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Home > Advanced Meditation > Mahamudra > Commentary on An Aspiration Prayer for the Definitive Meaning of Mahamudra > 2 Eliminating Confusion about the Practice of the Path

Commentary on An Aspiration Prayer for the Definitive Meaning of Mahamudra

(Nges-don phyag-rgya chen-po'i smon-lam)
of the Third Karmapa Rangjung-dorjey
(Kar-ma Rang-byung rdo-rje) (1284 – 1340)
by Beru Khyentse Rinpoche

translated by Alexander Berzin, January 1978
revised August 2003 and June 2006

2 Eliminating Confusion about the Practice of the Path

[With Beru Khyentse Rinpoche’s commentary in black script and supplements to that by Alexander Berzin in violet between square brackets.]

The next set of prayers are prayers not to be confused about the practice of the path. This is divided into two sections: 

  1. prayers to not be confused about the words concerning meditation,

  2. prayers to not be confused about the meaning of the words.

Prayer Not To Be Confused about the Words Concerning Meditation

Verse 7 is a prayer to understand the words concerning meditation, namely the words involved in understanding the purification process. We need to understand the basis to be purified [basis mahamudra], the purifying action [pathway mahamudra], what is purified away, and the result of the purification [resultant mahamudra. They are all different forms of the word purify.]

(7) The basis for purification is mind-itself,
    a unified pair of clarity and voidness.
The purifying action is the vajra yoga of mahamudra.
What is purified away are the stains of fleeting,
   deceptive confusion.
May I manifest the result of the purification,
   a stainless Dharmakaya.

The basis for purification is mind-itself. [The previous verse differentiated as the two truths normal awareness and the subtle body on which it relies, and took the unified pair of them as basis mahamudra. However,] mind-itself can also be presented as the unified pair of the two truths. Thus, as Buddha-nature, mind-itself is a unified pair of clarity and voidness. “Clarity” (gsal) is the mental activity of making appearances arise. [Sometimes, clarity is also explained as inseparable clarity and appearance – in other words, inseparable appearance-making and the appearances made.]

The stains of unawareness and hallucinations may prevent us from recognizing mind-itself as this unified pair. In other words, they obscure the basis for purification. [Unawareness obscures inseparable awareness and voidness; hallucinations imagined as truly existent obscure clarity – appearance-making by the mind.] Nevertheless, its being obscured does not alter the fact that mind-itself has this abiding nature of clarity and voidness. Unawareness and hallucinations can never affect the basis. Basis mahamudra, then, mind-itself, is the basis for purification of the stains.

The purifying action that purifies the basis is the vajra yoga of mahamudra. The highest class of tantra, anuttarayoga, has many yidam systems of practice, for example that of Vajravarahi (rDo-rje phag-mo, Vajrayogini). Anuttarayoga practice has two stages: the generation stage (bskyed-rim) and complete stage (rdzogs-rim). During the generation stage, we meditate with visualized Buddha-figures as a cause to reach the complete stage. During the complete stage, we practice the six dharma teachings of Naropa (na-ro chos-drug, six yogas of Naropa) and work with the subtle energy-system of chakras, channels, winds, and creative energy-drops.

The complete stage has two parts: with signs (mtshan-bcas) and without signs (mtshan-med). On the former, we achieve an illusory body (sgyu-lus) [in the form of the Buddha-figure previously visualized] and are able to accomplish powa (‘pho-ba, transference of consciousness) to a pure-land Buddha-field. On the complete stage without signs, we actually realize mahamudra [mind-itself, the subtlest mind of clear light]. These two stages of anuttarayoga tantra practice – the generation stage and the complete stage with and without signs – constitute the path of the vajra yoga of mahamudra. Following this path, we pass through and penetrate deeper than the level of mind of the five types of sensory consciousness and of conceptual thought. We purify the basis mind-itself of the fleeting stains of these levels. This enables us to realize mind-itself, the unified pair of clarity and voidness.

[The Kagyu tradition transmits three mahamudra lineages and teachings, all of which are consistent with each other and lead to the same goal:

  1. Sutra mahamudra (mdo’i phyag-chen) emphasizes resting in the nonconceptual deep awareness of the sphere of reality (chos-dbyings, Skt. dharmadhatu) parted from mental fabrication (spros-bral). The deep awareness of the sphere of reality is a synonym for the unified pair of clarity and voidness, and thus sutra mahamudra accords with the anuttarayoga tantra teachings on mind-itself. The sutra mahamudra lineage is based on Maitreya’s Furthest Everlasting Continuum (rGyud bla-ma, Skt. Uttaratantra). Its teachings were first revealed and expounded by Maitripa in Teachings on Not Taking to Mind (Yid-la mi-byed-pa ston-pa, Skt. Amanasikaroddesha). Since this method of mahamudra practice is hidden in the sutra teachings, it is also known as the hidden path of sutra (mdo’i gsang-lam). Its lineage passed from Maitripa to Marpa to Milarepa to Gampopa. The four syllables tradition (yi-ge bzhi) common to all Dagpo Kagyu schools – the twelve Kagyu lineages that derive from Gampopa, including Karma Kagyu – transmit these sutra mahamudra teachings.]
    [See: The Gelug-Kagyu Tradition of Mahamudra, Part IV, Session Five.]

  2. [Mantra mahamudra (sngags-kyi phyag-chen, tantra mahamudra) is the vajra yoga of anuttarayoga tantra specifically mentioned in the verse. It is also known as the path of method (thabs-lam). Through the third of the four anuttarayoga empowerments, the discriminating deep awareness empowerment (shes-rab ye-shes-kyi dbang), practitioners are introduced to mahamudra through the deep awareness arising through the four joys (dga’-ba bzhi). Thus, mantra mahamudra emphasizes mind-itself as the unified pair of blissful awareness and voidness.

