to negate nor affirm any of them, even to the slightest degree. If one looks starkly at their nature, they automatically disappear. To see and meld with the resplendent absence that comes after this and before straightforwardly seeing anything else is to understand and realize the nature of reality. It is to recognize mind. The backing support for this is a quotation from Maitripa, 'If you wish to realize the meaning that is beyond intellect, with nothing to be done, root out your limited awareness and settle starkly into pure awareness. Plunge into the waters of this pristine lucidity, unsullied by any stain of conceptual thinking. Settle in mind's own state in the space that is neither the appearance-making and appearance that have ceased nor the ones about to be established. In that which is neither what one is rid of, nor what one is about to accept, is mahamudra.'"

When we have seen starkly the nature of mind, then in the space in between the cessation of a previous thought and the mind giving rise to a next one, in the place of the cessation of the previous thought, our mind gives rise to the appearance of a bare absence. The mind gives rise to the appearance of a bare absence that is mere clarity and mere awareness in the space between the ceasing of one thought and its giving rise to the next. Seeing just precisely this is seeing the nature of mind. This is the meaning of Maitripa's quotation.

The fifth and final tradition is, "no matter what thought mind produces, to press on without trying to make it go away. Since stamped as a seal upon any thought is the guarantee that it automatically releases itself and disappears, its arising and releasing occur simultaneously. As many thoughts as arise are merely so many members of the ranks of dharmakaya – a body of deep awareness encompassing everything. As Zhang Yudragpa has said, 'In the sphere of being absorbed like this, if mind all of a sudden gives rise to a thought, it is from clear light dharmakaya. Do not think it is anything else. The emanation of thought is voidness emanating from voidness, dharmakaya emanating from dharmakaya, a unified pair emanating from a unified pair.'"