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Mahamudra and the Four Noble Truths: Realizing the Conventional and Deepest Natures of the Mind

Alexander Berzin
Seattle, Washington, April 16, 2003

3 Application to Mahamudra Practice

edited transcript

Shamatha and Vipashyana

All these points we have been discussing are relevant for understanding mahamudra meditation. Mahamudra meditation has two basic stages: the practices for attaining shamata and the practices for attaining vipashyana.

Shamata is a serenely stilled and settled state of mind, focused in mahamudra on the conventional nature of mental activity. In the Gelug Kagyu tradition of mahamudra, we focus on the mere appearance-making and cognizing that occurs in each moment of our cognition. We do this first with seeing, then with other types of sensory cognition, then with thinking, and then with mental cognition not thinking anything conceptually about what appears. Regardless of what type of mental activity is occurring, we do not focus on the content.

Vipashyana is an exceptionally perceptive state of mind, focused in mahamudra on the deepest nature of mental activity. It focuses on the voidness of mental activity – its absence of existing in impossible extreme ways, such as with true existence.

In shamatha, we do not focus on the content of our mental activity, which in any case is impure. Because it is not focused nonconceptually on voidness, the content is necessarily with appearance-making of true existence and grasping for true existence. This means that even during our shamatha focus on the conventional nature of mental activity, our mental activity is still impure. Thus, it makes its own conventional nature appear to truly exist and it grasps at it to exist in that impossible way. Nevertheless, this is less disturbing than the appearance-making of true existence and grasping for true existence that occurs focused on the ever-changing contents of our mental activity. The conventional nature of our mental activity remains constant. It never changes, although of course it is not a static phenomenon because it takes a different object in each moment.

Because the conventional nature of mental activity never changes and because focus on it does not evoke the usual disturbing emotions that focus on its ever-changing contents does, it is far easier to realize the voidness of the conventional nature of mental activity than it is to realize the voidness of any contents of mental activity. This is one of the main benefits of mahamudra meditation.

In mahamudra vipashyana, we focus on the voidness of the conventional nature of our mental activity. Only this rids us of impure mental activity. Merely not focusing on the contents of our impure mental activity in shamatha meditation does not rid us of impure mental activity. It is just a temporary respite from the type of impure mental activity that is directed at the contents of our mental activity, and that is all. This respite, however, allows us to focus more easily on the voidness of our mental activity during vipashyana meditation, because we have less disturbing emotions and our object of focus remains constant. The Gelug Kagyu tradition of mahamudra, such as in the First Panchen Lama's Root Text for the Precious Gelug Kagyu Tradition of Mahamudra, presents the meditation like this.

[See: A Root Text for the Precious Gelug Kagyu Tradition of Mahamudra .]

Detailed Discussion of Mahamudra Shamatha

The practice of mahamudra shamatha meditation requires being able to distinguish the conventional nature of mental activity from its contents. This requires the mental factor (subsidiary awareness) of distinguishing, or recognition as it is sometimes translated. It is one of the five aggregate factors of our experience. The mental factor of distinguishing focuses on an uncommon defining characteristic of something, for example something within a cognitive field such as our field of vision, and distinguishes it from the other things in that field. This mental factor allows us to focus on one item within a cognitive field, this and not that, although in sensory cognition we do not ascribe a name to what we distinguish. A simple example is distinguishing light from dark, or distinguishing the colored shape of someone's face from the colored shapes of the wall. Even an infant or an animal can do that.

Here, in a moment of mental activity, we need to be able to distinguish the conventional nature of the mental activity from its contents. This is very difficult to do. It is very difficult to distinguish actual mere appearance-making and cognizing.

Not only is it difficult to distinguish mere appearance-making and cognizing as our focal object, the process of meditating itself is difficult. As in the case of meditation on love, we are not focusing here on this conventional nature as a cognitive object like the breath. We are not meditating in the manner of a mental activity observing an object that is different from itself and focusing on it, as we would when focusing on the breath. We merely accompany the focal object (mental activity itself) with distinguishing, concentration, and so on, as it is occurring over a sequence of moments. Unlike in the case of love, however, we do not have to generate the object of focus anew. The conventional nature of mental activity is naturally occurring all the time.