  3. Essence mahamudra (snying-po’i phyag-chen) derives from both sutra and mantra mahamudras and can be included within the two. The Kagyu lineages traditionally list it as a separate division, however, which emphasizes receiving inspiration (byin-rlabs, “blessings”) from one’s Guru. In this sense, essence mahamudra is sometimes considered beyond both sutra and tantra. On its path, specially qualified disciples receive the inspiration of the realizations of all the lineage masters through receiving a vajra deep awareness empowerment (rdo-rje ye-shes-kyi dbang) conferred by a specially qualified Guru. As a result, the disciples achieve simultaneous realization and liberation (rtogs-grol dus-mnyam). In other words, from the empowerment, the disciples achieve realization of mind-itself, equivalent to a seeing pathway mind (mthong-lam, path of seeing). At the same time, without passing, one by one, through the ten levels of bhumi-mind (sa-bcu) of arya bodhisattvas, they become rid of all obscurations, both the emotional and the cognitive ones. Able to remain in mind-itself without ever leaving its realization again, they achieve enlightenment on the spot. Such practitioners are called “those for whom it happens all at once” (cig-car-ba). Others, who proceed to develop the pathway minds and levels of bhumi-mind progressively, one by one, either through the sutra or tantra methods, are called “those who progress through stages” (lam-rim-pa). Because the path of essence mahamudra rids practitioners of the emotional and cognitive obscurations all at once, it is known as “the singular sufficient white panacea” (dkar-po chig-thub, all-curing single white panacea, single white remedy, self-sufficient white remedy).]

What are purified away are the stains of fleeting, deceptive confusion. Mind-itself has no stains. However, the stains of confusion and deception – unawareness and hallucinations – obscure it. The stains are fleeting, however, like clouds in the sky or like mist on a mirror. Thus, they can be purified away.

The result of the purification is a stainless Dharmakaya. “Dharmakaya,” a Buddha’s omniscient awareness of the inseparable two truths, is a synonym here for mind-itself when it is fully realized. The result attained by the purification, by the removal forever of the fleeting stains, is the uncovering or unveiling of a Dharmakaya.

Consider, for example, the stains on mind-itself concerning cognition. When we cognize things incorrectly, due to deceptive confusion, we perceive the clarity side [appearance, superficial truth] as truly existent objects of cognition and the voidness side [consciousness, deepest truth] as a truly existing “me.” When we remove the stains of unawareness and hallucination from the basis for purification – mind-itself as a unified pair of the two truths, clarity and voidness – we uncover a Dharmakaya free of these fleeting stains.

The result of the purification, then, is to reveal a Dharmakaya with double purity: natural purity and attained purity. The natural purity of mind is the natural state of mind-itself, which pervades all beings as the naturally abiding Buddha-nature (rang-bzhin gnas-pa’i rigs). By nature, mind-itself is free of all stains. The attained purity is the purity attained as the result of removing forever the obscurations of the fleeting stains. This requires the full realization of voidness as taught by Buddha. Double purity, then, is the unified pair of the beginningless primordial purity of deepest truth [inseparable awareness and voidness] and of the purity attained by purifying the superficial truth [appearances] that deepest truth makes appear. This is Buddhahood, Dharmakaya.

In short, this prayer is to purify mind-itself with the vajra yoga [anuttarayoga] methods of mahamudra, in order to remove forever the fleeting stains of confusion and to reveal a Dharmakaya, free of all stains, and thus doubly pure. This is the prayer not to be confused about the meaning of the word purify.

The prayers not to be confused about the meaning of the words are divided into two sections:

  1. a brief explanation of their meaning,

  2. a detailed explanation.

Prayer Not To Be Confused about the View, Meditation, and Behavior

Verse 8, the brief explanation of not being confused about the meaning of the words, concerns not being confused about the mahamudra view, meditation, and behavior:

(8) Self-confidence in the view is to cut off
   interpolations from the basis.
The essential point of meditation is to safeguard
   against wavering from that.
The supreme behavior is to cultivate meditation’s
   (essential) point displaying as everything.
May I gain self-confidence in the view,
   meditation, and behavior.

This verse speaks of mahamudra meditation in terms of three aspects: the view on which to meditate, the meditation itself, and the behavior that enhances the meditation.

Self-confidence in the view is to cut off interpolations from the basis. A correct mahamudra view is stable when it has the certitude that cuts off all interpolations from the basis mahamudra. The specific interpolation here is that of false conceptual cognitions, which simultaneously make appearances of true existence and grasp for true existence. Interpolation adds these false conceptual cognitions to the pure basis, mind-itself. [It does this in two senses of the word interpolation: it adds false conception-making on top of the basis and adds there as well what this false conception-making interpolates. In other words, the false conceptual cognitions themselves are interpolations and they themselves interpolate.] They obscure the unified pair of clarity and voidness [the unified pair of (1) inseparable appearance-making and appearances and (2) inseparable awareness and voidness.

The false conceptual cognitions of true existence may aim at the appearances that the clarity side of mind-itself naturally produces or at mind-itself.] The example given in the commentary, however, is that of an extreme outlook (mthar-lta, extreme view) [a disturbing attitude that regards the appearances that mind produces from the point of view of an extreme outlook. It regards the appearances of the five aggregates and the self (the “me”) with either the interpolation of the extreme of eternalism or the repudiation that is the extreme of nihilism. The five aggregates are the nonstatic factors that comprise each moment of our experience – (1) forms of physical phenomena, (2) feelings of some level of happiness, (3) distinguishing (recognition), (4) other affecting variables, and (5) types of primary consciousness. Here, the commentary mentions only the interpolation of eternalism. It interpolates that in any moment of experience, the objects of cognition that appear are truly existent objects and the consciousness of them that appears is a truly existent “me.”]

When we achieve self-confidence in the view, we cut off the interpolations projected by the false conceptual cognitions and we cut off the interpolating conceptual cognitions themselves. Both come with our realization of the unified pair of basis mahamudra, which is naturally free or purified of these interpolations.

[Mind-itself is naturally free or purified of both (1) the true existence interpolated by false conceptual cognitions and (2) the false conceptual cognitions that interpolate it. In other words, it is naturally free or purified both of (1) true existence itself and (2) the appearance-making and grasping for true existence. Mind-itself is also naturally free or purified of non-true existence, both true and non-true existence, and neither true nor non-true existence, as well as any false conceptual cognitions that may interpolate them. Mind-itself is a nondenumerable ultimate phenomenon (rnam-grangs ma-yin-pa’i don-dam), a voidness beyond all words and concepts of the four impossible extremes.]

As the basis, mind-itself, is naturally pure of interpolations, the essential point of mahamudra meditation is to safeguard against wavering from that. This means to safeguard and maintain the natural purity of mind-itself without mental wavering or wandering from it.

