Mahamudra: Finding the Mind and Attaining Shamatha

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Clarification of Points about Kagyu and Sakya Teachings

There are many different traditions, for instance in Kagyu there’s the tradition of two streams merged together, which refers to having both sutra and tantra mixed together within the mahamudra teachings. The disciple of the great translator Marpa, Milarepa, in turn had two disciples who were likened to the sun and the moon. The sun-like disciple was Rechungpa and the moon-like disciple was the peerless physician Gampopa. Gampopa spoke of four specific measures or themes, namely having the Dharma function as a preventive measure, having the Dharma function as a pathway of the mind, and then having pathway minds eliminate all confusion, and having confusion dawn as deep awareness.

In Sakya, you have the tradition of parting from the four clingings, elaborated upon by the great Sakya master Dragpa Gyaltsen. These maintain that if you are completely attached just to things of this world and this life, then your mind doesn’t go completely toward the spiritual matters of the Dharma. The second is that if your mind is completely caught up clinging to various types of uncontrollably recurring situations of samsara, for instance you want to be reborn as a god or with great wealth and power or something like that, you will never develop a true determination to be free from all problems, or renunciation. However, this is quite different from trying to get the eight different types of ripening qualities that will make your attainment of a human rebirth the most meaningful and in which you will best be able to help others. In other words, if you are a very powerful and influential person, you can help others the best, but this teaching says that if you have great clinging desire and attachment for these types of things, you’ll never develop a true determination to be free from all your problems and difficulties. So that’s two quite different situations and you should not confuse the two.

Did You Go Out and Find Your Mind?

I asked you what do you understand by the word samsara, and also, at the last session, I asked you to go out and try to find out what mind is. What did you find?

Samsara is a form of life that is limited by karma, by negative potentials.

But did you go out and find your mind?

Did I find my mind?

Did you look for your mind, literally? Did you go out to find it?

I couldn’t find it.

Did you others go out and try to find your mind?

I find a radiance, but then I don’t know what sees the radiance.

But did you actually go out to find your mind?

No, I went in.

If you go out, can you find mind?

I think I’ll get confused.

How would you get confused?

There are many things that are distracting. I don’t know if those are of the mind or if those are mere distractions?

Where do you see mental wandering outside? How did you actually understand the phrase “you should go out and look for mind”?

I understood it as once you just look for it, where could you possibly find it?

I meant that quite literally to go for a walk and try to find the mind. Did anybody go for a walk? Nobody went for a walk?

I went for a walk.

You went for a walk, what did you find?

If you consider in tantra that in an enlightened state where you try to have mind be the same as the object of mind, then what I perceived was a reflection of my mind.

I didn’t say for you to sit and intellectualize about what the mind is, I said actually, “Go out for a walk and look for the mind.” So did you do that and what did you find?

I did take a walk, with my senses I was not able to see the mind, but what I saw was a reflection from my impressions which I took to be….

What do you mean by the word “impression”?

The environment through which I walked, the sights, the smells, the feelings.

You saw those through your senses?

I felt and saw and smelt those.

But did you actually go looking for the mind? Yes or no?

I didn’t find it, no. Yes, yes, I went looking for it, but I didn’t find it.

What time did you go?

I just came back.

What time did you go?

What time did I go? I went at one thirty and I came back at a quarter to three.

Where did you go?

I went to the woods back there.

You didn’t find it there?

I didn’t find it there.

But is there something out there to catch onto to establish the mind?

Is it all those things that make the impression on the mind?

So you weren’t able to establish the mind, but could you have established the mind by going out and looking for it in the woods?

If you go under the assumption that those impressions are a way to find the mind, then perhaps, but I don’t know.

So there’s no way to find something to establish the mind by going outside? Does it mean you can’t find a mind?

I guess I’ll have to say that I found it.

So you did find the mind! Was it something you could pick up and bring back here?

Nothing that I can pick up and bring back.

So what does it mean that you’ve found your mind? Is it something that you can pick up out of the ground and bring back here? Maybe you just didn’t see it?

No, I didn’t see it in those terms.

So there isn’t anything that you could find, that you could pick up and bring back that is the mind?

