Mental Factors in Mahamudra Meditation

We have been discussing the Fourth Panchen Lama’s text on the Gelug-Kagyu tradition of mahamudra; and we saw that the presentation is divided into the preparation, the actual teachings, and the concluding procedures. And with the preparatory practices, we saw that this entails having this safe direction in our life, and the bodhichitta aim, and then building up these networks of positive force and deep awareness, and doing some at least temporary purification with Vajrasattva practice. And then making requests to the guru for inspiration, and then imagining that our guru comes to the top of our head and merges with us, which then produces a very blissful, intense state of mind.

How Bodhichitta Fits In with Focusing on the Nature of the Mind

Somebody asked a question yesterday about how bodhichitta fits in with the actual main practice of focusing on the nature of the mind; and although the nature of the bodhichitta mind is the same nature as any other moment of cognition, nevertheless we might not necessarily be meditating on the nature of the bodhichitta mind. What I should mention, since this is not always made so clear, is that we have a distinction between what can be called “labored” bodhichitta and “unlabored” bodhichitta. “Labored” means that you build it up with labor, with work, you have to go through a line of reasoning in order to actually generate the bodhichitta aim; “unlabored” is you don’t have to go through that process.

“With labor,” in other words, you have to work through a line of reasoning, “Everybody’s been my mother, and they’ve been kind, and so on,” and then you generate bodhichitta; and the other doesn’t require this effort or “labor” to go through that line of reasoning. In some contexts it could be called “contrived” and “uncontrived” bodhichitta, but the usual term here is this “labored” and “unlabored.” When we have this unlabored bodhichitta, that’s the boundary line for having what’s usually translated as the “path of accumulation,” so the “building-up pathway mind,” the mind where you build up from there. You start with this unlabored bodhichitta; so that’s where you start these five paths as a bodhisattva.

[See: The Five Paths]

Shantideva, in the first chapter of Bodhicharyavatara, Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior, he says that once you reach this stage, in which you have this unlabored bodhichitta, then you have that all the time, day and night. Even if you’re asleep, even if you’re drunk, you still have this bodhichitta, and it’s constantly building up more and more positive force. Now what in the world does that mean? What it means is that we have, as I mentioned previously, the possibility of many cognitions simultaneously.

So, once we achieve this unlabored bodhichitta, then we have this bodhichitta mind, this bodhichitta cognition manifest all the time. The only questionable moment is at the time of total absorption, non-conceptually, on voidness. And here, the different Gelugpa monastic textbooks disagree, have different opinions about what happens to bodhichitta at that time, because bodhichitta is conceptual and this is the non-conceptual absorption on voidness. But we’ll leave that discussion aside. When we have bodhichitta manifest all the time, that doesn’t mean that we are paying attention to it, because when we have various types of cognition manifest at the same time, the amount of attention that we pay to them will vary.

This is quite interesting, because the difference that we make in our Western terminology is very different. In our Western terminology, we would say when you are asleep, bodhichitta is unconscious; but from the Buddhist analysis, bodhichitta when we’re asleep is still manifest. It may be unconscious from a Western point of view, but it’s manifest, it’s happening. Now, what does that actually mean? The way that my teacher explained this is that it means that no matter what we’re doing, we still have that aim in life. We never ever lose the aim in life that we are striving for enlightenment in order to benefit everybody – whether you’re actively thinking of that or not.

So that also gives us another little piece in the puzzle concerning what actually is mind. And mind, this mental activity can be – if we use our Western parameters – conscious or unconscious; it’s still mental activity. However, I always recommend to people – and this also one of my teachers, Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey, always recommended – that we don’t try to apply an external system to Buddhism to try to make sense of it, because all that’s going to happen is that we’re going to get confused. So, while we are doing mahamudra meditation on the nature of the mind, there’s still manifest bodhichitta occurring simultaneously.

And even if we have perfect shamatha – completely stilled and settled mind, perfect concentration on whatever we might choose as a topic – still we could have bodhichitta manifest and that doesn’t interrupt the concentration. So, I find this actually quite helpful to keep this in mind, because I must say that before I got this clarification, I had quite a different idea of what perfect concentration meant. I thought that there was absolutely nothing else going on at the same time. So, we see that mental activity and mind is much broader than what we might expect.


