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An Overview of the Ninth Karmapa’s Mahamudra Eliminating the Darkness of Unawareness

Alexander Berzin
Boise, Idaho, USA, November 2007

Part One: Preparation

Unedited Transcript
Listen to the audio version of this page (1:26 hours mp3)

I’m very delighted to be back here once more in Boise, Idaho and to have this opportunity to explain a little bit about mahamudra, and specifically about the Karma Kagyu tradition of mahamudra.

Mahamudra is a Sanskrit word and it means “the great seal,” and when we talk about a seal, we’re talking about these things that they used to have, where you dipped it in wax and then you made a stamp on something, and it guarantees the authenticity of a document or whatever. What is being referred to here with mahamudra is the authentic nature of the mind, basically, and it’s very great, because it encompasses everything. From a Buddhist point of view everything that exists can be validly known and so, when we look at this topic of mahamudra, we’re talking about something which is very, very vast and very fundamental, since we all have minds and that’s what we use, obviously, to experience life – although that’s a little bit strange way of formulating it, isn’t it? It’s as though there is a “me” separately, using a machine called “the mind,” through which we understand things. That is absolutely not the case from a Buddhist point of view. Our mind is not some sort of machine inside our heads that is separate from us. But what we’re talking about is the mental activity that goes on moment to moment and is describing experience of life.

In any case, without jumping ahead to the whole discussion of the reality of the mind and the relation of “me” and the mind and so on, let’s start more at the beginning. Mahamudra is a teaching, an approach to understanding, which originates in India and was brought to Tibet. We have mahamudra teachings in various lineages or schools of Tibetan Buddhism, specifically the New Traditions, and we find it in the Kagyu tradition, in the Sakya, and also later on in the Gelug tradition.

There are some differences – as seems to always be the case in Tibetan Buddhism, there are many, many different versions of almost everything – and it’s very important to always keep in mind – and it’s even mentioned in the mahamudra texts – that all of them are valid means. Buddha taught in a manner which acknowledged the fact that people are individuals and have different requirements in terms of what are the methods that suit them. And there are many, many different methods that can be used for reaching the same goal.

We find that for so many aspects of Tibetan Buddhism, coming from the Indian tradition, there are many, many different versions. And it’s very important to keep an open mind about them and not become sectarian and feel that, “My tradition and my way of practicing is the only way, and all the others are invalid and wrong.” Such an attitude of closed-mindedness is usually based on lack of knowledge. We just don’t know what these other versions are; in fact, often we don’t even know that they exist. Therefore we become a little bit defensive about our own position and put down some of the others – if we know they even exist, as I said.

In any case, we find that speaking about the nature of the mind, we can approach it in terms of different levels of “mind.” In Buddhism – Indian Buddhism and the Tibetan inheritance of it – we differentiate several levels of this mental activity – I think “mental activity” is a much better way of referring to the topic here; it’s not really the “mind” as a thing, or as a tool in your head, but we’re talking about mental activity – and the mental activity itself can occur or does occur on many levels of subtlety, depending on what is the basis that it relies upon for its physical maintenance, what’s actually involved with this mental activity on a physical level.

So we can speak in terms of the mental activity that functions on the basis of our senses – a seeing, hearing, a smelling, tasting, feeling physical sensations – that’s one level. Or we can think of another level, which is involved with thinking – it doesn’t have to do with specific reliance on the senses. And we can go even deeper, that deals with what’s known as the clear light level of mental activity, which is the very, very basic, subtlest level that just maintains the continuity, and from a Buddhist point of view it maintains that continuity of mental activity from lifetime to lifetime and into Buddhahood as well.

So when we divide mahamudra as a discussion of mental activity and the authentic nature of mental activity, we can speak about it in terms of levels of mental activity based on the senses or just on thinking – that would be what’s known as the sutra level of mahamudra. We can also speak of it in terms of the authentic nature of that most subtle level, that clear light mental activity – that would be known as the tantra level of mahamudra. When we talk about Karma Kagyu and Gelug, they speak about both the sutra and tantra level of mental activity in mahamudra practice, and in Sakya it’s only on the tantra level.

But anyway, that’s just background of the differences that you find. In all the mahamudra teachings we have always a context. It’s very important to have a context within which the search for the authentic nature of the mind takes place, because obviously it can occur in any context, actually. But here we’re talking about a specific Buddhist context which always has a certain direction that it’s going in, and a certain goal, certain parameters that define it as Buddhist. So there’s the context: that’s the preliminaries.

The preliminaries are not just giving us the context, but also help us to build up the state of mind which is most conducive for success in the practice. One obviously wants to have success in the practice, and nobody ever says that it’s an easy practice, and so we need to have preparation. I think “preparation” is always a better word than “preliminary.” With “preliminary” one tends to think, “Well, I can do away with the preliminaries, I don’t need that.”

