Mahamudra and the Four Noble Truths: Realizing the Conventional and Deepest Natures of the Mind
Seattle, Washington, April 16, 2003
1 The Four Noble Truths in Terms of Mental Activity
This evening, I have been asked to speak about mahamudra and the conventional nature of the mind. It is difficult to speak just about the conventional nature of mind without also bringing in mind's deepest nature, since both natures are inextricably connected. In Mahayana, when we speak about the conventional and deepest natures or truths, we are talking about two different facts that are true about anything. Conventional nature or relative nature or apparent nature is what something is; deepest nature is how something exists.
If we ask what is the conventional nature of mind – what is mind – in very general terms, mind is the individual subjective mental activity of experiencing things. We are not talking about some sort of tool or thing in our heads called "mind." What we are talking about is an activity, mental activity. From a Buddhist point of view, it is always individual and always subjective. What is its function, what does mental activity do? In the most general terms, mental activity experiences things. Mental activity always takes an object; it always has content.
How does mental activity exist? It exists in a manner devoid of all impossible manners of existence. Its manner of existence is voidness – the absence of all impossible ways of existing. The various Mahayana tenet systems identify these impossible ways differently. Mahamudra meditation is done according to the Madhyamaka explanations of voidness.
Mahamudra is a system of meditation that concerns the two natures of mental activity: what it is and how it exists. The word mahamudra means great seal. "Maha" means great and extensive, in the sense that the mind, mental activity, covers all phenomena as objects. It is something completely extensive in that sense.
Buddhism defines all phenomena as that which is knowable. What exists can be validly known. What does not exist can be invalidly known. Thus, everything can be specified in terms of being an object of mental activity. "Maha" conveys this idea of being vast and extensive.
The word mudra means a wax seal that attests to the validity of something. In ancient times, when important people signed a letter, they stamped it with a seal and used that as a signature to attest to the fact that this was an authentic letter from them. Here, these two natures, conventional and deepest natures, are the seal for all moments of the mental activity of all beings. They attest to the fact that this is mental activity; this is mind. This is one explanation for the term mahamudra; there are others.
These two natures are not "things" that exist inherently in some phenomenon and which, by their own power, on the side of the phenomenon, independently of everything else, make that phenomenon "mental activity." It is not that mind is like a blank diskette that comes preformatted with two natures and those two natures, by their own power, make it functional "mental activity." That is an impossible manner of how this phenomenon exists as "mental activity." Rather, the two natures are simply what mental activity is and how it exists.
We find mahamudra practice and meditation in many of the schools of Tibetan Buddhism. We find it in the Kagyu and Sakya lineages. We also find it in the Gelug lineage, where it is called the Gelug Kagyu lineage of mahamudra because it has a combined approach. That approach combines several typically Kagyu shamatha methods for gaining concentration on the conventional nature of the mind with typically Gelug vipashyana methods for realizing voidness as the deepest nature of mind. It has many quotations and references to previous Kagyu masters.
If we want to discuss the differences among these different traditions of mahamudra, we need first to speak about different levels of mental activity. We all have several levels of mental activity. There is the grossest level of mental activity, which is our sensory awareness of things. Seeing things, hearing, smelling, tasting, feeling physical sensations, these are all the grossest levels of mental activity. It is nonconceptual, in other words it is not through the medium of ideas, words, or concepts.
Then there is the subtle level of mental activity, which is our usual level of mental activity as opposed to sensory activity. This has both conceptual and nonconceptual aspects. If we want to look in the most general terms, the conceptual aspect would be thinking. Seeing something is the gross level of mental activity and thinking it is the subtle level.
We also have nonconceptual moments of mental cognition. Those would include, for instance, dreams where we are apparently experiencing very subtle sense objects – what seems to be seeing images in dreams or hearing voices, smelling, tasting, or feeling physical sensations. These are nonconceptual forms of mental cognition. Dreams are not exclusively nonconceptual, however, because we can also think conceptually in dreams. However, what appears to be something like sense perception in dreams is nonconceptual mental cognition. Another example is ESP. That would be the subtle level. We could go into detail on this, there are many levels of conceptual cognition; but let's leave it here.