Then we went on to the main part of the text, and we saw that the way that the Panchen Lama is going to explain this is in terms of the sutra system, and within the sutra system he’s going to explain it in terms of first gaining a state of concentration, and then gaining the understanding of voidness. Within that broad division within sutra – which covers not only mahamudra meditation, but any type of meditation – that first we strive to get concentration and then strive to get the understanding of voidness. The Panchen Lama then continues with a discussion of gaining shamatha – or perfect stilled and settled state of mind, perfect concentration – on the conventional nature of the mind.

And one of the points that he makes is that in other traditions of mahamudra, even if they gain both shamatha and vipashyana on the mind, the way that they are explaining it in these other traditions is just gaining shamatha and vipashyana on the conventional nature of the mind, and that they haven’t really looked at the deepest nature. Therefore, we need to keep in mind that if you have vipashyana, it is not pervasive, in other words, it doesn’t follow necessarily that vipashyana is focused on voidness. You can have shamatha and vipashyana on a large variety of different topics; and in fact, both shamatha and vipashyana are found in non-Buddhist systems as well.

Now, we saw that in the Gelug tradition, here what is emphasized is always knowing the defining characteristic of mind in order to be able to then focus on it; and we saw that this defining characteristic of the conventional or superficial nature of the mind was consisting of three words that are usually translated as “clarity,” “awareness,” and the word “merely,” or “only.” And we saw that what we’re talking about here is the mental activity of experiencing a cognitive object, and we’re talking about individual, subjective experiencing of something.

And the experiencing of something can be described in terms of the subjective aspect of it: from one point of view, it is the arising or making arise of a cognitive object, and from another point of view it is a cognitive engagement with it. And that cognitive engagement, which is what awareness means, can be of any kind. So, it could be understanding the object, but it could also be not understanding the object; it could be paying attention to the object, it could be inattentive of the object, although it’s a cognitive object. So, we shouldn’t think that because of the word “awareness,” it means that you actually are conscious and know the object.

It’s like knowing, not knowing, concentrating, not concentrating...

Concentration is very different from attention – attention is the mind going to an object, concentration is the mind staying on the object. They’re different mental factors.

No "Me" Separate from the Meditation That Is Meditating

And the word “merely” adds to this that this is all that’s happening. There’s no separate entity – the mind – like some machine that’s making it happen; nor is there a separate agent – me – that is either making it happen or observing it.

The point of there not being a separate me that is observing this is very crucial in meditation, because very often when we meditate – especially when we’re watching our mind, or watching the content of the mind, and these sort of things – it seems as though there’s a separate me sitting in the back of our head watching all of this and observing.

That is a big fault in meditation. When we’re doing meditation – whether it’s on the nature of the mind, or whatever it might be – we can have understanding what’s going on as part of the meditation, it’s part of that state of mind, but there isn’t a separate me – as an entity, divorced from this whole thing – that understands. You just want to accompany your meditation with understanding, but not have somebody separate from it who is understanding. That’s a very delicate differentiation.

When we read, or when we listen to somebody speaking, there is understanding as part of that cognition, isn’t there? So, understanding accompanies the reading, it accompanies the listening to language, but we don’t consciously think or feel there’s a separate me – separate from the reading and from the listening to somebody speak – who is understanding it, do we? Correct? So, think about this, because that’s exactly the same way in which we need to meditate, particularly when we’re meditating on understanding the nature of things like the mind.

Also, while you’re thinking about it, try to think about it just with understanding accompanying the thinking and without a feeling of a separate me who’s doing the thinking. There’s just thinking. If we ask who’s thinking? “Well, I’m thinking, it’s not somebody else thinking.” But that “me” who is doing the thinking is not like some ping-pong ball separate from the whole thing.


Mental Activity Occurs Every Moment, Regardless of Its Content Or What Type of Mental Activity It Is

This is a very important point to be able to understand that this mental activity is occurring every single moment – there is the arising of a cognitive object, there’s a cognitive engagement with that object – those are two ways of describing the same phenomenon, the same activity – and there’s no separate me or mind doing it.

