Mahamudra: Shamatha on Mind’s Conventional Nature

The Basic Prerequisites for Achieving Shamatha

Having presented the various traditions that transmit methods for meditating on mahamudra, the Fourth Panchen Lama now begins his discussion of the actual methods for mahamudra practice. He explains that there are two approaches. Those of sharpest faculties seek first an understanding of the correct view and, once that understanding has become decisive, pursue afterwards the methods for meditating single-pointedly on it. The other approach follows a quotation from Shantideva's Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior that first we pursue meditation for achieving shamatha and then, once we have a significant level of success in that, we apply that mind single-pointedly to scrutinizing, or "analytical" meditation on the correct view. Here, the Fourth Panchen Lama explains the tradition of Shantideva of seeking the meditative state first, and then, on top of that, the view of reality. Therefore he now presents the methods for achieving shamatha. For this, he divides his presentation into a discussion of the preliminaries, actual methods and concluding procedures.

The preliminaries are the prerequisites described in the texts of Maitreya. Firstly, we need a proper place for meditation practice, namely one with easy access to various necessities, such as food and water, and that is not harmful to our health. In other words, we need one where everything is conducive and nothing detrimental for intensive practice. Furthermore, if the site has been blessed by the presence of a great practitioner in the past, the enduring impression of his or her inspiration will render the place particularly conducive for gaining absorbed concentration. Then, we must set, as the stable foundation for our practice of shamatha, our training in ethical self-discipline. As Tsongkhapa has explained clearly in A Grand and A Short Presentation of the Graded Stages of the Path, training in higher concentration is founded on prior training in ethical self-discipline.

To gain a concentrated state of shamatha, it is necessary to stop the mind from all flightiness and dullness. The main tools to accomplish this are mindfulness, or remembering, and alertness. To gain the skill and strength to apply these two for bringing our state of mind under control, we cultivate them through training in ethical self-discipline. As the foundation, then, for our practice of shamatha, we uphold purely whatever level of vowed restraints we have accepted, appropriate to our status – either those of a lay person, or those of a novice or fully ordained monk or nun. With mindfulness, we always keep in mind or remember, "If I act like this, it is totally improper. If I act like that, it is perfectly proper." With alertness, we keep constant watch on our actions and whenever necessary, apply self-control and restraint. By strengthening our mindfulness and alertness in this way, we build the foundation for being able to apply these faculties for restraining our mind from subtle deviations of distraction and so forth during meditation. This is extremely important.

Next, for achieving shamatha it is necessary to practice in a disciplined fashion. Even if we are practicing many short sessions a day to cultivate absorbed concentration, we must keep to a strict schedule and hold them at the same place, at their proper times, focusing on the same object. If we are nervous, frightened, restless, preoccupied with busywork or have many things to do or think about, we are never able to become focused. Therefore, we must keep our tasks and purposes to a minimum. For this reason, it is quite impossible to attain a state of shamatha while actively working and living in society. We have to remain in an isolated, quiet place and devote our time and energies exclusively to this. Although the scriptural texts claim that we can achieve a state of shamatha within a mere six months of practice, that is extremely rare and difficult. We must be prepared for several years of intensive work in a completely isolated location.

Contentment is also an important adjunct for achieving a serenely stilled and settled mind. If we are dissatisfied with our situation and always thinking about finding a better place for meditating or better conditions, we never settle down to concentrating our mind. We are constantly distracted, always thinking about one thing or another extraneous to our object of focus. We must be content with what we have and get down to our purpose.

Cleaning Our Place of Practice, Preparing Our Seat and Assuming the Proper Posture

Everyday we need to perform the six basic preliminaries before beginning our meditation practice. This pertains not only for developing shamatha, but for any meditation in general. First is tidying, sweeping and dusting our place of practice. We do not do this in just a perfunctory manner, but conscientiously and carefully. If the environment around us is neat, clean and orderly, this makes a significant difference in our meditative state of mind. Secondly, we arrange representations of the enlightening body, speech and mind of the Buddhas. These can be either elaborate or modest, it makes no difference. But they should be as handsome as possible, and placed on an altar in the proper manner and order. Before them, we lay out actual offerings, as best as we can afford, arranging them also in the proper way.

The third basic preliminary begins with making three prostrations and taking our seat. Our seat should be one conducive for gaining mental stability and absorbed concentration. Thus its back needs to be raised a few finger widths higher than the front so that it is easier to sit with our back straight. This can be accomplished by sitting on a cushion of comfortable thickness and hardness.

