Emptiness and Inspiration in Mahamudra Meditation

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The Nonfindability of the Mind

We often read in various presentations about voidness that when you search for the conventional “me” or all these sort of things you can’t actually find it. When we search for the mind we can’t find it. It’s important to understand that we’re not speaking in some sort of trivial way.

“Where is your mind? Is it up your nose? Is it under your armpit?” Obviously to just say, “It’s not up my nose,” is not very profound. Or in the various discussions, particularly we find it in Karma Kagyu texts, where it says, mind has no form, it has no color, it has no shape. Well, so what? That is a very beginner level to recognize that mind is not a form of physical phenomenon. That’s not the profound understanding of voidness of the mind.

What we need to understand is this whole discussion of nonfindability, is that you can’t find any referent “thing” in the context of mental labeling; there’s nothing on the side of the basis that makes something what it is, or establishes that something is what it is.

One of the quotations the Panchen Lama uses here is that when you twirl around a stick or the sword, he calls it, of the understanding of voidness, it doesn’t meet any obstruction; which means that there’s no concrete referent “thing,” findable thing, or concrete defining characteristic that would block and obstruct this understanding of voidness as if there were some thing out there.

He says, “Within a state of voidness the lance” – that’s like a big stick that’s used as a weapon – “of awareness is to be twirled around. A correct view (of reality) is not a tangible obstruction” – it does not block or prevent the conventional functioning of cause and effect. Alright? This is a quotation by Padampa Sanggye (Pha-dam-pa Sangs-rgyas) in his discussion to the people of Dingri (Ding-ri brgya-rsta-ma, A Hundred Verses to the People of Dingri). Dingri is a district of Tibet.

It’s only with this understanding – that there is no findable referent “thing”; what establishes that things exist is dependent on mental labeling – it’s when we understand that, then there’s nothing to grasp onto in terms of mind, in terms of “This delusion,” “This is a disturbing emotion,” “This is some wonderful thing that I want to achieve,” or anything like that. There’s nothing to hold on to. These things are not concrete objects, concrete states of mind, concrete understandings, concrete delusions, and so on, existing like solid ping-pong balls, “Here they are,” independently existing by themselves. We need to understand their existence in terms of dependent arising.

In terms of the conventional truth of them, these are nonstatic phenomena – they arise dependently on causes and conditions and they arise dependently on parts. And speaking in terms of the deepest truth, in other words what establishes their existence, that arises dependently on mental labeling. So, we understand dependent arising in terms of each of the two truths.

The disturbing emotions are arising dependently on causes and conditions and so on, and likewise they will be gotten rid of dependent on causes and conditions. And the attainment of various good qualities and so on will come about dependent on causes and conditions. Even though these disturbing emotions aren’t some findable, solid referent “thing,” nevertheless they can be gotten rid of, and not just gotten rid of by saying they don’t exist, but gotten rid of dependent on causes and conditions.

Same thing with the positive qualities, they can be attained dependent on causes and conditions, because the conventional nature of the mind can give rise to anything as a cognitive object and be cognitively engaged with it in terms of understanding, decisive, valid cognition, and so on. The mind is totally capable then of giving rise to all good qualities, to omniscience. And the disturbing emotions are not part of the nature of the mind. The structure of a disturbing emotion of being aware of something is part of the nature of the mind, but that content is not.

When we understand the deepest, void nature of the mind, then we can work with the conventional nature of the mind to get rid of the disturbing side and build up the liberating side. And success in this practice is going to depend very much on the preparation. If we haven’t built up enough positive force, if we haven’t done enough purification, and so on, there will be just too many obscurations, too many mental blocks to be able to actually see the nature of the mind.

The Role of Inspiration

And what will really add the vital energy, the living energy, the emotional energy to all of this, and I say that in a positive sense, is that healthy, strong, deep relation with a spiritual teacher and the inspiration that we receive from that teacher. And that’s really true. Otherwise our practice doesn’t have a certain vital life to it. There’s no real living emotional backing to it without this actual personal close bond, close relation with a spiritual teacher – even if we don’t really have very much personal contact – this personal relation, this close bond, the damtsig (dam-tshig).

