Identifying the Mind for Mahamudra Meditation


The Fourth Panchen Lama has divided his text into the preparation practices, the actual material, and the concluding procedures; and in the presentation of the actual body of the material he specified the various divisions of mahamudra, specified that there’s a sutra tradition and a tantra tradition, and within that, he’s going to discuss the sutra section. And within sutra there are two approaches: the first is to meditate on the mind, and then gaining a correct view of reality; or (2) gaining a correct view of reality first, and then meditating on the mind.

First meditate on the mind, he says, and then meditate on voidness, or meditate on voidness first and then the mind. If we look a little bit more closely at that, then actually “to meditate on the mind,” here he’s speaking about the conventional nature of the mind, and concerning the conventional nature of the mind, we can gain both shamatha and vipashyana focused on the conventional nature of the mind, and then – on the basis of that – go on to do voidness meditation of the nature of the mind. Or, we can work on gaining the understanding of voidness first – whether we do this with shamatha or vipashyana is not actually spoken of – and then focus on the conventional nature of the mind, gain shamatha and vipashyana, and then apply our understanding of voidness to that. The Fourth Panchen Lama specifies that he’s going to present the first method, which is to meditate on the mind, which means to gain shamatha and vipashyana on the conventional nature of the mind first, and then he’ll discuss the voidness of the mind.

The Conventional Nature of Mind

Now, the big question is: what is the conventional nature of the mind? When we speak about conventional nature here, we’re talking about “What is mind?” And when we ask the question “What is something?” then we look to try to understand the defining characteristic of that object or phenomenon. What then is the defining characteristic of mind? We have a definition of mind in Buddhism which consists of three words. Now, these are usually translated as “clarity,” “awareness,” and “merely,” or “being only that.”

Now, none of these three are particularly easy to understand what they are actually referring to. We need to go back a little bit and look at the Buddhist presentation of various types of phenomena. We can speak about existent phenomena and nonexistent phenomena. Something that exists is something that can be validly known; something that doesn’t exist can be known non-validly, like a unicorn or true existence. We can cognize something like that, but it wouldn’t be valid, it would be a distorted cognition.

Mind Is Nonstatic

Now, what exists, what can be validly known can be divided several ways. One way is to divide it into static and nonstatic phenomena. I’m not calling it permanent and impermanent, because that gives a misleading connotation. We’re not talking about how long something exists: impermanent implies “for a short time,” permanent implies “forever.” But rather the distinction that’s being made here is whether or not something changes from moment to moment for however long it might exist, either a short time or forever.

When we speak about mind, we’re speaking about something which is nonstatic. It changes from moment to moment, but it lasts forever. When we read in Kagyu and Nyingma texts that mind is permanent, there they’re using the same word as we just translated as “static,” however they’re using it in the meaning of “lasting forever.” And they explain that the nature of the mind doesn’t change from moment to moment, although they would have to agree with the Gelugpa presentation that the object of the mind changes from moment to moment.

And when the Kagyu and Nyingma texts say that the mind is an unaffected phenomenon, that means that the nature of the mind is not affected by anything and is not created by anything. However, they would have to agree with the Gelug presentation that the object of the mind is of course affected, or what object the mind takes is going to be affected by causes and conditions. Because of this difference in approach, we have quite a different way of explaining mind in these two sets of traditions.

And unless we’re clear about what each of these traditions is talking about, which feature of mind they’re talking about, we could get terribly confused and think that these two traditions totally disagree with each other and say the exact opposite of each other. But that, in fact, is not the case. As the Panchen Lama himself says, there are all these different traditions, and yet they all come to the same intended point. So it can’t be that they are speaking about mind in totally contradictory manners.

Mind Is a Way of Being Aware of Something – It is Mental Activity

Among nonstatic phenomena – things that change from moment to moment – we have forms of physical phenomena, first of all. These are “forms of physical phenomena,” not just “form.” “Form” is a little bit misleading, because that’s only really one of different types of physical phenomena. We’re talking about sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and physical sensations, and also the physical sensors, like photosensitive cells of the eyes, and also various forms of physical phenomena that can only be known by the mind, like subatomic particles, astronomical distances, what seems to be like colored shapes and sights and so on that we perceive in dreams, these type of things. These are forms of physical phenomena. You can’t say that all of these are material things; that gets a little bit strange when we talk about things like sense data of these various senses, it’s not quite material.