When we sit and study, our posture is not especially critical. But here, for meditation, it is important. We need optimally to sit in the seven-fold posture of Vairochana, with our legs crossed in the full vajra position, more popularly known from its name in hatha yoga, the full lotus position. Our back is straight, our shoulders even and back, our head slightly bent forward, our eyes loosely focused in the direction of the tip of our nose, and our teeth and lips not clenched but with the tip of our tongue touching our upper palate. Our hands are resting in our lap in the pose of total absorption, with palms up, the right hand on top of the left, and thumbs touching each other to form a triangle, with their tips placed at or slightly below our navel. Our elbows are not locked with our arms stiff, but are bent and slightly away from the trunk of our body.

If we cannot sit in the full vajra position, we may sit in the half vajra posture, or just in the usual way in which we sit cross-legged. But it is auspicious at least to start our session by sitting, even for a very short while, in the full vajra posture. We can then shift our legs to a more comfortable position. It is very important, however, no matter which way we sit, for our back to be straight and not to sway back and forth or up and down. For those unaccustomed from childhood to sitting cross-legged, it is possible to sit on a chair. But we must sit up, with our back straight and not leaning against the backrest.

Generating an Initial Neutral State of Mind with the Nine Tastes of Breath

Next, we perform a round of the nine tastes of breath. In the preliminary practices for developing tummo, we start these nine by first breathing in through the left nostril in accordance with the customs of mother tantra. But here, there is no need for that. We begin instead by inhaling first through the right nostril. Thus we block the left nostril with our forefinger and breathe in through the right nostril. Then blocking our right nostril with that same finger, we exhale through the left. We repeat this cycle three times. Then we reverse this procedure, blocking our right nostril with our forefinger and inhaling through the left. Then blocking our left nostril, we breath out our right. We repeat this cycle also three times. We then inhale and exhale three times evenly through both nostrils at once. While doing this, we focus solely on the breath coming in and going out, without thinking about anything else. There is no need to visualize the various energy-channels and chakras as we would do when performing these nine rounds as a preliminary for anuttarayoga tantra's complete stage practice.

When we focus our attention on the passage of our breath, we break the usually continuous flow of our thoughts of attachment, hostility and so forth, whatever they might be. This causes such thoughts to subside for the moment. Thus, by occupying our mind with our breath, we clean it out of all positive or negative conceptual thoughts and thus remain in a neutral state of mind unspecified to be either constructive or destructive. This is the meaning of the line in the root text, “Having thoroughly separated out muddied states of awareness from lucid ones…”. This unspecified or neutral state of mind, cleaned out of all positive or negative conceptual thoughts, is the most conducive one to work with, just waiting to be molded into a constructive state. Because an unspecified state of mind like this is unburdened and supple, it is relatively easy to generate it into a constructive state.

Generating a Constructive State of Mind

We generate this constructive state purely by working ourselves up to feeling a proper motivation. To do this, we think thoroughly about turning our mind away from its obsession with this lifetime and then away from its obsession with future lives. Subsequently, we generate the excellent state of mind that thinks, "May I be able to bring deep and everlasting happiness and its causes to all beings, and free them completely from all sufferings and their causes." On this basis, we then take safe direction, namely refuge, and dedicate our hearts with bodhichitta.

As the fourth preliminary, we visualize a bountiful field for growing an enlightenment-building network of positive force and, as our fifth, perform a seven-part practice and offer a mandala. Finally, the sixth preliminary is guru-yoga. For these last preliminaries, once we have performed a round of the nine tastes of breath, we usually recite A Ritual to Honor the Spiritual Master, starting from "Within a state of indivisible bliss and voidness..." We recite it while thinking very carefully about each point in accordance with a discourse that we would have received separately on the text and practice. If we cannot do that, we can perform any other guru-yoga, either elaborate or brief. We regard our guru as incorporating all gurus, Buddha-figures, Buddhas, Dharma protectors, dakinis, Sangha and all holy Dharma teachings. In other words, we regard our guru as having a nature that incorporates all precious objects of safe direction. We think, "No matter what situation or circumstance may arise, I set my hopes on and take safe direction from no one but you." Thus, from the depths of our heart, with total sincerity, we take safe direction and make requests for inspiration while repeating the mantra of our guru's name.

If we are practicing guru-yoga on the basis of A Ritual to Honor the Spiritual Master and are visualizing the tree of assembled gurus as our field for building up positive force, we imagine at the end of our recitation that this field dissolves in stages into the central figure, Lama Losang Tubwang Dorjechang. He then comes to the top of our head. We make even stronger, special requests for inspiration while imagining a flow of purifying nectars entering us from him, and, in the end, imagine that our guru, in the form of this composite figure, dissolves into us. Then, imagining that our faculties of body, speech and mind have integrated inseparably with those of our glorious guru's enlightening body, speech and mind, we remain in a state of faith, joy and respect. It is within the context of this state of mind that we take mind itself as our object of focus for developing shamatha.