Mahamudra meditation is the joined pair (zung-‘brel) of shamatha (zhi-gnas, a stilled and settled state of mind) and vipashyana (lhag-mthong, an exceptionally perceptive state of mind). It is single-pointed concentration on the abiding nature of reality (basis mahamudra), without such faults in the concentration as flightiness of mind, mental dullness, foggy-mindedness, sleepiness, or staleness. The faults may be summarized as “wavering”.

The description here of joined shamatha and vipashyana as being free of mental wavering from basis mahamudra conforms perfectly to the Prasangika-Madhyamaka view as expressed by Nagarjuna in Root Verses on Madhyamaka, Called "Discriminating Awareness" (rTsa-ba shes-rab, Skt. Prajna-nama-mulamadhyamaka-karika). [As the opening homage verse, Nagarjuna wrote, “I prostrate to the fully enlightened Buddha, the holiest philosopher, who taught dependent arising] without cessation, without arising, [without nihilism, without eternalism,] without coming, without going,[without multiplicity, without oneness, without pluralism, stilled of mental fabrication, a peaceful end.”

Mental wavering entails the arising and ceasing of false conceptual thoughts – mental fabrication (spros-pa) – with our attention going after them and coming back. The shamatha aspect of correct mahamudra meditation, stilled of mental fabrication, protects against such mental wavering. It safeguards and maintains the basis that is naturally free of such interpolating thoughts.

Further, false conceptual cognitions interpolate appearances of true existence. True existence, however, does not exist at all. It does not actually arise or cease, come or go. Moreover, although appearance-making of true existence occurs, the appearances of true existence themselves do not have a truly existent arising or ceasing, a truly existent coming or going. With realization of this, the vipashyana aspect of correct mahamudra meditation safeguards against the mental wavering of grasping for true existence. It safeguards and maintains the basis that is naturally free of interpolations of true existence – the “peaceful end.”]

Thus, with self-confidence in the correct mahamudra view of the basis, meditation is like an eagle flying high in the sky. It becomes easier and easier. [The more confident we are (1) in mind-itself being free of false conceptual cognitions that interpolate and which are themselves interpolations, and (2) in mind-itself being free of the true existence that the false conceptual cognitions interpolate, the easier it is to maintain joined shamatha and vipashyana on mind-itself, naturally free from interpolations. Just as an eagle soars high in the sky without flapping its wings, likewise our meditation proceeds easily, without any wavering.]

The supreme behavior is to cultivate meditation’s (essential) point displaying as everything. Mind-itself pervades everything: all the appearances we cognize are its natural display (rtsal), like the glitter of a precious gem. The essential point of meditation is to maintain focus on mind-itself, free from interpolations of false conceptual cognition. No matter what we do, we need to use our activity to cultivate, enhance, or strengthen our meditation. Thus, in all our behavior, the supreme way of acting is without a duality between total absorption (mnyam-bzhag, “meditative equipoise”) on mind-itself and subsequent attainment (rjes-thob, “post-meditation”) realization of everything existing and functioning like an illusion.

[The first moment of conceptual cognition makes appearances of commonsense objects without interpolating anything. The appearances are like an illusion. They are the display of mind-itself.] While acting, we must be sure not to fall to samsara [by interpolating with subsequent moments of false conceptual cognition. If we apply the essential point of mahamudra meditation in all our activity, we do not interpolate false conceptual cognition or true existence on to the illusion-like appearances. We maintain focus on mind-itself as inseparable clarity (unified appearance-making and appearances) and voidness (unified awareness and voidness).

Clarity and voidness, as the two truths, are inseparable. Yet, before enlightenment, voidness is more prominent during the total absorption phase and clarity is more prominent during the subsequent attainment phase. Thus, there is no duality between the two phases. The more we are able to maintain correct meditation on the correct view during our activity, the more it enhances our meditation itself. In other words, safeguarding against interpolation with false conceptual cognition while acting during the subsequent attainment phase reinforces safeguarding against it in meditation during the total absorption phase.]

May I gain self-confidence in the view, meditation, and behavior. The prayer is to gain self-confidence and stability in the view, meditation, and behavior by harmonizing and integrating the three in this way.

The detailed explanation of not being confused about the meaning of the words is divided into three sections:
  1. eliminating interpolation in terms of the view,

  2. meditation practice,

  3. attaining perfection in behavior.

Eliminating interpolation in terms of the view is divided into two sections:

  1. brief explanation,

  2. detailed explanation.

Prayer to Eliminate Interpolation in Terms of the View: Brief Explanation

Verse 9 is a brief explanation of eliminating interpolation in terms of the correct view of mahamudra:

(9) All phenomena are miraculous emanations of the mind.
Mind is no mind: it is devoid of an essential nature as mind.
Void and so, without obstruction, it makes anything appear.
Having examined this well, may I cut out the root
   from the basis.

All phenomena are miraculous emanations (rnam-‘phrul) of the mind. All phenomena that we cognize are the play of the mind. They are cognitive appearances that are emanations of the mind.

[We cognize only one moment at a time. One moment of external sensibilia, for example a collection of patches of colored shapes, acts as the focal condition (dmigs-rkyen, objective condition) and direct cause (dngos-rgyu) of the visual nonconceptual cognition of the patches that occurs the next moment. This is not the Chittamatra (mind-only) position that external phenomena do not exist at all.

At the time of the visual cognition, the moment of the external patches of colored shapes that directly caused it no longer exists. It is hidden (lkog na-mo) to that cognition and is only cognized indirectly by it (shugs-la shes-pa). What the visual nonconceptual cognition directly cognizes (dngos-su shes-pa) is a mental derivative (gzugs-brnyan, mental reflection), an opaque mental aspect (rnam-pa) that represents the external patches of colored shapes. Only the mental representation of the patches is the appearing object (snang-yul) of the visual nonconceptual cognition.

In the first moment of conceptual cognition, the appearing object is an opaque mental aspect that represents a conventional commonsense object, such as an orange. An “ orange” does not exist as an external object that extends over time and over the sensibilia of all the senses: sight, smell, taste, and physical sensation. An external “orange” is not cognized even indirectly by the conceptual cognition of an orange imputed on the mental reflection of external patches of colored shapes. It is in this sense that the static category of a truly existent “ orange,” imputed on the appearing object from the second moment of conceptual cognition onward, is devoid of an actual basis on which the word is affixed (an external “orange” as a commonsense object extending over time and the sensibilia of all senses).]