This mental activity – the exact same mental activity, the exact same defining characteristics – is occurring regardless of what the content of that mental activity might be, regardless of the cognitive object, and regardless of what subsidiary awarenesses are accompanying that cognition. Whether it’s a disturbing emotion, whether it is a positive emotion, whether it’s a lot of concentration, a little concentration – it makes absolutely no difference, because after all we’re focusing on the conventional nature of the primary consciousness in the cognition – the eye consciousness, the ear consciousness, the mental consciousness and so on.

Now, of course the nature of the primary consciousness and the nature of the subsidiary awarenesses, the mental factors, that accompany it are exactly the same, they all are in one package of a cognition. But by looking at the nature of the primary consciousness it makes it a little bit simpler, because the subsidiary awarenesses have – in addition to the basic defining characteristic of being a way of knowing something – they also have their own individual defining characteristics – the characteristic of love, or the characteristic of hatred. So to make it simpler, we look at the defining characteristics of the primary consciousness itself.

Now, when we look then at the Buddhist path, we find that the disturbing emotions and the suffering that we have, in other words the first and second noble truths – all the problems of samsara and the causes for them, these type of things – all of these are ways of being aware of something, aren’t they? They are experiences, and as such they all have the same conventional nature of the mind.

And when we look at the fourth noble truth, these true pathways, these are all the good qualities, all the understandings and so on, the states of mind that are free of the first and second noble truths. All of that is likewise mind, it’s mental activity, it’s an experience, it has the same conventional nature. And the third noble truth, the true stoppings of the first two noble truths, that occurs on a mental continuum on the basis of mind. So, mind is crucial here in terms of both samsara and nirvana, if we want to use the usual terminology.

Purification of all these things that we need to get rid of is on the basis of the mind. Building up the two networks, building up good qualities, all of that is on the basis of the mind. All the actions of our speech and of our body are based on intentions and so on, that come on the basis of the mind. And so this mahamudra meditation on the nature of the mind – both conventional and deepest nature – is totally crucial to this whole Buddhist path. It’s not something which is just an exotic, separate practice that somehow magically is going to help us in our Buddhist progress.

It’s very central to the entire subject matter of the path. Also it’s very relevant to helping us with daily life problems. What we want to do is to not get caught up in the content of any moment of cognition, any moment of mind. So, regardless of any object of cognition, regardless of any types of mental factors that accompany our cognition, it makes absolutely no difference in terms of the nature of the mind. It’s still an arising of a cognitive object and a cognitive engagement with it and nothing more. So it’s no big deal, regardless of what the content might be of any moment of experience.

The Karma Kagyu descriptions use an image which is very helpful here, which is the image of the ocean. The various thoughts that we have, the various cognitions, disturbing emotions etc. are just like waves on the surface of the big, extensive, deep ocean. And it doesn’t matter what the shape of the wave is, it doesn’t matter how big it is, it doesn’t matter how small it is, it’s still water; and it arises on the ocean and it settles back on the ocean and that’s all.

There’s nothing special about anger, there’s nothing special about love, there’s nothing special about happiness, about unhappiness, nothing special, no big deal. So no reason to get excited, no reason to get upset – that after all is the basic teaching in terms of what’s usually translated as the “eight worldly dharmas,” the “eight transitory things in life,” whether people praise us or criticize us, “same same,” what’s the difference? It’s just words.

That is extremely, extremely helpful, if we can keep this understanding in our everyday experience. Some sort of a disturbing emotion comes up, “Well, it’s just arising and engaging; that’s all. I’m seeing the wall and there’s an image of a wall, a hologram of a wall, and there is this emotion that’s happening at the same time as well. It’s no big deal, it’s just arising and awareness, nothing else,” so we don’t get caught up in it is the point.

If we get a room in a hotel and there’s a nice view, or there’s a terrible view, or the wall is nicely painted, or the paint is peeling – so what? You could get caught up in it and, “Oh, that’s so terrible,” and then you really experience a tremendous amount of suffering. But why? That just is unpleasant. It’s just the awareness of a cognitive object, there’s nothing else, so no big deal. There’s a bad smell. OK, so it’s a bad smell, nothing else; you don’t have to get excited about it, you don’t have to get upset.