Focusing on Mind Itself

Having performed all these preliminaries in this fashion, we proceed with the actual body of our meditation. The root text says, "Absorb for a while unwaveringly in that state which is all without the gurgle-gurgle of appearance-making and appearances (of “this” and “not that.”). Do not contrive anything with thoughts such as expectations or worries."

In general, for accomplishing shamatha, we can choose from various objects on which to focus, depending on our disposition, intelligence and capacity. Tsongkhapa has discussed this thoroughly in A Grand and A Short Presentation of the Graded Stages of the Path. We can focus on a fully embraced object, either something physical like the breath or a visualized image, for instance a Buddha, with either of them entailing focus either simply on the object itself or on the object together with its qualities that we have previously inspected. Or we can focus on an object, together with its qualities we have previously scrutinized, for cleansing our behavior from being under the influence of a specific disturbing emotion or attitude, such as focusing on a body for which we have longing desire, together with its ugly aspects. Likewise, we can focus on an object for cleansing our mind of disturbing emotions and attitudes in general, such as the trance-like absorptions associated with the realms of ethereal forms or formless beings, or the sixteen aspects of the four true facts in life. There are also objects of the learned and skilled, such as the five aggregate factors of experience or the twelve factors that dependently arise. There are so many possible objects of focus – we can focus on an external object or, within our bodies, on an energy-drop, a visualized seed-syllable or various lights. Here, on this occasion, our object of focus for developing a state of shamatha is our own mind.

The samadhi, or absorbed concentration that we try to achieve is a non-conceptual one that has the two features of being firmly settled and vividly clear. The actual state fulfilling the definition of shamatha that we try to achieve is accomplished from a single-pointed state of this type of absorbed concentration, one that is still included within the realm of desirable sensory objects. The method for achieving this is, as outlined by Maitreya, to recognize the five deterrents to concentration, rely on the eight composing mental faculties to correct them, and progress through the nine stages for settling the mind by employing the six powers and the four types of attention. The five deterrents are laziness, forgetfulness, mental dullness and flightiness, non-application of opponents and over-application of opponents. The eight composing mental faculties are respectful belief, intention, positive enthusiasm, a sense of fitness, mindfulness, alertness, application of opponents when needed and no longer applying opponents when unnecessary. The nine stages for settling the mind are initial settling on an object of focus, settling with continuity, settling over and again, close settling, taming, stilling, complete stilling, single-pointedness and settling with equal ease. The six powers are listening to the instructions, pondering them, mindfulness, alertness, positive enthusiasm and complete familiarity. The four types of attention are painstaking, resetting, uninterrupted and spontaneous.

Here, the preliminary practice of guru-yoga helps to establish an extremely conducive state of mind with which to begin to focus on mind itself. When we have made sincere requests for inspiration to our guru with a great deal of feeling so that our heart is genuinely moved, we dissolve the visualization of our guru into us. We feel great inspiration by imagining our own faculties of body, speech and mind being inseparably integrated with the enlightened physical, verbal, and mental faculties of our guru. This makes our state of mind one of serene, uplifting joy, based on a deep and sincere feeling of respect and confident belief in our guru. We rest in this state for a little while.

In the process of contracting the visualization of the tree of assembled gurus into the central figure of our guru, bringing that to the top of the crown of our head and dissolving that into us so that it disappears, we have stopped our mind from its appearance-making. This procedure for temporarily stopping our mind from its usual habits functions to draw our mind in closer. As we withdraw our mind from gross external objects and gross conceptual imaginings in this manner, we automatically arrive at a more subtle state of mind. Moreover, our feelings of confident trust, respect, inspiration, and serene, uplifting joy make it a very vivid and alert state of mind with only the subtlest conceptual aspects.

In such a relatively subtle state of mind in which appearances have been contracted and appearance-making thoughts have been ceased, we try not to generate any new thoughts about hopes for the future, whether that be for temporary or ultimate goals. Likewise, we try not to think of or remember what we have done in the past, or self-consciously think about what we are doing now. Rather, we simply remain within the present moment, in a noncontriving state of mind, without mentally fabricating expectations or worries, and absorb our mind in the mere clarity and awareness that is the mind.

This mere clarity and mere awareness into which we absorb is free from all conceptual thought of the past, present or future. Free from all expectations or worries, it is here-and-now, without any contriving. It is the immediate cause that, when it meets with circumstances, gives rise to all thoughts and appearance-making minds. It is in this sense that I think that the mere clarity and awareness that we focus on here in this subtle state of mind with no conceptual thoughts is the coarse primordial mind that we mentioned before.