[See: Fine Analysis of Objects of Cognition: Non-Gelug Presentation.]

All phenomena that appear to our sensory or mental consciousness are miraculous emanations of the mind, like in a dream. [Thus, whether sensory nonconceptual cognition or mental conceptual or mental nonconceptual cognition, everything that we directly cognize is a mental appearance. It is the clarity aspect of both mind-itself and the consciousness that cognizes it.] The appearances have no true existence independent of being appearances of the mind. They have no real base of existence [that establishes their true existence, non-true existence, both, or neither by its own power from the side of the appearance.] They are but the projections of our consciousness.

We might imagine [like the Chittamatra assertion] that the mind, which makes and projects cognitive appearances, itself has true independent existence. This is not the case either. Mind is no mind: it is devoid of an essential nature as mind.

Mind is no mind in the sense that [its manner of existence is beyond being a truly existent mind, a non-truly existent mind, both, or neither.] Its nature is voidness, beyond all extremes. It has no concrete existence [with any of the impossible extreme modes of existence that correspond to words and concepts]. Conventionally, mind is a nonstatic (impermanent) affected phenomenon; [although mind’s abiding nature as clarity and awareness-voidness is always the case, unaffected by anything. Each moment of] mind is affected by and thus depends on causes and conditions, on subject and object, and so on.

If one pole of a duality is devoid of true existence, so is the other pole. [If a result (a projected cognitive appearance) lacks true independent existence, it cannot be produced by a truly and independently existing cause (mind-itself or the consciousness that projects it). Just as a result depends on other factors, its cause must also depend on other factors – such as on other conditions and on the result itself – in order to exist and function as a cause. The same is true for the external sensibilia that are the direct causes for sensory nonconceptual cognition. They too lack true independent existence.]

Void and so, without obstruction, it makes anything appear. Although mind is devoid of the four impossible extreme modes of existence, its voidness does not obstruct its clarity, which means it does not obstruct its appearance-making or the appearances it produces. Inseparable awareness and voidness is deepest truth. Its inseparable appearance-making and the appearances it produces is superficial, conventional truth. Deepest truth does not obstruct, block, or refute superficial truth. Voidness does not obstruct or refute appearances. The two truths are an inseparable unified pair. In short, mind experiences what happens around us even though the mind is devoid of true existence, and so on.

Having examined this well, may I cut out the root from the basis. The prayer is to be able to examine, analyze, and realize these points completely and thus to be able to cut out confusion and interpolation, the root of our suffering, from the basis, mind-itself.

The detailed explanation of eliminating interpolation in terms of the view is divided into four points:

  1. gaining certainty that the source of appearances is mind,

  2. the four (impossible) extreme modes of existence of mind,

  3. showing that there is no contradiction between voidness and dependent arising,

  4. cutting all doubts in order to realize the nature of mind.

Prayer to Gain Certainty that the Source of Appearances is Mind

Verse 10 is a prayer to gain certainty that both appearances and awareness of them are reflexive aspects of mind-itself.

(10) Reflexive appearances, never experienced as real,
    are deceptively confused into objects.
Reflexive awareness, by the power of unawareness,
    is deceptively confused into a self.
By the power of this dualistic grasping, we roam throughout
   the expanse of compulsive existence.
May I once and for all cut out the root of deceptive confusion,
   my unawareness.

The root of deceptive confusion (‘khrul-ba) is the unawareness (ma-rig-pa) of how phenomena and the self (“me”) exist. Because of this unawareness, we grasp at phenomena and the self as having true existence. This unawareness and grasping are with respect to two aspects of mind-itself:

  1. the affected phenomena that are the innate, automatic, reflexive appearances (rang-snang) or play (rol-pa) of mind-itself and
  2. the nature of mind as the affected phenomenon that is the innate, automatic, reflexive awareness (rang-rig) of its own play.

Neither of these has true existence.

We can never experience mind-itself as having true existence [or as having non-true existence, both, or neither. Its mode of existence, voidness, is beyond all four impossible extremes, beyond all words and concepts.] To borrow the dzogchen manner of describing it, Buddha-nature [pure awareness (rig-pa), the equivalent of mind-itself in its fully purified state] has neither confusion nor the pacification of confusion. It is perfect in its own nature.

[The pure, perfect nature of mind-itself has never been stained by the confusion of any of the four impossible extreme modes of existence. If it has never been stained by confusion, there can be no such thing as the pacification of confusion, a cessation of something that has never existed. If there is no such thing as the biological child of a sterile woman, there can be no such thing as the death of the biological child of a sterile woman. In this sense, mind-itself is beyond not only true existence, but also beyond non-true existence (the voidness or total absence of true existence). True existence and non-true existence are objects only of conceptual cognition. They are the nonexistent references conceptually implied by concepts and words. Thus, mind-itself is beyond all words and concepts.]

Although mind-itself, in its own perfectly pure nature, has neither a truly existing aspect nor a deceptive aspect, nevertheless it gives rise to deceptively confusing appearances of seemingly true existence. The traditional analogy for the deceptively confusing appearances is the black tarnish (g.ya’) on rubbed gold (brdar-ba’i gser).

[Gold is an inert metal that does not oxidize or tarnish when it is a hundred percent pure. If gold has black tarnish, its purity needs to be tested by scorching to examine the exterior, cutting to test the interior, and rubbing it against a black touchstone to see if it leaves an unbroken gold streak. If the gold sample fails the test, this indicates that the gold is an alloy. The pure gold has been adulterated with impurities, namely other metals. It is the adulterating other metals that tarnish, not the gold itself.]

The tarnish arises simultaneously with the existence of the gold alloy; it was not created at some point later. Although the nature of gold itself is pure and untarnished; the nature of gold alloy is to have black tarnish. The tarnish is not exterior to the gold [alloy], yet it is not the [pure] gold itself.

Another example is that of an injection by a needle. [A needle is pure, by nature. Yet, when we use it to give an injection, it is never a hundred percent pure.] It needs to be sterilized. If not, infection arises because of numerous impurities surrounding the act of giving an injection. [Because of impurities always present with the needle, then when it performs its function, it gives rise to an infection. The needle itself, by its own nature, is not impure. Yet, for it to give an infection-free injection, it needs to be sterilized of the impurities that would otherwise always come with it when giving an injection.]

