The Preliminary Practices for Mahamudra

Recognizing Our Mental Blocks

The mahamudra teachings also emphasize the importance and need for extensive preliminary practice. The point of such practice, for example making hundreds of thousands of prostrations, is to purify ourselves of the grossest levels of obstacles and build up positive force so that our mahamudra meditation will be more effective for bringing us to enlightenment. In this context, obstacles do not refer to economic, social or other external hindrances, but to difficulties within ourselves. Positive force, usually translated as "positive potential" or "merit," refers to the conducive internal state that results from constructive, or "virtuous" actions of body, speech, mind and heart.

To appreciate how this process of purification works so that we can undertake it in the most effective manner, it is essential to understand what are internal obstacles. Shantideva has written, "If you have not come in contact with the object that is to be refuted, you cannot gain an understanding of its refutation." We cannot possibly eliminate the mental and emotional obstacles to our spiritual success unless we know what they are.

We can understand these obstacles on many levels. There are obstacles preventing liberation and those preventing omniscience. The former refer to disturbing emotions and attitudes, or "afflictions" such as pride and stubborn confusion, while the latter refer to the instincts of such confusion. Preliminary practices help to purify ourselves of the grossest levels of obstacles preventing liberation. Prostration, for example, helps weaken our pride. Within the context of mahamudra, however, we can perhaps best understand obstacles as mental blocks. Let us develop this theme by examining again the mechanism of tension.

If we are constantly tense, one of the main mental blocks causing this is that we are bogged down in the contents of what we are currently experiencing. For instance, we are filling out our tax forms – a task that we intensely dislike. Because we dislike it so much, we morbidly fixate and become stuck on each line of the form, feeling increasingly more tense and nervous. We start to complain in our mind, feel sorry for ourselves, doubt our ability to accomplish the task, worry if we shall ever finish it, wish we didn't have to do it at all, and fantasize about enjoying something else instead. We distract ourselves with a cigarette, a snack or a telephone call. It is as if the form is a quagmire of quicksand dragging us down. Such an attitude severely prevents us from ever finishing filling it out. We likewise disable ourselves, through a similar mechanism, when we morbidly fixate, with tension and worry, about the contents of a future experience or task that we anticipate with dread.

Life, however, is an ongoing process that continues from each moment to the next without ever taking a pause. Each moment of life is the next moment of experience, and every experience has its own contents. There is always something different that we are experiencing each moment. Life always goes on, although, unfortunately, often entailing having to do things we do not enjoy. The first true fact, after all, is that life is difficult.

When we are tense, however, we are stuck on the content aspect of a particular moment of our experience. It is as if we have frozen a moment of time and cannot go on. We are caught in the contents of what we are doing, or anticipate doing, as opposed to just doing the task and being finished with it. This fixation functions as a severe mental block – an obstacle preventing us from effectively doing anything, let alone liberate ourselves from all suffering.

My late mother, Rose, had a very wise and useful piece of advice. She always used to say, "Do things straight up and down, not sideways! Whatever you have to do, just do it and be finished." Thus if we have to wash the dishes or take out the garbage, just do the task, straight up and down, and be finished. If we make an ordeal out of it in our mind, we experience it as an ordeal.

Becoming caught up in and stuck on the contents of the experiences of our daily life so that we feel tense and complain, not to mention becoming annoyed with them, is a serious mental block. It is an obstacle that prevents us from seeing the ongoing process of the nature of our mind. As it is essential to see that process in order to overcome our confusion about reality that generates our problems and our inability to help others effectively, we need to remove such obstacles. Preliminary practices, such as the repetition of a hundred thousand or more prostrations, are designed to weaken and thus to begin eliminating these blocks.


Making prostration is not a punishment or penance, not some nasty thing we have to do and get over with quickly so that we can go on to the good parts. Buddha is not like an overbearing parent insisting we have to do our homework before we can play any games. Rather, making prostration helps us loosen the mental block of being caught up in the contents of our experience. We just make prostration, "straight up and down," as Rose Berzin would say. This does not mean that we make them mechanically, but just directly. We just do it.

Of course, we accompany our prostration with an appropriate motivation, visualization and recitation of either one of the refuge formulas or a short text helpful for purification, such as The Admission of Downfalls. Doing so leaves little room in our mind for complaining, feeling sorry for ourselves or worrying if we shall ever complete the hundred thousand. But even merely making prostration itself can familiarize us with the approach to life of just doing things directly, straight up and down, without feeling tense. This helps us purify ourselves, to a certain extent, of some of our mental blocks or obstacles and build up more positive force to be able actually to see directly the nature of mind.

