The Preparatory Practices for Mahamudra

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The Gelug-Kagyu Tradition

This is a topic, which we find in many different traditions of Tibetan Buddhism. It derives from India. Specifically, we’re looking at the tradition that’s found in the Gelug lineage, and it is known as the Gelug-Kagyu tradition of mahamudra, which is perhaps a bit of a surprising name.

[See: Root Text for Mahamudra]

The word Kagyu (bka'-brgyud) means “a lineage of the enlightening words of a Buddha,” and so there are some commentators who say that, “Well, the title here doesn’t really mean the Kagyu tradition; it actually means the mahamudra tradition of the enlightening words of the Buddha that are found in the Gelug tradition.” So they want to put Kagyu aside here as referring to the actual Kagyu tradition, but His Holiness the Dalai Lama disagrees with this, following other commentators. The text was written by the Fourth Panchen Lama, and the Fourth Panchen Lama wrote his own commentary to it, and in this autocommentary, we would call it, the Fourth Panchen Lama quotes extensively from Kagyu masters. So it’s quite clear that he’s drawing on the Kagyu tradition.

Moreover, the Fourth Panchen Lama was the tutor of the Fifth Dalai Lama and was undoubtedly the architect behind the whole policy of the Fifth Dalai Lama to bring peace to Tibet after a hundred and fifty years of civil war and bring harmony among all the different traditions of Tibetan Buddhism. And so it makes perfect sense from the Panchen Lama’s own commentary and from the type of work that he was doing, that he is bringing together the Kagyu and Gelug traditions here.

But the Panchen Lama makes it very clear that he’s not making this up; he says this very clearly in his beginning lines that these teachings come in a lineage from Tsongkhapa, the founder of the Gelug tradition, but he’s only writing it down for the first time. Up until then, from the time of Tsongkhapa to his time, which was about two hundred years, this tradition was just an oral tradition.

Now, you have to bear in mind that Tsongkhapa studied with teachers from all the different traditions that were available at his time. So he had Kagyu teachers, and Sakya teachers, Nyingma teachers, teachers who had the various Kadampa lineages as well. Regarding mahamudra, he had thewhat’s called “the distant lineage” that comes all the way from Buddha through the line of Kagyu lamas. But it wasn’t limited only to Kagyu, we also find mahamudra in the Sakya lineage as well.

But Tsongkhapa also has the what’s called the “near lineage.” The Panchen Lama refers to the “near lineage” and this is the lineage that comes from a vision that Tsongkhapa had of Manjushri. Now, what an actual vision is and what happens during a vision, I must say, I really don’t know. But in any case, Tsongkhapa had a very profound vision of Manjushri, who gave him many teachings of course, but particularly, I think what’s most significant is that Manjushri gave him a very clear indication of where to look in the Indian sources to get the most profound understanding of voidness.

Tsongkhapa was a great revolutionary – I think that’s the proper word for him, because he completely reinterpreted most of the teachings that were going on in Tibet up until that time. That’s a very interesting phenomenon, if you think about it, because Tsongkhapa, like every great Tibetan lama, puts a great deal of emphasis on entrusting oneself to the spiritual teacher, which is usually called “guru devotion.” So one would think that a disciple could not disagree with his or her teacher, particularly concerning the teachings and how to understand the teachings.

But there is actually quite a long tradition of disciples disagreeing with their teachers’ interpretation and in a sense going further than their teachers. The one great example is Atisha with his teacher Dharmakirti, also known as Dharmapala, in Sumatra who held the Chittamatra view and Atisha held a Madhyamaka view. But disagreeing with one’s teacher concerning such points doesn’t mean disrespect for the teacher, because Atisha, like Tsongkhapa as well, learned a great deal from their teachers and they acknowledged that very strongly.

But the whole tradition of Buddhism, the way that it’s practiced in Tibet follows the tradition from Nalanda Monastery in India, which uses debate and logic. So if one can show logical inconsistencies in somebody else’s thinking, even if it’s your own teacher, then according to what Buddha himself said, one must accept the consequences of logic – and that’s not disrespectful.

From another point of view, different people have different meditational experiences, and there’s no reason why everybody’s meditational experiences should be exactly the same. So no matter how close we might be to our spiritual teacher, that doesn’t mean that our own individual spiritual meditational practice is going to be an exact replica of that of our teachers. We are, after all, different mental continuums and we’ve had different, separate previous lives.