Unless it’s in here?

So it’s not something that you can pick up from outside?

No, I looked all over the swamp for a lotus, but didn’t see any.

That is the custom in a teaching on mahamudra, that you go out and try to find the mind. I myself had a very skilled teacher who, in the teaching of this subject matter of mahamudra, the great seal of reality, gave everyone a day’s break and had them go all over the place for the whole day trying to find the mind. And then he had all of us come back the next evening and report what we had done.

That day there were two very clever and learned geshes who were attending the teachings with me. The two of them went off to a very nice place and just relaxed and took the day off as a holiday when they were supposed to find the mind, because they felt that the mind was just inside so they could just take it easy for that day. These two geshes were very clever and they could explain what the situation was with respect to the mind and, therefore, they said there was no way of looking for it outside and so just loafed around for the day.

Another disciple who was there with us was really a very good disciple and had great faith in the teachers, and he spent the entire day combing the woods walking back and forth all around trying to find the mind. When he got back at end of the day at night after all this walking around he thought, “Ah, the mind isn’t something outside, it’s something inside.”

Then the geshes, who had just loafed around for the day and could explain in very elegant words that the mind was inside, explained to the teacher what they had done and the teacher was not pleased at all because they hadn’t actually followed his instructions and gone out looking for the mind. Whereas the other disciple said, “I spent the entire day walking all around back and forth and got back at night completely exhausted and tired and I discovered that the mind isn’t outside but is something inside.” When he said that to the lama, the lama was extremely pleased; he was extremely happy because the person had actually listened to what he was told and had gone out looking for the mind and didn’t find it.

It seems as though, perhaps, some of you just felt that you were very clever, that the mind isn’t something that’s outside, that you felt that everybody knows it is inside and you just took that as an excuse for sitting around loafing. It’s very important to actively investigate and try to recognize, try to identify, what the mind is because it’s on the basis of what the mind is that in mahamudra practice you try to focus and gain a stilled and settled state of mind, shamatha in Sanskrit.

Gaining a Stilled and Settled State of Mind

You can take many different objects to focus on in order to gain a stilled and settled state of mind in which you have perfect concentration. Some people might focus on a watch or a little piece of wood, or something like that and they can, in fact, gain perfect concentration, but there are much more profound objects to use. Normally, when we try to develop a stilled and settled state of mind, we do this by visualizing the bodily form of a Buddha. We don’t normally do that by using the mind as the object of focus, since it is very difficult to identify the object correctly and precisely. So I shall explain that.

For gaining concentration, you can establish this visualization of a Buddha by looking first at a painting of a Buddha, but that’s not exactly what you should be visualizing. Rather, what’s a little bit better is to get two mirrors and have one mirror reflect the painting of the Buddha and then place the other mirror so that it gets a reflection of the reflection, in this way you get something like a 3D image of a Buddha. This is better because you shouldn’t visualize something flat, you should visualize something that’s alive and in 3D.

So you visualize that form of a Buddha in front of you. It is best to choose a small size for the Buddha in front of you, like the size of your thumb, and you need to keep it that one size. In other words, sometimes when you are focusing on it, it will be small and then all of a sudden it gets bigger and then it gets smaller again, or sometimes it sinks lower down in your vision and other times it goes higher up. You shouldn’t have it move all around, but keep it steady. You choose a position and size that are comfortable for you at the beginning when you first start out, and you stick to it and use this as an object for focusing on to gain a stilled and settled state of mind.

We choose a Buddha image rather than visualizing a small piece of wood or a stone or something like that because, in addition to allowing you to gain concentration and a stilled and settled state of mind, this also allows you to build up a very strong positive potential, since you are always thinking about the Buddha and holding the Buddha in your mind. So this is the usual way we practice, but here what we are asked to focus on to gain this stilled and settled state of mind is to focus on the mind itself and that is quite difficult to do. So if you are going to be focused on that, first you have to actually find the object.

The Fault of Laziness

In the process of trying to get single-minded concentration and gain this stilled and settled mind, you have to watch out for all the possible faults that can arise, the things that you want to get rid of that would prevent you from gaining this perfect concentration. The first fault is laziness. How do you get rid of laziness, how do you overcome it? First of all, you must have confidence: confident belief in what you are doing, then you need strong intention, thirdly, you need positive enthusiasm, and fourth, you need flexibility.