Then there is the subtlest level. The subtlest level of mental activity is also known as the clear-light level of mental activity. The Sakya tradition calls it the causal everlasting continuum of the all-encompassing foundation. This is the level that just provides the continuity from moment to moment in a mental continuum. It is continuing at the moment of death as well, when the other grosser levels of cognition are absent, dissolved, or no longer present. It continues into enlightenment as well.
A Buddha has only this clear-light level of subtlest mental activity. A Buddha does not have any grosser levels of mental activity, because a Buddha does not have ordinary aggregates with a limited body and a limited mind. A Buddha is not a sentient being. The clear-light level itself is not limited, in the sense that it does not give rise to appearances of true existence. Nor does it grasp for true existence, although the habits of true existence might still be there.
For interest, rigpa (pure awareness), which is discussed in the dzogchen tradition, is the clear-light level of mental activity when it is totally unstained, without the habits of grasping at true existence. When we speak about the clear-light level in general, it may or may not have those habits. This is the difference between the two. In the Karma Kagyu mahamudra tradition, mind-itself or normal awareness is the unstained aspect of clear-light mental activity, not clear-light mental activity in general.
The analogy that I often use for helping to understand what is meant by this clear-light level is the analogy of a radio. The clear-light level is just the level of the radio being on. The grosser levels would be what station the radio is on and the volume. Regardless of what station it is on (what rebirth life-form we have), what program is playing (the specific rebirth we have), and what volume the station is playing with (what we are experiencing in that rebirth); still underlying it all and providing the continuity is the level of the radio merely being on.
If we look at the nature of mental activity, its conventional and deepest natures – what mental activity is and how it exists – then these two natures are true regardless of what level of mental activity we examine. Conventional and deepest natures of mental activity are the same for all levels: the seeing, thinking, and the clear-light levels. Because of this fact, we have two traditions of mahamudra: sutra and tantra.
When we practice the sutra level of mahamudra, we are trying to recognize, focus on, and understand the natures of the two grosser levels of mental activity: seeing and thinking. When we practice the anuttarayoga tantra level of mahamudra, we are trying to work with the two natures of clear-light mental activity. Tantra level mahamudra is the domain exclusively of anuttarayoga tantra. That highest class of tantra is the only aspect of the Buddha's teachings that speaks about this clear-light mind and provides the methods for accessing it.
The Kagyu and Gelug Kagyu traditions present both sutra and tantra levels of mahamudra. The Sakya tradition speaks only of a tantra level of it. It does not speak of a sutra level mahamudra. This is because, according to the Sakya tradition, when we have nonconceptual cognition of voidness, then by virtue of its being nonconceptual cognition of voidness, it is with the clear-light level of mental activity. That is an exclusive assertion of Sakya.
Karma Kagyu speaks of a third tradition of mahamudra, essence mahamudra. This is mahamudra practice, on either the sutra or tantra level, in which the practitioner is led to recognize the natures of mental activity through special inspiration from the spiritual master. With this method, which works with only a tiny number of special practitioners, progress occurs extremely quickly. Sakya and Gelug Kagyu do not assert this type of mahamudra practice.
Another difference is in terms of the approach for recognizing and focusing on the conventional nature of mental activity in sutra and tantra. In the Kagyu tradition, we basically quiet down. If we can quiet down deeply enough, we will be able to access and recognize these natures of our mental activity. In the Sakya and Gelug Kagyu traditions, it is a more active process of learning the definitions and then trying to recognize and focus in terms of those definitions, rather than merely quieting down and discovering it. Once we learn the definitions, however, Gelug Kagyu employs many Kagyu methods to quiet down in order to recognize them in mental activity.
Each tradition also has its own distinctive approach to voidness meditation on the deepest nature of mental activity. This accords with the different ways in which they divide Madhyamaka and define the assertions of its divisions.
Here, we shall speak in general about mahamudra and, in terms of the discussion of voidness, we shall follow just one: the Gelug Kagyu approach, which accepts the assertions of Prasangika-Madhyamaka as clarified by Tsongkhapa. It is too complicated to try to cover the voidness approaches of all the mahamudra traditions.