So, what did Tsongkhapa do or add to this mahamudra tradition that he received from his Kagyu lamas? The Panchen Lama makes it very clear in his text. When we talk about mahamudra, we’re speaking about meditation on the nature of the mind. And, as with any phenomenon, we can speak about the conventional or superficial nature of what mind is and we can speak about the deepest nature.

The superficial nature of something is what does it – appear to be? It’s superficial in the sense that it’s the surface appearance and – as both the Sanskrit and Tibetan word implies – it hides something deeper underneath. And what it conceals, or hides, is the deepest nature, and the deepest nature is how something actually exists, in other words voidness. And voidness is referring to its way of existing devoid of impossible ways. Everybody agrees on that, but what people disagree on is what are the impossible ways that things are devoid of existing as.

What Tsongkhapa does in his interpretation of mahamudra is that he accepts and follows the traditional Kagyu methods for being able to recognize and meditate on the superficial or conventional nature of the mind. But then he introduces his own way of meditating on the deepest nature of the mind, as was indicated to him by Manjushri to follow from the Indian sources of Buddhapalita. So we have a traditional Kagyu method of meditating on the conventional or superficial nature of the mind and the Gelugpa method of meditating on the voidness of the mind. This is why it’s known as the Gelug-Kagyu tradition of mahamudra.

This is not the only example of this type of combined tradition. We also find this within the Kagyu traditions in which we have combined mahamudra/dzogchen type of practices. For instance, a great Kagyu master named Karma Chagmey (Kar-ma Chags-med) introduced a system in which one meditates in the mahamudra style up to a certain point and then for the final stages one follows a traditional Nyingma dzogchen approach.

Now, one might start to question this whole method of combining various different traditions in light of a statement that His Holiness the Dalai Lama makes very strongly, which is that we shouldn’t mix practices together. But His Holiness explains that “mixing” actually means to adulterate, and what that means is to put everything all together into one big soup. Here, what these great masters like Tsongkhapa and Karma Chagmey are doing is they are not mixing everything together in one stage of practice, but they’re taking different traditional types of practices and having them in sequence with each other. So that’s not mixing it together into one soup; that’s like having different courses in the meal. Sort of like starting your meal with borscht and then ending with a pizza. For some people, maybe that is very appetizing, for other people maybe not.

In any case, we have this lineage and this tradition. One can give various other examples, but I think that’s enough examples of combining different practices in stages. In any case, let’s turn to our text, and what I thought to do is just give a brief overview of the text without going through it line by line. I myself have received teachings on this four times, once from Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey, twice from His Holiness the Dalai Lama, and once from Serkong Rinpoche. So I will try to explain it to the best of my understanding, which of course is not that great.

"Preparatory" Practices, Rather Than "Preliminary" Practices

The Panchen Lama begins in the traditional way of respectfully paying homage to mahamudra and then to his gurus, and then he says what he’s going to write about. This is the traditional standard way in which any text begins. Then he says that he’s going to divide his discussion into – standard way, in which almost everything is divided – the preparatory practices, the actual methods, and the concluding procedures.

As for the preparatory practices, this is I think important for us to understand as “preparation” rather than “preliminary.” I’m translating “ngondro” (sngon-‘gro) as “preparation,” rather than “preliminary.” I don’t know about the connotation of the Russian words, but in English you hear “preliminary,” and then people think, “I don’t need the preliminaries, I’m advanced already. Let’s skip that, that’s boring, that’s not interesting.”

“Preliminary” just means what you do first and it’s not so important, but “preparation” has a different connotation. Think of the example of nomads living in tents, who are about to go on a caravan journey. Well, in order to go on your caravan journey, you have to prepare, which means you have to pack up the tents; you cannot go on the journey unless you prepare by packing the tents, loading the yaks, and then away you go.

That’s very different than a preliminary, like at a movie theater, where before the actual main movie you have advertisement as the preliminary and previews of coming attractions as your preliminary, which obviously you can skip. So, very different connotation. So, when we read about and learn about what in Tibetan is called “ngondro,” we really need to keep the image in our mind of the yak caravan and not the image of the movie theater advertisement.