So the first of these is you must have confidence in the method that you are applying; you must be confident that what you are doing is correct. In other words, you must have strong confident belief in these methods to gain concentration in order to actually apply them.

  • First you have that confident belief; then you set the strong intention to actually sit down and do it. This is very important otherwise you won’t overcome your laziness.
  • The second is intention.
  • The third is to have positive enthusiasm for what you’re doing because that will spur you on.
  • The fourth is to gain some flexibility so that you can actually apply yourself and reach a state in which your mind and your body become very supple and it’s very easy for you to concentrate. It’s a state in which your mind becomes as light as a ball of fluff and your body feels the same way, and you are able to just concentrate on whatever positive thing you need to without any difficulties.

So you should think about this and how you want to achieve that state. The way you will be able to overcome your laziness is by having confidence in what you are doing, having a strong intention to do it, having strong positive enthusiasm, and having the wish to gain great flexibility and ease of mind.

These are all opponents for laziness. There are three different kinds of laziness.

  • There is the laziness of feeling that you are incapable of doing anything, sort of always putting yourself down.
  • Then there’s the laziness of giving up. So then you avoid the point of what you are trying to do and involve yourself instead in all sorts of trivialities.
  • The third is procrastination: putting things off to tomorrow.

An example of the first one, this feeling of laziness with which you always feel discouraged and put yourself down would be, for instance, when you look at a large text and say, “Oh, that’s really too much for me I can’t possibly learn all of that.” You sort of put yourself down and don’t do anything, or even if you see a smaller book, you still look at it and say, “Oh, that’s too much for me I can’t do it.” In this way you are never able to learn anything. So that’s the first type of laziness, the laziness with which you feel that you are incapable of anything.

The second one is the type of laziness with which you give up. It’s the type with which at the beginning you work very hard at something, you do that for a few days and then, after a while, you just get tired, you blow yourself out in a sense, like blowing out a candle, and you give up, just relax and go off to sleep or do something trivial.

The third is the one is the laziness of procrastination, of always putting things off for tomorrow and tomorrow.

Although laziness might seem like a very small fault, in fact it’s the thing that hurts us the most. Sakya Pandita said that where there is laziness, there will be no actual spiritual practice, so it’s very important when you are trying to gain single-minded concentration to get rid of all these types of laziness. The way you do it is by relying on these four aspects:

  • first having great faith and confident belief in the advantages and benefits of gaining concentration,
  • then setting a very strong intention to do it,
  • thirdly, having a great deal of enthusiasm for what you are doing, a very positive enthusiasm.
  • Then, the fourth is to think, “If I’m able to gain this concentration, then I’ll be able to apply my mind and myself to any type of positive thing that I want to. My mind will be like an airplane that once it’s set in a direction, it will be able to soar and go in that direction with great ease.” So you think in terms of the ease of mind that you will gain once you have some concentration.

These four will enable you to get over your laziness.

The Fault of Forgetting about the Object of Focus

The second fault that can affect your process of gaining concentration is forgetting about the object of focus that you have been instructed to concentrate on. That would be like, you are trying to focus on something and then you lose it, you forget all about it and your mind goes off somewhere else. The opponent for that is to develop mindfulness in order to stick to it. That’s why, when you first start to try to focus your mind and gain concentration, you do it by having very short periods of practice, because if you try to sit for a long period of time at once, you’ll find it very difficult and there will be many mistakes and faults coming up. If you do many very small sessions, like around eighteen a day for very short periods of time, then it will be much better.

The First Four Stages

The first stage that’s involved then is just first setting your mind on an object.

The second stage that you reach is being able to gain a little bit of continuity in setting your mind on an object, and this you do by being mindful and staying on the object. In other words, you are able to focus a little longer. You will find that in the process of trying to do this, all sorts of thoughts are going to come into your mind. You think about your work and about all sorts of things, and this is not a bad sign, it is actually a good sign.

