Reminders before Trying Mahamudra Meditation on the Conventional Nature of the Mind
We were talking about these mental factors or subsidiary awarenesses that are very much involved in any meditation practice – alertness, mindfulness, attention, concentration – and we saw that in mahamudra meditation all of these are involved. I think that now we are ready to try this meditation. After we do just a very brief preparation, then we will try to just have our attention go to the nature of the mind. In other words, in each moment of our experience what we want to focus on is the actual arising and engaging with cognitive objects.
We don’t have our attention go to the actual object itself. Now, of course the object is part of this activity, because the activity is a mental activity regarding an object. But we want to pay more attention to the structure of what’s going on, if we can describe it that way. Whether we are just seeing the floor in front of us, whether we are hearing some sound, whatever that sound might be, feeling the chair or cushion underneath us, or thinking a thought, it’s the same.
Particularly, when some thought arises, the text suggests two methods. One is to recognize it for what it is, and the other is cutting off the thought, like in a duel with swords. Now, recognizing the thought doesn’t mean that in our mind we say “thought!” But rather what it means is to focus on the conventional nature of that thought, what’s actually happening. And then not follow the thought out, don’t continue it.
As the quotation in the text goes, it’s like a bird that is released from a ship on an ocean. In the middle of the ocean there’s nowhere that the bird can go, except come back to the ship. Likewise, there’s no place that the thought can go, it just dissolves back into the basic level of the mind. Or if we follow the other method of just cutting off the thought, we still come down to the same nature of the mind when the thought is cut off.
OK, let’s try this. As I’ve mentioned many, many times, it’s not easy to actually identify what we’re focusing on, but it is not an exercise in just sitting there and spacing out and not being attentive of anything.
We begin with the nine rounds of breathing. First three times in the right nostril and out the left; then three in the left, out the right; and then three times in both and out of both. You might want to quiet down for a moment before you begin, if you’re not already quiet.
Then we reaffirm the safe direction that we’re going in in life in terms of Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha.
The direction is the true stoppings, the true pathway minds, as exist in full on the mind-stream of a Buddha and in part on the mind-streams of the arya Sangha. “That’s the direction that I want to go in in my life.”
“Thinking of the suffering of others and having compassion – the wish for them to be free of it – I am aiming for my own future enlightenment that has not yet happened, but can happen on the basis of my Buddha-nature. And I’m definitely going to work to attain that in order to benefit everybody the best. And I’m not going to stop until I gain that full attainment.”
Then, to build up the positive force and deep awareness and to purify, we do the seven-part practice visualizing our root guru in the form of a Buddha, or whatever, the form of a meditational deity, his own form or her form, whatever is comfortable. Actually we should have started doing that already when we did the refuge, but in any case, we offer prostration.
And we make beautiful offerings.
We openly admit all the negative things that we’ve done and regret them and we’re going to try not to repeat them at all.
And we rejoice in all the positive things that we ourselves have done and all the positive things that the Buddhas and the great masters and others have done.
And we request our teachers and the Buddhas, “Please teach.”
“And please don’t leave. Continue teaching me and everybody until we achieve enlightenment. We’re serious.”
“Whatever positive force has come from this, and will come from the meditation that follows, may it act as a cause to reach enlightenment for the benefit of everyone.”
Then we request our guru, “Please inspire me to be able to actually recognize and focus on the nature of the mind and in this way overcome all the mental obscurations and realize all potentials, to actually reach enlightenment to help everyone.”
Usually we do this by reciting the guru’s name mantra, or Tsongkhapa’s verse Migtsema (dmigs-brtse-ma), or just the Buddha mantra. The mantra of Buddha Shakyamuni is OM MUNI MUNI MAHA-MUNIYE SVAHA.
Then our guru very happily and pleased with us comes to the top of our head – very small and facing the same direction as we are.
And dissolves into us, going down the central channel and dissolving into our heart. And our body, speech, and mind become inseparable from his or hers. And we feel very joyous at this.
And stopping any further chaotic, haphazard thoughts that we might have, or our eyes wandering here and there, or any sort of extraneous mental activity, we just focus on the nature of the mind, the nature of mental activity in each moment – an arising of a cognitive object, engaging, and just that, nothing more.
Being fully attentive, mindfulness holding on like mental glue to this object, alertness keeping watch, and being decisive about what the conventional nature is.
Any thought that arises, see that in the nature of the mind and don’t follow it out.
If your mind starts to get dull, you start to space out, you can usually notice that with your eyes getting out of focus. So, notice that with alertness and reestablish your attention by having your eyes be back into focus. It doesn’t mean that we pay close attention to what we’re seeing, but we want the mind to be in focus and that helps.
Then we always end our meditation with a dedication. Whatever positive force comes from this, may it act as a cause to reach enlightenment for the benefit of all.
Any questions or comments? Are you actually able to do this a little bit?
Questions about the Meditation
If we are very visually oriented and these various metaphors – like the wave on the ocean, thoughts being like waves of the ocean – come up as actual visualizations during the meditation process, how do we prevent these from becoming an obstacle?
Basically we take that into the meditation and we see that the visualization itself has the same nature of mind, of awareness. It’s the arising of a mental object and cognitively engaging with it.
If we don’t have any thoughts present, what to watch?