I find it helpful in trying to understand any topic in Buddhism to approach the topic in terms of the four noble truths. After all, this is the basic structure with which Buddha first presented the teachings and everything actually fits within that context. "Noble truths" mean facts of life that are seen as true by aryas (noble ones). An arya is someone who has had nonconceptual cognition of voidness, a highly realized being. An arya would see these four as true. Others may not.
The first noble truth is the truth of suffering or problems. This is referring to the five aggregate factors of our experience as an example of what is problematic. They are problematic because of their ups and downs, particularly in terms of the aggregate of feelings.
We are always experiencing some level of feeling happy or unhappy (or pleasure and pain). The unhappiness or pain that we experience from time to time is what is called the suffering of suffering. The ordinary type of happiness that we sometimes experience is what is called the suffering of change. The problem with the latter is that the ordinary happiness that we have does not last. It does not eliminate all our problems and difficulties, and we have no certainty whatsoever of how we are going to feel in the next moment – whether we will feel happy or unhappy. This is a terrible feature of samsaric happiness. A feeling of happiness is pleasant while it lasts, but it is problematic, not ideal.
Then there is the all-pervasively affecting suffering which is just the fact that we have these aggregate factors and these aggregate factors are under the influence of karma (compelling impulses). Because of that, the experience of these aggregate factors, just by their very nature, is going to be up and down. This is samsara – uncontrollably recurring existence.
This up-and-down nature of samsara is very important to take seriously because it very much affects our experience in meditation and our experience along the path. When we meditate and progress along the path, our experience is never linear. It is never the case that it is always going to get better and better. Rather, it goes up and down. It will continue to go up and down until we attain liberation from samsara and become an arhat. That is quite an attainment. All the way up to there, we have periods of time when we do not feel like meditating and periods when we do feel like doing it. There will be times when our disturbing emotions are stronger and times when they are weaker; it is going to go up and down. That is the nature of samsara. Do not think in terms of samsara going up and down merely in terms of our rebirth states. Samsara goes up and down from moment to moment. The place where we see that most prominently is with the aggregate of feelings: happy, unhappy, pleasure, pain, and neutral. That is the first noble truth, the truth of suffering.
The second noble truth is true causes. The true cause for this suffering of samsara always going up and down is basically karma. Karma is speaking about the compelling impulses that ripen from the legacies of our previous actions. It is a very complicated topic, entailing karma, actions, various types of karmic aftermath, and so on. So let's speak here in merely the most general terms and use only the word karma to refer to everything involved.
Because of karma, we feel like doing something or we feel like not doing something. Based on that, compelling impulses arise to do it or not to do it. We then act on those impulses. As a result of karma, we also experience feelings of happy or unhappiness arising. We have no control over what is ripening in terms of karma. All the samsaric experiences of things going up and down are also ripenings from karma.
Disturbing emotions, such as longing desire and anger, are also true causes of our suffering. But, the primary true cause is our grasping for true and inherent existence. We need to look at this a bit more closely.
Actually, there is a two-fold process of activation of karma to ripen into its result. There is the mental activity that in every moment gives rise to appearances of true and inherent existence. Our mental activity, our minds, are constantly making things appear to be truly and inherently existent, as if there were something on the side of the object making it what it is. The second phase of the process is believing that this appearance corresponds to reality. That is called grasping for true inherent existence.
Take the example of someone driving the car next to me, beeping the horn wildly, and trying to pass me. It appears to me that this person is an idiot. That appearance arises; our mental activity produces that appearance of an idiot. Not only is he an idiot – of course, conventionally this person might be an idiot – but not only does our mental activity make the person appear like an idiot, it makes him appear to exist inherently like an idiot. In other words, it seems as though there must be something wrong with this person, from his own side, that makes him an idiot, driving so erratically and being a pest on the road. That is what he appears like and it feels like that. This is the appearance-making of true existence.
Then there is grasping for true existence, which is basically believing that deceptive appearance to be true. Technically, grasping for true existence is cognizing the appearance of true existence with an inverted manner of taking it as an object. We take what is only an appearance of seemingly true existence to be actual true existence. In simple words, we believe that the appearance represents the truth.