Then we have ways of being aware of something. This is where mind comes in, so this is a completely different category of nonstatic phenomena. And I choose these words very carefully – a “way of being aware,” or a “way of cognizing” something. It’s talking about an activity, a way of experiencing, and experiencing something, there has to be an object to it. It could be a primary consciousness – seeing something, hearing something... thinking something – or it could be one of these subsidiary awarenesses – concentrating on something, being interested in something, being angry with something, liking something. All these are ways of being aware. It’s not at all some form of physical phenomenon. We’re not talking about some sort of “thing” in our head that does this; we’re talking about the activity that’s occurring.

Then there are, the third category – it’s difficult to translate the term, because it’s defined differently in the different tenet systems, and so that’s not so easy, but I call them... well, why don’t we just make it very simple and say – nonstatic phenomena that are not either of the other two. As I say, that gets very, very complicated once we start looking at the presentation and definition of these in the various tenet systems. But what would be included here would be things like time, and also persons, like “me,” the conventional “me.”

Mental Activity Is Individual and Subjective

Now, when we talk about mind, we’re talking about an activity, and – another way of dividing phenomena in general is individually characterized (rang-mtshan) and generally characterized phenomena (spyi-mtshan) – we are not talking here about mind like a general category, like “the mind,” some great thing. We’re talking about individual minds, a countless number of individual streams of continuity – that go on forever – of ways of being aware of things.

And because it’s individual, then it’s subjective, isn’t it? My experiencing of seeing a movie is not your experience of seeing a movie, is it? I might like it, you might not like it. I’m sitting in this seat, you’re sitting in that seat, so the angle from which we view the movie and the distance is different. So it’s subjective, it’s individual. So although the defining characteristic of all minds, of all streams of mental activity, is the same defining characteristic...

We talk about a “mental continuum,” it’s a continuum of moment after moment after moment of a way of being aware of something. And being a phenomenon, what’s called “cho” (chos, Skt. dharma), the defining characteristic of such a thing is in Tibetan – I’m using Tibetan since my translator knows Tibetan – is “ngowo dzinpa” (ngo-bo ‘dzin-pa), it holds its own essential nature, which means that it retains its individuality. Each one retains its own essential nature as an individual continuity. So even when we become a Buddha, the mental continuum of each Buddha is individual; it’s not that they all merge into one big mind. And as a way of being aware of something or experiencing something, it always has content, there’s always a something, an object.

Clarity – The Arising of a Mental Hologram of Something

Now, the three defining characteristics: when we speak about clarity and awareness, these first two characteristics, again we need to understand these as ways of being aware of something, and we’re not talking about a generally characterized phenomenon like clarity in general or awareness in general. We’re not talking about something like that. We’re not talking about a quality of this activity; we are characterizing the activity, what kind of activity is it? What’s happening? What’s it doing?

This word “clarity,” then, we need to understand a little more like a verb, rather than an abstract noun. The way that it is explained or glossed, in other words, what’s a different word for it, is the same word as is used for the dawning of the sun. So it is giving rise to something, giving rise to an appearance, so appearance-making. It’s giving rise to, in a sense, an object of cognition – you see, we can’t say that it makes it appear, this is a little bit little tricky here.

I’ll explain that, because it’s a little bit cute, if we can use the word. This is only the Gelug explanation. In general, when we are aware of something, the mind gives rise to a mental hologram of it. Even from a Western scientific point of view, we would have to say something like: light hits the eye, and then there’s all these sort of electrical impulses and so on, and what we see is actually like a mental hologram. So, giving rise to a mental hologram is one way of understanding this word clarity.

That “mental hologram” in Tibetan is known as an “aspect,” “a mental aspect,” “nampa” (rnam-pa), but I think “mental hologram” is a much easier way of understanding it. And it can be a hologram not only of a visual thing, a sight, but of a sound, of a smell... of anything.

Now, the problem is that in addition there is the giving rise to something that is not actually appearing. For example, I see this table and so what appears is a mental hologram of a table, but also I’m aware that it is not a dog, or not anything other than a table, so “not a dog,” there’s no mental hologram of “not a dog.” There’s no mental hologram of “not anything other than a table,” but that also is part of this clarity, of this arising.

This is purely Gelugpa. Let’s take a moment to think about that and digest that.


When I see Sasha, what arises is a mental hologram of Sasha, and also what arises is being aware that it’s not somebody else. This is what this word “clarity” means. It means giving rise to that, and it doesn’t have to be in focus, like the word “clear” implies. We’re talking about giving rise to a cognitive object. That cognitive object can either appear with a mental hologram or not appear with a mental hologram.

