Mahamudra: Meditation on Mind’s Conventional Nature

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Sutra and Tantra Mahamudra

There are various traditions of mahamudra: there’s the sutra tradition and the tantra tradition. The sutra traditions involve the various methods for meditating on voidness, which is the absence of all fantasized, impossible ways of existing. The tantra tradition is the meditations on the clear light. It says in the text, “The former” referring to the ways of meditating on mahamudra according to sutra:

The former refers to the ways of meditating on voidness as directly indicated in the expanded, intermediate and brief (Prajnaparamita Sutras). The supremely realized Arya Nagarjuna has said, “Except for this, there is no other pathway of mind leading to liberation.” Here I shall give relevant instruction on mahamudra in accord with these intentions of his and discuss the methods that lead you to know the mind, face to face, in keeping with the exposition of the lineage masters.
From the point of view of individually ascribed names, there are numerous traditions, such as those of the simultaneously arising as merged, the amulet box, possessing five, the six spheres of equal taste, the four syllables, the pacifier, the object to be cut off, dzogchen, the discursive madhyamaka view, and so on. Nevertheless, when scrutinized by a yogi, learned in scripture and logic and experienced (in meditation), their definitive meanings are all seen to come to the same intended point.
And so for this (sutra tradition of mahamudra), out of the two methods, namely seeking a meditative state on top of having gained a correct view (of voidness) and seeking a correct view on top of a meditative state, (I shall explain) here in accordance with the latter method.

Again the text refers to the methods of sutra and tantra. The sutra method is meditating on voidness, the absence of findable existence, whereas in the tantric method, the meditation is on the clear light. In either case, it all comes to the same point. There are various methods for this in the different traditions of the Nyingma, Kagyu, Sakya and Gelug. They have different terminology and slightly different methods, but they all aim at the same point.

In terms of the sutra method, the text says, there is either first gaining a correct view of reality and then meditating on the nature of the mind in terms of that, or first meditating on the mind and then seeking a correct view of reality in terms of that. What is discussed here refers to this latter technique, some of the methods for which have been discussed earlier.

The Actual Meditation Practice

So, two methods are discussed here: the first is meditating on the mind after having already gained a correct view of reality. The other is first meditating on the mind and then gaining a correct view. According to the second method, you first achieve shamatha, a stilled and settled state of mind, and then, having achieved that, you gain an exceptionally perceptive state of mind or vipashyana, on the basis of already having stilled and settled your mind in shamatha. The methods for doing so involve being in a place conducive for gaining concentration. This is a place that is isolated, extremely quiet, where you are not going to be disturbed by a lot of racket from birds or from barking dogs, a very peaceful place where everything necessary to sustain your meditation is easy to obtain.

The text explains:

On a seat conducive for mental stability, assume the seven-fold bodily posture and clear yourself purely with a round of the nine tastes of breath. Having thoroughly separated out muddied states of awareness from lucid ones, then, with a purely constructive mind, direct (toward your root guru) your taking of safe direction and the reaffirmation of your bodhichitta aim. Meditate next on a profound path of guru-yoga and, after making hundreds of very strong, fervent requests, dissolve your (visualized) guru into yourself.

When you meditate, you need to sit on a proper seat and in the proper type of posture, the seven-part or eight-part posture of Vairochana, as discussed earlier. Then there are the various methods involved in stilling and settling the mind.

Sitting in the seven- or eight-part posture of Vairochana, you begin by taking refuge, in other words, reaffirming the safe and sound direction you take in life, and then rededicating your heart to others and to enlightenment, in other words, developing bodhichitta. Next, you do the various practices of guru yoga, which are the practices to integrate yourself with your peerless spiritual master. After you do those practices and make requests, you openly admit to all the wrongs you’ve done in the past, to purify yourself and so forth. Then you imagine that your spiritual master visualized in front of you dissolves into you, that all appearances disappear and then you stay very quietly in a state of total absorption, a state in which everything has sort of disappeared, and you just stay very quietly.

In this quiet state, you proceed:

Absorb for a while unwaveringly in that state which is without the gurgle-gurgle of appearance-making and appearances (of “this” and “not that.”) Do not contrive anything with thoughts such as expectations or worries. This does not 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.