Well, we have our friends outside on the building construction making noise. And each moment we are hearing something, we’re seeing something, feeling the clothing on your body, the seat underneath you. The mind hasn’t stopped. But whether we’re thinking a thought, or we’re not thinking any thought, the nature of the mind is the same. That’s very important to recognize, the continuity, the unbroken continuity of mental activity.
Outside of our meditation practice it is difficult to maintain mindfulness and alertness and to keep our attention proper.
The main focus that we use for these mental factors is our behavior, behavior of body and speech. In Shantideva’s Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior, he has two chapters on ethical discipline. The first chapter is called, I translate it as “The Caring Attitude (bag-yod)” This is: “I really care about and I take seriously the effect of my behavior on myself in the future and the effect of my behavior on others. And so I am concerned about cause and effect, I take it seriously. Therefore I will restrain from negative behavior.”
[See: Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior, Chapter 4]
And then the second chapter deals with mindfulness and alertness. We need to hold on to our discipline, which is basically restraint from acting negatively. So, we hold onto that with mindfulness; and alertness watches when we are letting go. And if you’ve let go of it and are about to act negatively, Shantideva repeats over and over again, “Act like a block of wood.” Don’t do anything. Therefore we develop and train these mental factors of mindfulness and alertness with ethical discipline, particularly with our gross behavior of body and speech, so that then it is going to be possible to apply it to our mind, to our mental activity, particularly in meditation.
[See: Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior, Chapter 5]
So, if we have difficulty maintaining this mindfulness and alertness between meditation sessions in our mental activity, at least try to maintain it in our behavior of body and speech. And if we are able to apply this mindfulness and alertness to our minds, even if we’re not able to apply it in terms of staying focused with attention on the nature of the mind, at least use it for maintaining ethical discipline of our mental activity, to restrain from negative mental activity.
Atisha said it very nicely in his Garland of Bodhisattva Gems (28). He said,
When in the midst of many, let me keep a check on my speech; when remaining alone, let me keep a check on my mind.
It’s a little bit easier to do the meditation with thinking – when we have a line of thought, we don’t follow it out – but what about seeing or hearing?
Now, with the line of thought, of course, getting caught up in the line of thought means to follow out the line of thought and let it continue. So, we need to cut that. Or, if we just look at the nature of the thought, it ends anyway. Don’t get carried away by this stream of thought.
But it’s true, with seeing or hearing it’s different. But with seeing or hearing what we focus on is just the nature of that actual seeing and hearing, “It’s just the arising of an object and cognitively engaging with it.” The continuity of seeing and hearing will go on as long as the sound continues and the sight, whatever it is, is still in front of our eyes, but we don’t think about it. We don’t pay attention so much to the actual object. You just stay with the nature of the mind.
Now, I haven’t actually seen this in the texts, but what this suggests to me is that we can make a distinction here similar to the distinction that we make in terms of voidness meditation. Usually when we speak about the division between total absorption, that’s nyamzhag (mnyam-bzhag), and the subsequent attainment, which is jetob (rjes-thob), we’re talking about what is it that we are cognizing and focusing on with total absorption, so total concentration, and then when we arise from that, what is the understanding that we subsequently attain to that, which we can maintain both in meditation and after meditation.
It’s like for instance when you’re doing voidness meditation in Gelugpa. You focus on the deepest truth and then subsequently you focus on the superficial truth. So, having understood the deepest truth, subsequently what understanding do you attain concerning the conventional truth – so you’re still in meditation – and that is divided into two: what is in meditation and what’s in-between meditation. In both of these, we’re not talking about a period of time, we’re talking about a mind; and concerning this mind, it has a certain cognition. And when it’s perfected, it’s called a deep awareness, a yeshe (ye-shes).
Now, this division is not only in terms of voidness meditation. In voidness meditation we focus on, during total absorption, “No such thing as true existence, or impossible existence.” And then our subsequent understanding that we attain based on that is: “Nevertheless, conventionally things function, like an illusion.” Similarly, if we are focusing on the conventional nature of the mind – this is what’s suggested by this – we could have total absorption on just the nature of the mind – here instead of voidness, we’re talking about an arising of a cognitive appearance and engaging with it – and subsequently attained from that understanding would be the understanding in terms of the content, that the content nevertheless arises like an illusion as an appearance of the mind.
So, in total absorption we’re focusing on the nature – here conventional rather than deepest nature – and subsequently attained we focus on appearances. Things appear despite being void of true existence, so like an illusion. And things appear despite just mental activity.
This is why the Fourth Panchen Lama says very clearly that when you view other traditions, you might think that just focusing on the conventional nature of the mind and then seeing all appearances as appearances of the mind, that you’ve got it, that you’ve achieved enlightenment when you have that all the time. Actually you’ve only been focusing on the conventional nature of the mind, you haven’t been focusing on the deepest void nature, even though it has this structure of total absorption and subsequently attained deep awareness.
So, in terms of what we’re seeing and so on – to get back to your question – we can focus on just the conventional nature of the mind here in our particular exercise; or when we’re walking around, “It’s just an appearance of the mind.”
But Tsongkhapa points out very clearly that just to understand that all appearances are appearances of the mind is not going to eliminate your emotional and cognitive obscurations. You haven’t gone deeply enough, because the mind makes an appearance of true existence as well, and to just understand that an appearance of true existence is the appearance of the mind doesn’t stop the arising of an appearance of true existence.