Going in a Safe Direction (Refuge) as the Entranceway into Mahamudra

It’s quite interesting how the terminology that the Fourth Panchen Lama uses here is very reminiscent of caravans, because he says that for getting into these teachings, the entranceway, like the entranceway into a tent, is taking refuge or what I call “safe direction.” And then the central tent pole for putting up the tent is bodhichitta. That means that these two are absolutely essential for being able to practice this mahamudra. Now, this is probably not the time or occasion to go into a detailed discussion of safe direction, or refuge, and bodhichitta… a statement like that, of course, is always followed with “but...”

When we talk about what’s usually translated as “refuge,” we’re talking about putting a certain direction in our life. It’s a very active process, not passive. And that direction is indicated by the Dharma Jewel, which is what Buddha taught as the third and fourth noble truths. We’re talking about the true stopping of obscurations, true stopping of all the garbage – problems, and the causes of the problems – on the mental continuums of those who have had non-conceptual cognition of voidness all the way up to Buddhas.

And the true paths are actually the true pathways of mind; they are the minds, the understanding, that brings about that stopping and which is the result of the stopping. That’s referring to the uninterrupted path and the liberated path on each of the bhumis, actually, for those who know technical details. It’s the uninterrupted path, it’s the understanding of voidness that will get rid of a portion of junk that you have to get rid of, that’s the uninterrupted path. And then the liberated path is the mind that’s free of that junk. There’s always two steps.

Then the Buddha Jewel are those who have the true stoppings and the true paths in full, and the Sangha Jewel are those who have it in part – those are the aryas, they have a little bit of this, but not the whole thing. Now, if you think about that, that has a profound connection with mahamudra; because it’s absolutely essential to really understand the nature of the mind in order to be convinced that it’s possible to get rid of the junk – all the problems and causes of problems that are on the mental continuum – and that it’s possible to develop the antidote that will get rid of it and the state of mind that will result from that.

So, of course, there are two ways of developing this. The first way would be – on the basis of inspiration from various teachers, on the basis of many emotional states, and so on – that we want to put this direction in our life, because we’re convinced that OK, it’s at least going to help us somewhat to go in this direction. And once we’re going in this direction – at least we know what we’re heading for – then, in order to really have that firm, we’re going to really need to work very hard to really understand and recognize the nature of the mind, so that we’re really convinced that it’s possible, that what we’re aiming for, the direction we’re going in, is not just some fantasy, but it’s actually possible.

After all how do we know that there was a Buddha? How do we know that it’s possible to become a Buddha? How do we know? Is it just a nice fairy tale? Or are we aiming to become Santa Claus, or what? So it’s only when we really understand the nature of the mind, that our refuge, this safe direction will be really firm. But as a preparation for being able to really investigate the nature of the mind, we would need to be wanting to go in that direction that has that intimate connection with the nature of the mind, the direction that’s indicated by the true stoppings and the true pathway minds.

So the entranceway to get into the tent is at least going in that direction of working with the mind – and, as is said very clearly in the teachings, the actions of our speech and body are derivative from the actions of the mind. So one way of practice is first to put that direction in our life, for whatever reason – we don’t want things to get worse, we have confidence that the Buddhas can lead us in that way, and so on – so we do that first, and then work to gain the understanding of the mind.

Or the other way would be to get some understanding of the mind first and then, when we’re a little bit convinced that this whole Buddhist trip is possible, then put this direction in our life. So there’s two ways. As His Holiness the Dalai Lama explains, for those of us who are more emotionally and devotionally inclined, the first style is more suitable – that first we go in this direction, motivated by emotion and devotion, and then try to get the understanding. Or for those who are more intellectually inclined, first try to get some intellectual understanding of the possibility of going in this direction, and then one puts this direction in one’s life firmly.

But regardless of which way in which we practice, even if we’re practicing the second way, it’s not going to be the deepest understanding of mind and the possibility of getting rid of the obscurations or the garbage on the mind. There is a little bit of understanding, but in either way, this safe direction of going in this direction is an absolutely essential preparation for being able to really now go deeply into trying to understand and recognize the nature of the mind.

Bodhichitta as the Central Pole Holding Up Mahamudra Practice

So, now we’re going in the safe direction that gets us into the tent. What is the central pole that’s holding up the tent? It’s bodhichitta. What does the central pole of a tent do? It gives the strength for the whole tent to stay there and stay up and not fall down. So bodhichitta gives us that strength to follow the path and follow the path all the way. Without it, our whole practice of mahamudra is likely to fall down. Therefore, we need to understand what actually bodhichitta means.

