The Initial Level of Mahamudra Meditation

The Definition of Mind: General Considerations

Having discussed the preliminaries, let us now turn to the actual practice of mahamudra – meditation on the nature of mind. When we raise the topic of the nature of mind, we of course need to explore first what we mean by "mind." This is because if we are asked to focus and meditate on the nature of mind or on mind itself, we may find it not very obvious what we are intended to do. To investigate this, we must look closely at the definition of "mind" in Buddhism.

As soon as we look at the standard definition, we discover that Buddhism is talking about something quite different from what we mean by any of our corresponding Western words. Even in Western languages, there is no consensus on the meaning of "mind." If we speak just in terms of English and German, there is a great difference between the English word "mind" and the German word "Geist." "Geist" also has the connotation of "spirit" which is not included in the English concept of "mind." The classical Asian Buddhist languages of Sanskrit and Tibetan speak of something quite different from both, and the difference between what they refer to as "mind" and what the corresponding Western terms refer to is much greater than that between the referents of the equivalent English and German terms. The problem of how to translate the Buddhist concept into a Western word is, obviously, very challenging.

In Western languages we differentiate clearly between mind and heart, or intellect and feelings. We think of the intellectual, rational side as "mind" and the emotional, intuitive side as "heart," something quite different from mind. Many Westerners would say that although a dog has emotions, it has no mind. In Buddhism, however, we do not make such a large gap between intellect and emotions. We incorporate the functions of both under the rubric of one word – "chitta" in Sanskrit or "sem" in Tibetan – and include as well in the scope of its meaning all sense perception, such as seeing, hearing, smelling and so on. Thus, although we translate "chitta" or "sem" with the English word "mind" or the German word "Geist," the Sanskrit and Tibetan Buddhist terms encompass a much larger scope of meaning than that of either the English or German renderings of them.

The problem is not limited to Western languages. Mongolian also differentiates between the intellectual and emotional sides. But, unlike English, uses the term for the latter, "setgil," in Buddhist texts. The Chinese translators as well chose a word meaning heart, "xin," which the Japanese also accepted and used. The issue of what is mind brings to the surface many fundamental differences in cultural world views.

If we want to find a better synonym for the Indo-Tibetan terms in European languages, perhaps the closest equivalent is the word "experience," although this word, too, is not quite precise. We do not include in its meaning here experience in the sense of familiarity and expertise through repetition, as in: "This doctor has a great deal of experience." Furthermore, in Western languages, to experience something often implies to feel emotions about it, either positive or negative. We feel we have not really experienced something deeply unless we have consciously been moved by it on an emotional level. This is also not included in the Buddhist notion. Nor is there any connotation of evaluation, as in: "I learned a lot from that experience." In the Buddhist context, experience is merely whatever happens to us, whatever occurs.

In the Buddhist discussion of mind, then, we are not talking about some sort of "thing" or organ that is in our head, like the brain. Nor are we talking about a space, as is implied by the Western expression, "Imagine in your mind this or that" – as if mind were a stage or room in our head through which thoughts parade or in which memories are stored. Rather, we are talking about some sort of occurrence that is happening on the basis of the brain and nervous system.

What is happening when we see, hear or think something? Although we may be able to describe the occurrence biochemically or electrochemically, we can also describe it subjectively. This latter is what we mean by "mind" in Buddhism. When we see, hear, think or emotionally feel something, there is an experience from moment to moment. This is what is happening. Furthermore, experience always has contents. An equivalent way of saying that is: "Mind always has an object." In fact, "mind" in Sanskrit and Tibetan is also called "that which has an object."

The Nonduality of Subject and Object

Buddha taught the nonduality of that which has an object and its object – usually translated as the "nonduality of subject and object." We must understand this point correctly, otherwise we may mistakenly think that Buddha contradicted himself when he also taught that mind always has an object. We may think this implies that since the two are different, they are dual. If we become angry with the table, the nonduality of subject and object, however, does not mean that my anger is the table. Nonduality does not render mind and its objects totally identical – one and the same thing.

Experience always has contents. We cannot have an experience without experiencing something. A thought does not exist without a thinking of the thought, and no one can think without thinking a thought. Nondual, then, means that in any moment, these two things – mind and its object, or experience and its contents – always come together as one entity. Putting this in simple, everyday language, we can say they always come together in the same package. There cannot be one without the other. Therefore, in Buddhism "mind" always refers to experience with contents.