You should have no thoughts or hopes of gaining anything special on either a temporary or ultimate level. You should have no expectations and likewise no worries such as “I hope I’m not going to become unhappy or things aren’t going to work out, either on a temporary or an ultimate level.” In other words, you sit there without any worries, prejudiced thoughts, hopes or expectations.

Sitting in this state, you should then focus on the object that you are using to gain a stilled and settled state of the mind and in which you are trying to gain single-minded concentration, and you should not be as if you had fainted or passed out. In other words, you shouldn’t become completely unconscious while you are focusing, but rather, you should maintain a very steady mindfulness of what’s going on. You should be extremely alert and conscious. It would be, for instance, like when you are driving a car, you have to remain very mindful of what you are doing and keep a look out for cars coming in the other direction or from the side streets, and so forth. If you were to become mindless while driving, you run the danger of having an accident and being hit by something. The same thing when you are walking; if you are not mindful while you are walking, you can very easily trip and fall down. The same thing applies to when you are meditating, you focus on the object and remain very mindful and conscious of what you are doing, the same as if you were driving a car.

You keep this mindfulness so that you stay on what you are doing and your mind doesn’t go off into unconsciousness, oblivion, or a great deal of mental wandering. Likewise, you post alertness, which is the function that keeps watch over what you are doing and notices when you have mental dullness or flightiness of mind and your mind goes off all over the place, and then you bring it back to the object of meditation. So you use these two functions, mindfulness to stick to what you are doing, and alertness to keep a check that you are not going off into any of the deterrents to concentration.

How to deal with thoughts that arise?

Firmly tighten (the hold of your mindfulness) on that which has the essential nature of clarity and awareness, and behold it starkly. Whatever thoughts might arise, recognize them as being that and that. Alternatively, like a dueler, cut the thoughts off completely, wham-wham, as soon as they occur.

In the mahamudra method described here, the technique is simply to use the mind itself as the focal object for gaining concentration, but whether you do that, or you focus on a small visualized object, namely the form of a Buddha in front of you, the techniques involved are exactly the same. When you are sitting there keeping a watch with your alertness for any mental wandering or discursive thoughts that might come up, you should have a type of mind similar to when you are practicing a martial art. In other words, when you are sitting there, if somebody were to come at you with a knife, or a spear, or something like that, your alertness would be right on the spot, so that as you saw the weapon coming at you, you would immediately grab out and stop it, or do something to prevent it from hitting you. Likewise, you should have the same type of alertness with respect to any of those wild thoughts that might come up in your mind, distracting you from your concentration and, as soon as they come up, you should, like in a duel or a martial arts bout, deal with them immediately, get rid of them, and get back to your concentration.

How to proceed from there and maintain the right balance in your meditation?

Once you have completely cut these off and have settled (your mind), then, without losing mindfulness, relax and loosen up. As has been said, “Relax and loosen its firm tightness and there is the set state of mind.” And elsewhere, “When mind itself, ensnared in a tangle, loosens up, there is no doubt that it frees itself.” Like these statements, loosen up, but without any wandering.

Furthermore, when you are trying to concentrate and settle your mind, if you push too hard, if you squeeze too hard and force it, there is the danger that you may become rather nervous and uptight, and your mind will tend to become agitated and flighty, that it will go off because you are pushing it too hard. In that case, you will have to relax the hold on your mind and not be so uptight when you are meditating. On the other hand, if you’re too relaxed and too casual in what you are doing, then the danger is that you’ll become dull-minded and sink into all the types of mental dullness that can arise, being spaced out and so forth. So you must have a careful balance between being too uptight on the one hand, and being too loose, casual and spaced on the other, and just keep a balance between the two so that you are meditating perfectly in tune.

It would be as if you had a tiny bird in your hand. If you held it too tightly, you would squeeze it to death, whereas if you held it too loosely the bird would fly away. So you need to have just the right amount of force in your hold so that you neither lose it nor harm it. The same is true in terms of holding an object of concentration. You shouldn’t squeeze it too tightly, being too uptight about it or pushing, nor should you be so loose or casual that you lose it into dullness. It is very important to keep a balance and meditate at a very even level, neither too tightly nor too loosely.

When you look at the nature of any thought that arises, it disappears by itself and an utter bareness dawns. Likewise, when you inspect when settled, you see a vivid, nonobstructive bareness and clarity. (This is) well known as “the settled and moving (minds) mixed together.”