Shamata meditation requires the mental factors of attention, mindfulness, alertness, and concentration. Attention or "taking to mind" is based on distinguishing. Only when we are able to distinguish the object of meditation can we pay attention to as it is happening. What is happening is the mental activity. The mental activity is accompanied by attention to the conventional nature of the mental activity, otherwise the object could not be our focal object. It is not, however, that there is a separate "me" that is paying attention to it as the observer.

Please note that attention is not the same as reflexive awareness (rang-rig) asserted in several Buddhist tenet systems. Reflexive awareness is a separate awareness that accompanies a cognition and cognizes the mental activity itself and its fallaciousness or nonfallaciousness. It does not check the fallaciousness, it merely cognizes it. Moreover, reflexive awareness does not make a cognitive appearance of the object of the cognition that it accompanies, as a subsidiary awareness such as attention does. Rather, reflexive awareness makes a cognitive appearance of only the primary and subsidiary awarenesses of the cognition. It is responsible for the ability latter to remember having had this cognition.

Gelug Prasangika does not accept even the conventional existence of reflexive awareness. While primary consciousness focuses on a cognitive object, it explicitly cognizes its object of focus and implicitly cognizes its own occurrence and fallaciousness or nonfallaciousness. This allows for later recollection of the cognition. Attention, here, focuses on the same focal object as the primary consciousness does – namely, the conventional nature of the mental activity as it is occurring. Because attention is not focusing on the contents of the cognition, the meditation is inattentive of the contents. It is attentive only of mere appearance-making and cognizing.

What is mindfulness? Mindfulness is the mental glue, holding on to the object of focus and not letting go of it. Alertness is keeping watch on the mental hold; it is part of the mindfulness. If there is a mental hold on an object of focus and the hold is maintained, then an automatic part of that hold is alertness of the condition of the hold. It is not that there needs to be a separate "me" that is watching and being alert to check.

If we conceive of our meditation in terms of a separate "me" or a separate mental factor "alertness" keeping watch, we may easily experience a great fault in our meditation. We can become paranoid and get into a dualistic way of meditating. Our attention is divided: part of it is focused on the object, and part of it is focused on watching, being the policeman. Alertness is a natural part of the mindfulness.

Concentration is mental abiding, staying on the object. If there is mental holding of the object (mindfulness), there is also mental abiding on it (concentration).

When we speak of these three mental factors, it is almost as if we are talking about the same activity from three different points of view. The mental activity is holding its object and not letting go; that is mindfulness. If it is doing that, it is staying on the object; that is concentration. If it is holding the object and staying there, that means there is alertness such that it doesn't let go.

In summary, in mahamudra shamatha meditation, attention focuses on the mental activity that is happening, not on the content of it. It is not directed at the cup and focusing on the colored shape, the form. It is not focusing on the fact that the mental activity is seeing the cup. It is not focusing on the mental factors that might accompany any moment of seeing the cup: emotions of attachment to it as "mine," and so on, because that too is content. Attention is focusing just on the mental activity itself: mere appearance-making and cognizing. It is focusing on the conventional nature of the mental activity and is accompanied by the mental factors of distinguishing, mindfulness, alertness, and concentration.

Obviously, this is not very easy to do this, but that is what we try to do with mahamudra shamatha meditation. To be successful at it, we need the common and uncommon preliminaries, otherwise we will not get anywhere when trying to do this. We won't even be able to distinguish the correct object of focus for mahamudra meditation, let alone be able to focus on it.


We need safe direction (refuge), which is to go in our lives in the safe direction of the third and fourth noble truths – true stoppings and true paths that bring them about. The third and fourth noble truths are the deepest Three Gems.

Safe direction is a complex topic: there are the deepest Three Gems, the apparent Three Gems, and the representations of the Three Gems. The deepest Three Gems are the third and fourth noble truths: true stoppings and true paths. In terms of the Buddha Gem, we look at these two truths from the point of view of their being a source of inspiration. Looking at them from a Dharma Gem point of view, they are a source of actual attainments. Looking at them from a Sangha Gem point of view, they are a source of enlightening influence.