But it’s like if you are going on a journey, and now imagine being in Tibet and a nomad, and you’re going to go on a caravan for many months, on a journey across the wilderness. You have to prepare. You have to make sure that you have the provisions for the journey, that you pack the yaks and all of this, get your tents in order, and like that, then you’re prepared for the journey. And so what’s usually referred to as “preliminaries” is actually the preparation for the journey, what you’re going to need, the strength to be able to make it to the final goal. So we have preparation.

Then we have two basic types of practice. These can be referred to often with the Sanskrit names shamatha and vipashyana and sometimes people use the Tibetan terms, zhinay and lhagtong. In English – of course, all the different translators each use a different term to translate it – the terms that I like are “stilled and settled state of mind,” that’s shamatha. It’s stilled of all mental agitation – the mind flying off to different things, mental wandering – stilled of all dullness, and is settled on an object or in a certain state. That’s shamatha.

So in order to be able to get to the authentic nature of the mind, one has to quiet the mind, still it down of all this other junk that goes on, and have it settled in a state so that one can observe and try to gain an understanding of what is the nature of this mental activity. So we have shamatha. And then we have vipashyana, which is “an exceptionally perceptive state of mind,” which is a mind that is so sharp and perceptive that it is able to actually see clearly what is the nature of this mental activity, what’s going on, how we experience life, how we experience everything.

Whether we’re speaking about Karma Kagyu, or within Kagyu there are many varieties of Kagyu, so there’s mahamudra in Drigung Kagyu, in Drugpa Kagyu, etc. – anyway, we’re talking here about Karma Kagyu, and whether we’re talking about that or the Gelug tradition or the Sakya tradition, mahamudra always has preparation, shamatha, and vipashyana. So let’s take a look at these one at a time.

What I’d like to do is to base my presentation on a text, but without specifically going through the text word for word, but following its presentation of the material. And that’s a text that I had translated long ago by the Ninth Karmapa, called The Mahamudra Eliminating the Darkness of Ignorance. It’s not actually on my website yet, because I’m halfway through retranslating it – because when one has done a translation thirty years ago, one finds that one can improve what one did, naturally.

[See: Mahamudra Eliminating the Darkness of Unawareness.]

Safe Direction

So, let’s look at the preliminaries, the preparation. This is very important, actually. It starts off – like you started this evening as preparation for this teaching – with what’s usually called refuge and bodhichitta. “Refuge” is a bit of a passive term and I don’t care for it much, I think it’s a bit misleading. It’s a “safe direction,” more literally. It’s a “direction,” it’s an active thing that we put in our lives, the direction of what are we doing with our lives, what is the meaning of our life, where is it going; and it’s “safe” in the sense that by going in that direction, we protect ourselves from having more suffering and unhappiness.

Obviously, everybody would like a safe and sound and positive direction to have in life and Buddhism affords that. And what is indicating that direction that we actively have to put into our lives is Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, and you’re all familiar with that. But it’s important to understand what it’s actually referring to. And what it’s referring to in terms of the Dharma is – that’s not so easy – what it’s referring to are – you might have heard of the four noble truths – it’s referring to the third and fourth noble truths.

Now what in the world does that mean? The Buddha taught four true things that are seen as true by the so-called “nobles,” which are those who have had nonconceptual cognition of reality, of the truth. They’ve seen what is truly the suffering situation, what the true causes for that is, what a true stopping of that would be, and what the true pathway of mind would be that would bring about that stopping of suffering and its causes – a very, very brief presentation of it.

When we’re talking about the Dharma, the direction that we want to put in our lives, that direction is indicated by a stopping of all suffering and all its causes. Where? On a mental continuum, that’s how you experience suffering and where its causes lie, is in our own minds. So that’s the direction that we ought to go in, to that true stopping and the understanding, the “pathway of mind” – that’s usually called the “path,” it’s not a path, it’s not something you walk on. It’s referring to a state of mind or understanding that will serve as a pathway for bringing us to this goal, this true stopping.

That is really what is showing us the direction that we want to go in: get a stopping of all the suffering and – there’s many different levels of what that suffering is, there’s no need to go into it now on this occasion – and its causes. We want to go and stay where it should be stopped forever, and not just stopped temporarily, but so that it will never come back. And the understanding, the type of mind that will bring that about and that results from that stopping. The Buddhas are the ones who have achieved that in full and the Sangha is referring to those who have achieved it in part. They’ve started getting rid of all the junk on their mind-streams, their mental continuums.

That’s the direction. We can think of that in terms of the result – in other words, those who have actually achieved this situation on their own mental continuums – so that indicates a direction that we want to go in. We can also focus on the pathway level – in other words, as we are practicing, how are we aiming for that goal. And we can also speak in terms of the basis level, it’s called, which is our Buddha-nature, which is referring to what is the basic nature of the mind that will allow for a stopping of all this junk – this suffering and its causes – and allow us to be able to achieve that.