When we look at sources of inspiration, there’s inspiration from the Three Jewels, but for most of us it’s really very difficult to even have a concept of what the Three Jewels are talking about. Maybe if we’ve studied a lot, we can list all the qualities of the Three Jewels, but still, to have some sort of living experience of what in the world that’s talking about, let alone to get inspiration from that, is not so easy.

But inspiration comes not only from – they just use the regular words – “up,” meaning the Three Jewels and the guru, but also it comes from “down,” which is referring to all suffering sentient beings. You see their suffering, and you have compassion for them, “How terrible!” And this inspires us to develop bodhichitta. It inspires us to have to understand the nature of the mind. So, please don’t underestimate the human factor involved in this whole Buddhist path, that human contact with a teacher, human contact with suffering beings – this makes the whole path vital and alive.

All the Tibetan traditions put a great deal of emphasis on this inspiration, the so-called “blessings,” and I think it’s important to understand that not in some sort of mystical sense, but in a very down-to-earth sense of what do we actually derive from somebody that we have total respect for based on their good qualities and their kindness and so on and how uplifting that can be.

And don’t underestimate the inspiration that we derive from suffering beings, especially ones that we have a connection with, in which we have so much respect for this being, for this person in terms of their Buddha-nature, in terms of their potentials, and so on, so that we’re moved and inspired to do our absolute best to be able to help this person.

So, we think of the good qualities and the kindness of the teacher toward us – in terms of Buddha-nature and what they’ve actually done for us and for others. And with the suffering beings we also think of their good qualities in terms of their Buddha-nature and also their kindness – everybody’s been our mother. So, the structure is actually the same in terms of whether we’re looking “up” or we’re looking “down.”

And please don’t misunderstand this terminology of looking upward and looking downward. That’s just figuratively. We’re not talking about “I’m so much better than everybody else and I’m looking down on these poor things, these poor beings, these wretches who are suffering.” This is just a figurative way of referring to these two objects, these sources of inspiration.


The Role and Need for an Oral Transmission

Why did young Serkong Rinpoche want so much to have the oral transmission of the text, even though the person who was giving him the oral transmission had no understanding of the text although he had a strong interest to understand it?

This has to do with lineage. Because of course the young Serkong Rinpoche had read the text many times, and he is in fact memorizing it, so that he can recite it every day the way that his predecessor did.

Now, the word that’s used here in Tibetan is the same word that we were just discussing a moment ago, chinlab (byin-rlabs, inspiration). He wanted the inspiration of the lineage. Now, you can think “blessings” of the lineage, but as I say, “blessings” gives a sort of magical, mystical quality to it, which I personally don’t think that’s so helpful to think that way. And so, there’s a certain sense of connection and continuity which is involved with lineage; and the inspiration here comes from that feeling of connection and continuity, rather than from the continuity of understanding specifically.

The old Serkong Rinpoche had received this lineage, this transmission from his father. Obviously, they were very, very close. And I was extremely close to the old Serkong Rinpoche. I spent nine years with him. I studied with him, traveled with him, translated for him, wrote his foreign letters, got his visas, etc. And I have a very, very close connection with the young Serkong Rinpoche. When I first met him, when he came to Dharamsala, he was four years old and the attendant asked him, “Do you know who this is?” when I came into the room and his reply was, “Don’t be stupid, of course I know who this is.”

And although I was very suspicious and I took my time to really investigate, from his side, he was four years old, from that time on he was always unbelievably close with me and not like he was with other people. So, this feeling of lineage, of continuity is almost like a feeling of family, spiritual family, and it doesn’t really depend so much on understanding. At least this is what I have come to understand, because I also thought that you had to understand the text, but from this experience I understand a little bit more what’s involved here. I think it’s like that.

I always wondered about the term “heart disciple” and what that actually means. But the more that I think about it, the more experience I have in life, I think that it’s not just somebody that you give the essence of your teachings to. But I think in addition to that it also entails a heart-to-heart connection with somebody, with a disciple, based on a very long – many lifetimes – and very pure damtsig (Skt. samaya, a close bond). A close spiritual bond, which is not mixed with disturbing emotion of attachment and jealousy and so on, so that there’s really a very strong positive emotional force that’s there.