Clarity – The Arising of the Contents of an Experience

The standard Buddhist definition of mind or experience contains three words: "clarity," "awareness" and "merely." It is usually rendered as "mere clarity and awareness." As each word of the definition is significant, we need to explore carefully each of their meanings. Let us look firstly at the term, "clarity."

The most crucial point to note is that this word needs to be taken as a verbal noun with an object, not as a quantitative noun referring to something that can be measured. Clarity is not some sort of light in our head that has varying intensity. Rather, it is the action, or occurrence of the action, of being clear about something or making something clear. Making something clear, however, does not imply a conscious act of will. It merely happens. Furthermore, the word "clear" itself is also misleading. Let us examine its meaning as well.

"Clarity" is glossed in Tibetan as "arising" – the same word used for the rising or dawning of the sun. "Being clear about something" or "making something clear," then, actually refer to the "arising of something" or the event of "making something arise," although, again, with no implication of passivity or lack of responsibility on the one hand, or conscious will on the other. The expression, "giving rise to something," perhaps minimizes connotation of these two extremes.

What occurs when we experience something? There is the giving rise to something. For ease of expression, we need to say, "mind gives rise to something." This is preferable to saying, "something arises." "Something arises" puts too much emphasis on what is happening from the side of the object, whereas the accent needs to be more on the subjective side. The phrase, "mind gives rise to something," however, also has its shortcomings. It is just a convenient manner of expression. Mind is not an entity or "thing," so there is nothing that is actually an agent giving rise to anything. The word, "mind," is simply a term mentally labeled onto the occurrence of the subjective event of the giving rise to something.

When we experience something, mind gives rise to a sight, a sound, a smell, a taste, a tactile or bodily sensation, a thought, a feeling, an emotion or a dream. Even when we are asleep with no dreams, mind gives rise to a darkness. Subjectively, there is always the arising of something. What arises, however, does not necessarily have to appear directly. When we hear that the fat lady does not eat during the day, we know that she must eat at night, because she is fat. Our mind does not give rise to the sight of her eating at night, however, although there is the arising of the understanding of that fact.

The major shortcoming of using the word "clarity" in this context is that "clarity" implies that whatever is clear is in focus if it is visual, or understood if it is conceptual. But that is not necessarily the case. When we take off our glasses and look at someone, our mind gives rise to a blur, and when we do not understand what someone says, it gives rise to confusion. In both cases, there is the arising of something. Conventionally, it would be awkward to say that a blur or confusion is clear.

Awareness – An Engaging with the Contents of an Experience

Arisings, namely of images, also occur with a mirror, a photographic plate or a computer screen. Therefore, in order to differentiate mind from a mirror, the next word, "awareness," is added to the definition. Again, this a verbal noun with an object, not a quantitative one. It is "being aware of something" or "making something an object of awareness," but not necessarily as a conscious act of will.

The English term "awareness," however, is also misleading. The Tibetan term is explained as an engaging with or relating to an object. Unlike the English words "engagement" or "relation," however, the Tibetan carries no connotation of an emotional bond. Being detached about something is also a form of engagement with it or a way of relating to it. The Tibetan word translated here as "engagement" or "relation" literally means an "entering into something." It connotes doing something cognitive with an object. It can be, for example, seeing, hearing, thinking or feeling it. That is what is happening when we experience something. There is an arising of something and an engaging with it in a cognitive way. There is the arising of a sight and the seeing of it, the arising of a thought and the thinking of it, and so on. For ease of expression, and with all the previously mentioned qualifications, we would say that mind gives rise to something and apprehends it.

The English word "awareness" is misleading here in the sense that it implies that we understand something and are conscious of it. But that is not necessarily the case. Not understanding something is just as much a form of engaging with an object as is understanding it. Whether we are conscious or unconscious of something, we can still experience it. For instance, we can be talking to somebody with unconscious hostility. Even though our hostility is unconscious, it still exists. We still experience it and it produces an effect. Thus the scope of the Buddhist concept usually translated as "awareness" is much larger than that of the equivalent English word.

In every moment, then, there is an arising and a cognitive engagement with something. These two do not occur one after the other, however. It is not the case that first a thought arises and then we think it. The process is not of two events happening consecutively, but of two functions occurring simultaneously. Mind gives rise to a thought and thinks it simultaneously. This is going on each moment for every being with a mind. This is the experience not only of life, but even of death.