Now, that doesn’t mean that we don’t take action, we don’t do anything. There’s loud noise outside, somebody is banging on a metal thing with a hammer. Now, there’s no reason to get upset about that, it’s just a noise, just a sound, no big deal. However, it will cause problems and inconvenience in a recording when other people listen to it in a different setting, and so you take action, but you don’t get upset, you don’t suffer.

A Practical Example from Daily Life

Same thing, I recently, a few weeks ago, had my laptop computer stolen on a train, and I lost a number of files that I hadn’t backed up and some other things that were in the computer case. So, now you have a choice. Here is a something that has ripened from karma, something that now you’re experiencing – I’m experiencing seeing no computer bag up on the luggage rack and the train has stopped and you have to get off.

“Hmm,” so now you have a choice of really getting very upset and angry and tremendous suffering, or you just accept the reality of the situation, “Here is an arising of a cognitive object – no computer there – and I’m aware of it, I understand it. It’s just a mental event that has come about and is a ripening of karma and many other circumstances. So, no big deal, nothing special, what do I expect from samsara? Of course things like this will happen.”

And then you just deal with it, go to the Lost and Found Department, see if they can locate it – which they didn’t. I have a patron who bought the computer for me and he was very happy to buy me another computer, and – no big deal – that’s it. I spent a couple of weeks reconstructing the files that I lost, and finished, no suffering – very little suffering, I should say. A few things I couldn’t replace, but “OK, I can’t replace them.”

We have a saying in English, “No use in crying over spilt milk,” it’s spilled, finished. So like that, if one can not get caught up in the content of any moment of experience, even if it’s a not very nice ripening of karma, and just understand that it’s just an experience – it’s just the arising of an object and awareness of it, engaging with it – and then just deal with it, you minimize your suffering. Still, being a samsaric being, of course there’s a little bit of sadness associated with this, but this is the direction to go in for overcoming even that.

Actually it’s a very interesting phenomenon, because there’s quite a difference between what’s going on in your own mind, which could be quite quiet about the whole thing, and then when you tell your friends, and you have to explain it, then other circumstances come up, which can bring other emotions. Either they’re more upset than you are, so you have to calm them down, or somehow you have to show some sort of emotional response to the whole situation. It’s very interesting.

Anyway, these meditations, as I say, it’s very important to realize that they’re not just abstract meditations that you do sitting in your meditation chamber, and when you’re dealing with daily life it’s totally irrelevant. These are very relevant, very helpful in daily life, and the more familiar we are with this type of meditation process, with this type of understanding, whether you sit and formally meditate on it or not, but thinking about it, and understanding it and trying to apply it, the more familiar we are with that, the more automatically it will just arise in any situation, particularly a difficult situation.

Now, much more difficult is when we are in situations in which very strong disturbing emotions come up, to apply it then. But if it’s just a situation and a strong disturbing emotion hasn’t come up yet, then if you can catch it before that, it’s much easier. And how you apply this thing would be: anytime after losing my computer, if I’m sitting or whatever and the thought arises, “Oh, I lost my computer,” immediately apply this method that, “It’s just the arising of a thought, it’s just a mental object, it’s just an awareness of a mental object, that’s all it is,” and don’t follow out the thought.

The Panchen Lama's Instructions for Mahamudra Meditation

The way that the Panchen Lama describes the meditation is that – after you dissolve the guru in your mind after making requests – you imagine with the dissolution that all appearances, all thoughts, everything dissolves – everything dissolves. He says,

Dissolve your (visualized) guru into yourself. Absorb for a while in this state in which all haphazard appearance-making and appearances have been contracted until they have disappeared.

“Haphazard” is the really important word here, “haphazard” means “just everything chaotic.” OK, so this is not a voidness meditation, or any meditation on the clear light mind or anything like that, in which we imagine all appearances and appearance-making contract back in. We’re speaking more in terms of the chaotic, all the junk, all the junky type of thoughts, and the images that come up, and all of that, we try to imagine that as the guru dissolves into us, all of that calms down and dissolves back into us.

And then he says,

Do not contrive anything with thoughts such as expectations or worries.

This is a standard instruction in every meditation – don’t expect that you’re going to have spectacular experiences and results, and don’t worry that “I’m not going to have any.”