So there are these levels of direction that we’re going in. That’s safe direction in brief and it’s very important to actually put that direction in our lives. There are those who have actually achieved it, there is a type of practice that will bring that about, and there is the basis that I have, and you have, and everybody else has – in the basic nature of the mind – that will allow us all to reach that goal. If we don’t believe – and we’re not talking about “I believe, Hallelujah!” – if we’re not convinced logically that it’s possible to achieve this goal, and that it is possible for us to actually achieve it, then why are we bothering to try to achieve it?

So actually really being able to have this direction in our lives with confidence that we can go in that direction is not something to be trivialized. That’s something actually quite profound and takes an awful long time to really have it in depth. Mahamudra meditation helps us to become convinced that it actually is possible, because we’re dealing with the nature of the mind itself. Are the suffering and the causes of our suffering actually part of the nature of the mind, which means that whenever we have mental activity it’s there? Or is it something that can be removed?

This is a very deep question and a very crucial question for our experience of life. Are we always going to be frustrated? Are we always going to be insecure? Are these things inevitable and we have to just learn to live with it, make the best of a bad situation? Or is it possible to actually get rid of it forever? And is it the case that only Buddha who lived two and a half thousand years ago was able to do it, but I’m not able to do it? Or is it actually possible for me to do that, to accomplish that? And is it possible for everybody else to be able to do that? These are important questions that we ask.

Bodhicitta

Bodhicitta is a further development of this safe direction, and bodhichitta is not just love and compassion – love being the wish for everybody to be happy and to have the causes for happiness, compassion is the wish for everybody to be free from suffering and the causes for suffering – but we are taking responsibility ourselves to be able to actually try to help them to reach this goal, not just to help them on a superficial level, but all the way to enlightenment – and then we focus on our own future enlightenments.

This is the crucial point about bodhichitta and why it is absolutely essential with this mahamudra practice – what are we focused on when we meditate on bodhichitta? This is a very, very important question. A lot of people, as I say, just – “degenerate” isn’t a nice word, but anyway – degenerate to compassion when they meditate on bodhichitta, “May everybody be happy, may everybody be free of suffering,” and they leave it at that, which is of course a wonderful state to have, but that’s not bodhichitta. Bodhicitta goes another step beyond that, based on that love and compassion. And so what are we focused on is enlightenment, and not the enlightenment of Buddha Shakyamuni, but “my own, individual enlightenment,” which has not yet happened, but which can happen on the basis of Buddha-nature, in other words, the nature of the mind.

It’s not yet happened. Then it becomes very difficult, what do you actually focus on, and I don’t want to get into a whole evening’s discussion of what you actually focus on, what appears to your mind when we are meditating on bodhichitta. But in short, it comes back to the third and fourth noble truths. What we’re focusing on is that state of stopping of all the suffering and its causes and the aspect of the mind that will be able to understand reality and bring that about. And in fact that is what we focus on in mahamudra meditation, and therefore this mahamudra meditation is very, very closely connected then with bodhichitta.

In fact, the more that one thinks about it and explores it, the more one finds that it’s quite inseparable from bodhichitta meditation. In mahamudra meditation we want to get to the authentic state of the mind, the authentic nature of the mind. The authentic nature of the mind is free of suffering and its causes. Suffering and its causes are always explained as – to use the jargon – “fleeting stains,” like clouds in the sky. They don’t actually stain the sky. They’re passing; they’re not part of the essential nature of the sky. And so similarly, sufferings, problems, all these sort of things, and the confusion that causes them, the lack of understanding, the lack of awareness, etc., those are like the clouds in the sky.

Well, that’s a nice statement to make, but it’s not so easy to remove the clouds, is it? It’s not so easy to see through the clouds, especially when they become a thick fog and visibility is nearly zero. But anyway, one needs to understand – and there are many logical arguments for this, which again there’s no time to go into now, but many logical reasons for becoming convinced – that this stuff is fleeting, it’s just temporary – although if we don’t do anything about it, it’s going to continue forever – but it is possible to actually stop it if we go deeply enough.

If we can get to the authentic nature of the mind, then we will realize that it is not inherently stained by any of this stuff, and we will also understand that the mind does have the capacity to understand everything and to understand everything clearly. That’s what we’re focusing on with bodhichitta, the full state of that, which has not yet happened, but obviously can happen, because it’s the nature of the mind that it can happen.

This bodhichitta is very important, and it’s on the basis of love and compassion we want to reach that state, because if we have limitations, if we have suffering, we can’t help everybody – we can’t help anybody, we can’t even help ourselves. Then there are all the meditations for developing love and compassion and why we would want to care about anybody else, and it comes down to: we’re all interconnected, and everybody is equal: everybody equally wants to be happy and not to be unhappy, and because we’re all interconnected, my happiness and your happiness – and everything – are interconnected.

All right, this safe direction and bodhichitta are the basic framework then, which are there for all the Mahayana practices in which we’re aiming to achieve enlightenment ourselves for being able to best help everybody, but particularly for mahamudra they’re very, very important. Then – we follow this text by the Ninth Karmapa – he presents Vajrasattva meditation. It’s interesting, in this particular presentation, what’s known as the extraordinary, or the uncommon preliminaries are given first, and then we go back to the type of preliminaries that are presented in the lam-rim, the more basic teachings – here the Ninth Karmapa presents the uncommon ones.