In our example of the person driving the car next to me, I believe that he is truly an idiot trying to pass me. This is what activates karma. If we want to understand how we get rid of karma, it is important to understand this. Basically, we rid ourselves of karma by ridding ourselves of what activates it. If what activates karma is gone, if there is a true stopping of it so that it will never recur, then we have rid ourselves of karma. When there is nothing to activate it; it is finished. That is how we purify karma, how the understanding of voidness purifies karma.
We have the appearance-making of true existence and the grasping at true existence in every moment of our ordinary mental activity. Different Gelug textbooks explain differently how grasping for true existence functions during nonconceptual sensory cognition when it is not actually manifest, but let us leave this aside for our purposes here and just speak in general. This combination of appearance-making of true existence and grasping for true existence activates karma in every moment of our mental activity. From moment to moment, it is activating the karma that ripens into either feeling happy (this unsatisfactory type of happiness) or feeling unhappy. It ripens different aspects of karma to ripen into many other things, but this is one thing that it causes to ripen all the time.
It is actually quite difficult to know what is ripening what. According to the law of certainty of karma, a feeling of happiness ripens from a positive karma and a feeling of unhappiness ripens from a negative karma. But both negative and positive karmas are activated by the appearance-making of true existence and the grasping for true existence. Appearance-making is the basis for the activation, while the grasping is actually what activates the karma. We cannot have grasping for true existence if there is no appearance-making of true existence. They are interconnected. This is the true cause of our problems.
The true stopping of our true suffering and its true causes is the third noble truth. It is a true stopping of the all-pervasively affecting problem of this constant up and down of our aggregates – with the up-phase being the suffering of change and the down-phase being the suffering of suffering. That true stopping of suffering is only attained if we achieve a true stopping of the causes for it. We can only truly stop karma if we stop what activates karma – our grasping for true existence. If we want to achieve a true stopping such that suffering and its causes never recur, we need the realization of voidness, nonconceptually.
If we look closer at what we mean by true stoppings and how we correlate that to the conventional and deepest natures of mental activity, then we see the following. What we discover is that the first two noble truths are what we call "fleeting stains." They are stains of mental activity and they are fleeting. That means that they are not the nature of mental activity. They can be removed.
If the fleeting stains are not the nature of mental activity, what are they? The aggregate factors that comprise our experience of suffering and the causes for them, as fleeting stains, are the content of mental activity. They are not what mental activity is; they are not its defining characteristics. Nor are they how mental activity exists. They are the kind of mental activity we are experiencing (seeing, thinking, being angry, being happy) and the objects of that mental activity. Here I am using the word content to refer to both the object of the mental activity and the kind of mental activity that it is, because we do not really have a convenient word that covers both.
These stains are fleeting and that is what we want to achieve a true stopping of. We are not achieving a true stopping of the conventional or deepest natures of mental activity. We are achieving a true stopping of a certain type of content of the mental activity – true suffering and its true causes.
What do we mean by the conventional nature of mental activity? We are not talking about mind as some sort of object in our heads or instrument that does mental activity. We are talking about the mental activity itself. It is individual: we do not have some undifferentiated universal type of mental activity, a universal consciousness, or collective consciousness or unconscious in Buddhism. It is completely individual in each person as a continuum of moments that are also individual: my seeing does not transform into your seeing. Moreover, our individual mental activity is subjective. If I eat, I feel full; you do not feel full.
This mental activity is experiencing. The word experiencing is a bit problematic because it is not that we are building up experience. It is not experiencing in that sense. Rather, it is just cognizing things; experiencing its contents is what mental activity does.
The definition of the conventional nature of mental activity contains three words. The order of them in English is mere (which means only), clarity, and awareness. These are misleading translations. It is essential to understand what we mean by these terms. Otherwise, we may be misled in mahamudra meditation. Let's look at the three words in the order in which the Tibetan language presents them: clarity, awareness, and then mere.