The third word of the definition, "merely," sets the basic minimum that needs to occur for there to be experience. Mind needs merely to give rise to something and cognitively engage with it in some manner. "Merely," then, excludes the need for there to be any significant strength of attentiveness of the contents of an experience – in Western terminology, consciousness of them. It also excludes the need for there to be any significant level of understanding, emotion or evaluation. An experience is simply a cognitive event.

Thus deep sleep with no dreams is also an experience. We cannot say that when we are asleep with no dreams we do not have a mind anymore, or that the mind is no longer functioning. If the mind were turned off during sleep, how could it ever perceive the sound of the alarm clock so that it could turn back on again? The experience of deep sleep, then, entails mind giving rise to a darkness and engaging with it in the manner of being absorbed with only minimal attention to sensory perception.

Furthermore, the word "merely" also excludes there being (1) a solid, concrete "me" or "mind" inside our head that is experiencing or controlling experience as its agent, (2) a solid, concrete object as the content "out there" that is being experienced, and (3) a solid, concrete "experience" that is occurring between the two. Cognitive events merely occur. Conventionally we can say "I" am having "the experience" of "this" or "that", and subjectively it appears like that, but none of the items involved can exist independently of each other. In other words, the three circles involved in an experience – a subject (either a person or a mind), a content and an experience itself – are all devoid of this impossible way of existing. "Merely," however, does not exclude that experience actually occurs and is always individual. Just as Tsongkhapa has emphasized in his presentation of voidness that we must be careful not to refute either too much or too little, likewise we must be cautious with the word "merely" also not to exclude either too much or too little.

Summary of the Buddhist Definition of Mind

In summary, mind in Buddhism refers to experience, namely the mere arising and cognitive engaging with the contents of experience. The continuity of experience is known as the mind-stream, or "mental-continuum." It is always individual, with each moment of experience following from previous moments of experience according to the karmic laws of behavioral cause and effect. There is order in the universe, and "my" experience is never "your" experience. If I experience eating a meal, I and not you will next experience the physical sensation of being full. Buddhism does not posit a universal or collective mind.

The never-ceasing, moment-to-moment event of arising and engaging that constitutes experience, then, refers to the arising of a sight and merely seeing it, the arising of a sound and merely hearing it, the arising of a thought and merely thinking it, the arising of an emotion and merely feeling it, and so on. This is the conventional nature of mind – it gives rise to things and apprehends them. Its deepest nature is its voidness, namely that it is devoid of existing in any impossible manner, from being a physical entity itself up to involving a solid, concrete subject, content or experience. Such a mind, then, with these two true natures – or "two truths" – is the topic of mahamudra meditation.

The Nature of Mahamudra Meditation

In order to engage correctly, in mahamudra meditation on the nature of mind, we need to understand clearly not only the meaning of mind, but also what it means to meditate on something. We do not mean meditating on something like meditating, literally, on a cushion. Nor do we mean, more abstractly, meditating on the basis of something. Mahamudra meditation is not conducted merely on the basis of mind's nature, it is meditation focused on that nature. In German we avoid this confusion because there are two different prepositions that can be used with the verb "to meditate," namely "uber" and "auf," whereas in English there is only one, "on."

In general, meditation means to build up a beneficial state of mind or attitude through attentive repetition. Tibetan glosses it with the word "to familiarize or habituate ourselves with something," while the connotation of the original Sanskrit term is simply "to make something be." There are two main varieties of meditation. When we meditate on a visualization of a Buddha, we are focusing on an object. When we meditate on love, on the other hand, we are not focusing on an object, but rather we remain focused while being in a certain state of mind. We can either consciously generate a state of mind that was not there before, as in the case of love, or focus attentively while being in a state of mind that is always there. Meditation on the nature of mind is an example of this latter case.

When we meditate on the nature of mind, then, the moment-to-moment experiential process of the mere arising and engaging with the contents of experience is not some static object that we are focusing on like in a visualization of a Buddha, or even a moving object as with tantric sadhana practice when we visualize a flowing sequence of images while reciting a text or mantras. Nor is it the case that we are attentively focusing while being in a state of mind, like love, that we have created and generated in the sense of having worked ourselves up to feeling by relying, either directly or through memory, on a line of reasoning such as "all beings have been my mother in previous lives and shown me kindness." We do not have to generate or fabricate artificially the nature of mind. It is always the case. Experience is always happening – we do not have to make it happen.