Putting a safe direction into our lives means that we are aiming for achieving true paths and true stoppings on the continuums of our own mental activity. We are not doing mahamudra meditation just because it is fun and "far out." We are doing it to get rid of the first and second noble truths as the content of our mental activity. We aim to achieve a true stopping of the first and second noble truths, by having the fourth noble truth be the content of our mental activity instead. Thus, safe direction is absolutely essential.

[See: Identifying the Objects for Safe Direction (Refuge).]

Then we need to appreciate the precious human life that we have, with the intelligence and ability to distinguish, on such a sophisticated level, the nature of our mental activity from its content. An animal could not do that. We also appreciate that we are going to lose our precious human life some day, and we never know when. So, we need to take advantage, right now, of our abilities and opportunities, by practicing Dharma, such as mahamudra.

Renunciation is also essential. What is it that we are renouncing? We are renouncing the first and second noble truths. Renunciation is a turning away from something, "I want to get free from this," and actually turning away from it, dropping it. What do we have to drop? We have to drop in our meditation the impure content of each moment of our mental activity and our focus on it. We must renounce them. We must renounce the anger, renounce the boredom, renounce the feeling of pain in our legs. No matter what the content may be, we focus on the conventional nature of the mental activity itself that is making the appearance of it (the mental hologram) and cognizing of it. Merely that. So renunciation is essential here, otherwise we are going to stay caught up in the content and be disturbed by it.

Bodhicitta is also absolutely essential. Bodhicitta is aimed at the future enlightenment that can be imputed on our mental continuums, and focuses on it with the intention to attain it and to benefit all beings by means of its attainment. Thus, Bodhicitta focuses on the fully attained third and fourth noble truths that are not yet occurring on our mental activity, but for which we have the Buddha-nature factors that will allow their attainment to happen. Bodhicitta is not aimed at the enlightenment of Buddha Shakyamuni. It is not aimed at enlightenment in general. It is aimed at our own individual subjective future enlightenment, based on its causes, our Buddha-nature factors.

To be able to meditate on bodhichitta correctly, we need to identify and distinguish its object of focus. It is the third and fourth noble truths, in their full sense as a Buddha, that are not yet existing on our mental continuums, but which will come about, based on Buddha-nature, when our mental continuums have experienced all the causes for their attainment.

We have the intention to attain these third and fourth noble truths further along down the line. Why? Because we want to benefit all beings. The intention is to achieve them in order to benefit all beings as much as is possible. This is because the way that we benefit them now is inadequate. We do not understand all the causes of why someone is acting in a certain way. We have no idea what actually to teach this person to help him or her. And, we have no idea of what the effects are going to be of what we teach – the effects not only on this person, but also on everyone else that this person speaks to and interacts with in the future. How will our teaching affect his or her children and the people the children will speak to and interact with in the future? Only a Buddha knows that, because only a Buddha has the appearance-making and cognizing of dependent arising without limitations. A Buddha sees the whole thing. To really be able to benefit others fully is why we have to become Buddhas. It is not just simply so that we can get rid of our disturbing emotions and ego-grasping – an arhat also gets rid of that.

We also need compassion – the wish for others to be rid of their first and second noble truths by achieving third and fourth noble truths in their mental activity. Compassion intensifies the energy of our intention to achieve enlightenment. We also need ethical discipline and concentration in order to achieve shamata.

Most important is inspiration from our spiritual teachers, our gurus. Inspiration is often translated as blessing, but that is a terrible translation from another religion. A better term for it is inspiration. The Sanskrit word means an uplifting of our energy. In mahamudra shamatha meditation, we are focusing on the conventional nature of our mental activity. Although the meditation needs to be nondual, we could say that the conventional nature of mental activity is focusing on the conventional nature of mental activity. Thus, we can describe meditation on the conventional nature of mental activity from two points of view: the point of view of the conventional nature being a focal object and the point of view of the conventional nature being that which is doing the focusing. In other words, the conventional nature of mental activity as simultaneously an object and an agent, or simultaneously as an object and a subject. The more intensified that conventional nature becomes, the easier it is to distinguish it from both points of view.