Vajrasattva Practice

Another important preliminary is the recitation, a hundred thousand times or more, of the hundred-syllable mantra of Vajrasattva for purification of the negative force we have built up from previously committed destructive, or "non-virtuous" actions. We accompany our recitation with an open admission to these negative actions and the acknowledgment that it was a mistake to have ever committed them. We feel regret, not guilt; offer our promise to try not to commit them again; reaffirm our safe direction of refuge and our commitment to achieving enlightenment to be able to benefit everyone; and graphically imagine a purification occurring with a complex visualization while we repeat the mantra.

The state of mind with which we engage in this preliminary, then, is the same with which we make prostration while reciting The Admission of Downfalls. In this way, Vajrasattva practice purifies us of negative force that, as karmic obstacles, would ripen into our experience of unhappiness or unpleasant situations that would prevent, respectively, our liberation or full ability to help others. In addition to its usual benefit, however, such practice also serves as an excellent preliminary specifically for mahamudra meditation.

One of the ways in which we experience having built up negative force is feeling guilt. Suppose we have foolishly spoken harsh words to our boss in a momentary fit of anger which has caused us to lose our job and may cause us future difficulty in finding other employment. If we become fixated on the contents of that experience, we solidify the event in our mind. We freeze it in time and then dwell on it over and again, identifying ourselves totally with what we did at that moment and judging ourselves to be a stupid, worthless, bad person. Such classic guilt is usually accompanied with a feeling of stress and anxiety, and considerable worry about what are we going to do now. So long as we do not let go of our stranglehold on the contents of that experience, we cripple ourselves from ever taking clear, self-confident action to remedy the situation by finding a new job.

The visualization of our negativities leaving us in a graphic form while reciting the hundred-syllable Vajrasattva mantra with the appropriate state of mind helps us let go of our fixation on the contents of our past experience of having acted destructively. Consequently, it helps us let go of our guilt. This helps train us to let go of our fixation on the contents of every moment of our experience, which is the essence of the beginning levels of mahamudra practice. In this way, Vajrasattva serves as an excellent preliminary for mahamudra.


Another preliminary always stressed is guru-yoga as a method for gaining inspiration, or "blessings." It is fairly easy to practice guru-yoga on a superficial level. We visualize before us our spiritual teacher, guru or lama in the appearance of either Shakyamuni Buddha, a Buddha-figure like Avalokiteshvara, or a lineage master such as Tsongkhapa or Karmapa. We then imagine lights of three colors emanating from this figure to us while we recite, a hundred thousand times or more, an appropriate mantra or verse while making fervent requests for inspiration to be able to see the nature of our mind. It is very difficult, however, to understand on a deeper level what we are actually trying to do during, and by means of such practice. What are we trying to cultivate on a psychological level? The answer revolves around one of the more difficult aspects of the Buddhist teachings – the proper relation with a spiritual teacher.

In almost every mahamudra text we read something like, "As an essential preliminary for mahamudra practice, diligently perform guru-yoga. Imagine that your body, speech and mind become one with those of your guru. Make fervent requests for inspiration to be able to see the nature of your mind." At first reading, it seems almost as if all we need do is perform such visualization and make such requests, and then we shall live happily ever after, like in a fairy-tale. We shall receive inspiration that, like magic, will act as the sole cause for our gaining realization, independently of our having to do anything else. Even in the Jodo Shinshu school of Japanese Buddhism in which we rely solely on the power of Amitabha to gain liberation and enlightenment, we implicitly understand from this formulation of the spiritual path that we must stop all ego-based efforts, which depends on realizing the deepest nature of "me" and mind. Thus we must obviously go deeper than just the superficial level of praying to our guru to inspire us to see the nature of our mind, and then leaving it at that, feeling that if we have enough faith and are truly sincere, we shall have our wish granted. All of a sudden, like having been touched on the head with a wizard's magic wand, we shall see and recognize the nature of our mind.

Mind has a two-leveled nature. Its conventional nature is mere clarity and awareness. It is what allows for anything to arise as an object of cognition and be known. Its deepest, or "ultimate" nature is that it is devoid of existing in any fantasied, impossible ways, such as independently of the appearances that it gives rise to as the objects it knows. Guru-yoga is a profound, though not mystical aid for seeing both. Let us examine the mechanism for each.