Clarity is not talking about a thing or a quality, which is what the English word clarity would imply. With the word clarity, we are talking about the mental activity of making something clear. "Clear" also is not a very good word because it does not mean in focus, as the English word means. It does not mean bright or anything like that. We are certainly not talking about some sort of light bulb in our heads that illuminates things and now everything is clear. Rather, it is talking about making a cognitive appearance of something – appearance-making for short, the activity of giving rise to cognitive appearances. The cognitive appearance does not need to be of something visible. It can also be the cognitive appearance of a sound, a smell, a taste, a physical sensation, a thought, or an emotion.
What does that mean? Let's use the example of seeing this cup. From a Western point of view, when we see the cup, all sorts of neuroelectrical and neurochemical things are happening with the rods, cones, and neurons. Buddhism would not speak specifically like that. Buddhism does not speak so much about the gross physical aspects of the cognitive sensory apparatus that are involved with cognition, such as seeing. When it speaks at all about it, Buddhism discusses mostly the subtle energy aspects of the cognition, in terms of energy-winds (lung) and energy-channels. Let's leave that aside for the moment.
When we see something external, such as this cup, there is the external object itself – the cup - which is not connected to our mental continuums. Clarity refers to our mental activity of giving rise to a cognitive aspect that resembles this cup. This is then used for knowing it, cognizing it, perceiving it. It is like some type of internal hologram.
According to the Sakya, Kagyu, and Nyingma explanations, all that we actually see at any moment is one moment of a collage of colored shapes. Gelug says we also actually see the cup, because we cannot see the qualities of something without also seeing the basis for those qualities. For our purposes here, let's use the non-Gelug explanation, since it illustrates more clearly this point concerning the conventional nature of mental activity.
Our mental activity is going to produce a cognitive appearance of not just one moment of a collage of colored shapes. It is going to make a cognitive appearance of a cup, as a commonsense object that endures over time. That cognitive appearance is like a mental hologram of a cup. The commonsense object is the locus for not only the sight of a cup, but also for the physical sensation of a cup, and not for just one moment of each, but also for a sequence of moments. Without looking at the cup, I could just hold it in my hand. Based on the cognitive appearance of one moment of a physical sensation, my mental activity could also produce a mental hologram representing a commonsense cup that endures over time. So, producing a mental hologram, a cognitive appearance, is the clarity aspect of mental activity.
Awareness is the second aspect of mental activity. When we call it the second aspect, we need to be cautious about the words first and second. "Awareness" is just the second word of the definition of mind. It is not that these two aspects, clarity and awareness, happen in sequence. They are happening simultaneously. Not only are they happening simultaneously, they are also describing the same mental activity, just from two different points of view.
This second aspect of mental activity is usually translated as "awareness." Clarity was speaking about mental activity from one point of view: appearance-making, giving rise to a cognitive appearance of something (a mental hologram), whether that appearance is in focus or blurred. Similarly, awareness is talking about mental activity from another point of view: a mental engaging or cognizing of something. It is the mental activity of making something into a cognitive object that we are aware of.
That cognizing of something could be any type of cognizing. It could be seeing it; it could be hearing it; it could be thinking it, smelling it, and so on. We have primary consciousness, which cognizes merely the essential nature of an object: what type of cognitive object the appearance is of – a sight, a sound, a thought, and so on. Primary consciousness is accompanied by subsidiary types of awareness, usually called mental factors: liking it, disliking it, knowing what it is, understanding it, not understanding it, and so on. The word aware has the flaw of implying that we know what it is, we are conscious. It does not mean that at all here.
The making of a mental hologram of something, and cognitively engaging with something such that we cognize it, refer to the same moment of mental activity, simply described from two points of view. They are two ways of describing the same mental event. There is the appearance-making and the cognizing of it, the knowing of it. In other words, to make a mental hologram of something is the act of cognizing it, and the act of cognizing something is to make a mental hologram of it.
If we use the example of thinking, it is not that first there is an arising of a thought and then after it has arisen, we think it. The two are just describing the same phenomenon. There is the arising of the thought and the thinking of the thought; they are the same event. The arising of the mental sight and the seeing of it is the same thing. It is not that first a mental hologram arises and then we see it, or maybe we chose not to see it. It is not like that. We are talking about the same activity from different points of view.