Consider the example of water. When water is murky and dirty, it has the nature of being fluid and wet. When it is clear and clean, its nature of being fluid and wet is still the same. This is water's general nature. Whether water is clean or dirty, its nature, as a liquid, remains the same. Likewise, even when a disturbed state of mind is manifest, such as attachment or anger, it does not discard having a nature of being a mere clarity and a mere awareness. Even when our ultimate, deepest, most subtle clear light mind is manifest, it still does not discard having this very same nature. Mere clarity and awareness is something that has been there from the depths, primally, with no beginning. In this sense, it is primordial. Thus the subtlest, primordial mind of clear light that arises simultaneously with each moment and which is this here-and-now, noncontriving mind, without any artifice of conceptual thoughts, such as hopes or fears, is undoubtedly what Gyelrong Tsultrim Nyima has given the name "coarse primordial mind." This coarse primordial mind, then, comes down to being mind's mere clarity and awareness that has primordially always been the case, with no beginning. We absorb our mind into this.

Recognizing Mere Clarity and Awareness

It is quite difficult to recognize what mere clarity and mere awareness actually refer to. We all learned this definition of mind in the early stages of our Buddhist education when we studied lorig, ways of knowing, and dura, collected topics. Something rough comes to mind as to what it means when we think about the division of non-static, or "impermanent" phenomena into those that are forms of physical phenomena, those that are ways of being aware of something and those affecting variables that are neither – in other words, forms, minds and neither. But it is quite difficult to recognize the meaning of clarity and awareness on the basis of experience. We can easily list hundreds of examples of ways of being aware of something, but to recognize what their nature of being mere clarity and awareness is actually referring to is rather enigmatic. It is not something we can know simply from reading books. We can only recognize it by extensively investigating internally ourselves, researching our own experience of mind from many points of view.

Mere clarity and awareness refers to the fact that mind is something that, when it meets with the proper circumstances, can, without obstruction, give rise to an appearance of anything as something that is known. In this respect, mind is somewhat similar to a mirror that, on an external, noncognitive level, unobstructively also gives rise to appearances of objects. No matter what aspect of what external object we encounter – its sight, sound, smell, taste or tactile or physical sensation – clarity is that which allows for a corresponding aspect to arise or appear unobstructedly. Awareness is an engaging with or pervading of an object in such a way as to render it something that is known, unobstructedly, in one way or another. Thus, from another point of view, clarity and awareness are absences of obstruction that would prevent anything from arising as something that is known. This is mind's nature of being mere clarity and awareness.

Focusing with Mindfulness and Alertness

When we recognize this here-and-now, noncontriving mind – its primordial state of being mere clarity and awareness – we take this as the focal object of our meditation. While we are experiencing it, we must avoid falling to a withdrawn state of not having any mental activity or not being mindful of anything – as if we had fallen unconscious or asleep. Should we meditate in such a manner, then even though we may have placement on the nature of the here-and-now, noncontriving mind, we receive no benefit. This is due to the total degeneration of our mindfulness and alertness. Therefore, we must be vigilant in always accompanying our meditation with strong mindfulness and alertness. The Fourth Panchen Lama says in the root text, "Tie your attention to the post of mindfulness in order not to wander, and station alertness to be aware of any mental movement."

Mindfulness is the mental faculty accompanying our meditative state that keeps our attention fixed to the object of focus so that it does not wander from it. With mindfulness, we constantly remember the object in the sense of constantly keeping it in mind without letting go. The function of alertness is to keep a continuous check for any mental wandering, in other words any movement from the object of focus, as well as any mental dullness. With alertness, we remain ever prepared to correct our meditative state if we notice any deviation or fault. This is the general presentation of mindfulness and alertness.

Degrees and Varieties of Distraction and Dullness

To correct our meditation from deviations in focus throughout the process of settling the mind, we need to identify and recognize clearly and immediately the numerous hindrances to concentration to which our mind commonly gives rise. For example, there are different types of distraction. Flightiness of mind is when mind flies off to an attractive object because of attachment. When it strays to an extraneous object for any other reason in general, this is called, simply, mental wandering. Mental wandering is less compelling than flightiness of mind. There are two general levels of flightiness. The gross level is when mind loses the hold of its mindfulness on its focal object completely. The subtle level occurs when it maintains its hold, but either has a subtle level of wandering beneath the surface, like the slow flow of water on the bottom of a frozen river, or is more steady, but seemingly "itchy" to move.

Mental dullness has gross, middling and subtle degrees. When mind loses its focal object because it lacks all clarity, this is gross mental dullness. When this degenerates further, we experience foggy-mindedness, with which our body and mind feel very heavy, as if plunged into a darkness or a dense fog. Foggy-mindedness soon brings on sleepiness and even falling asleep. The middling degree of mental dullness is when mind has clarity on its object of focus, but no sharpness associated with the tightness of hold of its mindfulness. This happens when that tightness has become completely casual because it is totally loose. Subtle mental dullness occurs when the mind that is single-pointedly focused on its object slightly loses the sharpness associated with the tightness of hold of its mindfulness on that object, so that such a mind loses its freshness and becomes slightly stale. This happens when the tightness in this situation has become a little too loose or relaxed. Because this is so subtle, there is a great danger of mistaking a meditative state containing subtle mental dullness for one of faultless absorbed concentration. Maintaining a check on our meditative state with alertness, we must notice all these faults to concentration as soon as our mind gives rise to any of them, so that we can eliminate them as immediately as possible.