Thus with meditation on the mind, we are focusing attentively on something that is happening all the time and has always been the case. But this is not in the sense of observing the process. That is again making mind into an object, like a visualization, and is based on misconceiving, either consciously or unconsciously, a duality between an observer and the event that is happening. But rather we are focusing attentively, but not self-consciously, on being in that process – just doing it "straight up and down," as my mother would say.

The Analogy of a Flashlight

As it is very difficult to comprehend correctly what we are supposed to be doing with mahamudra meditation, let us look at it in terms of the analogy of a flashlight. If we are shining a flashlight on something, there are three points upon which we may focus attention – what is being illumined, the person holding the flashlight, or the flashlight itself. Focusing on what is being lit by this flashlight is how we normally go through life. We are caught up in the contents of our experience. We enter our child's room and see clothes and toys strewn everywhere. We become fixated on them and shout. We become so upset because we are caught up and stuck in the contents of our experience of seeing the untidy room. We are focusing only on what the flashlight is illuminating.

We can also look at life from the point of view of the person holding the flashlight. With such an outlook, we disengage from experience and, in a subjective sense, sit in the back of our head and just observe what is happening. This is a danger that can arise when we practice the vipassana style of mindfulness meditation in an unbalanced manner. In order to deconstruct our experience and become aware of moment-to-moment impermanence or change, in vipassana meditation we note – sometimes even with mental words – that now this sensation is arising, now it is passing, now another is arising and so on. Merely noting, "Now I am seeing this and now I am seeing that," however, could easily degenerate into the extreme of merely observing that our child's room is dirty and neither telling him or her to tidy it, nor cleaning it ourselves.

With mahamudra meditation, we are focusing neither on what the flashlight is illumining nor on being the person holding the flashlight. Instead, we are looking from the point of view of the flashlight itself. In a sense, we are focusing on being the flashlight. But what does it mean to focus on being the flashlight? It is not merely observing the process of giving rise to the appearance or occurrence of something – it is just doing it. It is not "doing it," however, in an active willful manner, nor merely passively letting it occur as if we could control it but are refraining from so doing. There is no factor of control, not even in the sense of the process being "out of control," which could precipitate anxiety and fear. Nor is it just doing it mindlessly like a cow looking at a barn wall. It is doing it with perfect clarity and awareness in the sense of the usual meaning of the two English words – with clear mental focus and attentive awareness. We try to focus with freshness, mindfulness, alertness and full attention on what is occurring with each moment of experience, without being self-conscious, not becoming caught up either in what we are experiencing or in being the one who is experiencing it.

The Initial Stages of Mahamudra Meditation

Although mahamudra practice may seem simple – "Just settle into the natural state of the mind" – it is, in fact, extremely difficult to do properly. If it were so simple, there would be no need for preliminary practices to weaken mental blocks and build up positive force. However, even with a minimal amount of preliminary practice, we can begin our practice on an initial level as explained, for example, in Mahamudra Eliminating the Darkness of Unawareness, by the Ninth Karmapa.

The first stage of practice is to work with the experience of seeing things. Mahamudra meditation is always done with eyes wide open. We look all around us, slowly, just being the flashlight, focusing attentively on the cognitive process that is occurring of the mere arising and engaging with a sight. Again, remember that "process" here does not mean a sequence of actions or events, but rather a single action or event entailing two simultaneous aspects, an arising and an engaging, without a conscious agent that is willing it to happen or making it happen. There is a great difference between, on the one hand, deciding to shift the focus of our attention so that we look at a different object and, on the other, when we focus on that object, consciously willing the sight of it to arise and the seeing of it to occur. They just happen, don't they?

Then we investigate, from the point of view of the flashlight, the difference between seeing the wall or the floor, or something blue or something yellow. What is the difference between seeing the vase of flowers on the table or the dirty dishes next to it with crumbled, stained napkins soaking in leftover food on top of them? From the point of view of there being an arising and an engaging with the contents of an experience – with a sight – is there any difference in terms of the cognitive process itself?