When we practice guru-yoga, request our guru for inspiration and then dissolve a replica of our guru into us, the stronger our fervent regard and respect in him or her, the more prominently we experience a blissful, vibrant state of mind as a result of this process. If our faith is mixed with attachment, the state of mind we gain is merely one of excitement – confused, distracted and not very clear. But if our fervent regard and respect are based on reason, this blissful, vibrant state of mind is founded on confident belief. Being emotionally stable, it is extremely conducive to utilize as both the mind that sees it own conventional nature and the mind, having this nature, upon which to focus.

To understand how the process of guru-yoga and requesting inspiration works to facilitate our seeing the deepest nature of mind, we need to understand how seeing our guru as a Buddha fits within the context of the teachings on voidness and dependent arising. Voidness means an absence – an absence of impossible ways of existing. When we imagine that a guru exists as a Buddha independently from his or her own side, for example, we are projecting an impossible way of existing onto that teacher. That mode of existence does not refer to anything real, because nobody exists as "this" or "that," or as anything from his or her own side. Someone exists as a spiritual mentor, a Buddha or both only in relation to a disciple. A "teacher" arises dependently not only on a mind to which someone appears as a teacher and not only on what the word or mental label "teacher" refers to, but also on the existence of students.

The role "teacher" cannot exist independently from the function of teaching. It is defined, in fact, as someone who teaches. The function of teaching could not possibly exist on its own if there were no such things as learning or learners. Thus, no one could be a teacher if there were no such thing as students. In other words, no one – not even Shakyamuni Buddha, Tsongkhapa, Karmapa, or even our personal guru – could exist as a spiritual mentor if there did not also exist someone as a student. Even if someone is not teaching at this moment or has no students right now, that person could only exist as a teacher if he or she had been trained as a teacher, which could come about only if there were such a thing in the universe as students. Moreover, someone is functionally a teacher only when he or she is actually teaching, and that can only be in relation to a student.

The same line of reasoning applies to the interdependently arising existence of Buddhas and sentient beings. Sentient beings are those with limited awareness, while Buddhas are those with the fullest capacity to help such beings. No one could be a Buddha if sentient beings never existed. This is why it is said that the kindness of sentient beings far outweighs the kindness of the Buddhas in enabling us to attain enlightenment.

Since gurus and Buddhas do not exist independently from disciples or students, it follows that neither teachers nor disciples exist as totally independent entities, like two solid, concrete posts, either of which could exist on its own even if the other never had existed. We can therefore logically conclude that it is fantasy to imagine that a guru can produce an effect on a disciple as someone solid "out there" transmitting a solid effect, like tossing a ball, to someone solid "in here," namely "me." Effects, such as gaining realization of the nature of mind, can only arise by depending on not only a joint effort of both a spiritual guide and a disciple, but many other factors as well. As Buddha has explained, "A bucket is not filled with water by the first or last drop of water. It is filled by a collection of a very large number of drops."

Realization of the conventional and deepest natures of mind is the result of a long and arduous process, over countless lifetimes, of building up and cleansing (collecting and cleansing). The former refers to strengthening two enlightenment-building networks, namely of positive force (or positive potential) and deep awareness – the "two collections of merit and insight" – while the latter means purifying ourselves of negative force (or negative potential) and obstacles. In addition, we must listen to correct teachings on the two true levels of the nature of mind – conventional and deepest – ponder them until we gain a basic working level of their understanding, and then meditate properly and intensively on them. By practicing in this way, we build up the causes for gaining realization and attainments. Inspiration from our guru cannot serve as a substitute for this process.

Inspiration from a spiritual mentor is, however, the most effective means for causing the seeds of potential for realization that we build up through these methods to ripen more quickly so as to produce their results more immediately. Inspiration, as a circumstance for the ripening of causes, cannot by itself bring about any results if there are either no causes or insufficient ones for it to ripen. Inspiration or "blessings" from a guru, a lineage founder, or even Shakyamuni himself, cannot function like magic to bring us realization and enlightenment. Therefore, we should not deceive ourselves into thinking that we can avoid hard work in order to overcome our problems so that we can gain everlasting, deep happiness and the ability to be of most benefit to others. Inspiration can definitely help us reap the effects of our efforts more quickly – and is widely praised as the most effective means for so doing – but it can never substitute for the sustained effort, over many lifetimes, to build up the causes for those effects.