How to Cultivate Alertness and Absorbed Concentration

The most important factor, then, for achieving an unchanging state of absorbed concentration is using mindfulness and alertness in the proper manner. In A Last Testament Letter Cast to the Wind, Gyelrong Tsultrim Nyima has explained that if we look from the side of mind's single-pointed hold on its object of focus so that there is no wandering from it, we call it mindfulness. If we look from the side of its remaining single-pointedly placed or focused on its object so long as it is held, we call it absorbed concentration. Thus these two mental faculties are of the same entity – they come in the same package – and are, in fact, the same mind regarded from the point of view of two functions: holding its object and remaining placed on its object. By excluding logically, however, everything that each is not, we specify two different things.

This explanation of these two mental factors comes from meditative experience and indicates a very important oral guideline. The manner to achieve absorbed concentration is, in fact, the manner in which we achieve mindfulness. By cultivating our hold on an object of focus so that we never lose it, we accomplish remaining single-pointedly placed on and absorbed in that object.

Shantideva has explained how to develop alertness in the chapter on this topic in Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior, "When mental placement has been achieved in the sense that mindfulness is protecting it from leaving the gateway of the mind, alertness comes naturally. And even if placement goes, it brings it back." The actual definition of alertness appears later in that chapter, "The defining characteristic of safeguarding with alertness is, in brief, just this – inspecting, over and again, the condition of the body and mind."

In A Grand Presentation of the Graded Stages of the Path, Tsongkhapa has differentiated two levels of alertness we need to develop. The common one is that which comes congruent with the establishment of stable mindfulness. The uncommon one is that which later makes occasional spot-checks. Mindfulness, however, is the main mental faculty to cultivate, while alertness is secondary since it comes naturally within a state of mindfulness.

When we say that alertness is a consequence of mindfulness, we do not mean that they are related through a sequence of cause and effect like a sprout being the result of a seed. Their relation is similar to that between the sun and rays of sunlight. If there is a sun, there are automatically rays of sunlight simultaneously with it. Sunlight depends on a sun for its existence. It is a consequence of a sun, but not the sequential result of a sun in the manner of a sprout coming from a seed. Thus if we have strong mindfulness like a sun, as a consequence we have alertness as well, like rays of sunlight. This seems also to be an explanation that comes from meditation experience.

When we check the state of our concentration with alertness, we do so with just a corner of our mind. The main part of mind is placed single-pointedly on the object of focus, while just a corner of it is keeping a check. We need to discover the correct measure for this, because if we maintain this watch too strongly with alertness, we face the danger of losing our focal object. In other words, we shall be concentrating more on maintaining a watch than on our intended object of focus. Therefore we must sink our mind deeply into our focal object so that it is absorbed in it, yet still maintain a watch with a corner of our mind to check whether or not our mental placement is remaining properly.

Reducing Conceptual Thoughts

When we have decisively identified and recognized the mere clarity and awareness that is the nature of mind, we hold it tightly with mindfulness and, as the Fourth Panchen Lama says in the root text, single-pointedly "behold it starkly." When we are meditating like this, should our mind give rise to any mental movement or conceptual thoughts, we must first recognize them. To be able to do so depends on alertness.

In Notes from a Discourse on the Gelug Tradition of Mahamudra, Gungthang Rinpoche has differentiated several ways of cultivating mindfulness, such as cultivating a new mindfulness, cultivating the old mindfulness, cultivating it just on the occasion, cultivating it under another name and cultivating it with a conceptual thought by itself. I am not positive whether this division applies here or not, but when, in his root text, the Fourth Panchen Lama gives a choice of methods to use when our mind gives rise to conceptual thoughts, "...recognize them as being that and that. Alternatively, like a dueler, cut the thoughts off completely, wham-wham, as soon as they occur," it seems as though in the former case we employ the method of cultivating a new mindfulness, whereas in the second, cultivating our old mindfulness. But I am not sure. Gungthang Rinpoche associates these different ways to cultivate mindfulness with specific stages that we pass through as we progress through the nine stages for settling the mind. In their notes on our root text, however, neither Gungthang Rinpoche nor Aku Sherab Gyatso have applied this division here. They simply state the two methods that the Fourth Panchen Lama himself differentiates.