The next stage that you reach in this process is called resetting your mind over and again. This is the stage in which your mind goes off from the object and then you bring it back again to it, and then your mind goes off again and you bring it back, and you do this time and again. It is like putting a patch on something, you have to go back to the same spot and put it back on again, and then you go and put it back on again, and you keep doing like that. It is as if you had a little kid, the little kid runs outside and you go and tell him to come back in the house; and so the kid comes back in and then, after a short time, the kid runs out again and you have to go and bring him back inside; and then the kid goes out again and again you bring him back inside. The same type of process is involved with your attention; you bring your attention back and back again to the object. That’s the third stage of this process in which you reset your mind over and again on an object.

Then you reach the next stage, called “closely setting,” in which you have a close setting of your mind on an object. In this stage, you finally get to a point where you have hardly any type of mental wandering, of your mind going off, and you are able to just keep your mind set closely on the object that you are trying to concentrate on. You use all the various powers to help you not to lose the object of concentration and not forget about it, so you use the powers of listening to the instructions and remaining mindful of them, keeping alertness, and so forth.

The Fault of Mental Dullness

The next type of fault that comes up is having mental dullness and mental agitation, flightiness of mind. In trying to deal with mental dullness, what you try to do is gain three things in your concentration. First, you are trying to gain a certain clarity of the object, in the sense that it arises in your meditation, bright and clear so that you can see it. In addition, secondly it should be very clear in the sense of being very precise. In other words, it’s not murky or anything, but it’s very lucid to you. So it needs to be both clear in the sense that you can see it brightly and lucid in the sense that it’s not murky at all, that it is precise. The third thing that you need is to have a good type of focus on it, a sharp focus of mind on it.

For instance, you can have a very clear and lucid idea of wanting to go to that barn over there. It could be clear in your mind that you want to go there and your mind could be very lucid about it, not murky at all. But if you lack a good sharp focus on it while you are walking, you could space out and walk right past it. Although your mind has been clear about where you want to go and your mind’s very lucid about it, nevertheless, because you haven’t really focused your mind very well, you just space out and walk right past. The same thing happens, for instance, when you are driving a car and you sort of space out and drive right past where you are supposed to make a turn and then you have to go all the way around the block or whatever, in order to catch it. Likewise, all these qualities are involved in trying to learn how to concentrate. You need to get rid of your mental dullness so that you can have all three of these: clarity, a lucid state of mind and a sharp and alert focus.

When you have clarity of the object – it appears in your meditation – but your mind is not lucid at all, that is known as “rough mental dullness.” When the object is clear and your mind is lucid about it, but you don’t have any sharp focus and you are sort of spaced out, that is “subtle mental dullness.” The opponent for this is to examine with alertness to see whether or not your mind is dull and what level of dullness you have. If you aren’t keeping an alert watch on what you are doing, it is possible for your mind to be clear and very lucid, but you lack sharp focus and you are just sitting there completely spaced out. It is possible to get to the point where your breath stops, but even reaching that point, if you are just sitting there completely spaced out, although with clear and lucid mind, is of no benefit at all. So it is very important in this process to remain alert at all times and not space out, but stay alert in terms of having a corner of your mind checking that you are still bright and alert.

Here you might ask this question: if you are supposed to have complete concentration and perfect placement of your mind on a small object that you are visualizing in front of you, then if you have one corner of your mind standing back, staying alert and keeping a watch over your meditation to see how it’s going, aren’t you having two things going on at the same time, two minds? Therefore, how can you be completely concentrated if part of you has to always keep a watch on yourself? There is an example that explains this. If you are walking on an extremely narrow mountain path, right on the edge of a cliff and the path ends with a drop off, then you are going to be extremely focused and have to be totally concentrated on how you are walking; otherwise you are very likely to fall over the cliff. And so, if you are not completely focused on the path, there’s the danger of falling. If as you are walking along this narrow path on the edge of a mountain, there is someone who doesn’t like you, who is your enemy, walking behind you and you are worried that this person is going to stab you in the back or beat you over the head, then as you are walking and keeping a focus on the path you would also have one corner of your mind looking out that the person behind you doesn’t start to do something funny. So that’s the way that alertness works, a sort of corner of your mind like that.