Often we find this in a Karma Kagyu approach, that from the very start we are instructed to do these prostrations and mantra offerings and this type of thing first, without really understanding why in the world we would want to do this, and just sort of giving it the benefit of the doubt you sort of do it. And a lot of people find this quite appealing when their lives are very much filled with confusion, and they become a little bit desperate, and just have the state of mind in which they just want to be told what to do. “Just tell me what to do and I’ll do it, in the hope that it will bring me somewhere better than where I am now.”

For those who have that type of state of mind – and they don’t really want to be bothered with so much theory and understanding and so on now, because their minds are so confused – then it’s quite helpful to have this type of approach. For many people it doesn’t suit them at all, and they don’t want to do anything unless they understand what it is and why and so on. So for that type of person, this is not a very suitable way of starting. So, we need to judge ourselves, we know ourselves better than anybody else knows us. Let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that somebody will omnisciently come and, “You are like this.” We see within ourselves where we’re at and what would be helpful for us.

When we talk about refuge and bodhichitta, that’s usually connected with prostration; it doesn’t say that specifically in the text, but usually it is. We’re putting a safe direction in our life and you physically throw yourself into that direction with offering prostration. Prostration is useful particularly for those who are – what we call in the English idiom – “spaced out.” If we are rather spaced out and not really connected with the earth and a practical approach, this type of practice, prostration, literally brings you back down to the earth. It connects you very much with your body – although that’s a weird way of conceptualizing things from a Buddhist point of view – how could you possibly be disconnected from your body? But in any case, it brings you more in touch with your body; because you better believe, your knees are going to hurt, and your body is going to ache, and you’re going to feel the ground on your belly. So it in a very real sense brings you to the earth. And that’s very necessary, actually. If we are in a dream world about our practice and about our life in general, it’s hard to get a clear grasp on it and put a real direction in it. So we do this prostration and, not just going in the direction, but with bodhichitta, that is the goal that we want to achieve.

Vajrasattva

And then Vajrasattva is a purification practice – and I don’t want to go into great detail about all of this – but it’s repetition of a hundred-syllable mantra, but on the basis of a state of mind. It’s not just reciting nonsense syllables just like that, but is based on acknowledging and admitting – you don’t have to confess to anybody else, but just admitting to ourselves – the mistaken things that we have done in our life – and particularly the destructive things, whether it’s self-destructive or destructive to others – and the various mental blocks that we might have, or emotional blocks that we might have.

Acknowledge that and, “Whatever I might have done that either causes or perpetuates these type of obstacles that come up – like always getting angry, losing my patience, always being lazy, greedy, or whatever – I regret that,” which doesn’t mean to feel guilty about it, but “I regret it; I really would like to overcome that; I’m really going to try to stop repeating it,” and, “I emphasize what direction I want to go in my life, which is not that direction of just creating more problems for myself and others,” and, “I’m going to do something positive to counteract the negative force that I might have built up.” And then we recite this mantra and an elaborate visualization, which is basically imagining in a graphic form that these obstacles and impediments leave us.

Whether it actually happens or not is another question, but emotionally and psychologically it is very helpful in a cleansing sort of way to feel that these things are gone. This is the exact opponent for guilt. With guilt you hold on to these negative things that we’ve done: we’re so bad and, “I’m so bad,” and you don’t want to let go, and that’s guilt, it’s not letting go and maintaining that attitude that “I’m so bad.” So with Vajrasattva practice you let go, you finally throw the garbage out, you don’t just keep the garbage in your house forever. It’s important to throw out the garbage and to feel that it is leaving us.

And obviously it’s not an ultimate cleansing, we will continue to act in a negative way, but it is a good so-called housecleaning that we can do. We need to turn to much deeper methods than Vajrasattva recitation in order to really achieve a cleansing that is on such a profound level that all the garbage will never come back again, never accumulate more. So, Vajrasattva practice is a preliminary cleansing of some of the – at least guilt and negative feelings that we might have – negative force.

Mandala Offering

Offering a mandala is giving of a symbolic universe. What does that mean? That means, “I’m willing to give anything and everything” – we don’t have to go out and sell our house and give the money, we’re not talking about that – a state of mind that, “I am willing to give everything, the whole universe, in order to be able to not just get rid of the garbage in my mind, the suffering and its causes, but to be able to benefit everybody as much as is possible. I’m really dedicated to that.” Because to achieve that goal we have to be willing to give everything of ourselves, all our energy, our time.

It’s a full-time endeavor; it’s not a part-time endeavor, if you really want to go all the way. It’s certainly beneficial to go part of the way – and for many of us that’s as much as we are able to commit ourselves at this point – and that’s fine, but we need to at least be aware that if you want to do it all the way to the goal of enlightenment, you’re going to have to put in a hundred percent of your time, twenty-four hours, seven days a week to do this. It’s a full-time endeavor. In any case, this is symbolizing at least the acknowledgement that, “This is the goal that I’m aiming for – to be able to dedicate myself fully – and I’m willing to give everything toward that.”