Mind-itself, as Buddha-nature, is also known as deep-awareness alaya (kun-gzhi ye-shes) – literally, deep awareness that is an all-encompassing foundation or basis. Although, by nature, it is totally pure, deep-awareness alaya has always been mixed, like milk with water, with alayavijnana (kun-gzhi rnam-shes, specific-awareness alaya), specific awareness that is an all-encompassing foundation or basis. [Alayavijnana is like a supporting environment (rten) in which deep-awareness alaya (pure Buddha-nature) is supported (brten). As in the example of a gold alloy, deep-awareness alaya is the pure gold and alayavijnana is the other metals that adulterate it. Note that the alayavijnana discussed in this context is not at all the same as the truly existent alayavijnana asserted by Chittamatra.

Although mind-itself and alayavijnana are mixed together like a gold alloy or like milk and water, with no beginning, the habits of unawareness and karma are imputed only on alayavijnana. These habits give rise to the deceptively confusing appearances of samsara, uncontrollably recurring rebirth, pervaded with suffering and problems.]

By the force of unawareness, Buddha-nature mind, as an all-encompassing foundation, gives rise to deceptively confusing appearances and disturbing emotions and attitudes. [The deceptively confusing appearances are like the tarnish of a gold alloy. Just as (1) mind-itself as what is supported is mixed with (2) alayavijnana as what supports it; similarly, (1) natural basis mahamudra (mind-itself) as what is supported is mixed with (2) causal basis mahamudra (the subtle energy-system) as what supports it. Both mixtures are like a gold alloy or milk mixed with water.

The impurities in a gold alloy are directly responsible for all the tarnish that appears. Yet, because the impurities support the pure gold, we can say that the gold alloy is the basis for all the tarnish that appears. In this sense, the gold alloy is the all-encompassing foundation or basis for the tarnish. Similarly, the subtle energy-system is directly responsible for the deceptively confusing appearances and disturbing emotions that we experience with our samsaric gross minds and bodies. Yet, because the subtle energy-system, as causal basis mahamudra, supports mind-itself as natural basis mahamudra, we can say that basis mahamudra (as the unified pair of a body and a mind) is the basis for the deceptively confusing appearances and disturbing emotions. In this sense, Buddha-nature mind (basis mahamudra as a unified pair of natural and causal bases) is the all-encompassing foundation or basis for the confusing appearances and disturbing emotions.]

[See: Alaya and Impure Appearance-Making.]

Mind and body [in the sense of natural basis mahamudra and the causal basis mahamudra of a specific rebirth] arise simultaneously as a unified pair. Yet, the union is not forever. The union degenerates or slowly falls apart from moment to moment. It is a nonstatic phenomenon. Thus, from this point of view, Buddha-nature [as the unified pair of natural and causal basis mahamudras] is nonstatic and not eternal. We can understand this by meditating on the twelve links of dependent arising [which outline the process of uncontrollably recurring rebirth (samsara), arising from unawareness.]

[See: The Twelve Links of Dependent Arising.]

Simultaneous with the deceptively confusing appearances comes grasping for true existence and the disturbing emotions and attitudes. Just as the tarnish that appears on gold alloy is not external to the gold but arises simultaneously with the gold alloy, the same is true with the deceptively confusing appearances. They are not external to mind-itself as an all-encompassing foundation or basis, but arise simultaneously with it. [Thus, samsaric rebirths, filled with deceptively confusing appearances, uncontrollably recur through the mechanism of the twelve links of dependent arising. They continue to arise because of the unawareness that accompanies deceptive appearance-making, grasping for true existence, and the disturbing emotions and attitudes.

Pure gold and impurities alloyed together, and similarly milk and water mixed together, will not naturally separate out from each other. Likewise, alayavijnana with its habits of karma and habits of unawareness will not naturally separate out from mind-itself. Only the subtle energy-systems and gross bodies of specific rebirth states separate out from mind-itself at the time of each death. For alayavijnana and the habits of karma and of unawareness to separate out, mind-itself (natural and causal basis mahamudra) needs to be purified of them through methods such as pathway mahamudra.

Moreover, both gold alloy and pure gold shine with luster, because of the intrinsic quality of gold. Similarly both basis (unpurified) mind-itself and resultant (purified) mind-itself automatically give rise to appearances as their reflexive play or luster (gdangs), because of the intrinsic nature of mind-itself as a unified pair of clarity (appearance-making) and awareness. Thus, appearance-making is always the reflexive play of mind-itself. The appearances are deceptively confusing due to the habits of unawareness imputed on the alayavijnana.]

Reflexive appearances, never experienced as real, are deceptively confused into objects. Cognitive appearances can never be experienced as real (yod), which means they can never be experienced as having true existence independent of mind. They are the reflexive appearances (rang-snang) of mind-itself. The clarity nature of mind-itself [reflexive appearance-making] gives rise to them.

We must not be confused about the conventional nature of the mind [the unified pair of clarity (appearance-making) and appearances (gsal-snang)]. We need extreme care not to be deceived and to confuse the appearances to be concrete external objects, as if they existed independently of the clarity aspect of the mind that makes them appear. [We need to realize that cognitive appearances are “reflexive” in that they come from mind-itself.] They do not have a nature of existing “outside.” The deepest truth (ultimate truth) is the unified pair of clarity and voidness [with voidness as the unified pair of awareness and voidness. Appearance-making and appearances are inseparable from awareness (the cognitive aspect of mind) and voidness].

For example, our conceptual cognition makes us experience the cognitive appearance of someone as a friend or as an enemy. This cognitive appearance then triggers our minds to give rise to various other types of conceptual cognition or thought, such as attachment or hatred. [The first moment of conceptual cognition does not give rise to appearances of true existence and does not grasp for true existence. These occur only during subsequent moments of conceptual cognition. During those moments,] we transform these thoughts [the cognitive appearances of an enemy and hatred, for example,] into concrete objects [truly existing independently of the mind that gives rise to them]. As soon as we do this, a further degeneration occurs. Our conceptual cognition [that grasps for true existence] gives rise to a different quality of disturbing emotion and, based on its compelling force, we commit various karmic actions.