There’s also a method for dealing with various wild thoughts that come up, which is looking at the nature of the thoughts and observing them. Doing this, you will find that the thoughts will naturally disappear by themselves when you look at them. Alternatively, if thoughts come up, you can actually focus on the thought itself. Focusing on the thought itself and directly confronting it and examining it will prevent further thoughts coming up and disturbing your meditation.

(Thus,) no matter what thought arises, when, without blocking it, you recognize (that it is) a movement (of mind) and have settled on its essential nature, (you find) it is like the example of the flight of a bird confined on a boat. As is said, “Just as a crow having flown from a ship after circling the directions must re-alight on it ...”

If a bird in a large cage in a zoo tries to fly around, it can fly, but it can only fly within the confines of the cage; and when it lands, the only place where it can come down is within the cage, back on the site within this confined space where it normally roosts. The same is true when your thoughts take off. There’s no place for them to go and, in fact, once the thought has played itself out, the only thing it can come back to is, again, the mind itself. In this way, when thoughts come up, if you just look at what they are doing, you will find the thoughts themselves will settle down and you’ll again be left focusing on the mind itself. The commentary says, don’t look at the various thoughts that come up in the mind as terrible faults, and don’t meditate in an uptight manner trying to reach a state without discursive thoughts, but just post yourself with alertness to see the nature of the mind and the meditation itself will naturally come down to a stilled and settled state of shamatha.

In addition, the commentary describes six methods to settle the mind. The first method is to settle the mind so that it is like the sun shining in the sky, not obscured by any clouds. This refers to having the mind shining like the brilliance of the sun, not obscured by any clouds of dullness or agitation or any of those other deterrents to concentration, just letting the mind shine in a clear state by itself.

So we have the first one, which is like the sunshine free from any clouds. The sun is extremely clear and lucid and, just as the sun stays like that, the nature of the mind is something that in and of itself is very clear. Therefore, you try to prevent it from being obscured by dullness or agitation or various thoughts and just let the mind be like a sun free of clouds.

The second method is like an eagle soaring through the sky. An eagle can fly through the sky without any effort, it just soars opening up its wings; it doesn’t have to flap them. In the same way as an airplane goes through the sky without having to flap its wings, it just goes straight ahead. The same thing would be true with the mind itself, you just let the mind soar like an eagle in its natural state of clarity without either pressing it too hard or letting it be too loose, but just letting it soar like an eagle without having to flap its wings.

Then the third one is like having a large boat on the ocean. Although the boat can be jostled by the waves that come up; nevertheless, it remains relatively steady. Without being disturbed by the small ocean waves, it just goes straight forward. The same thing in terms of the mind, although the various subtle thoughts might come up like tiny little waves, nevertheless you are not distracted by any large major upsets. The mind just continues on its course like a large ship.

The fourth method is for the mind to be like a small child looking at the murals on the wall of a temple. The child goes in and looks around in a very rough manner, without focusing in on all the tiny details of the painting, but just sees them in general and passes on. In the same way, when various thoughts of desire, anger, and so forth come up, you don’t pay them too much attention. You don’t focus on them, pull them apart and look at every excruciating detail of them, but like a child looking at a mural, you just notice them and go on without paying much heed and getting stuck on them.

The fifth way is to be like a bird flying through the sky leaving no trace. In other words, the bird flies through the sky without leaving behind footprints or handprints or anything like that. Likewise, when you are meditating, regardless of what type of feeling you might be experiencing, whether it’s happy, sad or indifferent, or whether you have any type of thing come up in your mind, you just go on without letting it leave any trace on your mind. In other words, you don’t allow your mind to become sticky, to become infected and cling to any of the feelings or moods or so on that come up, but like a bird flying through the sky you just go on without leaving any trace.

The sixth one is to meditate like a piece of soft cotton. Cotton does not get rough; it stays soft and fluffy as it goes through the air and so forth. The same thing as you meditate, you shouldn’t let your mind get all caught up and tangled, but it should remain loose and fluffy like a piece of cotton wool. This doesn’t mean that it becomes so slack that you lose everything, but just that it should be springy and bouncy and proceed without getting tangled up and becoming heavy.

These are the six analogies of different ways in which you can settle your mind. So like the sun free from clouds, like an eagle soaring, like a boat going through the ocean and not overturning, like a child looking at a mural in a temple, like a bird flying through the sky leaving no trace and like a small piece of cotton wool.