And that’s not so easy. First of all, we need to think of everybody, and that means everybody, and we have compassion – we think of their suffering, we want them to overcome their suffering – we take responsibility to help them overcome that suffering, and we see that the only way to actually be able do that is if we ourselves become Buddhas. So we are thinking on the most grand, extensive scale possible. Enlightenment means a mind that encompasses everybody and everything, and we want to help everybody. That encompasses every being that exists.

And an enlightened mind is the endpoint of the Dharma refuge. It has the full elimination of both the emotional and cognitive obscurations; it has all the possible good qualities that a mental continuum could have. And we are not only going in the direction that’s indicated by this, but now we want to actually achieve this type of mind ourselves. Refuge or safe direction doesn’t mean necessarily going all the way to the end of this path – to enlightenment – it could be going just as far as liberation. But now, with bodhichitta, we want to go all the way to the end.

If we are aiming for a state in which mind has its fullest capacities, and is totally free of all obscuration, and is totally capable of everything that a mind is capable of – if that’s now our aim, then we can really understand that it is “preparation.” We need that in order to be able to – with mahamudra practice – understand, and recognize, and realize this nature of the mind.

So, with bodhichitta, what we are aiming for is our own future enlightenment, which has not yet happened, but which definitely can happen. We’re not aiming for enlightenment in general. We’re not aiming for Buddha’s enlightenment – that was Buddha Shakyamuni’s enlightenment. We’re aiming for our own enlightenment. But our own enlightenment doesn’t exist now, does it? So what are we aiming for? Are we aiming for something that doesn’t exist? That’s pretty weird.

Then one has to start thinking very deeply about things that have not yet happened – do they have any type of existence at all?

I am aiming for my seventieth birthday. My seventieth birthday doesn’t exist yet, does it? It hasn’t happened yet, but it’s not a total fantasy; it’s something that can happen. On what basis can it happen? It can happen on the basis of – personally, I’m sixty-one, and I’m getting older and getting closer to that seventieth birthday every day. Unless I die before then, then I can reach that seventieth birthday, that not-yet-happening seventieth birthday will become a presently-happening seventieth birthday, just on the basis of the fact that I am aging. That is a natural quality of my mental continuum; it’s going on from moment to moment. And actually, I don’t have to put in any effort in order to reach my seventieth birthday, it will happen naturally.

Now what about my not-yet-happening enlightenment? Is it the same as my not-yet-happening seventieth birthday? Well, yes and no. First of all there is a basis, a valid basis for my not-yet-happening enlightenment – this is known as Buddha-nature, the actual nature of my mind, my mental continuum, both it’s conventional and deepest nature. On the basis of that Buddha-nature, I can become enlightened, just as on the basis of the fact that my mental continuum continues I can become older and reach my seventieth birthday.

So on the fact that conventionally the mind is capable of knowing anything – it’s capable of knowing things, isn’t it? And on the basis of the fact that the mind doesn’t exist in any impossible ways – so it is free of all this junk – it’s possible to achieve total true stopping of all the junk and the total understanding of everything. However, it doesn’t require any extra effort for me to reach my seventieth birthday, it will just happen naturally unless I die before then. It’s not the same with reaching enlightenment. We’re going to have to put in a tremendous amount of effort and hard work to reach that enlightenment.

Although death could prevent me from reaching my seventieth birthday, and I would never reach it in this lifetime, it’s not quite the same with bodhichitta. You see, something could prevent me from reaching my seventieth birthday in any lifetime. I could never reach my seventieth birthday in any lifetime, whereas with bodhichitta, with reaching enlightenment, certain obstacles might come up preventing us in this lifetime from achieving it, but there’s nothing that could prevent it completely.

So if we’ve really understood the nature of the mind, and if we’ve really understood the third and fourth noble truths, then we will be convinced that it’s actually possible to achieve enlightenment. And it’s possible for me to achieve enlightenment, and it’s possible for everybody to achieve enlightenment, including the mosquito buzzing around my head that kept me awake last night. After all, if we are aiming to lead everybody to enlightenment, we need to be convinced that everybody can actually achieve enlightenment.

So, we can see from this that bodhichitta is a very profound topic – just to understand what is bodhichitta. We are, first of all, aiming to benefit everybody, bring them to enlightenment, and then we’re focused on our own future enlightenment, which has not yet happened, but we understand it can happen on the basis of our Buddha-nature. And we’re working to achieve that, to make that attainment actually a presently-happening attainment, in order to then benefit everybody.