In summary, for a disciple to gain inspiration and then actually realize the nature of mind, it is crucial that not only he or she, but also the teacher understand how each of them exists and how the process of cause and effect can only function on the basis of voidness – an absence of impossible ways of existing. If either or both believe that he or she and the other exist independently and concretely like cement posts, that inspiration and realization exist like a hard ball, and that the cause and effect process of gaining inspiration and realization works like tossing that ball from one post to the other, then no matter how skillful the spiritual mentor might be and how receptive and sincere the disciple may be, the effect will be blocked. If we believe that what we experience in relation to our guru, even as a Buddha, exists somewhere concretely "out there" and does not arise by depending on many factors – not the least of which is our mind – how can he or she send us either inspiration or the understanding of the nature of our mind, even if we request for it nicely, with total sincerity and a proper motivation?

The Relationship with a Spiritual Teacher

To understand guru-yoga more clearly, we need to examine more closely the topic of "guru-devotion." In order to avoid a possible misinterpretation, let us translate the technical term for this as a "whole-hearted commitment to a spiritual teacher," namely the commitment to regard this person as a Buddha. Making this commitment is not dealing with the issue of whether or not our spiritual mentor exists "out there" as a Buddha. After all, we can only speak of our teacher in terms of our experience of him or her. The manner in which a spiritual mentor exists can only be formulated in terms of mind. Therefore we are committing ourselves to regard our experience of our teacher as the experience of a Buddha.

This relationship with a spiritual teacher as a Buddha, then, is basically a very personal contract. If we speak from the point of view of a disciple, our contract with this person is, "It is of no concern to me now at this stage of my practice how you generate and experience your motivation for what you are doing. I want to be able to help others as fully as possible and reach the state of a Buddha in order to be best able to bring about that benefit. Therefore, having examined you and myself very carefully and having seen that both of us are suitable for entering into this type of relationship, I now intend to regard my experience of whatever you say or do as a personal teaching. I shall experience your actions and words as being motivated solely by the wish to help me develop so that I can overcome my problems and shortcomings and be of fuller benefit to others. A Buddha is someone whose every thought, word and action benefits others, in other words someone who always teaches. Therefore I am going to regard you as teaching me all the time.

"Neither our relationship nor the benefit I can derive from it exists as something coming just from your side or as some solid entity like a rope tied between us. Our relationship exists only in terms of our mind's experience of it, which is dependent on both of us. Since I can only experience our relationship in the way I conceive of and perceive it, I am going to experience it in such a manner as to maximize the benefit I can receive. It is for that purpose that I am going to regard my experience of you as the experience of a Buddha. And, in fact, if I regard it as such, it will be the experience of a Buddha and function as such. It is not self-deception carried out for a worthy, good purpose."

The main way in which our spiritual teacher or any Buddha can help us liberate ourselves from our confusion and problems and use all our potentials effectively to help others is by training us to develop discriminating awareness, or "wisdom." We need to cultivate a mind that can discriminate between reality and fantasy and between what is helpful and harmful. Thus our relation with our guru is not that of a private in the army to his or her general. Whenever the general speaks, we jump to our feet, salute and shout, "Yes, sir!" and unquestioningly obey. It is not like that. When our spiritual mentor speaks, we are, of course, respectful, but we experience it as an opportunity to exercise our discriminating awareness.

Furthermore, if we always obey in the army and are a good soldier, our general may grant us a promotion. But it is totally different with a spiritual teacher. It is not that if we always obey our teacher unquestioningly, that makes us a good disciple. And if we sincerely request, our guru will grant us a promotion in rank to someone who sees the nature of mind. Seeing the nature of our mind can only arise by directly depending on our development of discriminating awareness. The way in which we experience our teacher contributes to our success in an indirect manner, by helping us cultivate that discrimination.

The classic example of this process comes from a previous life account of Buddha. Once, in a former life, Buddha had a spiritual mentor who told him and all his other disciples to go through the village and steal for him. Everybody went out to steal, except Buddha, who stayed in his room. The guru came to Buddha's room and shouted with rage, "Why don't you go out and steal for me? Don't you want to please me?" Buddha calmly replied, "How can stealing make anyone happy?" The guru answered, "Ah, you are the only one who understood the point of the lesson."

Thus, if we regard and experience as a teaching whatever our spiritual mentor says or does, we can use it to help us develop our wisdom and discrimination. No matter what our teacher suggests we do, we examine to see if it makes sense. If it is in accord with Buddha's teachings and we are capable of doing it, we do it "straight up and down," as my mother would say. In the process, our teacher taught us to think things over carefully before acting and then to act decisively with self-confidence. And if he or she asks us to do something that we see is totally inappropriate, we do not do it and politely explain why. Our spiritual guide has once more provided an opportunity to train and exercise discriminating wisdom.