From cultivating methods like this what happens? What results?

From cultivating such (methods as these, you realize that,) since the essential nature of the totally absorbed mind is a lucidity and clarity, unobstructed by anything, and not established as any form of physical phenomenon, it is, like space, an utter bareness that allows anything to dawn and be vivid. Nevertheless, although the actual nature of mind may be seen straightforwardly, with exceptional perception, to be like that, it cannot be taken as a “this” and be (verbally) indicated.

The commentary to this pretty much just repeats and paraphrases that. It says:

By cultivating this then you see the nature of the singly-pointed settled mind to be something that is clear and lucid and not obscured by anything. It’s not a form of material phenomenon, it’s a bareness that’s unobstructed like space and no matter what type of five sensory objects arise, sight, sound, smell, taste and touches, and no matter what kind of quality of object arises, that it reflects it. It makes it clear like a mirror making an image clear and everything can arise on it very vividly.

Therefore, you should stay in this state of mind and not get hung up in any intellectual elaborations of trying to say the mind is this or that, but just stay in that state itself. If you stay in that clear, lucid, focused state of mind, even though it is very firm like a state of samadhi, single-minded concentration, if that state of mind is not accompanied or held by a state of physical and mental bliss and ecstasy, in other words, if your mind is settled in single-pointed concentration but you don’t have a feeling of bliss and exhilaration at the same time, then it’s simply a single-minded state of mind within the realm of desirable sense objects. But as soon as the single-minded concentration is accompanied by this blissful feeling, then that becomes an actual state of a stilled and settled state of mind or shamatha.

This state has many great qualities, such as all the various types of ESP, the different powers and so forth. All the attainments of the various paths of highly realized beings, the aryas, in any of the three vehicles: the listeners, the self-evolved beings, the dedicated beings, all of them are attained on the basis of gaining such a stilled and settled state of mind. So it’s something in addition to perfect concentration; it also needs to have a sense of exhilaration and bliss to it. When you have that, then it has all the qualities of being able to gain ESP and so forth, and all the higher attainments of the paths of mind are based on achieving that.

The text continues:

The great meditators of the Snow Mountains are practically of a single opinion in proclaiming that this setting (of the mind) at ease, not cognitively taking (as a “this”) anything that arises, is a guideline instruction for putting within your grasp the forging of Buddhahood. Be that as it may, I, Chokyi Gyaltsen that is the author, say that this method is a wondrous skillful means for beginners to accomplish the settling of their mind and is a way for knowing, face to face, (merely) the superficial nature of mind that conceals something deeper.

This is saying that you have to actually experience the nature of the mind in terms of gaining this stilled and settled state of mind and that it is not something that you can indicate with words, but you actually have to experience it yourself directly. Once you have experienced it, then stay in that state of mind without grasping at it.

Even if you’ve done that, although some people might say that you can forge Buddhahood out of just achieving that state of mind, the author says that this is simply recognizing the conventional nature of the mind and this conceals something deeper.

The actual discussion of the nature of the mind is presented in the text first as a general presentation, and then the text gets to its heart essence. People say that the mind itself is something with which you can forge Buddhahood and that Buddhahood isn’t something that you need to search for outside, but it’s something that comes from your own mind. So it is similar to the quest you were sent on yesterday, to go outside and look for the mind in the forest, that from the experience of looking for it there, you see for yourself that it is not something that is external but it is something internal. Likewise, you discover that Buddhahood is also not something that can be found externally, but it is something you realize internally when you realize the nature of your mind.

As the master Saraha explained, the mind is like the seed for everything in the sense that everything depends on the mind. The mind is the source for the arising of all uncontrollably recurring phenomenon, all phenomena of samsara, both the environment and your being. When they are in an uncontrollably recurring type of situation, that comes about in dependence on the state of your mind and on the various things that you have built up through your mind. Likewise, naturally released phenomena, in other words, phenomena of nirvana that are released from such an uncontrollably recurring type of syndrome, such as a state of liberation, a state of Buddhahood and so forth, these also come about by relying on your mind, removing all the various obstacles and so forth. So, in this sense, the mind is the most crucial thing because everything depends upon it.


The teachings seem clear, but my mind is dull. The more intense the teachings become, the vaguer my mind becomes.