It is with this thinking that in the beginning of our class, when we took safe direction or refuge, we thought in terms of those who have actually achieved enlightenment – that’s the result. We think in terms of our own future enlightenment that we’re aiming for achieving with bodhichitta in respect to that – that’s the path that we’re going to follow to that result. And we prostrate and show respect to our own Buddha-nature, which is the basis which will allow us – with bodhichitta – to work toward our future enlightenment, so that we ourselves become a Buddha.

We can see from this discussion that safe direction and bodhichitta have a very intimate relationship with mahamudra meditation for understanding the nature of the mind. And if we have – at least on an emotional and devotional level – this safe direction and bodhichitta, that is the preparation. We’ve packed our bags; we have all the stuff that we’re going to need along the way in order to actually do this mediation and succeed in it.

Building Up the Two Networks in Order to Grow within Mahamudra Practice

So we’ve gotten into the tent; we’ve set up the central pole so the tent will be stable; and now we can practice in that tent; we can live in the tent. And the Panchen Lama says, “Do not have these merely be words from your mouth,” in other words, feel this sincerely from your heart!

Then the Panchen Lama says, to actually be able to see the nature of the mind, we need to build up the two – I call them the “networks,” sometimes they’re called “collections,” a “network of positive force” and “deep awareness,” sometimes called “collection of merit” and “collection of wisdom or insight.” These are not “collections” in the sense of a collection of stamps, but what we’re doing is on the one hand meditating with bodhichitta and compassion, and actually helping people, which builds up more and more positive force or energy, and all of that force or energy networks with each other and gets stronger and stronger. And we’re studying and meditating more and more on voidness, and all our understanding and everything that we learn networks together, so it gets stronger and stronger. So we have this great strength from compassion and love and bodhichitta, and we’re working to build up these two networks, to strengthen them more and more. It’s like putting energy into a system, into an organic system.

Now, we can think of this in terms of an analogy with water. If you put enough energy into the water then, all of a sudden, it will reach a critical phase transition point, in which it will rearrange itself and change into steam; it will boil. Similarly, if we build up these two networks, get more and more positive force, more and more understanding, eventually our whole system will – blip! – rearrange and we will gain the insight of mahamudra; we will eventually become an arya, gain non-conceptual cognition of voidness of the mind. So we need to put a lot of energy into our system.

In addition, we need to purify ourselves of mental obstacles or obscurations. Now, of course the only thing that will really get rid of the mental obscurations is the non-conceptual cognition of voidness. Because, you see, we have a tremendous amount of potential for causing more problems and having emotional disturbances and all these sort of things. There’s a lot of potential for that from our previous behavior. And what will activate those potentials? What is it that will activate it, is our – it’s very complicated, but to put it in simple terms – it’s basically our ignorance, our unawareness, our confusion.

So if we gain the non-conceptual cognition of voidness and are able to stay with it all the time, then there’s nothing that will activate these potentials. So if there’s nothing that can activate these potentials, there aren’t any potentials anymore. We can only talk about a potential on the basis of a future ripening of the potential. If there’s no future ripening of it, there’s no potential. A potential for something only exists relative to that something that it is a potential for being actually possible to happen.

So that’s the only thing that actually is going to purify all these karmic aftermaths and potentials and so on, is this non-conceptual cognition of voidness, and staying with it all the time. We shouldn’t fool ourselves then into thinking that recitation of the hundred-syllable mantra of Vajrasattva, which is what we do at this stage of our practice as a preparation, is going to rid ourselves of all these obscurations forever, the way that the understanding of voidness will do. Doing the Vajrasattva practice – and doing it perfectly, of course – is like washing our hands. Our hands are clean after we wash our hands, but that doesn’t mean that they’re never going to get dirty again.

But we want to wash them, so that we can do something very delicate with them, like a brain surgeon or something like that. So as a preparation for doing an operation on the brain, we wash our hands. So similarly – “Where did you get all the training?” “In medical school.” – so similarly to do this operation on our minds, to try to understand the nature of the mind, we need to build up a lot of force. So here we do building up the two networks – we have to have our motivation – bodhichitta on so on – we have to actually get into this whole study and practice, and then we need to wash our hands, so we need to do some purification practice like Vajrasattva.