In any case, when, in a here-and-now, noncontriving mind, we vividly and starkly behold its nature, holding this with tight mindfulness as our object of focus and maintaining a watch with alertness, should our mind all of a sudden give rise to a conceptual thought, then, without purposely blocking it, we recognize and focus on its nature. The here-and-now, noncontriving mind – in other words, coarse primordial mind – is like an ocean. When we look at conceptual thoughts to be like fleeting waves that rise out of the ocean without going beyond being in the nature of water, we do not experience any harm from them to our vivid placement on here-and-now, noncontriving mind. This is the special feature of the method of recognizing the nature of conceptual thoughts – namely, recognizing conceptual minds for what they are. As we say in the Karma Kagyu tradition, "Conceptual minds are waves of Dharmakaya."

For example, when we dream, if we do not recognize our dream as a dream, we experience the happenings in the dream as if they were real and they go on. But, if we recognize our dream as a dream, the dream is still happening. Yet, because we recognize it as a dream, we experience that our mind is more relaxed about it, even if it is a fearsome dream. We do not fall under the power of the dream even if it goes on. Like this example, when a conceptual thought arises while we are vividly focused on here-and-now, noncontriving mind, if we recognize the thought for what it is, we render it powerless.

If we recognize our dreams as dreams, then if, in a dream, a murderer appears, we think, "Oh, this is just a dream." We do not become frightened. The murderer cannot hit his or her target for real. If, when our mind gives rise to a conceptual thought, we come under its power, we experience our usual coarse levels of mind following from it. But even should our mind emanate a thought, if we recognize the nature of that thought, then because we are abiding – so long as the mind that recognizes that thought as a thought does not cease – in that which is here-and-now and noncontriving, we are not taken hold of by that thought. This is the point of the method of recognizing thoughts for what they are. The alternative method, here, is, when our mind gives rise to a conceptual thought, to become aware of it immediately and stop it.

If, having recognized a thought as a thought as soon as our mind gives rise to one, we follow along with it, we follow along while nevertheless abiding in the basis from which it has emerged. Or, if we use the second method, and purposely stop any thought immediately once we have recognized it, we likewise return to the here-and-now, noncontriving mind itself. If we continue our practice, applying very conscientiously and continuously either of these two methods, we experience, as a result of the habit we build up, a settlement of mind on itself in which we have greatly reduced our mind's giving rise to conceptual thoughts.

Loosening the Tightness of Mindfulness

When we reach the state of meditation in which our conceptual thoughts of distraction have drastically reduced, then, the Fourth Panchen Lama writes, "Without losing your mindfulness, loosen and relax its tightness." This means that in the depth of our focus, we still maintain mindfulness strongly, but on the surface we slightly loosen and relax it. We no longer need to be so tight or insistent on the surface of our focus.

What happens is as in the two quotations that the Fourth Panchen Lama cites. Machig Labkyi Drolma has written, "Loosen and relax its firm tightness and there is the settled state of mind." The great brahmin, Saraha, has similarly said, "When mind ensnared in a tangle is relaxed, it frees itself without a doubt." The example is that of a string tangled in knots. When loosened, the knots naturally become untied by virtue of the loosening itself. Thus if, when we have become somewhat familiar with this level of meditation, we find our hold on the object of focus to be too strong, too tight or too heavy, if, at that point, we loosen and somewhat relax, on the surface, the hold of our mindfulness, we experience improvement in our meditation.

If our mind is too tight and tense, it becomes itchy with subtle flightiness of mind. It can even fly off and discard its object of focus completely. Thus there is danger of coarse flightiness of mind as well. This is the reason why, if the hold of our mindfulness is too tight, we must loosen it slightly. If, on the other hand, we loosen its hold too much, our mind loses the freshness and perhaps even the sharpness of its focus. This amounts to subtle and middling mental dullness, out of which mind lacks the strength to uplift itself. Therefore we must take care not to loosen the hold of our mindfulness too much. We need to adjust the strength of its hold to be just right in order to cultivate absorbed concentration free from all fault.

We can also understand a different level of meaning from the quotation from Saraha, "When mind ensnared in a tangle is relaxed, it frees itself without a doubt." This level concerns practitioners with a certain level of realization of anuttarayoga tantra's complete stage. Specifically, it refers to a guideline instruction for the meditation of practitioners who have reached the stage at which, for the first time, they are able to render their subtle energy-winds and minds fit for use under their meditation control. The instruction is to relax or loosen a little and continue meditating, namely within the context of the manner of meditation on the tantra path.

In A Grand Presentation of the Graded Stages of the Secret Mantra Path, Tsongkhapa has explained that when we have single-pointed placement on our object of focus, then by the force of having caused the subtle energy-source of bliss in our forehead chakra to melt through the practice of tummo, we experience our focus automatically becoming more vivid. If, as a tantric practitioner we were, at this point in our meditation on mind, to tighten our awareness, like when practicing the perfection vehicle, in order to avoid even the slightest arising of mental dullness that could harm our concentration, it would be unnecessary. In fact, we would experience the fault of redundancy. But if, instead of tightening our awareness, we were to loosen and relax it slightly, there would be no danger.