You should set up a store in which you sell your mental dullness if you have a large stock that you need to get rid of. Manufacture it cheaply and sell it.

I'm joking with you. You can be called the dullness merchant, come in and bore everybody to tears and sell your mental dullness. But Rinpoche is of course joking with you.

Whenever I try to think of my mind being settled I tend to think of it as being a mirror in that it has been pacified and quieted down. What are the examples that Rinpoche uses that differ from a mirror?

Which examples?

Examples that differ from that image of a mirror, which is just sort of being really passive.

Yes, but which examples are you referring to that you think are different, like the bird soaring and these types of analogies?

The mind in any state is like a mirror, simply reflecting things. So when they talk about having the stilled and settled state of mind, that state of mind is something that is very firm and whatever you settle it on, the mind stays like that, like something soaring in a direction and keeping on going in that direction. However, whether the mind settles or not, it is always like a mirror, it reflects everything.

From the way that you said it, it seemed as though once you settled the mind, then you saw that it was like a mirror. But what the text is saying is that the mirror example applies whether the mind settles or not, it is always like a mirror. The point of it being settled was that then it becomes firm, it stays where you want to put it, either staying still or like when something is soaring and stays on track.

The distinction for me is that, for instance, when you are going around in everyday life, you feel you have a purpose. You are directed and you are doing whatever it is you are doing. So in that sense, your mind is not like a mirror. Then, when I think about meditating, I will say, “I will make my mind passive like a mirror and sort of be there, be passive.”

Unless you put a bag over your head, your mind functions like a mirror at all times. A mirror reflects things whether it’s being carried around or placed still in one place. It’s the same thing as you are walking around and involved in the busy work of your daily life, you still see things and hear things, and all of that is reflected clearly like on a mirror. Likewise, when you sit down and meditate, it’s the same thing. So, unless you put a cover over a mirror, the mirror will always reflect things. As long as you are functioning and your eyes are open, then the mind reflects things like a mirror.

The point of the mirror analogy though, is not in terms of gaining a stilled and settled state of mind, shamatha. It refers to two types of imagery: one is in the sense that the mind reflects whatever comes up, the same way as the mirror reflects whatever comes up. The other point of the mirror simile is that the image in the mirror is not something that you can actually find. It’s not the actual object itself although it looks like the object, and that is a line of thinking that brings you to the whole subject of voidness, that things don’t have concrete findable existence. So the mirror analogy is used for those two points but not specially with reference to whether the mind is settled or not, because at all times your mind reflects things like a mirror unless you have a bag over your head.

In the sense that the mind is a mirror, in the sense that it reflects things clearly as they come up, I don’t really understand the analogy and that we don’t really see things as they are, things have an illusory appearance?

Well that’s the second image: that things are like the image in the mirror, not the actual things, the mind works the same way.

But it seems that it’s not really reflecting anything outside the mind, but what we see is really a projection of the mind. So in that sense I can’t see what is it reflecting? I know that the analogy of the mirror image is commonly used for that but…

Then that gets into the question of which system you are talking about, which system of tenets. There are external objects and the discussion is in terms of accepting the existence of external objects. It isn’t the case that everything is just inside your head. What system of philosophical beliefs are you talking about when you are asking your question?

Even in the Prasangika system, these things that we see outside don’t exist the way that we see them. In other words, supposing there are molecules and the mind abstracts a concrete object, so even in that sense it isn’t really reflecting…

The question that you raise is something that can’t just be answered glibly because it will just cause a great deal of confusion. You have to approach the whole topic of external phenomena in terms of a study of the progressively more sophisticated ways of describing reality that you have in the different schools, or philosophical positions. You start off with a position like the Sautrantikas, who accept external phenomena, and you have to understand the way that’s asserted in that system. Then see the refinement in the Chittamatra system, in which they don’t assert external phenomena, and what they mean by that. Then in the two schools of the Madhyamaka, Svatantrika and Prasangika, Svatantrika has two different schools, one of which asserts external phenomena and the other doesn’t, and you have to see what they mean by those positions. Until finally you can actually come to the Prasangika way of asserting that there are external phenomena, and look into what they mean by that, which is different from the Sautrantika way of asserting there are external phenomena. Unless you have all that background and see how the understanding of it gets more and more sophisticated and refined, a simple answer to your question would be (A) very difficult and (B) probably misleading.