So we represent that with a mandala. The way that it’s actually visualized and so on obviously doesn’t have to be the way that the people of ancient India imagined the world to exist. His Holiness the Dalai Lama said you can offer the universe in the form of a globe; you can do it in the form of a galaxy, if you have any idea what the Milky Way Galaxy looks like, or a whole universe – whatever you can conceptualize, it doesn’t matter. The point is the state of mind, which is the willingness to give.

Guru-Yoga

Guru-yoga is very important – “yoga” means “to form a joining.” It comes from the same root as our English word “yoke” – “We yoke the oxen to the cart.” We want to join ourselves with the spiritual teacher. Now, we’re not talking about guru worship; that’s a complete misconception of the position of the spiritual teacher in Tibetan Buddhism. The role of the spiritual teacher is to inspire us. And the teacher inspires us by example, which means that you certainly want to choose a properly qualified teacher, and not one that is a charlatan, not one that is pretentious, pretending to have good qualities when they don’t, etce. Whether or not that teacher is a perfectly enlightened Buddha literally – chances are that the teacher is not. Let’s be real here; the teacher is not.

However, when we look at the good qualities of the teacher, this is very inspiring and it indicates to us that it is possible to improve, “Look what this person has done.” When you look at the example of probably the most highly developed human being at the moment, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, and you look at what he does, and you look how he walks into a room with twenty thousand people, or ten thousand people, and instantly everybody loves him, this is extraordinary, how he’s able to do that, and just the type of schedule – I’ve traveled with him a great deal and it’s amazing what he does in a day.

So it’s very, very inspiring that somebody can become like that, and we see other examples of the great teachers, who may not be on the level of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, but are certainly more developed than we are, than I am. This is inspiring, and so we want to yoke ourselves to that and try to feel some inspiration – from a living example – that will sustain us.

When we talk about the position of the guru and the role of the guru in our spiritual development, it’s called the “root of the path,” it’s not called the seed of the path – the seed is where something starts, where a plant starts to grow – it’s not the seed, it’s the root. The root is what a plant draws sustenance from, what it draws its strength from, and that’s a realistic healthy relationship with a spiritual teacher – which does not mean becoming a mindless slave of the teacher, but adult-to-adult, based on tremendous respect mutually, both sides mature people, not emotionally dependent people.

[They are] working as a mentor, a guide, an inspiration for someone as a disciple who is emotionally mature enough to be able to deal with that type of relationship, and not become jealous of other students, or all these other things that are just going to interfere in feeling inspiration; or someone who is constantly criticizing, trying to find fault, discredit the teacher. So they give inspiration and that gives us strength. That’s very important. Whether the teacher is present or not doesn’t matter. We develop strength from that, “Here is somebody who has done this. And it’s inspiring, and “I want to become like that. I don’t want to become a clone,” – we’re not talking about becoming a clone of our teacher, but “I want to go in that direction.” Very good.

That’s why it’s so important when choosing a spiritual teacher, you have to choose someone who is inspiring to us personally. It could be the greatest teacher in the world, and inspiring to everybody around us, but “They leave me cold, they don’t inspire me.” That’s OK. That person doesn’t have to be your teacher. You can get information from them, correct information. That’s fine. You can get that from a book as well, or from a tape, or a website. But for inspiration you need somebody that actually moves your heart – that’s so important – and makes it a living experience.

Without that living quality, it’s sterile. So this is important, very important, and that gets into a whole discussion of the emotional aspect of the relation with the spiritual teacher, and again, it requires a certain level of maturity, so that the emotional quality of that relationship is not a neurotic one. And that’s not so easy to achieve, especially since we’re coming to the teachings probably as a neurotic person who has problems and is seeking some sort of help out of that. Otherwise, if everything was wonderful, probably we wouldn’t be interested in a spiritual practice at all. This is a very delicate situation and one has to go very slowly and carefully in terms of a commitment to a spiritual teacher.

The deep commitment to the spiritual teacher is that, “No matter what you do, I’m going to regard that from the point of view of ‘what can I learn from it?’ I’m not going to criticize. You may be teaching me by negative example, not to be like that, but that’s OK, the point is that I want to learn from you.” That’s a very interesting point, isn’t it? It’s a very confusing thing of seeing the guru as a Buddha, the guru is a Buddha, there are many, many, many different levels of that, and it has to do with Buddha-nature, but let’s not go too far into that.

But if we can keep this view of “the guru is a Buddha” – and we’re not talking literally a Buddha who knows omnisciently the telephone number of everybody in the universe, we’re not talking about that type of a Buddha, but – if we can focus on that aspect of the mind of the teacher – with true stopping of all suffering and its causes and the level of understanding that brings that about – if we can focus on that, even if it’s not actually happening now, or manifesting now – that’s like bodhichitta, isn’t it?