Now, we’re talking here with this factor of simply giving rise to the cognitive object. We’re not talking about knowing, for instance, that this is Sasha and nobody other than Sasha. We’re not talking about that. We’re giving rise to “Sasha” as somebody, as something that I know, and giving rise to not something else. We don’t know that it’s Sasha, we’re not talking about names, and recognition, and all of that; we’re talking about something very, very basic here. So, think again.


OK. Do you have a question on that? We’re not going to get terribly far unless we understand these basic points here, and these are extremely, extremely difficult. That’s why we have to do all the preparation and all the stuff, to be able to actually recognize, what in the world are we talking about? This is very, very subtle, so don’t think, “Oh, it’s really easy, and I’m stupid, because I don’t understand it, I don’t recognize it.”

Are we talking only about a visualized object, or an imagined object when we speak about mental hologram?

Actually, they're the exact same thing – in fact the scientists have discovered that as well – that if we see an object, or we imagine an object, the mental process is exactly the same. The mental hologram is based on – from a Western point of view – light coming through the photosensitive cells of the eyes and firing all sorts of optic nerves and things like that – still there’s a mental hologram. And that process of giving rise to a mental hologram is exactly the same with all the senses and imagination, in other words mental consciousness as well, and thinking too.

There are many, many things that this discussion can lead to, of course, from a metaphysical point of view. For example, what do we mean by distance, if our only way of knowing things is in terms of mental holograms? ...just giving you a little bit of an indication of where this discussion can go.

Awareness – Cognitive Engagement with Something

When we speak about a defining characteristic of mind or mental activity having three words, the three words all go together; they’re not separate – occurring in sequence, or anything like that – they’re combined together, networked together. Therefore, when we look at the second word of the definition, we are still talking about the same mental activity, but now we are describing it from another point of view. And although it may be translated as “awareness,” we’re not talking about some sort of general quality, we’re not talking about some abstract thing; we’re talking about an individual activity.

It is being aware of something both in a transitive or causative sense of making something something that we’re aware of, and also in a non-transitive way of being aware of something. Now, this is the same activity as giving rise to a cognitive object. Giving rise to a cognitive object is equivalent to being aware of a cognitive object. It’s describing the phenomenon from two different points of view. So it is not the case that first a thought arises and then we think it. Giving rise to a thought is what it means to think a thought. If the thought first arose, how would you know that it arose in order to then think it. So that doesn’t make any sense, that’s nonsense.

So similarly, giving rise to a mental hologram of colored shapes – sights – that is what seeing is. It’s not that first there’s the arising of that visual mental hologram and then we see it and we decide, “Am I going to look at it, or not look at it?” We’re not talking about how much attention we pay to the mental hologram, that’s a subsidiary awareness. We’re talking about just seeing.

OK, so let’s think about that.


When we cognize the table, there’s the external object, the table, there’s the mental hologram of the table. So what is it that we actually cognize?

I will just explain the Gelug explanation, the non-Gelug explanation is quite different here. From the Gelug explanation, we are cognizing both of them. Through the mental hologram we are cognizing the external table – so the Gelug explanation is that the mental hologram is “fully transparent.” So now the question is, “When we perceive a table through the mental hologram of a table, how do we know that it is a valid cognition and not just a hallucination of a table?”

This is dealing with sense cognition, and there’s a whole list of conditions for distorted sense cognition, to see. Is there some condition, or cause, or circumstance that would be making it distorted, like for instance there’s something wrong with our eyes? You don’t have your glasses on, for example, or some external thing, like there isn’t enough light to see clearly what it is?

So our cognition needs to be confirmed by other cognitions which are valid. So we would have to – if somebody does have their glasses on, and when we turn on the light, and so on – can we confirm, can we corroborate what we saw? When we come down from LSD, do we still see what we saw when we were under the influence of LSD, for example?

If our sense perception is distorted, how can we know that somebody else’s sense perception is not, or our own sense perception later is not distorted?

Well, if we’re dealing with a nonstatic phenomenon – another term for it is a “functional phenomenon” – then the criterion is: can what we perceive it perform its function? If I put a glass of water on this object, is it going to hold it? Is it going to perform the function of a table, or is it going to fall through because it was a hallucination? So this is in this case of sense cognition, which is always of nonstatic phenomena, that’s bare cognition ...well, there are two definitions of this, but I’m using it just in the sense of non-conceptual cognition; let’s not get too complicated here.

How do we know that when we know a static phenomenon that it’s valid or not, in terms of a hologram? This has to do with valid inference, inferential cognition. There are three types of inferential cognition. One is based on logic, “Where there’s smoke there’s fire.” So you see smoke, and then you infer there’s fire there. So we can check the validity of that, if our logic does not have a fault, and there’s all sorts of rules of logic.