So when you have any of these types of dullness that occur as you are trying to concentrate, then you need to have this alertness. This alertness is aware of the fact that your mind has become dull.

To recognize that your mind is dull and to just leave it at that, without doing anything about it, is not at all the thing to do. You actually have to apply the opponents to perk your mind up and not stay dull. So what you need is the force of applying the opponents. If you don’t do that, it would be as if you had a piece of meat on the table and you are keeping a watch that the cat or the dog doesn’t come and eat the meat. If you are just sitting there keeping a watch and you notice that the cat is coming and you do nothing about it, then it is pretty pointless to just sit there and not actually do something once the cat comes, because the cat will in fact take the meat. So once you become aware through your alertness that your mind is dull, you have to actually apply the opponents.

If you ask, well if it is a fault not to apply the opponents, then what are the actual steps that one should take to get rid of this dullness? If, once you become aware of it, you can simply just make your mind more clear and lucid and more in focus, without having to do anything else, then you should simply correct your concentration directly like that. When you have just rough dullness, then simply doing that to make your mind more lucid is quite sufficient. But if you find that your mind is clear and lucid but you are spaced out, without any sharp focus at all, and you become aware through your alertness that you are spaced out, that you have this subtle dullness, then you have to look at what’s the fault, what’s going on there. What’s going on is that your mind has become too low in the sense that you’ve just gone off. So, at that point, because your mind is too low and off and you are completely spaced out, you should stop trying to focus on what you are focusing and try to perk up your mind and refresh it so that it meditates properly again. You do this first by reminding yourself once more of the benefits of gaining a properly stilled and settled state of mind.

If that doesn’t work when you try to focus again, then you shouldn’t push it, but rather it’s better to break your session and get up, go outside, go for a walk, look off into the far distance, try to get your mind back together and you can pick yourself up. You can also imagine that your consciousness shoots out of your head, goes up into the sky and becomes one with all of space and in that way you lift your mind up, and lift your spirits up. Imagine that you can see very far all around very clearly and in this way revive yourself. You shouldn’t push it during your session if you find that it’s not working, that you’re just too spacey.

There are also other problems that can come up when you are trying to gain concentration. There’s being very sleepy and tired and so you sort of doze off. If that happens, you should splash your face with cold water to wake yourself up. Then there’s also becoming completely cloudy-minded or foggy-minded, which is like having a bag over your head, or like being in a cloud or a fog, and you are completely pushed down and overwhelmed by this heavy feeling. All of these are different faults that can come up when you are trying to learn to concentrate and you have to deal with them.

When you are meditating like this you go through the various stages that we’ve discussed: the initial setting of your mind, the setting of it with some continuity, resetting the mind and closely setting it. Then you reach the stage where the mind has been tamed of this wandering, where you have stilled and pacified out these different faults. These are all different stages and in them you are dealing with all the different faults that can arise in your meditation.

The Faults of Mental Agitation and Flightiness of Mind

Another set of faults that you have to watch out for is this set of two things. One is called mental agitation and the other is called flightiness of mind. Mental agitation is when you are agitated because of anger and hostility and, because of that, your mind goes off in some direction other than where you are trying to place it. Flightiness of mind is where you are hankering after something, or desiring something and, because of that, your mind wanders off. So there are these two varieties of mental wandering.

Within flightiness there are two divisions: rough flightiness and subtle flightiness. The rough one is when your mind just goes off hankering after something because of desire and infatuation and so it loses the object completely. The subtle variety is likened to a frozen stream, where you have ice on top, but the water is moving slowly under the ice. So part of your mind has placement and is staying on what you are trying to concentrate on, but another part of your mind is slowly wandering off after something else.

If you are only dealing with rough flightiness, you would just try to bring your mind back to the object through mindfulness and so on, without abandoning what you are trying to concentrate on. But if you find that this doesn’t work and you have this subtle form in which part of your mind is wandering off while you are still staying on the object with another part of your mind, then the problem is that you are too excited. You have to bring yourself back down. The way to do that, to handle being over-excited, is to put aside what you were trying to concentrate on and think of various things that will bring you back down. For example, thinking of the sufferings and problems of the lower realms, about death and impermanence, and things like that which will sober you. If that doesn’t work, again, don’t push it, go outside and take a walk.