Then there is the word mere. The word mere implies that that is all that there is with mental activity. There is no truly inherently existent "me" that is making it happen, that is controlling it, or is separate from the event and observing it. There is no inherently existent mind that is doing this mental activity, or making it happen. Of course, there is a physical basis for the activity; but that is just another way of describing it. This comes in the highest class of tantra where we speak of the subtlest energy.
The subtlest energy is the most subtle level of mental activity described from the point of view of energy. There are grosser levels of energy as well, which are also involved with conceptual thinking, the disturbing emotions, sense perception, and so on. Energy is just another way of describing the same phenomenon, mental activity. The energy and the mental activity share the same essential nature, usually translated as they are "one by nature." That means the two are describing the same phenomenon from different points of view. This is like the two truths sharing the same essential nature. The two truths are talking about the same phenomenon – any phenomenon – from two points of view: what it is and how it exists.
The physical basis of the mental activity is not something that exists independently of the mental activity, and which is "doing" the mental activity. Similarly, there is no separate truly existent entity called "mind" that serves as the tool that a truly existent separate "me" is using to think. Nevertheless, we might think, "I'll use my mind and try to figure it out." That is what it feels like. "I will apply my mind to it." Or, "I was out of my mind." These expressions are deceptive. It feels like there is a separate "me" and a separate "mind," but that is not really the way things exist.
In summary, the conventional nature of mental activity (mind) is mere clarity and awareness. It is simultaneous appearance-making and cognizing appearances, and that happening without there being any truly and inherently existent "me" or truly and inherently existent mind that is making it happen.
Each of the three aspects of the definition of mental activity, each of the defining characteristics, can have an impure side or a pure side. This is referring to the content of the mental activity: to what kind of appearance-making it is and to what kind of cognition of those appearances it is. That is content and this content can be either impure or pure. What is really important to understand is that the distinction between pure and impure mental activity does not refer to the conventional nature of mind.
As for the impure side, concerning appearance-making, there is the appearance-making of true existence and, concerning cognizing, there is the grasping for true existence. The impure side of "mere" would be that there is a truly existent "me" doing this mental activity, separate from the mental activity and making it happen. Such a "me" doesn't even exist conventionally. Appearance-making of true existence and the grasping at it, however, do exist; they do occur. All of that is content and does not affect the actual nature of what mental activity is and how it exists, the actual nature of what is happening.
Please note that impure appearance-making is the usual appearance-making of the aggregate factors of our experience – our five aggregates mixed with confusion (the "contaminated" aggregates). They appear to be truly existent and we believe that they exist in that way. Remember, these are the first two noble truths.
The pure side of mental activity is the appearance-making of a total absence of true existence (voidness) and the appearance-making of what is called "pure appearances." Pure appearances are appearances of phenomena non-truly existing, which means appearances of phenomena existing by dependently arising. Let us call them appearances of dependently arising phenomena. In Gelug Prasangika, dependent arising means arising dependently merely on mental labeling. Pure cognition is the nonconceptual cognition of voidness, as opposed to grasping for true existence. That would be the nonconceptual cognition of an absolute absence of true inherent existence: the cognition that there is no such thing as true inherent existence. It is an impossible way of existing.
Pure appearance-making of voidness and pure nonconceptual cognition of voidness are the fourth noble truths: true pathways of mind that lead to true stoppings. In other words, they are true paths.
If we speak in terms of the cognition of someone from a sutra point of view, then before the person becomes a Buddha, nonconceptual cognition of voidness is with a grosser level of mind. It is a mental cognition – the subtle level of mental activity, that middle level. At such a time, all we could experience on the pure side of mental activity would be the appearance-making of an absence of true existence with the cognition of voidness. This would be with the understanding that there is no inherently existent "me," or inherently existent mind, doing the activity.
If we stay on the sutra level, before Buddhahood the only pure appearance-making we could have would be the appearance-making of an appearance of voidness: an appearance of an absence of true existence. This is because when the subtle or gross levels of mental activity make an appearance of the conventional truth of an object, such as the sight of a vase, it can only produce an appearance of it as truly existent. Because mental activity cannot produce an appearance of true existence and an appearance of a total absence of true existence simultaneously, our mental activity before Buddhahood cannot give rise to pure appearances of conventional truths. It can only give rise to pure appearances of deepest truths – appearances of voidness.