Inspiration from our gurus intensifies the conventional nature of our mental activity. Our mental activity becomes, in a sense, more brilliant, more energized; it is uplifted. The more uplifted and energized its conventional nature is, the easier it becomes to distinguish it in each moment of mental activity and to focus on it. Also, the more energized the conventional nature of our mental activity becomes, the more intense it becomes as the cognizer in the meditation. Of course, this intensification or uplifting comes from a healthy relationship with a spiritual teacher, not from an unhealthy one. A healthy one is one that clears away disturbing emotions, not one that increases them.

Building Up Positive Force (Merit)

In addition to the lam-rim graded stage points that constitute the common preliminaries, we also need the uncommon special preliminaries for gaining success in mahamudra meditation. These are prostration, Vajrasattva meditation, mandala offerings, guru-yoga, and so on. They help us to build up more positive force, which is often called merit. "Merit" is not the greatest translation term since it sounds like gaining points and, when we have collected enough, winning a toaster oven. It is not that. It is positive force; it gets stronger and stronger, so that, as a result, it is possible, for instance, actually to distinguish the conventional nature of our mental activity.

It is a little bit like when we talk about self-organizing networks. When there is an open network, like in an organism, energy is going in and coming out. Once that energy reaches a certain quantum level or phase-transition point, then the whole system flips to a new level of organization. A simple example is, if you are a right-handed person and you lose your right arm, the brain will reorganize so that you can use your left hand to write. The system reorganizes. The same is true with inorganic systems, such as a frozen pond. When enough heat energy enters the system, the solid ice undergoes a phase transition and reorganizes itself as liquid water.

Similarly, when there is enough positive force thrown into the system of mental activity – the network of the aggregate factors making up each moment of our experience – then eventually it will reach a certain point at which the whole thing will reorganize. At that point, we are able finally to distinguish correctly the conventional nature of mental activity. Later, when we have more positive force, it will reorganize once more and we gain a conceptual cognition of voidness. At the next phase of reorganization, we gain a nonconceptual cognition of voidness. All these phase transitions require an enormous amount of positive force.

Positive force can come from inspiration from our spiritual teachers, from taking safe direction, from compassion, from bodhichitta, from all these sorts of things. The positive force from each needs to go into the system, into the network of our aggregates, in order to make the quantum level leaps. With these leaps, the system undergoes progressive phase transitions and reorganizes itself, like ice changing into water and then water into steam. Eventually, the network will reorganize such that there is no longer the impure side of mental activity: appearance-making of true existence and grasping for true existence. With a true stopping of the impure side, we only experience the pure side, forever. That is Buddhahood.

Bear in mind that during this entire process of evolution, as our mental activity reorganizes on different levels as we progress along the path, the conventional and deepest natures of the mental activity remain always the same.

The Differences between Innate, Inherent, and Individual

There is not enough time for a detailed discussion of mahamudra vipashyana meditation on the void nature of mental activity. Actually, we have already touched on some points of it in our discussion of impure and pure mental activity. But, let me indicate just a few more points that may be useful – specifically, the difference between three Buddhist terms: innate, inherent, and individual.

Something is innate if it comes along as part of the package of something else. "Simultaneously arising" is the literal translation of the term. Simultaneously arising with each moment of mental activity is its conventional nature and its deepest nature – what it is and how it exists. They are innate, inborn. That's OK; there is nothing wrong with that. It is just the way things are.

Inherent, as in the expression inherent existence, means something on the side of the object that by its own power makes it what it is – either independently of mental labeling or in conjunction with mental labeling. According to Gelug Prasangika, something innate, like the conventional nature of mental activity, is not inherent. The conventional defining characteristic of mental activity is not something that is sitting there in something, like a DNA code in a gene, and which, by its own power, makes it mental activity, makes it what it is. There is no such inherent thing.

Individual means having its own sequence of continuity, with one moment following another. When we talk about a mental continuum, a continuum of mental activity, it is individual in the sense that there is a definite sequence of cause and effect that describes the arising of subsequent moments. The mental activity and its continuum are individual.

Thus, mental activity always retains its innate qualities. It always is individual, but it does not contain anything inherent that makes it what it is. Neither its individuality nor its conventional or deepest natures make mental activity exist as "mental activity."