For example, we think of a person, think of something he has done, such as cheat us, and instantly experience a moment of anger arising. If we are capable of recognizing the clarity nature of the mind [that reflexively gives rise to these cognitive appearances], there is no reason to develop compelling disturbing emotions based on this nature [that mind can give rise to anything]. It is the act of transforming cognitive appearances into seemingly concrete objects that brings about all our suffering. If, on the contrary, we stop the clarity aspect of our minds from giving rise to such appearances [of truly existing objects], we will experience the bliss [of being free from grasping for true existence and from the suffering that it engenders. This is the natural or reflexive bliss of mind-itself, which has always been free of grasping and suffering.] We need to rid ourselves of deceptive confusion about the reflexive appearances our minds produce and thus stop our conceptual minds from producing appearances of them as truly existent objects and grasping for their true existence.

Reflexive awareness, by the power of unawareness, is deceptively confused into a self. Mind-itself is inseparable clarity and voidness. Voidness itself is inseparable awareness and voidness. When we are unaware of this nature of mind-itself, we become deceptively confused and misconceive that mind is a truly existent “me.” The mind, however, has no true existence. [Beyond all words and concepts of the four impossible extreme modes of existence,] it cannot be found. Yet, there is awareness of the cognitive appearances that mind gives rise to simultaneously with the appearance-making of them. This is reflexive awareness (rang-rig), [in the sense of simultaneous awareness of what mind gives rise to from itself,] and it exists as a feature of its basis – mind as inseparable awareness and voidness. By the force of unawareness, we incorrectly take it to be a truly existent “me.”

Thus, we experience dualistic grasping (gnyis-‘dzin). Deceived about what we experience and confused because of our unawareness, we misconceive that the clarity-appearance side of mind-itself is truly existent objects and that the awareness-voidness side is a truly existent “me.” By the power of this dualistic grasping, we roam throughout the expanse of compulsive existence. We wander from one samsaric rebirth to the next, through the twelve links of dependent arising.

If we rid ourselves of our unawareness of the actual nature of mind-itself, we will stop the dualistic grasping of its clarity-appearance as truly existent objects and its awareness-voidness as a truly existent “me.” This will bring to an end our disturbing emotions and attitudes, which derive from dualistic grasping. That will bring to an end our production of karma, which derives from our disturbing emotions. That will bring to an end [the twelve links of dependent arising and] our wandering in samsara. Thus, the prayer, May I once and for all cut out the root of deceptive confusion, my unawareness.

Prayer to Stop Interpolating the Four Extreme Modes of Existence

Verse 11 is a prayer to eliminate interpolation of the four impossible extreme modes of existence with respect to the mind:

(11) Not existent: not even the Triumphant have seen it.
Not nonexistent: the foundation of everything
   of samsara and beyond.
Not a dichotomy nor a juxtaposition, but a unified pair:
   the Madhyamaka middle way.
May I realize the actual nature of the mind,
   free from extremes.

The actual mode of existence of mind-itself is [nondenumerable] voidness, beyond all four impossible extremes: true existence, nonexistence, both true existence and nonexistence, or neither true existence nor nonexistence.

If mind were truly existent, it must be findable upon investigation [by valid cognition of the deepest truth]. However, it cannot be found. Thus, mind is not truly existent: not even the Triumphant Buddhas have seen it.

[The fact that mind is not truly existent, however, does not establish that mind is totally nonexistent.] Mind is not totally nonexistent. It is not a total nothingness, because it functions as the foundation of everything of samsara and beyond. “Beyond” refers to the pure appearances of nirvana. The superficial truth of mind, its aspect of appearance-making (clarity), gives rise to all the impure appearances of samsara and all the pure appearances of nirvana.

[The first two points, mind is not truly existent and mind is not totally nonexistent, when taken together are equivalent to the assertion that mind is neither truly existent nor totally nonexistent. That, however, cannot be the case if true existence and total nonexistence are contradictory (‘gal-ba) in the sense of constituting a dichotomy (dngos-‘gal). Two categories are contradictory if they mutually exclude each other; they constitute a dichotomy if everything that exists must belong to either one or the other. In other words, if two categories are contradictory, nothing can belong to both; if they constitute a dichotomy, nothing can belong to neither.]

If mind were neither truly existent nor totally nonexistent, and the two alternatives constituted a dichotomy; then, conventionally, mind would be impossible. As that is not the case, the two are not a dichotomy.

[Suppose we assert that mind is both truly existent and totally nonexistent. This also cannot be the case if the two were a dichotomy. If they were a dichotomy, then since mind is not truly existent, it would have to be totally nonexistent. And since it is not totally nonexistent, it would have to be truly existent. But it is impossible for mind to be either truly existent or totally nonexistent. We have refuted both alternatives. Thus, since each alternative is impossible, then] if mind were both alternatives, mind would be like a juxtaposition of two impossible things. It would be like the juxtaposition of a sterile biological mother and the biological child of a sterile mother. Nor is mind a juxtaposition (‘du) of two impossible modes of existence. [Thus, mind does not exist in any of the four impossible modes of existence,] but rather, it is a unified pair of two contradictory truths.

[In general, it is possible for one item to belong to two contradictory categories. Consider the example of the categories “father” and “son.” No member of either pair of categories can be both the father and the son of the same member in the other category. For example, I cannot be both the father and the son of my son. However,] someone can be both the father [of someone] and the son [of someone else,] without any contradiction. [For example, I am a father from the viewpoint of my son and a son from the viewpoint of my father. Being a father from the viewpoint of my son does not refute being a son from the viewpoint of my father, and vice versa. Both truths – being a father and being a son – are true, although the two truths are contradictory in the sense that father and son are two poles of an inseparable pair.

Similarly, from the viewpoint of superficial truth, mind is not totally nonexistent; and, from the viewpoint of deepest truth, mind is not truly existent.] Thus, the superficial truth of mind refutes its total nonexistence and the deepest truth of mind refutes its true existence. In other words, the superficial truth of mind is that it is not totally nonexistent and the deepest truth of mind is that it is not truly existent. [Both truths – not being totally nonexistent and not being truly existent – are true, although] the two truths are contradictory in that they are two poles of an inseparable pair. [Father and son are two poles of an inseparable pair because a father is a father in relation to his son and a son is a son in relation to his father. Similarly superficial (conventional) truth is superficial in relation to deepest truth and deepest truth is deepest in relation to superficial truth.] In this sense, mind is a unified pair of the two contradictory truths.