We wish to avoid the danger of mental dullness – specifically a loss of freshness or sharpness of clarity, which, on the sutra level of practice, can come from keeping the hold of our mindfulness too loosely on our object of focus. On anuttarayoga tantra's complete stage, however, we avoid any danger of subtle or middling mental dullness through the circumstance of our mind giving rise to either a blissful awareness, from melting our subtle energy-source, or a stark, more subtle awareness, from gathering in our energy-winds, as with vajra-breathing. While we have another method to act as an opponent for avoiding the danger of mental dullness from arising when we focus on mind, if we were especially to tighten our focus on our object as an opponent force to avoid that same danger, we would have the fault of redundancy. Therefore, in that circumstance, we must loosen or relax the tightness of the hold of our mindfulness. Therefore relaxing slightly at this point is the best way to meditate. Thus we can explain Saraha's quotation in this manner as well, in connection with tantra practice.

Seeing that the Settled and Moving Minds Are Mixed Together

Eventually we reach the point in our meditation on mere clarity and awareness at which any conceptual thought that arises automatically disappears by the force of our merely looking at its nature. The strength of our thoughts becomes so small that all they give rise to is the bare absence that comes from their disappearance. Likewise, if we examine at the time when we have single-pointed placement on the here-and-now, noncontriving mind that is unadulterated by any conceptual thought, we see a vivid, non-obstructing bare absence and clarity as well – a pristine clarity that cannot be touched by any form of matter and which neither obstructs nor can be obstructed by anything. As our root text says, “(This is) well known as ‘the settled and moving (minds) mixed together.’”

In other words, even if our mind gives rise to a conceptual thought, this thought cannot hold its ground. Once we recognize this thought's face, it cannot remain standing there, having been conceived, born and now standing on its own. Immediately, in its place, mind gives rise to an appearance of the bare absence of it – equivalent to here-and-now mind's natural bare absence of anything contrived. When mind is settled on itself, it gives rise to a similar appearance of the very same bare absence and clarity. Thus we "see that the settled and moving minds are mixed together." When mind is settled on itself, it gives rise to a bare absence and clarity. When it is moving with conceptual thought, it also immediately gives rise to a bare absence and clarity. In either case, we reach to the same appearance-making and appearance in the end.

Recognizing the Nature of Conceptual Thought

The text now explains two methods for recognizing and then placing concentration on the nature of a conceptual thought when our mind gives rise to one, without need to stop it while mind is moving or running with it. When our mind lets loose a thought, like a bird, from its here-and-now, noncontriving state, we examine, How did it arise? To where is it rushing? When we investigate it flapping its wings, we see that the thought is powerless – it cannot go anywhere. When we see the nature of a thought that is flying off, it can only disappear.

It is like the example cited in the root text from one of Saraha's dohas. In ancient times, before there were compasses, ships voyaging on the ocean would carry a few birds. If the navigator saw, in the distance, what seemed like a large wave, but suggested that perhaps it might be dry land instead, he would release one of them. If the bird did not return to the ship, he knew there was dry land ahead. He would steer the ship there and go ashore. But if it were only a wave, then since they were in the middle of the sea, there was no place for the bird to land other than back on the ship. No matter how far or for how long the bird flew, it would have to, in the end, return on board. The same is true with any conceptual thought let loose by our mind. It takes off from our here-and-now, noncontriving mind and, no matter how far it goes, can only land back or disappear into the here-and-now, noncontriving mind once more. This is one method.

The second method derives from Gotsangpa's disciple, the Drugpa Kagyu master, Yanggonpa. "When mind gives rise to a thought, do not fault it. Do not purposely meditate on a non-conceptual state. Leave mind to its own manner and keep a distant watch. It falls into place in a meditative state of shamatha."

Six Methods for Achieving Shamatha

The Fourth Panchen Lama now explains six methods, current at his time among all Kagyu lineages, for disciples to bring their minds to a state of shamatha. The first is to settle the mind like the example of a sun freed from all clouds. Without purposely stopping conceptual thoughts or purposely meditating in a non-conceptual manner, we just vividly focus on coarse primordial mind – the here-and-now, noncontriving, clear light nature of mind – which, like the sun freed from all clouds, remains always shining and bright, and cannot be obscured by any verbal thoughts, flightiness of mind or mental dullness. If we vividly focus on mind's shining brightness for a long time, we naturally achieve a state of shamatha.