The most beneficial relationship with a guru, then, certainly does not revolve around a personality cult. When we regard our teacher as a cult icon, we are caught up in and fixated upon the contents of our experience. We overinflate and solidify the object of our experience, in this case a guru, and almost literally set him or her up on a pedestal, like a solid gold statue, whenever we see or imagine this person on a teaching throne. With this state of mind, we abnegate ourselves and worship the contents of our experience, adding title after title to his or her name. We are neither aware of nor focused on the nature of mind itself and its relation to our experience of our spiritual mentor. With such a confused and naïve attitude, we open ourselves to serious abuse.

The other extreme we could go to when we become caught up in the object side of our experience of our teacher is that we criticize the guru with hostility and, perhaps, profound disappointment and dismay. He or she was supposed to have been perfect and we see serious ethical or judgmental flaws. Or, we keep our mouth shut out of fear, thinking that if we say no to our teacher, we are being a bad disciple and will be rejected. Or, we think that to say no is tantamount to an admission that we were stupid to have chosen this person as our spiritual guide, and rather than appearing stupid to ourselves and others, we blindly accept and agree to everything that our mentor says or does. In all these cases, we have lost sight of our contract to learn discriminating awareness from our interaction with the teacher, regardless of the contents of that interaction. To enter into such an agreement obviously requires not only a highly qualified spiritual master, but also a highly qualified disciple who is emotionally mature and not looking for a father or mother-substitute to make all his or her decisions.

Therefore, when we practice guru-yoga, even if we do not as yet have a personal mentor with whom we have such a contract, we try to follow the guidelines for how to gain the most benefit from such a relationship. We try to avoid becoming caught up in and infatuated with the contents of the visualizations. We do not become enraptured at how wonderful our guru or Buddha is in sending us blissful lights. Instead, we focus on the experiential side of what is happening – on the mind that is allowing for the interchange of lights and the inspiration that those lights symbolize. Just as we can develop discriminating awareness of what is appropriate or not by experiencing each and every action of our spiritual guide as a teaching, likewise we can also develop discriminating awareness of dependent arising and voidness from the practice of guru-yoga.

When we make requests to the guru, what are we doing? When we fervently request, "May I be able to see the nature of my mind," we are generating a very strong wish to see and understand the nature of mind through a proper interaction with a spiritual teacher. Just as tension does not exist "out there," but rather is dependent on mind, likewise stable realization or even a passing flash of insight into the nature of mind and reality, as well as inspiration to receive either of them, are not things "out there" that somebody can throw to us like a ball. They are things that arise dependently in relation to a mind as a result of a huge complex of causes.

The Inseparability of Our Mind and Our Guru

The early twelfth-century Tibetan master, Gampopa, said, "When I experienced the inseparability of my mind and my guru, I perceived mahamudra." We can understand Gampopa's guideline statement on many levels, such as concerning gaining inspiration from constant remembrance of our teacher; gaining a blissful, vibrant state of mind from fervent regard and respect for him or her; and so on. But, he certainly did not mean that when he had a mystical union with his guru, like with God or his beloved, he beheld mahamudra like a gift sent from heaven. Rather, he saw that the relationship with his spiritual mentor was an experience of mind that entailed learning from each moment of encounter. The resulting benefit was thus arising by depending on mind and could only exist by depending on mind. In that sense, he realized his guru and his mind were inseparable.

The implication of Gampopa's statement is not that the relationship with a spiritual master is only in our head as a disciple. That is just as mistaken as saying that everything comes from the side of an all-mighty guru/Buddha. A relation between a teacher and disciple arises by depending on not only the two persons, but also a mind that experiences the interaction from moment to moment. When we understand this, we do not become caught up in the contents of the experience from either fixating on the object-side of the "holy guru" or the subject-side of "poor, helpless me." Rather, we remain focused on the experience and on the deepest nature of mind and reality that allows for the cause and effect relationship of inspiration and benefit to occur between the two persons involved. This is symbolized by a flow of transparent lights from guru to disciple, both of whom we visualize and thus experience as also made of clear light. There is no solid, concrete guru "out there" shining some solid glaring lights onto a solid, concrete me sitting independently "in here," in my head. Such practice of guru-yoga, then, is extremely helpful for training ourselves to focus with discriminating awareness on the deepest nature of mind in mahamudra meditation.