We’re focusing on that state, but we’re focusing on that state in somebody else, and we see glimpses of that in the teacher – well, we can only hope to see glimpses of that in ourself, so that’s OK – we see glimpses of that with the teacher and it keeps us focused on enlightenment. And that’s very crucial for mahamudra meditation, because we’re focusing on the authentic nature of the mind, which we understand has all the qualities of an enlightened mind, except it’s not actually functioning like that now, so we don’t kid ourselves into thinking that we’re actually enlightened already.

So there is quite a close relationship here between guru-yoga – focusing on the Buddha aspect of a guru – bodhichitta – focusing on our own future enlightenment that’s possible on our mental continuum, based on our Buddha-nature – and mahamudra meditation on the nature of the mind. All of these are very integrally connected and by practicing these preparatory aspects, it helps us to have success in the meditation – since that’s what we want – we’re not doing the meditation just for the fun of it. We want to have some success, get somewhere with it.

OK, so now we have these so-called special preliminaries, or uncommon, or extraordinary, or however we want to call them. We have some direction; we have a little bit of cleaning of mental blocks; we have a little bit of offering our energy, we really want to do this, to achieve a goal, to have that goal in mind, without making it into a goal-oriented, achievement-oriented type of procedure; and we have some inspiration. Now let us, in that state of mind, have the context for our practice.

Death and Impermanence

Now we go to the common preliminaries, and it’s very interesting, because the Ninth Karmapa presents the order a little bit similar to what Nagarjuna, the great Indian master, presented in his Letter to a Friend. And in that – unlike some of the later lam-rims, the graded stages of the path, in which the precious human rebirth is first, you appreciate what you have, and then death and impermanence comes after that, “Well, I have this, and it’s great, but it’s going to go, it’s not going to last forever, therefore I want to take advantage of it.”

Here, he reverses the order – that’s very interesting psychologically – first comes death and impermanence, “Hey, this is reality, that death and impermanence comes to everybody, and not just to that old person in the nursing home lying in bed, but it’s going to happen to me as well. It’s just a matter of when, and there’s no telling when it could happen, and if I’m not prepared, it’s not going to be a very nice event.” It’s certainly not going to be fun at all, is it? And so we think of death and impermanence and that sobers us, certainly, “All right, so now what?”

“Death and impermanence is going to happen, the end of this particular phase is going to come.” Of course, all of this presupposes an understanding of rebirth, that’s generally understood, so for us Westerners that is something we have to consider quite seriously, but leaving that aside, we get to the next thing, which is karma, “OK, well, I’ve done a lot of destructive things in my life and my life is going to end – what is going to happen?”

Karma

Well, there is going to be an aftermath. You do something and there’s a result of it. You mess up and what you leave behind, what is there is a mess. And so, “If I’ve made a mess of life, the Buddha’s teaching is that I’m going to experience a mess. And this energy is going to continue after death into future lives as well, of having created a mess, I’m going to continue to experience a mess in life and create more messes,” which is even more horrible, so it’s sort of perpetuating itself, this syndrome. We call that samsara, it goes on and on, almost, in a sense, self-perpetuating – except that you can stop it. But that requires a great deal of effort.

So, we see what’s happening, what could happen after death – that as a result of destructive actions it’s just going to create more mess, more unhappiness, more suffering. And we look at some of the constructive things we have done, and we rejoice in that, “That’s wonderful.” We don’t just look at the negative side, look at the positive side, “That’s really wonderful that I’ve done at least some sort of constructive things, hopefully...” We have, even if it’s just to feed our dog everyday, that’s something.

And we rejoice also in the positive things that others have done – that’s very important, not to feel jealous. We might not agree with everything that somebody else might have done, or particularly like the person; however, anything positive that they’ve done to help others we rejoice, “That’s great,” “Bravo,” this type of thing, “I’m happy about it” – that’s the second part here – so we think in terms of behavioral cause and effect that will continue after death.

Disadvantages of Samsara

Then we think of the disadvantages of samsara – which is the third one – which is that whether we’ve done destructive things, whether we’ve done positive, constructive things, if it’s all based on unawareness of how I exist, how you exist, how everything exists, then still there’s going to be perpetuated confusion. The type of happiness that we’ll have will be a happiness that doesn’t last, it’s unsatisfactory. It’s not really the ultimate thing.

The example that makes it easy to understand is: if eating ice cream were true happiness, the more ice cream we ate in one sitting, the happier we would become. So if we ate five gallons of ice cream in one sitting, we would be even happier than eating one or two scoops. This is obviously not the case. So there are severe limitations to this type of so-called “worldly happiness.” That’s why it’s called the suffering of change, because if you do too much of it, it changes into unhappiness – too much lying in a comfortable bed and it changes into bed sores, and this type of thing. So, let’s be real here, not overestimate our usual form of happiness.