He goes on to say,

This doesn’t mean, however, that you cease all attention as if you had fainted or fallen asleep. Rather, you must tie (your attention) to the post of mindfulness in order not to wander, and station alertness to be aware of any mental movement.

The Definitions of Attention, Mindfulness and Alertness

Now, to understand these instructions here, we have to be very clear about the definitions of attention, mindfulness, and alertness – if we don’t have that clear in our minds, we’re not going to be able to meditate properly – and these are three very distinct and different mental factors and not easy to translate. So, what are the definitions of these mental factors? We need to use them in all meditations whatsoever, so it’s important to know these.

Attention (yid-la byed-pa) – literally the word is “to take an object to mind,” so it is taking an object as our cognitive object; and that can be strongly or weakly.

Then mindfulness (dran-pa) this is like the mental glue. I think this is a very helpful image. It’s the same word as “to recall,” or “to remember.”

Memory, yes?

Yes, but the problem with our Western word “memory” is that it is talking about when you put something into your memory, here we’re talking about when you’re actually remembering something. What it’s referring to is the mental hold, it’s the mental factor that holds on to an object of cognition and prevents you from letting go.

So, mindfulness has to do with the mental hold; and then – what’s usually translated as “concentration,” which is more a “mental fixation” – the placement, it’s staying on the object, or remaining. Mindfulness is not letting go, this is remaining, and attention is going to the object.

Then alertness (shes-bzhin) – this is watching – not as something totally separate, but part of the whole thing – watching to see what is the quality of the mental hold of mindfulness. It’s watching to see: is this hold too tight, too loose, has it let go? That’s what it’s watching. And it’s like the alarm system, and when it notices something wrong, then the alarm goes off – ding, ding, ding, ding, ding! – and attention is what then corrects the situation. So the attention will then be a resuming type of attention, to go back to the object. It could be a more painstaking attention to go to the object more strongly. It’s the attention that actually has to be reset. The alertness is just the alarm system.

The image here is quite nice: the mindfulness is like the tent post. You bang the tent post in the ground and the mindfulness keeps hold of the focus, whichis like the tent held up by the pole. And you tie your attention to that pole, so that your attention is always going to that object that you have the mental hold on to; and then alertness is watching it.

And the Panchen Lama says,

Don’t cease all attention as if you had fainted or fallen asleep.

So it’s not as though you’re no longer paying attention, that the mind is no longer going to objects. Now, what are we focusing on, what is the mindfulness on, what are we holding on to? We’re holding on to the nature, the conventional nature of each moment of our awareness, whatever the content of it might be; and we try to do this here in the situation in which the mind is quiet.

In dzogchen meditation, the way that one starts to do something like this is in a total... what I would call a “sense deprivation zone,” in other words, in a completely dark, quiet room, in which you have a minimal amount of sense perception, because then you can really in that situation observe the nature of the mind by itself, without it being involved with sense perception. Although of course you’re going to feel – if you start to become really quite attentive – you’re going to feel your clothing on your body, and the seat underneath you... but it’s minimal.

The Difference between Inattentive Cognition and Nondetermining Cognition

I would like very much for you to understand this terminology, as I say, this is very important to be really understanding of what we mean by attention, mindfulness, and alertness. Let me give you an example of how easy it is to misunderstand if you don’t know all the definitions. There’s a term in Tibetan in “lorig” (blo-rig, ways of knowing), which is called “nangla ma-ngepa” (snang-la ma-nges-pa), which means... I used to translate it as “inattentive perception,” which is absolutely wrong, but this is the way that I used to understand it.

So, once I asked Bakula Rinpoche, who was a great, great lama, he’s since deceased. I asked him, “When you do mahamudra meditation and you’re focusing on the nature of the mind, doesn’t that meditation then become – because you’re not focusing on the content of the cognition – doesn’t that cognition then become inattentive perception, and therefore your meditation would be a non-valid cognition?”