Then there’s inference based on renown – renown is what’s well known – in other words, when we hear a certain set of acoustic patterns of sounds, then it is well known that those sounds signify a word and it has a certain conventional meaning, and so we infer when we hear these sounds that it means that. So for that, you can rely on dictionaries and the convention of a language. It’s just a sound after all, how do we know that it means anything?

And then there’s inference based on authority, that when somebody says something, like Buddha, and we don’t have any other way of knowing whether it’s correct or not, then by knowing that this person is a valid source of information, then we can infer that what they say is correct, like about karma. Like knowing somebody’s name – we can’t see it, we can’t infer it by logic, you have to ask a valid source of information, of somebody who knows this person’s name.

Or the example His Holiness loves to use, which is: how do we know our birthday? We have to rely on a valid source of information, our mother or somebody like that. So, there are ways of validating what we know. That’s a big topic of discussion in Buddhism actually.

Mere – Only Clarity and Awareness, No Separate "Me" or "Mind"

Then the third word of the defining characteristics here, which is the word “mere,” or “merely,” or “only.” So, we’re talking about one activity, which from one point of view is the arising of an object of cognition, and from another point of view it is cognizing an object of cognition. And “merely” means “that’s all that’s happening,” and that means that there’s no separate entity called “the mind” that’s actually doing this, and there’s no separate me that’s actually making this happen.

So it’s not as though there’s some me in my head that goes to the computer, which is the mind, turns it on and, “Now I’m going to think something,” or “I’m going to see something,” and uses the mind, like using a machine. Even though we might speak that way – like, “Why don’t you use your mind and figure it out?” – this mental activity just occurs, automatically, without any effort, from moment to moment to moment, with no break in its continuity, individual, subjective.

And what follows in terms of the sequence of the object of cognition follows in an orderly fashion based on cause and effect, karma. And even once we’ve become liberated, it continues. Even when it’s not under the influence of karma, but still the sequence will occur in an orderly fashion according to cause and effect. When we attain liberation as an arhat, we’re out of samsara. We’re not enlightened yet, but we’re no longer under the influence of karma.

Now, that point – that the mental activity occurs without there being a separate, totally independent entity called “the mind” and “me” – of course brings us into the whole discussion of voidness. But even without a deep understanding of voidness, we can still have some sort of understanding of why – particularly in Gelugpa – we add this third word to the definition, the word “merely.” This word in Tibetan (tsam, merely) excludes something that it’s not, it’s only this, it’s only this. OK? Let’s think about it.


Any question on that – without going into a deep discussion of voidness yet, since that will come tomorrow?

What is the function of willpower in our whole presentation of the sequence of what we’re aware of?

That’s a very good question. Willpower is a mental factor. It’s one of the subsidiary types of awareness; it would be “intention.” Now, the intention to think about something, the intention to go and read a book and so on, these intentions – it’s also a type of mental activity and they occur without a separate me doing the intending. Now, why does a certain intention arise? It arises dependently on many, many factors, for instance the intention to go read a book, there has to be a habit of reading books...

In general, what activates a karma is... It’s a little bit complicated, but if we just simplify it completely: let’s make it grasping for true existence. It’s much more complex than that, so to be a little more precise, it’s “craving.” We crave, when we’re experiencing happiness, not to be parted from it, and when we’re experiencing unhappiness, to be parted from it. And then we identify with that, with a solid me, grasping for true existence. This is going on every moment, “I want to be happy, I don’t want to be unhappy,” and we identify with that. That activates karma each moment.

Then there’s a whole big collection or network of habits of what can be activated, and then the specific habit – or “tendency,” to be more technically correct, not “habit” – the specific tendency that will be activated is going to be affected by other conditions, conditions of the circumstance that we’re in, the time of day, the people we’re with, what we were doing just before, and so on. First, what comes is a mental factor of wanting to do something, “I feel like reading a book,” and then an intention to actually do it. So, all of that happens without there being some separate me that’s doing it, “I am going to do that.”

We have a choice, but when we speak about choice, choice is within the context of voidness and dependent arising. We experience… from our subjective point of view, we experience that, “I have a choice.” However, our mind makes it appear as though there is a separate, independent me and separate, independent choices, like on a menu, that exist all by themselves, and “I exist all by myself and independent of anything I’m going to choose on the menu what to do.”

And that is complete garbage, that’s not at all how it exists. Everything arises dependently on causes and conditions and so on. But it’s not predetermined, it’s not fixed, that’s the other extreme. It’s not as though it exists already before it happens, or somebody has decided what’s going to happen... so this gets into a very sophisticated discussion.