So we think of the disadvantages of any type of samsaric situation, a situation based on confusion, on lack of understanding of how things exist – and obviously that’s a big discussion of the connection here between unawareness and karma, but we don’t have time for that here. So we develop what’s called renunciation – the Ninth Karmapa didn’t emphasize that here, but that’s what comes from that – which is the strong determination to get out of this, “I’ve had enough.”

Precious Human Rebirth

And then comes the precious human rebirth, “I’ve had enough,” and “I want to get out, now. I have a precious human life that’s very rare and I want to take advantage of it and use it as a vehicle for getting out of samsara.” And it’s not just to get out of samsara, because we started with bodhichitta, so “reach enlightenment, so I can help everybody else get out of samsara as well.”

So that’s the sequence here. The more that one studies this type of so-called lam-rim material, the graded stages of the path, we find that there are many different ways of sequencing the points that are in it and all of them make sense. So it becomes a very good example of how there are many ways of presenting something and they all are valid and they all work. So, here we have this sequence.

Then the Ninth Karmapa presents a very interesting presentation of the conditions for success in this practice, and the Buddhist approach is always in terms of cause and effect, so if we want to experience a result, in other words, success in this practice, you need the causes. The basic cause, of course, is Buddha-nature. That goes without saying, and he doesn’t specify that here, but you have it like in Gampopa’s presentation that’s translated as the Jewel Ornament of Liberation. But here the Ninth Karmapa just speaks in terms of the various conditions, so he starts with the causal condition.

The Causal Condition: Renunciation Based on Disgust

The casual condition – that’s the condition that will get us moving – is renunciation based on disgust. “Disgust” – that’s a very important word here. We think of this uncontrollably recurring syndrome that we have, we can see it even in one lifetime – of course, from a Buddhist point of view we’re talking about many, many lifetimes – but even with one lifetime, our life goes up and down. That’s the nature of samsara: it goes up and down all the time.

Sometimes we’re happy and in a good mood, and sometimes we’re in a bad mood and unhappy; sometimes we’re healthy, sometimes we’re unhealthy; sometimes we are motivated, other times we are lazy and bored. And it goes up and down and up and down, and there’s no security, and there’s no guarantee of what we’re going to feel like in the next minute, or even in the next moment, and this is boring. That’s the important word, “It is boring and I am fed up with it, and I’d like something different than this.”

So we can think of this in terms of just the moment-to-moment up-and-down of our happiness/unhappiness in life. We can think of it in a little larger terms, like relationships with people, friendships, close relationships. It goes up and down, doesn’t it? Sometimes we feel very close; other times they say something or do something, and we get annoyed and feel distant. And it goes up and down: no relationship is “smooth sailing,” I think is the idiom, that’s a myth, isn’t it? There is no smooth sailing in any relationship, so it goes up and down.

Or we can think in terms of really boring up-and-down of continuing rebirth, with always having to go to school, and to learn everything all over again, and to pass our exams, and to find a partner, if we want a partner, and to find a good job, and to pay the mortgage, and all these sort of things, and then to have to deal with the delights of old age, and the nursing home, and all of these sort of things that await most of us at the end of our life. That’s really boring. There may be interesting aspects to it – that’s fine – but those interesting aspects don’t last.

And so really we need, as it says here, the causal condition for really putting all our effort into actually realizing the nature of the mind and staying with that, so that from that state we can become an enlightened Buddha and really help everybody. We have to be disgusted with the up-and-down level of life, which is our ordinary experience, and be willing to give that up. That’s an important aspect of renunciation that a lot of people would like to sort of gloss over.

There are these two aspects, (1) “I want to give up what’s unsatisfactory,” and that’s a rather large thing of what’s unsatisfactory, because there are a lot of things that we think are OK, but if you look deeper, they really aren’t OK, like this up-and-down business, or “How much ice cream can you eat before it becomes too much and you get a stomach ache?” We need to give that up, that whole thing, and (2) be determined to get free.

Now, this only makes sense if we are convinced that there is a state of liberation that exists, first of all, that is possible to achieve, second of all, and third of all, that I can achieve it. Otherwise, “OK, I may have a less than satisfactory situation, but if there’s no alternative, make the best of it,” and that’s what many people feel. So it comes back to this whole very deep investigation, is it really possible to gain liberation? And the only way that we’ll become convinced of that is to recognize the true nature of the mind. So we come back to our mahamudra meditation and practice.

So it’s a little bit circular, really, because one needs to be convinced that it’s possible to even enter into the meditation, and it’s only through the meditation that you discover that, “Yes, it really is possible.” That’s not so easy. That’s why the inspiration from the teacher is helpful for getting us into the practice. And remember, all the way back to the beginning there, and often we will enter this whole endeavor out of a state of really being desperate, “So just tell me what to do.” That’s the causal condition, renunciation based on disgust.

The Dominating Condition: The Guru

Then there is what’s called the “dominating condition” – not an easy term to translate, this is my latest attempt – and dominating condition is like for instance the eye sensors – that’s referring to the photosensitive cells of the eyes – are the dominating condition that will dominate and make the result – which is seeing – into the type of thing that it is. It’s not hearing, it’s seeing. The dominating condition here for the practice is the guru, this is the spiritual teacher. In other words, through the practice we will become like our spiritual teacher, so it dominates sort of the whole flavor of the endeavor – the dominating condition.