Moreover, there is nothing findable in "me," such as my individuality, that I have to find, and which is going to make me an individual by its own power. Many people spend so much time and effort trying to find that unique thing that makes me "me" and not you. They are of course individuals, but they feel that they have to find something inherently existent and unique inside themselves that makes them individuals. They then feel compelled to have to express that individuality, as if it were something that needed to be proven or demonstrated in order to exist. It is almost as if they feel that expressing their individualities will make their individualities more real and even make themselves more real.

This is absurd. Conventionally, it is true that I am me and not you, but there is nothing findable, inherent in me, that by its own power makes me individual and makes me who I am. Nevertheless, I am an individual. "I" exist like an illusion, yet nevertheless "I" function. The same is true about our mental activity.

This concludes our general introduction to mahamudra. I have presented it on a slightly advanced level, since I think that most of you have the backgrounds to follow. I apologize if anything has been unclear or confusing. Are there any questions?


Further Detail about the Purification of Karma

Question: While we are nonconceptually totally absorbed on voidness, are we actually purifying specific karmas? When we arise from our absorption, is there some karma that is gone and some that is still left?

Alex: It is not quite like that. What we are doing is weakening the force of our grasping for true existence so that we can stop the recurrence of grasping for true existence that would activate our karmic legacies and habits of karma. It is not that now I have gotten rid of seventy percent of my karma and I am left with thirty percent of it. It is not that now I am rid of the karma to be reborn as a mosquito, but still have the karma left to be reborn as a fly.

In a sense, we are working on weakening the force or strength of the habit of grasping for true existence to give rise to more occurrences of appearance-making of true existence and grasping for true existence. That is what we are eating away. That is what we are purifying.

When the Kalachakra teachings discuss this process in terms of depleting the winds of karma, we can understand this in a similar fashion. We are weakening the energy behind the impure mental activity that would ripen from the habits of grasping for true existence.

Vajrasattva Purification

Question: Does Vajrasattva practice purify karma in the same way?

Alex: Vajrasattva practice with repetition of the hundred-syllable mantra and visualization of the purification graphically happening is only a temporary and a partial purification. For it to work at all, it is not just a matter of saying the magic words a hundred thousand times. The meditation needs to be with perfect concentration, motivation, and so on. If it is done in that fashion, and certainly a conceptual understanding of voidness would help as well, then all we can do at best is to clean the slate of karmic legacies. We don't touch the habits.

This purification, however, is temporary. It doesn't guarantee that we will not build up new karmic legacies. We definitely will, because we have not yet rid ourselves of grasping for true existence. The temporary purification just gives us a bit of a breather to be able then to gain realizations of voidness and so on more easily. We certainly do not achieve a true stopping of anything.

The Purification of Karma in Hinayana Arhats

Question: What level of purification of karma has a Hinayana arhat obtained?

Alex: This really depends on what system we are looking at, whether from a Hinayana point of view or a Mahayana one. Within Hinayana, there is the Theravada point of view and the Vaibhashika and Sautrantika points of view as studied by Mahayana. Within Mahayana, there is the non-Prasangika point of view and the Prasangika point of view. Each system asserts something different.

Hinayana is a general term, slightly derogatory, coined by the Mahayanists to cover eighteen schools of Buddhism. At the Second Council after Shakyamuni Buddha passed away, Hinayana divided into Theravada and Mahasanghika. At the Third Council, Sarvastivada also broke away from Theravada. Later, Sarvastivada divided into Vaibhashika and Sautrantika.

The various Hinayana systems share certain assertions about karma.