This is what I asked him. If it’s inattentive perception, if it’s a nangla ma-ngepa, it is not a valid cognition. And he explained to me that my understanding was completely wrong, my question made absolutely no sense, and the problem was that I didn’t really understand the definition of this term nangla ma-ngepa. A perception is nangla ma-ngepa if it is not a decisive cognition of what appears to it. “Decisive” means decisively it’s “this” and “not that.” It has nothing to do with attention. So it is a nondetermining cognition, it doesn’t determine its object as “this” or “that.” That’s nangla ma-ngepa.

The whole point is that the cognition is not nangla ma-ngepa, because you are determining that the mind is “this” and it’s “not that.” It’s just that within the cognition, you’re not paying attention to the content, but that doesn’t affect whether it is a “ngepa” (nges-pa) or not a ngepa, whether it’s decisive or not.

So, the cognition is valid, the meditation is a valid cognition. Even though you’re not paying attention to the content of that moment of awareness; nevertheless it is valid, because it correctly takes its object, which is the conventional nature of the mind, and it’s decisive about it, that it’s “this” and “not that.” Just because in this meditation we are not paying attention to the content of a moment of awareness, we’re only paying attention to the nature of the mind within the cognition, that doesn’t mean that it’s an invalid cognition. And it apprehends its object, because it takes its object accurately, which is the nature of the mind, and decisively, “decisive” means that it determines as “this” and “not that.”

It’s not exactly analogous, but we can understand it by the following analogy. When I look in this direction, I see a whole field of vision. And within this field of vision I’m paying particular attention to this person, and I determine that this person is Anton and not Fritz or somebody else. Now, that is a valid cognition, even though within that cognition I am inattentive of the other people who are in my field of vision, I’m not paying attention to absolutely everything in the field of vision.

So, just because you don’t pay equal attention to absolutely everything in the field of vision doesn’t mean that that cognition is not valid. It gets a little bit complicated, it’s not exactly analogous, because in mahamudra we’re dealing with mental cognition, not sense cognition and that’s a completely different situation, so a slightly different analysis, but we can understand the analogy here.

Would you say a few words about nangla ma-ngepa, so it would make it clear what it is?

Nangla ma-ngepa is a “nondetermining cognition,” so you are not determining that it is “this” and “not that.” For example when – this is Gelugpa analysis – when you have a stream of a certain phase of seeing somebody and you’re determining it’s “this” and “not that” – “It’s a person and not a lamp,” something like that, even if it’s just on that level, it doesn’t mean that you have to know the name – then the last moment of that stream of continuity, just before you start to look at something else, you’re no longer determining, you’re no longer decisive about the object. That’s the example.

The last moment, the cognitive object is still appearing, nangla, but it’s no longer nge-pa, you’re no longer decisive about it, that it’s “this” and “not that,” because you’re just about to leave it.

Does it necessarily have to be the last moment? Couldn’t we just be distracted, but still watching that person we’re observing?

That’s another example. We can be distracted and not decisive. I just gave the classic example.

That’s what we usually do, when we listen to the channel with music and then seeing something without seeing it, something like that?

Another example can be that we’re listening to music and the seeing of the wall is a nondetermining cognition, but I gave the classic example that you find in the texts. The problem with these examples is that we tend to think that what is missing here is attention, or what is weak is attention, and that was my misunderstanding – the attention may be weak, that’s besides the point – that’s not the defining characteristic; the defining characteristic is that it’s not decisive.

For example, bodhichitta being manifest even when we are distracted about something else. We’re not paying attention to the bodhichitta, but it’s still decisive. “I’m going to attain enlightenment and not attain being the richest person on the planet.”

Unlabored bodhichitta?

Yes, the unlabored type.

It is manifest, but it has little attention?

It has little attention. The complication – I don’t really want to get into this – is that according to the Gelugpa lorig, with mental consciousness you can’t have nangla ma-ngepa. Nangla ma-ngepa only deals with sense consciousness. But we can think in terms of the factors here, of is it decisive, is there attention or not? It’s not that mental cognition cannot be non-decisive, what it means is that this category of nondetermining cognition is a category that pertains only to sense consciousness.

So, let us spend a few seconds trying to digest what we just said, the difference between attention, mindfulness, and alertness; and when we are meditating on mahamudra we might not be attentive of the content of our cognition, but we’re attentive of the nature of the mind. Mindfulness holds onto that, and alertness keeps a watch as to the quality of the hold.