Only the mental activity of a Buddha's omniscience can give rise to pure appearances of conventional truths: appearances of conventional truths as dependently arising phenomena totally devoid of true existence. Because omniscient mental activity can produce such appearances, it can simultaneously produce appearances of voidness – the absolute absence of true existence. Thus, only the omniscient mental activity of a Buddha can produce appearances of the two truths simultaneously and cognize the two simultaneously. This is according to sutra and, specifically, according to the Gelug presentation of sutra.
If we speak in terms of anuttarayoga tantra, clear-light mental activity can give rise to appearances of the two truths simultaneously before reaching Buddhahood. Before Buddhahood, clear-light mental activity still has the habits of grasping for true existence imputed on it, but these habits do not give rise to making appearances of true existence so long as clear-light mental activity is occurring. Clear-light mental activity before enlightenment occurs only at the time of death or by the power of meditation.
The facts that clear-light mental activity does not produce appearances of true existence and that it is more subtle than the levels of mental activity that grasp for true existence are some of the greatest advantages of accessing clear-light mental activity. In anuttarayoga tantra practice, we can cognize the two truths simultaneously already at the stage of an arya. The clear-light mental activity of an anuttarayoga tantra arya's nonconceptual total absorption (meditative equipoise) on voidness can simultaneously give rise to the pure appearance of non-truly existent, dependently arising conventional truths. As a Buddha, our mental activity is exclusively with clear-light mental activity.
Question: When we have simultaneous cognition of voidness and of dependently arising phenomena, can we have anything else conceptually going on at the same time?
Alex: No. Clear-light mental activity is subtler than the level of mental activity at which conceptual thought occurs. Conceptual cognition is only with subtle mental consciousness, never with clear-light mental activity. According to Kaydrub Norzang-gyatso, the tutor of the Second Dalai Lama, clear-light mental activity automatically gives rise to an appearance of an absence of true existence, for instance with the clear light of death. It does not necessarily have, however, an understanding of that appearance of an absence that it produces. Further, although clear-light mental activity produces an appearance of voidness; it does not necessarily produce simultaneously an appearance of dependently-arising phenomena. It may or it may not. For example, when we manifest clear-light mental activity through the power of anuttarayoga tantra meditation, the first phase of this activity does not produce appearances of dependently arising phenomena. It only produces such appearances at a more advanced stage of practice.
Moreover, clear-light mental activity cannot give rise to pure appearances of dependently arising phenomena without simultaneously giving rise to an appearance of an absence of true existence (an appearance of voidness). This is because the appearance of dependently arising phenomena is an appearance of non-truly existing phenomena.
Another point, while clear-light mental activity is manifest, it can never cognize anything conceptually. Conceptual mental activity and sensory mental activity always produce appearances of true existence, according to Gelug. Clear-light mental activity produces appearances of an absence of true existence. The two types of appearance-making and appearances (impure and pure) are mutually exclusive. They cannot occur simultaneously.
Furthermore, during meditation, when we have nonconceptual total absorption on voidness, our mental activity produces an appearance of an absence of true existence. This is true both in sutra and anuttarayoga tantra. During the time of our subsequent attainment (post-meditation), which may be still during meditation or afterwards, our mental activity again produces appearances of true existence. This occurs up to our attainment of Buddhahood, whether we practice sutra or anuttarayoga tantra.
In the case of anuttarayoga tantra, our clear-light mental activity is manifest only during an arya's total absorption, not during periods of subsequent attainment. During periods of subsequent attainment, when our mental activity once more produces appearances of true existence, we realize that they are like an illusion: they do not actually exist in the way in which they appear to exist. We are not fooled by these impure appearances.
Sutra presents the same point, but in terms of yogic straightforward cognition (yogic bare perception), rather than clear-light cognition. Yogic straightforward cognition is nonconceptual cognition of voidness with mental consciousness. It too does not give rise to appearances of true existence or grasp for true existence. It too is manifest only during an arya's total absorption on voidness. During subsequent attainment phases, when our usual nonconceptual and conceptual cognitions once more give rise to appearances of true existence, we also realize that they are like illusions.
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