From the point of view of the flashlight, there is no difference. If we become caught up in the contents, we become emotionally involved in a disturbing manner. But if we experience them from the point of view of the flashlight itself, we do not become upset with either attraction and attachment, or repulsion and anger. We stop being so obsessed with the contents of our experience and focus instead on the experiential side of the experience.

We can then try the same experiment on more challenging examples. What is the difference between seeing a person or the adjacent wall, seeing a person or a photo of a person, seeing a man or a woman, seeing someone pretty or someone ugly, seeing a child sleeping or being naughty, seeing our best friend or our worst enemy, seeing a printed word or a blank piece of paper, seeing writing in a language we know or in one we do not, seeing writing in an alphabet we know or in one we do not, seeing something on television or something right next to it, and so on? We need to be creative with our meditation.

We have to be careful, however, when doing this. We do not want to focus only on the experiential side divorced from the contents, because then we do not react or respond to anything. From the point of view of the cognitive process, it is true that there is no difference between seeing a car coming down the street or seeing that nothing is coming. Nevertheless, that does not deny the fact that from the point of view of our wanting to cross the street, there is a very great difference. If we ignore the conventional point of view and become stuck on the experiential side of the seeing, we are likely to be hit by a car if we try to cross. To believe that on all levels there is no difference and then not to react to the differences that in fact exist is going to the extreme of fixating on the experiential side of an experience as if it existed divorced from its contents. Thus we must try to avoid both extremes, either being too caught in the contents of an experience or too divorced from them.

After investigating seeing sights, we follow a similar procedure with hearing sounds. What is the difference between hearing the sound of birds or traffic, music or a child's haphazard banging on a drum, soft music or the dentist's drill, a song that we like or one that we hate, a voice or the wind, the voice of a loved one or of someone we cannot stand, words we can understand or those we cannot, a mosquito buzzing around our head or one on the other side of the screened window next to our ear, and so on? We then do the same with a variety of odors, such as those of scented talcum powder and the baby's dirty diaper; tastes, such as those of an orange and vinegar; and tactile sensations, such as tickling and scratching very hard the palm of our hand. We then go on to various thoughts, such as verbal and pictorial; various feelings, such as happiness and sadness; various emotions, both positive and disturbing, such as love and hatred; and various levels of concentrated meditative states with mental silence. Following that, we compare senses, such as seeing and hearing; and then the mind settled in concentration and the mind moving with thought. Finally we just sit and follow the same procedure with whatever experience occurs through any of the senses or with mind alone. We stay attentively with the process of mere arising and engaging, without becoming either caught in the contents or ignoring them completely. This is the first stage of mahamudra practice.

Benefits of the Initial Stage of Practice

Even if we proceed no further in our mahamudra practice, this initial stage itself is extremely useful and helpful. We go on vacation to the shore and take a hotel room. We walk into the room and there is a terrible view from the window. We can only see the side of the building next door and we become very upset. Then we do this type of meditation. What is the difference between seeing a pretty view or an ugly one? From the point of view of seeing, it is just seeing. Thinking like this helps us not to become so attached or angry. Then, in a calm state of mind, we apply Shantideva's advice to our situation, "If we can change our room, why get upset? Let's just change it. And if we cannot change our room, why get upset? It's not going to help. Besides, what difference does the view really make. If we want to see the ocean, we can go up to the roof restaurant or step outside."

Suppose we succeed in changing rooms and get one that is facing the beach. We walk into the room and hear the loud noise of traffic on the busy street in front of the hotel, and we become upset all over again. Once more we focus on what is the difference between listening to traffic or the sound of the waves? Then we either apply Shantideva's advice once more, or, if we decide not to bother trying to shift rooms again and just keep this one, remind ourselves of the first true fact in life – life is difficult! Without applying effective methods for dealing with our situation, we are going to spoil our entire vacation.

Thus the initial level of mahamudra practice can be one of the most effective methods for coping with noise. By shifting the focus of our attention from the noise itself, and dwelling morbidly on it, to the cognitive process that is occurring of merely the arising of a sound and the hearing of it, we realize that the arising of the noise of traffic is the arising of just another sound, and the hearing of it is just another experience of hearing. There is nothing more. With such shift of focus, we subjectively experience the same event of hearing the traffic in a totally different qualitative manner. Our experience of hearing the noise can now be accompanied with indifference, peace of mind or even happiness, instead of anger, unhappiness and self-pity.