  • None of them asserts karmic habits; they all assert only karmic legacies (seeds).
  • They all assert that arhats have achieved a true stopping of all karma. They do not achieve this true stopping immediately when they attain nirvana (liberation) during their lifetimes and become arhats. They attain it only when they pass away with parinirvana at the end of that lifetime. Theravada and Vaibhashika assert that the mental continuum of an arhat ceases with parinirvana, Sautrantika asserts that it goes on forever.
  • All Hinayana schools agree that during the period between an arhat's nirvana and his parinirvana, all the arhat's remaining karmic legacies have to ripen. Similar to the Mahayana assertion that after nonconceptual cognition of voidness the ripenings of negative karma are weaker, the remaining karmic legacies of arhats ripen only in minor forms. However, they must all ripen in order to be rid of them.
  • None of the Hinayana schools assert grasping for true existence or appearance-making of true existence as causes of true suffering or thus as things to get rid of (abandon). Karma is activated merely by grasping for a "solid" identity of a person. All disturbing emotions arise from this grasping.

Theravada does not make a large distinction between Buddhas and arhats. The major difference is that arhats know everything about the Dharma, whereas Buddhas know, in addition, all the skillful means to help others. Neither is omniscient in the sense of knowing all knowable phenomena, such as directions for getting to a certain city. According to Theravada, arhats no longer have any grasping for a solid identity of a person or any disturbing emotions once they attain nirvana. Despite this, their remaining karmic legacies all still ripen during the period between their nirvana and their parinirvana.

Mahasanghika and Sarvastivada assert that although arhats no longer have manifest disturbing emotions when they attain nirvana, they still have unmanifest ones. These are what activate their remaining karmic legacies up to their attainment of parinirvana. Thus, these Hinayana schools assert a much greater difference between arhats and Buddhas than does Theravada. In fact, the split of Mahasanghika from Theravada primarily concerned this issue: how to explain the fact that arhats still can be seduced in dreams and have nocturnal emissions? Sarvastivada, and thus its later divisions of Vaibhashika and Sautrantika, agreed with the Mahasanghika position that arhats are more limited than Buddhas. They still have unmanifest disturbing emotions.

Like Sautrantika, the Mahayana schools assert that after parinirvana, the mental continuums of arhats continue forever. However, unlike any Hinayana schools, Mahayana asserts that although arhats attain a true stopping of karma and its legacies, they have not achieved a true stopping of the habits of karma. They also have not achieved a true stopping of the habits of the disturbing emotions. The Hinayana schools do not assert habits of anything. Thus, according to Mahayana, arhats have subtle craving and grasping for the extreme of tranquil nirvana. Although this subtle craving and grasping are not actually disturbing emotions, nevertheless they still need to be overcome in order to progress further to Buddhahood.

According to the non-Prasangika schools, arhats have not rid themselves of grasping for the true existence of all phenomena or of its habits. Nevertheless, they have achieved true stoppings of karma and its legacies. Thus, they agree with Hinayana that grasping for a solid identity of a person is what activates karmic legacies and that Hinayana arhats are rid of that grasping.

Gelug Prasangika and Karma Kagyu Prasangika assert that arhats cannot attain a true stopping of karma and its legacies with merely the nonconceptual cognition of the voidness of a solid identity of a person that is asserted in common by Hinayana and the non-Prasangika schools. For arhats actually to attain a true stopping of them, and thus nirvana, they need to gain a true stopping of grasping for the true inherent existence of all phenomena. Thus, they need nonconceptual cognition of the voidness of all phenomena as defined in Prasangika. Therefore, Gelug and Karma Kagyu Prasangika asserts that grasping for the true inherent existence of all phenomena is what activates karma and its legacies, and arhats have achieved a true stopping of them. Neveretheless, arhats have not rid themselves of the habits of karma nor of the habits of grasping for the true inherent existence of all phenomena. Therefore, they still experience the appearance-making of true inherent existence and they still experience limited awareness.

Splitting the Sangha

Question: What happened to these various Hinayana schools? When they broke away from each other, was that a split of the sangha?

Alex: Forming separate schools with different assertions is not splitting the sangha, one of the heinous crimes, like killing an arhat, which has as its karmic results rebirth in the worst joyless realm (Avichi hell) in one's immediately following life. Splitting the sangha is like what Buddha's cousin Devadatta was trying to do when he said that Buddha was no good, forget about him and his teachings, and follow me. If monks and nuns consequently disrobe, give up their safe direction in the Three Gems, and follow such a person, that is a splitting of the sangha. On the other hand, to remain within the Buddhist fold, still acknowledging Buddha and the vinaya monastic discipline, but simply differing in interpretation of Buddha's teachings, or emphasizing a different aspect of Buddha's teachings, and going off as a separate community – doing merely that does not constitute splitting the sangha.