Opening Our Minds to Mahamudra by Requesting Our Gurus for Inspiration

When we’ve done this, the final step of our preparation is to “make heartfelt requests to our root guru inseparable from all the Buddhas of the three times.” Now what in the world is going on here with making requests? What are we doing, saying, “Oh guru, pretty, pretty, please let me see the nature of my mind. I will make offerings to you every day. Please let me see it. I’ll be a good boy; I’ll be a good girl, just let me see the nature of my mind?” Well, I don’t think that it is such a childish practice as that. So what actually are we talking about here in terms of making requests?

Because this is emphasized in so many teachings. What we’re doing is basically opening ourselves up for inspiration. This idea of opening up is very key here; it’s very central. We opened up to the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, that safe direction in life; rather than going nowhere or going into a negative direction in our life, now we’ve opened up to going in some positive direction. Then we’ve opened up to the vastness of all beings and the vastness of the enlightened state of the mind when we have developed bodhichitta, and we’ve opened up to the vastness of intensity of compassion for everybody.

And in doing this purification of Vajrasattva, for example, when they talk about confession, the word for that literally is “opening up,” and so it’s like the same word for when you cut a piece of wood and you split it open with an axe: “I admit all the negative things that I’ve done, and I open up, and I want to get rid of it.” And now what we want to do is to open up as well to inspiration from our spiritual teacher. In order to see the nature of the mind, both conventional and deepest nature of the mind, mind has to be totally, totally open. If we’re just a little bit closed, there’s no way that we’re going to actually see the nature of the mind.

The more and more open we are in all these various dimensions that we’ve just mentioned, the more prepared we are for success in this practice. And we need to also make the mind more and more intense. Intense is like instead of a twenty watt light bulb, a two hundred watt light bulb. I think the light bulb is a good example here. We want to be able to see the nature of the mind; and so we have to speak about the mind that is looking at the nature of the mind, and the nature of the mind that is being seen. The more intense the mind as an object is, it’ll be easier to see it; and the more intense the mind that is the subject that’s doing is, it will also be easier to see it.

You need both the mind as the object and as the subject to be intense. Think of the example of the light bulb: the stronger the intensity of the light bulb, on the one hand the more visible the light bulb will be, and on the other hand we will be more able to see the light bulb. Like that we want to get the mind as intense as possible, because then we will have a mind for looking at the nature of the mind that will be more intense and strong, and what we’re looking at will be more intense and strong.

So of course we have to get a lot of electricity into the light bulb, so we have to build up these networks. And of course we have to clean the light bulb, so we have to do the purification. And we have to plug the light bulb into the electricity source, so we need safe direction and we need bodhichitta. And then, for increasing the intensity here, we make these requests. So what we want is to open up now to the inspiration of our spiritual teacher – we already have great intensity from compassion and bodhichitta, “I really have to help everybody.”

The root guru is the one that acts as a root, not who acts as the seed that starts the plant to grow, but acts as the root. The root of a plant is what the plant gets its strength from; so the root guru is the most inspiring to us, gives the most strength to us. For many of us it’ll be His Holiness the Dalai Lama. We may never have a personal, individual contact with him, yet he gives us tremendous personal inspiration.

And we see our root guru as “inseparable from all the Buddhas,” it says right here in the text. It certainly doesn’t mean literally that our teacher is a Buddha in the full technical sense, and can multiply in twenty billion forms, and walk through walls, and knows the telephone number of everybody on the planet. But what it’s talking about is seeing Buddha-nature in the spiritual teacher, and seeing through the inspiration of the spiritual teacher what can be a Buddha, and that we have that same thing. We see the basis, what we’re seeing in the guru as the Buddha is the Buddha-nature of the teacher.

We see in our guru the guru’s Buddha-nature, and that inspires us to be – like we talk in guru-yoga – to be inseparable from our guru. Just as the Buddha-nature is so obvious in our teacher – in terms of the accomplishments of the teacher, and the inspiration, and so on – likewise I have Buddha-nature too. In other words, in seeing the Buddha-nature of the teacher, then when we say, “the teacher is a Buddha,” and giving a name of the result to the cause – on one level we can see it’s an ordinary person, and on another level, equally valid, a Buddha. On the basis of Buddha-nature, one is an ordinary being, and on the basis of Buddha-nature one is a Buddha.