When you look at the word “devotion,” because I have a lot of problems with this word, what is it that “people are very devotional?” I have an article on this about different approaches to the Dharma – intellectual, emotional, and devotional. And I think this devotional side is what I’ve been talking about here, is this strong positive emotion, connection – whether it’s with the practice, whether it’s with the deity, whether it’s with the teacher, or whatever – that’s not at all mixed with a disturbing emotion – a very, very strong feeling of connection and inspiration.

[See: Approaching Buddhism in a Balanced Way]

There is this sense of connection, and continuity, and family, and so on that is important here with these type of transmissions. There is this aspect of – what we were just talking about – devotion that is involved with this sense of connection, this sense of family, this sense of inspiration or uplifting that comes from the oral transmission of a lineage.

They say based on that oral transmission, and the uplifting, the inspiration from it, then you’ll be able to understand the text much better. Now, mind you, various lamas give oral transmissions to crowds of thousands of people. Sometimes they give an oral transmission of the whole Kangyur (bKa’-‘gyur) and Tengyur (bsTan-‘gyur), which goes on for months and months. So, is that the same type of level of transmission, does it have the same effect on all people? Probably not.

But nevertheless it is the custom and I think it has some sort of sense of uplifting. Now, it’s very interesting, because they say that all the disciple has to do is hear the words. The disciple doesn’t have to understand what is being said. When His Holiness gives an oral transmission, or these what are usually called Kangyur Rinpoches who give oral transmissions of the Kangyur, they read it out loud so quickly, you can’t even distinguish one word from another. But the only criterion then that qualifies one for having received that transmission is that you don’t fall asleep – you don’t miss one minute of the transmission and you never fall asleep; you actually hear the whole thing.

This helps us to understand why Tibetan lamas don’t take Western students terribly seriously, at least most Western students seriously. Because Western students don’t come to every single class and don’t arrive absolutely on time for every single class. If there’s a birthday, if there’s an interesting movie, if they have a headache, or whatever, they don’t come. To the Tibetan lama that means that they’re not interested in the oral transmission of the whole text; they haven’t received it, so they’re not serious about actually studying it.

So, this oral transmission is very important from the Tibetan traditional point of view; and it doesn’t seem to be dependent on understanding. Not an easy topic.

[See: "Blessings" or Inspiration?]

Performing a Function Does Not Establish That Something Exists

If we remove the labels, “table,” “red,” and so on, and even if we didn’t see the table, nevertheless the table performs a function, and so couldn’t that establish its existence, a truly established existence?

According to some of the monastic textbooks, that is the criterion for establishing true existence – in the Sautrantika system, for example – that it performs a function. According to some of the textbooks, not all of the textbooks. But Prasangika would object to that, because that implies that there is some findable referent “thing,” the table, that is sitting there performing a function.

The suggestion that you made, that we remove all the labels, that’s not exactly how it works. It doesn’t matter whether anybody labels them or not. A label can refer to table or red, but it can also be a label, or an imputation of “a validly knowable object,” an existent object, the most general, general possible thing, “something that exists,” that can be validly known. What is this object? It is what that refers to, a validly knowable object. There’s no, as I say, plastic coating encapsulating it and making it a separate thing by itself that then I can come into the room and see and know, even though it appears like that.

And it doesn’t matter what I call it and if I know a name for it or I don’t – that’s irrelevant. And the fact that it performs a function – as I say, there can be a misunderstanding behind that – of course it performs a function, but it’s not a thing existing from its own side that’s performing a function. So, if you just specify “performing a function” as what establishes it, you also tend to specify, without making it explicit, that there’s some findable referent “thing” sitting there performing the function.

Let's end now with a dedication. We think that whatever understanding has come from this, whatever positive force has come from this, may it go deeper and deeper and act as a cause for reaching enlightenment for the benefit of all.

Read and listen to the original text "Root Text for Mahamudra" by The Fourth Panchen Lama.