In all these situations, whether you are dealing with dullness or flightiness, or whatever the problem might be, what is at fault is, first, you must have sufficient alertness to spot the arising of any of these faults. Then, if you don’t apply any opponents to it, that is a great mistake. To be able to handle those faults, what you have to do is actually apply the opponents.

The Fault of Over-Applying the Opponents

So in this process you’ve progressed through the various stages that are outlined, initial setting, setting with some continuity, resetting, and closely setting, and then the taming and the stilling stages. Eventually you reach the state of mind that is completely stilled. At that point you no longer have any problem with dullness or flightiness and it’s no longer necessary to keep a sharp check with alertness.

When you still have a problem with dullness and flightiness, it’s a mistake not to apply opponents and you actually have to apply them. However, once you reach the point where you no longer have any problem with dullness and flightiness, where you’ve gotten rid of them completely, then at that point it’s no longer necessary to continue applying opponents to keep a close watch on yourself. To continue to apply opponents at that stage becomes a mistake and what you have to do is not apply them any longer.

The way to understand this would be, for instance, if you have some meat out on the table and you are afraid the cat is going to come and take it, and the cat’s wandering around the house, then you go “Shoo, shoo” to the cat to keep it away from the meat. But once the cat has gone outside and there’s no danger of it being around, it is completely unnecessary for you to stand around the table and continue to go “Shoo, shoo.” Doing this at that point is ridiculous, and so you should stop saying “Shoo” to the cat once it is outside. The same goes for these faults of dullness and flightiness. Once you’ve got rid of them, it’s no longer necessary to shoo them away, you have to stop doing that. So these two of applying opponents and not applying them become the opposite here. In the earlier case, it was a mistake not to apply the opponents, whereas now it becomes a mistake to continue applying them when they are no longer necessary. It would be, for instance, like the horn on your car, whether or not you need to beep your horn depends on the situation.

Single-Pointedness, Samadhi and Shamatha

Then you reach the point where your mind reaches the next stage, the eighth, which is the state of single-pointedness. At this stage it is no longer necessary to use the powers of keeping a close watch with alertness, or applying strong perseverance to keep it up, and you are able to proceed on the power of familiarity. Then you reach the state in which your mind can fix with ease and this is the ninth stage, called “absorbed setting.” You have attained samadhi, absorbed concentration.

After that ninth stage, you can go on to attain an actual stilled and settled state of shamatha. At this point you will get a sensation like somebody putting a very warm or hot hand on the top of your head. In addition to having this warm sensation on the top of your head, your body feels extremely light, as light as a feather, as if you could fly in the air. Your mind is extremely happy and blissful and you can sit with ease and continue having your mind focused singly on a positive thing without any trouble or difficulty at all. You have almost like ESP, in the sense that you could be sitting here and your mind is so clear and focused that you can be aware of people moving along down the road over there.

It’s with these types of achievements that you approach in stages the states of single-pointedness of mind, samadhi and shamatha. Then your mind will become so extremely firm and stable, that when you place it on a positive object, it will just stay there as firm as a mountain, or like an airplane that once it has landed and come to a stop and is standing on the ground, it just stays there, it’s very difficult to move it. Whatever type of positive object you want to set your mind on, your mind will be able to go to it with ease and immediately, just like an airplane can be sent to any destination and just soar there.

The Six Mental Powers and the Four Attentions

Throughout all of this, we have been using the six mental powers. These are in review: the powers of listening, pondering, which was not mentioned earlier, mindfulness, alertness, positive enthusiasm and complete familiarity.

There are also four types of attention that you use in the process of settling your mind. The first is called painstaking attention; the second is restoring attention, by which you reset your mind over again; the third is uninterrupted attention; and the fourth is spontaneous attention.

There’s no need to do an actual special meditation on gaining these different types of attention or mental powers. They are things that just come up, that you’ll develop in the course of handling the five deterrents to concentration, such as laziness, forgetfulness, and so on.