On the basis of Buddha-nature, we are an ordinary being; on the basis of Buddha-nature we are a Buddha – this is what in the Sakya system is called the inseparability of samsara and nirvana. That doesn’t mean literally that the guru is a Buddha, but by understanding Buddha-nature, which of course is not so easy, but by understanding Buddha-nature and seeing it more easily in the teacher, then we can see it in ourselves. And that is a really strong opening up for being able to see the nature of the mind. Gampopa said when he realized the inseparability of his mind and his root guru, Milarepa, he realized mahamudra.

This has to do with this whole process of making requests on the basis of understanding Buddha-nature, gaining inspiration. And inspiration is not a disturbing emotional state. If on the basis of thinking of our guru, we get really emotionally unstable – “Oh my guru,” and crying, and all this sort of stuff – that is not proper, stable inspiration. It’s unstable. When we speak about the word that’s usually translated not so nicely as “faith,” which is a type of confident belief – one of the three kinds is the “clear-minded belief,” in other words, the type of belief that your guru has Buddha-nature and all the good qualities and so on, that clears the mind of disturbing emotions.

So we’re not in love with our guru; that’s not the emotion we’re talking about here. But this inspiration uplifts us. The word for “inspiration” is “chinlab” (byin-rlabs), “waves of brightening,” this is the Tibetan term, the Sanskrit term adhishtana just means “uplifting.” “Blessing” is how it’s often translated, but I think that is bringing in a system of other religious beliefs that really are irrelevant here. How do we gain inspiration? We think of the guru’s good qualities, and we think of the kindness of the guru – the kindness toward everyone, the kindness specifically toward us – and that inspires a strong emotional state, which is a stable state, not a disturbing state. And this really adds energy to the mind – both as the subject and as an object – and opens us up even further.

Imagining Our Guru Dissolves into Us and We Merge into One

The final step is that we imagine our root guru coming to the crown of our heads and then dissolving into us and we become one. That doesn’t literally mean that now we become a clone of our teacher, and have all the conventional habits of the teacher – eating the same kind of food, and wearing the same clothes, and so on. But we understand that the Buddha-nature of the guru and the Buddha-nature of ourself are individual, “My Buddha-nature isn’t your Buddha-nature. My nose isn’t your nose, but they’re equivalent.”

What is really important here is, if we have this state of inspiration from the teacher – it’s strong, our heart is really moved by the teacher – then when the teacher dissolves into us, it’s a very, very joyous, blissful state of mind that we have, and super-intense. It’s not the same as visualizing an apple in front of us and the apple comes to our head and dissolves in our heart, “So what?” You don’t feel anything.

When we have done all of these preparatory practices of the safe direction, bodhichitta, building up the two networks, purification, requests to the guru, dissolving the guru into us, then our minds are the most open and in the most intense state, which will then be the preparation for having the most conducive mind – as both an object and a subject – for gaining the insight of mahamudra.

This is very important to really comprehend this, really digest what that means. If we start to try to meditate on the nature of the mind, and we just sort of sit down and start to do it, in the vast, vast majority of cases, our minds are not going to be terribly intense at all. It’s like we haven’t sharpened the knife to be able to cut something. We have to sharpen the knife first; we have to get the mind in the proper state in order to then do the mahamudra meditation.

Once we have seen the nature of the mind, and we’re very, very familiar, then we can see it all the time. But when we still haven’t achieved that, and we’re trying really hard to be able to meditate on the nature of the mind, these preparation steps are essential. At least some level of them is a preparation for our practice. And in the words of the Panchen Lama, “Do not have these merely be words from your mouth.”

That covers the preparation material, and then tomorrow we’ll discuss the actual meditation practice. Do you have some questions?

Oral Transmission as Permission to Practice Mahamudra

Would you tomorrow give us a “lung” for meditation, permission for meditation? Because the important question is can you do the meditation without the permission of a lama or a teacher? Or will you only describe how to do this?

That’s a very interesting question, because it gets into a whole discussion of what is a “lung,” an oral transmission. An oral transmission, according to my understanding, is of a text, not of a meditation. The custom arose in India from the time of the Buddha, when nothing was written down for the first three and a half, or four centuries after Buddha. None of his teachings were in written form; the teachings were all transmitted orally. People had to memorize them and then recite them.