When we practice guru-yoga, we accompany our visualization with the repeated recitation of a guru-mantra or verse that includes a request. In the Karma Kagyu tradition, for example, which developed from one of Gampopa's disciples, the First Karmapa, we recite the mantra, "Karmapa kyenno," which means, literally, "Karmapa, omnisciently know!" In the Gelug-Kagyu tradition of mahamudra, we substitute the visualization and mantra of Tsongkhapa for those of Karmapa. Otherwise the procedure and process are exactly the same.

If we leave our understanding of the guru as someone external, then the recitation of the Karmapa mantra, for example, becomes an exercise in devotion alone, and nothing deeper. We are basically reciting the equivalent of "Karmapa, listen and know my troubles! Only you omnisciently know how to remove them." At best this leads to seeing Karmapa as a Buddha indicating the safe direction of refuge that we put in our life. At a less optimal level, this leads to feeling that only Karmapa can save us from all our problems. Thus our requests to the guru with the Karmapa mantra become the equivalent of reciting over and again, "God help me!"

But when we see the inseparability of our mind and our guru, we are in fact repeating "Mind, omnisciently know!" whenever we recite "Karmapa kyenno." With our fervent requests to the guru, then, we are directing our energies in a strong way toward the mahamudra realization on the basis of confidence that our mind, as part of our Buddha-nature, has the resources for seeing reality. Even if we do not as yet have a personal guru to act as a conduit for the lineage coming from its founding figures, our Buddha-nature connects us with the lineage and thus can function as a source of inner inspiration. Thus not only do we rely on external gurus, we also have an inner guru – the nature of our mind. When we see the inseparability of our mind and our guru in this deepest sense, we gain the deepest level of inspiration.

The inner guru, then, is not some independently existing figure in our head from whom we can receive special messages that we must definitely follow. When thoughts, such as ideas to do this or that, or even realizations arise, they may be either good ideas or foolish ones, either correct realizations or false ones. Just because something new and unexpected arises all of a sudden in our mind, does not at all mean that it is reliable. We must always examine its validity.

Furthermore, no little person in our head is sending them to us purposely as a message. Thoughts and realizations, both valid and invalid, arise through a process of cause and effect as the ripening of some seed or potential. Seeds are planted by our previous habitual actions, which can be either constructive or destructive, well-informed or deluded. They ripen when the proper circumstances are present. Recognizing the nature of our mind as Buddha-nature and realizing the inseparability of our mind and our guru – more precisely, our mind and our Buddha-nature as our inner guru – act as circumstances for correct realizations to ripen from the seeds of potential we have built up through our previous practices of building up and cleansing, as well as listening, pondering and meditating. Just as it is crucial not to romanticize our external guru into a worker of magic and miracles, the same is true of our inner guru.

Investigating the Meaning of Every Teaching

It is very important in the practice of Buddhism to look deeply at all the teachings, especially those that repeat in almost every text on a particular topic, such as the statement that guru-yoga and requesting the guru for inspiration are the most important preliminaries for mahamudra practice. The early eleventh century Indian master, Atisha, has said, "Take everything in the great texts as guideline instructions for personal practice." This does not mean, however, that we regard them simply as orders from our general that we must obey unthinkingly. We need to delve deeply to try to understand the significance and meaning of each instruction.

Buddha's teachings can be divided into interpretable and definitive ones – literally, those intended to lead us deeper and those concerning the deepest meaning to which we are led. The deepest point to which all Buddha's teachings lead is the realization of voidness. Therefore, in order to understand how, in Atisha's words, "all the teachings fit together without contradiction," we need to put the instructions about whatever we are practicing together with the teachings on everything else – particularly with those on voidness. The study of Buddhism is like being given pieces of an enormous jigsaw puzzle. It is up to us to gather all the pieces, such as guru-yoga and voidness, and fit them together. Even the process of thinking about how they fit together and working it out, and not just intellectually, acts as a preliminary for eliminating obstacles and strengthening enlightenment-building networks of positive force and deep awareness.

Thus preliminary practices are an essential prerequisite for achieving any success with the mahamudra methods. Without them, we may sit and do what seems to be mahamudra meditation. It is not difficult to imagine we are focusing on the natural state of the mind. But, in fact, all we are doing is sitting there, either daydreaming or, at best, focusing on nothing, completely "spaced out" with our head in the clouds. We may become a bit more relaxed in the process, but our meditation basically goes nowhere profound.