This is the Madhyamaka middle way. It is a middle way because it does not assert any of the four impossible extremes: true existence, total nonexistence, both, or neither, and because it is a unified pair of two truths. Whether we speak of Madhyamaka, mahamudra (the great seal), or dzogchen (the great completeness), they all come to this same point, the actual nature (chos-nyid) of the mind, free from extremes. The prayer is to realize this middle way.

In summary, we must not let the appearances that mind makes arise mislead us into believing that the “I” and phenomena have true existence. This is because if we are confused and deceived like that, disturbing emotions and attitudes will arise incessantly and we will suffer without end in uncontrollably recurring samsara.

Mind is a unified pair of clarity and voidness. [It is totally pure, like pure gold.] Degradation, however, comes from the beginningless confusion that accompanies it. Because of confusion, fleeting stains arise, but they are of the same nature as the mind, like tarnish on gold alloy. [By nature, the fleeting stains of disturbing emotions and attitudes are also a unified pair of clarity and voidness.] If we are capable of seeing through all this, we will no longer be misled to the point that our minds giving rise to grasping for true existence. We will attain pure mind. We must remove the fleeting stains [like refining gold] and thus attain enlightenment.

[By knowing these points through hearing about them and by understanding them through thinking about them through lines of reasoning] like these, discriminating awareness (shes-rab) will come to accompany the way in which we pay attention to and consider (yid-la byed-pa) our minds. [However, this will only be the discriminating awareness that arises from hearing and that arises from thinking.] That is not enough for realization (rtogs-pa). We need to gain the discriminating awareness that arises from meditation [with the joined pair of shamatha and vipashyana]. This is the significance of the prayer being May I realize the actual nature of the mind.

Prayer to Avoid the Extremes of Affirmation and Negation

Verse 12 is a prayer to eliminate interpolation of the extremes of affirmation and negation with respect to the mind. These are the interpolations that mind is “this” or “not this.”

(12) Nothing that can be pointed to, saying “it is this.”
Nothing that can be negated, saying “it is not this.”
The actual nature, beyond intellect,
   is an unaffected phenomenon.
May I gain certainty about the utmost point
   that is totally perfect.

Although we can experience the nature of mind, we cannot indicate or point to it with words. In this respect, we are like mutes who experience dreams, but cannot put them into words. [Words are conceptual constructs, either affirmations (sgrub-pa) that something is “this” or negations (dgag-pa, nullifications, refutations) that something is “not this.” As mental constructs, they conceptually imply (zhen-pa) that there are truly existent categories, such as “this” and “not this,” corresponding to the words, and they cling to such categories. Since there is no such thing as true existence, and since the nature of the mind is devoid of true existence, the nature of the mind is beyond words.

Thus, although we can say that the nature of mind is inseparable clarity and awareness, and inseparable awareness and voidness, this does not mean that this actual nature corresponds to the truly existent categories that those words conceptually imply. The nature of mind is not a truly existent clarity, awareness, or voidness.

The nature of mind is beyond words also in another sense.] There is nothing that can be pointed to as the nature of the mind, saying “it is this.” [We cannot limit mind to its being just one item or to its including just one item, which would be the case if the nature of mind could be put into one word, “ it is this.”]

Further, we cannot indicate the nature of the mind by conceptually negating or rejecting what it is not. There is nothing that can be negated, saying “it is not this,” because mind excludes nothing. [Mind-itself is the all-encompassing alaya foundation of everything of samsara and nirvana, excluding nothing.]

The actual nature of the mind is not something that can be discovered by a mind investigating superficial truth with intellect (blo). [Superficial truth deals with conventions, indicated by words and concepts; and words and concepts define or specify things as “this” through the exclusion (sel-ba) of everything that is “not this.” In specifying something as “this,” words imply conceptually isolated items (ldog-pa, distinguishers, isolates). The conceptually isolated this is that which is left when everything “not this” is excluded. The nature of mind, however, cannot be limited to one item at the exclusion of anything else, because there is nothing that can be excluded from it. Therefore, the nature of mind cannot be defined or conceptually isolated and specified as “this” through the exclusion of everything “not this.”] Thus, any choice made to define the mind in words, with the intellect, as “this” or “not this” will always be false. A specific identification of mind’s nature is impossible; it cannot be conceptually defined.

The actual nature, beyond intellect, is an unaffected phenomenon. The actual nature of mind [as inseparable clarity and awareness, and inseparable awareness and voidness] is permanent [in the sense that it is always the case.] It is unaffected by causes and conditions. [The nature of mind was never newly created from causes and conditions: it is not like a sprout that is newly created from a seed. Nor can it ever perish due to causes and conditions: it is not like a flower withering with age.]

Although the nature of the mind cannot be put into words and be realized through an intellectual process, we must nevertheless begin by studying with our Gurus. Then, through meditation [combining shamatha and vipashyana, the inspiration and special methods used by] our Gurus will enable us to distinguish and recognize the nature of our minds.

Thus, the prayer is May I become certain about the utmost point that is totally perfect. [The utmost point (don-gyi mtha’) is a fully realized mind-itself, which is totally perfect (yang-dag) in that it has never been stained with any extremes.] Thus, Naropa told Marpa, “ You cannot realize the nature of mind through books; you must examine your own mind.” The perfect nature of the mind is beyond all extremes.

Prayer to Realize There Is No Contradiction between Voidness and Dependent Arising

Verse 13 is a prayer to realize that voidness and dependent arising are not contradictory in the sense that mind-itself – as inseparable awareness and voidness, and inseparable clarity and awareness – is not contradictory with the appearances that arise dependently from unawareness.

(13) Not realizing the actual nature,
   we circle in the ocean of samsara.
Realizing the actual nature, Buddha is not something other.
Everything that is this and not this, nothing excluded.
May I become aware of the faults regarding the actual nature,
    the alaya foundation of all.

Although the actual nature of mind is void, everything appears without obstruction. Not realizing the actual nature, however, we circle in the ocean of samsara.

The actual nature of mind is that it is devoid of all extremes. It is parted from (bral) or beyond all extremes of true existence, total nonexistence, both, or neither, and all extremes of “it is this” and “it is not this.” In general, “the actual nature of mind is void and yet everything appears without obstruction” means that the nature of mind is inseparable clarity (appearance-making) and awareness-voidness. When we do not realize this actual nature, the pure nature of mind is mixed with confusion [like pure gold adulterated with base metals to form a gold alloy]. When this is the case, mind gives rise to appearances of samsara [like gold alloy giving rise to tarnish] and we circle repeatedly through uncontrollable rebirth in samsara.