Theravada was what King Ashoka followed. Eventually, Theravada tended to go more toward the south of India, Sri Lanka, and Burma. Later it went from Burma to Thailand and other parts of Southeast Asia. Sarvastivada's stronghold was in the north of India and, within their fold, the Vaibashikas and Sautrantikas became prominent in northwest India, Kashmir, and Punjab.

Clarification about Meditation

Question: Can you elaborate a bit more on what you were saying about the paranoid split that can occur in meditation?

Alex: The paranoid split of attention we were discussing can happen in any type of concentration meditation, whether we are focusing on the mind in mahamudra practice, on a visualized Buddha image, or on our breath.

We want to stay concentrated on an object. Attention is what brings our mental activity to the specific object and concerns how we cognitively take it and consider it. Mindfulness is the mental hold, like the mental glue. Concentration is the mental abiding or remaining on the object. Alertness is the alarm system to detect if there is something wrong with the hold. The mental hold may be too loose or too tight. Alertness acts like an alarm system in that it activates the attention to take the object again in a correct manner and to reestablish a proper mental hold.

The danger of paranoia that can arise in meditation is if the focus of our attention is divided between the focal object of meditation and the condition of the meditation. Instead of focusing our main attention on the object, keeping hold of it and not letting go, part of our attention and concentration is looking at the condition of the meditation, looking at the state of concentration. We may even stop paying attention to the focal object of the meditation completely. The problem is exacerbated if we have a feeling – and are fooled by it and believe in it – of a solid "me" that is separate from the whole process and who is looking at it. It can even degenerate into a dualism of a disciplinarian "me" watching a meditating "me" to make sure that the latter is not slacking off and being naughty. Then, it is real paranoia.

It is very important to approach meditation from the point of view of mental activity. Mental activity gives rise to an appearance of an object and simultaneously cognizes it. Primary awareness, for instance mental consciousness, cognizes merely what category of object it is. In the case of mahamudra shamatha meditation, mere appearance-making and cognizing is in the category of ways of being aware of something. The primary consciousness is accompanied by many subsidiary types of awareness or mental factors, which also give rise to the same cognitive appearance and simultaneously cognize it. Distinguishing allows attention to focus on the conventional nature of the mental activity and take it as the object of focus. Mindfulness maintains the mental hold on the object and concentration maintains the abiding of the hold on the object.

Alertness is merely another mental factor accompanying the primary consciousness and the other mental factors in this cluster or network. It is the alarm system that triggers the attention to reset itself if the mental hold becomes too tight or too loose. Sometimes, alertness triggers a corner of the attention to make a "spot-check." Most of the time, however, the attention, mindfulness, and concentration are fully on the object of focus, and the alertness is automatically there.

These are fine points of meditation and must be learned from personal practice. In any case, we need to try to meditate in a nondualistic fashion. Otherwise, our attention is divided, our concentration is divided, and we become paranoid watching and policing ourselves.

As His Holiness the Dalai Lama explains, alertness is actually an innate feature of mindfulness. If there is a mental hold on an object of focus, that means there is alertness. If there were no mental hold, there is no alertness there. If we lose the object of focus, we need to use the mental factors of distinguishing and discernment to ascertain that. It is not the mental factor of alertness that is checking and ascertaining this then.

We have so many meditation practices available to us now in the West, for instance vipassana mindfulness meditation. If we leave our understanding of this method on a common level – the level at which we become the observer and watch our sensations, feelings, emotions, and thoughts – we face a big danger. We may not meditate properly. Our meditation may become dualistic and we become removed and distant from everything, even when we are not meditating. Although we might, as beginners, start our vipassana meditation practice like that, we really need some understanding of a lack of a solid self to meditate correctly. We need some understanding of this word mere that is part of the definition of the conventional nature of mental activity.

The main thing that we need to do in any concentration meditation, as His Holiness explains, is to hold on to the object of focus and not let go. That is what we put all our force on. If we are able to do that, alertness is automatically there. Concentration is automatically there too, because our attention stays on the object.