So in order to study the teachings, you needed to have somebody who had memorized them before you, and listen to that person reciting it correctly, word for word, without any mistakes. One listened to this and had this transmission in order to have the confidence that you got the words of the teachings correctly. And if you listened to it often enough, or if you had a really good memory, you would be able to memorize it based on hearing other people recite it correctly. So it was very, very important; otherwise the text got corrupted if people didn’t remember them correctly and recite them correctly.

The custom continued even once the texts were written down. Now the interesting thing here is that the person who gives an oral transmission of a text does not necessarily have to understand anything of the text that he or she is reciting. The only criterion is that they recite it correctly without making mistakes. So I must say, I found this very surprising, but what I’m saying is based on what His Holiness the Dalai Lama told me personally. I’ll tell you the story, it’s interesting:

There is one of Tsongkhapa’s most difficult texts, called the Essence of Excellent or Eloquent Explanation of Interpretable and Definitive Meanings (Drang-nges legs-bshad snying-po). Anyway, it’s Tsongkhapa’s tremendous text on the Svatantrika and Prasangika systems, the Mahayana systems; it’s probably Tsongkhapa’s most difficult text. It’s about two hundred and fifty pages long, and my teacher Tsenshap Serkong Rinpoche, he used to recite it from memory every day as part of his daily practice – he was one of the teachers of His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

And there’s a lineage of it from Tsongkhapa himself. But Serkong Rinpoche’s father, Serkong Dorjechang, was probably the most accomplished yogi of his generation, and he had a vision of Tsongkhapa who gave him another transmission of the text, an explanation. So Serkong Rinpoche had this special double lineage. And he never gave the oral transmission to His Holiness the Dalai Lama. He said that he was waiting until he had something really special about it to be able to explain to His Holiness that His Holiness hadn’t heard before, and so he was waiting. And before he was able to give it to His Holiness, he died.

However, I have received the lung of this text from Serkong Rinpoche, and it was a very special oral transmission, because he did it from memory, without looking at the text – two hundred and fifty pages – he recited it every day as part of his practice, at super-speed. So, Serkong Rinpoche’s next reincarnation was found and I’m as close to him, if not closer than I was with the old one. He’s twenty-two years old now, and when he was I think nineteen – it must have been when he was around nineteen – he wanted very much this oral transmission.

So we looked and looked, and there was nobody who was still alive who had the oral transmission except me, and there were two other people present at the time, and Rinpoche wasn’t interested in getting it from them, so he wanted me to give him the oral transmission. Now, I had never studied this text, and so I have no understanding at all of what’s in the text, but Rinpoche was very insistent that I give it to him. So I asked His Holiness the Dalai Lama permission, “What should I do?” since His Holiness the Dalai Lama supervises Serkong Rinpoche’s education.

That’s when His Holiness explained to me that it doesn’t matter that I don’t understand anything from the text. I received the actual oral transmission and I can give it back to Serkong Rinpoche, since obviously he was very special and it was very important that he continue this lineage. So, I practiced and practiced reciting, reading the text out loud, until I could do it without making a complete idiot out of myself, without it being just totally boring and a torture for Rinpoche to listen to me.

Then I went to Rinpoche’s monastery and I gave him the oral transmission. I read the text to him out loud, basically – and that’s it; that’s what an oral transmission is. I was actually quite shocked that that was all that was involved. I had thought that the person who gave it had to really have total understanding and insight and all that sort of stuff in the text. So that’s very different from giving vows. When you have to have the vows purely, or giving an initiation, or things like that, it’s a very different category.

So, as for an oral transmission or a permission for a meditation, I don’t know that there is such a thing. There are initiations for doing the anuttarayoga tantra level of practice of this, that’s something different, but this can be done on a sutra level and this text speaks about it on a sutra level. As for giving an oral transmission of the text, I don’t happen to have the Tibetan text with me. If I did, I could read it to you out loud; I’d be happy to do that. I could read you my English translation, but I don’t know that that would do much for you. Anyway, that’s it for oral transmission.

The question of course is how useful is it nowadays, and that is a difficult question. From the traditional point of view, it’s considered very important. I think it’s important from the point of view of feeling part of a lineage – continuity, authenticity, and so on – of at least the material. But as I said, it doesn’t necessarily imply that the person giving the transmission understands what they’re saying; although I would hope that most of the great masters who give these oral transmissions do understand what they’re reciting, but it doesn’t seem to be a prerequisite. For instance, the great lamas who gave oral transmissions to His Holiness the Dalai Lama, I would hope that they understood what they were saying, and I would assume they did.