The appearances of samsara arise through the twelve links of dependent arising:

  1. unawareness – not realizing the actual nature of mind,

  2. affecting impulses – karmic impulses to act based on unawareness,

  3. loaded consciousness – the alayavijnana loaded with karmic aftermath from such actions,

  4. namable mental faculties with or without gross form – specific consciousness (rnam-shes) not yet differentiated into the six types of primary consciousness [eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, and mind],

  5. stimulators of cognition – the physical and mental sensors (dbang-po) of the six cognitive faculties now differentiated from each other, and the six cognitive sense fields now differentiated from each other, but not yet distinguishing (recognizing) anything,

  6. contacting awareness – of the sensors, consciousness, and objects of the six cognitive faculties, distinguished as pleasant, unpleasant or neutral,

  7. feeling a level of happiness – either happy, unhappy, or neutral in response to contacting awareness,

  8. craving – to continue experiencing happiness or to be parted from unhappiness,

  9. an obtainer – a disturbing emotion or attitude that will obtain for us another samsaric rebirth,

  10. further existence impulses – activated karmic aftermath that function as throwing karmas to “ throw” the mind into its next samsaric rebirth and to produce more samsaric appearances,

  11. conception,

  12. aging and dying of a samsaric rebirth and its appearances.

In this way, the twelve links of dependent arising describe the process of generation [of samsaric rebirth and samsaric appearances], all coming from unawareness of the actual nature of the mind. If we rid the basis, mind-itself, of unawareness, the whole process is reversed, starting from the last link. Thus, we stop any further production of the twelve links; we stop any further production of samsaric rebirth and samsaric appearances.

[Mind-itself is beyond dependent arising in the sense that it is beyond the twelve links of dependent arising. We can understand this statement in two ways. Firstly, unlike the appearances of samsara, which arise from unawareness, the first link of dependent arising, mind-itself does not arise from unawareness. Secondly, mind-itself is pure by nature, never stained by unawareness and the samsaric appearances such unawareness produces. Because of its natural purity, mind-itself can be purified of dependently arising samsara and its impure appearances. Nevertheless, (1) because the clarity aspect of mind gives rise to samsaric appearances, when influenced by unawareness, and (2) because the nature of mind is inseparable clarity and awareness-voidness, the voidness of the mind is not contradictory with dependent arising, although the voidness of the mind is beyond dependent arising. They are noncontradictory because the voidness of the mind does not obstruct the appearance-making and dependently arising appearances of samsara. In fact, it is only because of the void nature of the mind that samsaric appearances dependently arise due to unawareness.]

Realizing the actual nature, Buddha is not something other. When we realize the actual nature of the mind, Buddhahood does not come from something other than mind-itself. Buddhahood [and its pure appearance-making and appearances] are not separate from the nature of the mind; they are not external. They also arise in terms of the nature of mind as inseparable clarity and awareness-voidness.

Everything that is this and not this, nothing excluded. Thus, the nature of mind – inseparable appearance-making, appearances, awareness, and voidness – pervades and gives rise to everything, both what is “this” and what is “not this,” both affirmation phenomena and negation phenomena. Nothing is excluded. Thus, from another point of view, everything that appears [both the impure appearances of samsara and the pure appearances of nirvana or Buddhahood] dependently arises from mind-itself. In this sense as well, the void nature of the mind is not contradictory to any appearance. It is only contradictory to the arising of appearances independently of the mind (non-dependent arising). In short, appearance-making and appearances are reasonable because of dependent arising.

May I become aware of the faults regarding the actual nature, the alaya foundation of all. Because mind-itself gives rise to all cognitive appearances, mind-itself is an alaya (kun-gzhi), an all-encompassing foundation, a foundation of all. Because of its void nature, however, its manner of existence is beyond all words and concepts, beyond all four impossible extreme modes of existence – true existence and so on. This is the Prasangika-Madhyamaka view. Thus, although the Chittamatra (Mind-Only) tenet system also uses the term alaya, as in “alayavijnana” (all-encompassing foundation consciousness), we need great care not to commit the same mistake regarding alaya that the Chittamatra system makes. According to the Chittamatra system, [although the alaya does not truly exist as a self (as “me”),] still it attributes true existence to the alaya. According to the Prasangika-Madhyamaka view, this is a fault regarding the actual nature of mind-itself.

[Moreover, we need to avoid the mistake of imagining that since the nature of mind includes everything, everything is mind in the sense that everything is a way of being aware of objects (shes-pa). Mind includes everything in the sense that everything is either a knowable object or also a way of knowing something.]

Prayer to Cut All Doubts in order to Realize the Nature of Mind

Verse 14 is a prayer to cut any remaining doubts or indecision concerning the actual nature of mind as inseparable clarity (appearance-making) and awareness-voidness

(14) Whether appearance, it’s the mind;
   whether voidness,  it’s the mind.
Whether realization, it’s the mind;
   whether confusion, it’s my own mind.
Whether an arising, it’s the mind;
   whether a ceasing, it’s the mind.
May I cut off all interpolations on the mind.

Whether appearance, it’s the mind; whether voidness, it’s the mind. Everything that appears is of the nature of the mind, which is inseparable awareness and voidness as a unified pair. Appearances [and appearance-making as an inseparable unified pair] are the superficial truth of the mind. Voidness [and awareness as an inseparable unified pair] are the deepest truth of the mind. Thus, appearances and voidness are both the actual nature of mind [superficial and deepest truth as an inseparable unified pair].

Whether realization, it’s the mind; whether confusion, it’s my own mind. Whether mind is together with realization of its actual nature or together with unawareness and confusion about it, the nature of mind remains the same.

Whether an arising, it’s the mind; whether a ceasing, it’s the mind. When together with unawareness and confusion, the mind gives rise to samsaric appearances through the twelve links of dependent arising. When together with realization of its own nature, the mind ceases or stops giving rise to such appearances. In either case, the nature of mind remains the same. Both samsara and nirvana are nothing but the mind.

May I cut off all interpolations on the mind. The prayer is to cut off interpolations both about the mind and on the mind. [In other words, may I cut off both (1) interpolations that anything exists other than in the nature of mind and (2) the false conceptual cognitions that interpolate this impossible manner of existence.]