Let's take a practical example. Suppose we are on a diet and we walk past the bakery. We see all these delicious looking cakes in the window. Mindfulness describes how we maintain our concentration. It is not like there is a separate policeman in our heads, "me" or "alertness," watching the mind and saying, "No, no, go back to the diet, remember your diet." What we do is just hold on to the diet, to the mental discipline of sticking to the diet. That is what we do. We strengthen our mindfulness and focus our energies on holding on. If we do this successfully, we won't go into the bakery, we won't buy the cake, and we won't eat it. Alertness is simply part of our mindfulness here.

Energy Problems in Meditation

Question: When you mention the energy of holding on to an object of focus, is that what the Tibetans call lung, subtle energy-wind?

Alex: Yes, it is. Lung is the term for energy-winds, one of the so-called three humors. When we experience lung in meditation, it is referring to an over-tightening or frustration of the energy.

Energy-wind is another way of looking at mental activity. It is the energy that is underlying the mental activity. If we are holding on too tightly, or meditating in a dualistic, paranoid manner, the mental grip is too tight. If the mental grip is tight, the energy is tight: that is called having lung. The energy is squeezed. It is like our blood arteries becoming clogged and then our blood being squeezed, and our experiencing high blood pressure.

That is the experience of lung. We feel restless, our energy is jumpy, like that of a hyperactive child. There is too much pressure there. It is important to relax and there are many methods to do so. For instance, looking at a distant beautiful vista relaxes the energy or laughing. When we experience very strong lung, we may even need to take medication. Tibetans have no shame in taking lung medicine. It is quite effective.

Voidness and Compassion

Question: How does the nonconceptual cognition of voidness take on a service side in terms of benefiting all beings?

Alex: That is an important point and different traditions explain it in various ways. If we speak simply in terms of the usual Mahayana sutra tradition, then compassion is utterly essential for voidness meditation. Because of compassion, and the force of compassion with which we enter nonconceptual total absorption on voidness, we arise from it in order to benefit others. If there were no compassion before going into the absorption, we would just stay totally absorbed in voidness. This is because, if we have perfect concentration, our total absorption is not only totally peaceful, it is also completely blissful. But, because we have that compassion beforehand, we don't "bliss out," so to speak, in total absorption. Rather, we of course want to arise and benefit others.

[See also: Conventional and Deepest Bodhicitta and the Two Truths in Anuttarayoga Tantra.]

Karma Kagyu explains that the positive force to achieve nonconceptual cognition of voidness implies the avoidance of destructive behavior and the adoption of constructive behavior. If we cognize voidness, we understand correctly how behavioral cause and effect (karma) works, based on the voidness of cause and effect, and we become convinced that everyone suffers because of his or her destructive behavior. Therefore, the more familiar we become with voidness, the more constructively we act. We will naturally become more compassionate and naturally act more constructively toward others, by helping them.

If we speak in terms of the dzogchen presentation in Nyingma, compassion is one of the aspects of rigpa (pure awareness) – totally unstained subtlest mental activity. More specifically, one of the aspects of rigpa is responsiveness, which is given the name compassion.

Rigpa has three aspects. One is its "primal purity." This corresponds to the words mere and awareness in the definition of mental activity. Pure awareness is a mere, stark, or bare awareness that is devoid of any disturbing emotions, devoid of true existence, devoid of a truly existent "me," and so on. The second aspect is responsiveness: the energy of pure awareness goes out and responds to the suffering of all beings. The third aspect is that pure awareness spontaneously establishes appearances in accordance with its responsiveness. Thus, responsiveness and spontaneously establishing appearances correspond to the word clarity in the definition of mental activity.

The point here is that responsiveness is always there as an innate feature of rigpa, pure awareness. The energy is always going out. When we are totally absorbed on rigpa – in the dzogchen sense, like total absorption on voidness – we access this level of compassion, responsiveness, that is automatically there. Our usual compassion, the wish that all beings be free of suffering and its causes, gives it its compassionate tone.

[See: Fundamentals of Dzogchen Meditation: 1 Recognizing Different Levels of Mental Activity and Appearance-Making.]