The second method is to settle the mind like an eagle gliding in the sky. When a great eagle flies through the air, due to its strength it glides without need to flap its wings furiously like a tiny sparrow. Wherever it plans to go, it simply soars off with great strength and, without flapping its wings, remains gliding aloft in a relaxed state. Likewise, without holding our mind either too tightly or too loosely, we have it soar off into its clear light state with clarity and sharpness, and then let it glide in a relaxed manner without exercising mindfulness or alertness in any extensive, frenetic way.

The third method is to settle the mind like a ship on the great ocean. When the wind is blowing, although trivial waves may rise on the surface of the waters, they are powerless to jostle a great ocean liner. Likewise, when mind is focused on its object, even if it gives rise to some subtle conceptual thoughts, it is never jostled, even slightly, such that it would churn out gross conceptual thoughts. Thus even if a thought arises, if we do not make anything special out of it, but just stay placidly as we are for some time, we find we cannot become involved in a mere thought.

The fourth is settling the mind like a baby looking in a temple. When a baby looks in a temple, he or she does not take in, with inspection and scrutiny, the details of the murals painted on the walls. Just seeing the rough design, the baby looks without becoming involved. Likewise, when the meditating mind is fixed on its object of focus, no matter what sensory objects appear before it – attractive or displeasing – it does not look at them with inspection or scrutiny. The mind just remains single-pointedly fixed on its object. In other words, we look at any external object before us while we are meditating to be just merely a play of light, and remain focused instead on our object of meditation.

The fifth method is to settle the mind like a sparrow flying through the sky and not leaving a trace. When a tiny sparrow flies through the sky, it leaves no trace. Likewise, when we experience feelings of pleasure or pain, or neutral feelings arising during meditation, we let them pass without leaving a trace. Not coming under the power of attachment, repulsion or foolish confusion about them, we remain focused on our object of meditation.

The sixth and final method is settling the mind like a matted piece of wool. When a matted piece of wool is placed in water, it loosens up, becoming pliable and soft. Likewise, when our mind is immersed in absorbed concentration, the manifest aspect of the three poisonous emotions and, similarly, our flightiness of mind and mental dullness, loosens and separates out from our meditating mind.

Bringing Our Meditation from Absorbed Concentration to a State of Shamatha

Having skillfully cultivated absorbed concentration by dealing with conceptual thought in one of these ways, our consciousness now remains, in a fluid and flowing manner, in its here-and-now, noncontriving state. When we settle single-pointedly in this state, we find that our mind gives rise to an even clearer appearance of the clarity of mind. Finally, we come to recognize, starkly and distinctly, before the face of our total absorption, a crisp clarity that is immaterial, unobstructed by anything, pristine and lucid, devoid of any form of color or shape. No matter what circumstance it encounters, it allows for a cognized aspect of that object or situation to dawn without exception.

When, by following these methods, we attain a state of samadhi – absorbed concentration – if is not conjoined with a mental factor of a serenely joyous sense of physical and mental suppleness and fitness brought on by this state, it remains simply a single-pointed mind of the realm of desirable sensory objects. It does not qualify as shamatha, a serenely stilled and settled mind. But once it has this factor of serenely joyous suppleness, our absorbed concentration becomes a state of shamatha that is the indispensable, prerequisite preliminary state for achieving a first-level stable mind – the first dhyana.

A mind of shamatha is the gateway for all good qualities, such as heightened levels of extrasensory awareness and extra-physical abilities, and all the various absorbed concentrations included as modest or vast vehicles of mind. Even more importantly, such a mind is the basis for attaining to the arya pathways of mind of the three vehicles – the "noble paths" having straightforward, nonconceptual perception of voidness. The ethical status of a mind of shamatha, however, is unspecified – neither constructive nor destructive – although it lies as the common, shared basis for all inner and outer good qualities. Without being inspiring or uplifting in and of itself by nature, yet because it is the basis upon which rely so many good qualities, both mundane and transcendent, and from which they are actualized, a mind of shamatha is extremely important and valuable.

When we have achieved a state of shamatha focused on the here-and-now, noncontriving mind like this, what is the nature of what we have achieved? The Fourth Panchen Lama answers unequivocally, "The great meditators of the snow mountains are practically of a single opinion in proclaiming that this is a guideline indicating how to forge a state of Buddhahood. Be that as it may, I, Chokyi-gyaltsen, say that this is a wondrous skillful means for beginners to accomplish the settling of their mind and is a way for knowing, face to face, merely the conventional nature of mind that conceals something deeper."

If we use the terminology of Gyelrong Tsultrim Nyima, we have, at this stage, recognized coarse primordial mind and achieved a state of shamatha focused on it. On this basis, we now meditate on the deepest, devoid nature of that mind. If we do so properly and successfully, then, when we manifest subtle primordial mind, we experience our meditation ripening specifically and specially into our ability to meditate on the devoid nature of mind with this subtlest, primordial clear light mind as both the meditating mind and the basis for voidness.