The Focal Condition: Being Nonsectarian

Then the focal condition, that’s interesting, what do you focus on? And the text says, “being nonsectarian” In other words, we need to be open-minded that all the various approaches that are given – and we’re not talking about charlatan-type of approaches – but all the various approaches deriving from Buddha’s teachings will help us to – now we use Karma Kagyu terminology – to drop down to the primordial abiding nature of mental activity.

That’s a lot of jargon, isn’t it? But what it’s saying is “drop down.” That’s going to be a very central theme in the Karma Kagyu approach. Normally in our experience of mental activity we’re at a very excited, disturbed level, and we have to sort of drop down, relax down to a more fundamental level. “Primordial” – “primordial” means that it’s there from no beginning, deepest level. And “abiding nature,” which means that it’s always been the case, it’s always there, this so-called natural state of mental activity, which is undisturbed. That’s going to be a theme which recurs over and over again in this type of presentation of the material, that the fundamental abiding nature of the mental activity is one which is free of all these disturbing busywork levels, and free of the levels of dullness and heaviness, the fog.

So the focal condition is to not be sectarian with respect to this. We have to think about what does that mean? And perhaps what it means is that when we’re sectarian – well, what is that, “sectarian?” It’s a very closed-minded attitude, “Mine is correct; everybody else is wrong.” Now, when we are that tight in our minds, “Mine is correct; everybody else is wrong,” you can’t possibly drop down to the relaxed state of mind, can you? We need to be open, and that’s what it’s saying. What we need to focus on is that dropping down to the natural state, but in a nonsectarian way, in a way which is relaxed, which isn’t grasping at “my way versus your way,” my way, which is right, of course, and your way, which by definition is wrong. That you have to let go of, and it’s with that state of mind that we can focus on what we need to focus, which is getting to this natural state of the mind which is not uptight. Uptight is the opposite of what we want here.

The Immediately Preceding Condition: No Hopes, No Worries

And then the immediately preceding condition – in other words, what we have to have as our state of mind immediately before entering the meditation and gaining any success in it – is several things here, one is not only not clinging to the meditation, so we have to not cling to it, but also have no hopes and no worries.

If you think about this, what is it talking about? If we cling to our meditation, we’re desperate, we’re uptight, we’re clinging, “Ah, this is going to save me,” and we put all our hopes there. And of course, when you put hopes, you get disappointments, when it doesn’t live up to our hopes and expectations. And the false hope, of course, is that we’re going to get instant results, or that progress is going to be linear.

It’s never linear. Remember, the nature of samsara is that it goes up and down. So our progress is going to be up and down. Sometimes our meditation will go nicely; other times it’ll be terrible. No big deal. Don’t cling to it; that’s the way it is. Ride it through, just persevere. That’s very, very important – just persevere – the armor-like perseverance. It doesn’t matter how it’s going, “I will continue, with patience.” So, not clinging to the meditation, “It’s going to save me,” and no hopes and no worries.

Worries, before we sit down, “Is it going to go well?” “Is it going to not go well?” “What’s going to happen?” “I’m worried that my knees are going to fall asleep,” “I’m worried that the telephone is going to ring.” What are we worried about? That leads to a great deal of, again, uptightness and mental wandering. We don’t worry about anything. We don’t expect anything and don’t worry about anything, we just sort of do it and don’t make a big deal out of it, which is not to cling to the meditation. No big deal.

And it doesn’t require a Hollywood setting of a darkened room with maybe colored lights and candles and incense and all this sort of stuff. Milarepa didn’t have that; we don’t need it either. It doesn’t mean that we have to go out and find a Milarepa cave to do the meditation either. If we have a nice meditation space, fine. Don’t make a big deal out of it. Ideally, we need to be able to sustain this type of practice all the time, everywhere. No show, no big deal, no hopes, no worries, just sort of do it, like that.

So those are the practices for preparation. Since that is a convenient boundary before coming into the next topic, which is the shamatha meditation, perhaps you have some questions specifically on this?

Questions and Answers

Question: [inaudible]

Alex: OK, The question is about renunciation, what are the two aspects of it? One is the willingness to give up what is unsatisfactory based on boredom and disgust with it, not based on being angry with it, “Oh, I’m angry,” “Oh, I’m always getting angry, I’m always getting upset, and I’m annoyed with myself for this and I’m going to get out of it.” If you’re in a state of anger, you’re not yet ready to give these things up – you have to be bored, so bored that it’s enough already.

The other aspect is the determination to be free. It’s not that these two things are separate. You see, the fault that can easily occur is that “I’m determined to get free of my suffering, but I want it cheaply. I want it on sale, a bargain that I don’t have to give up anything, and I don’t want to do any work.” So we need these two aspects – determination to be free and the willingness to give up what’s causing the problem – to get the problem solved, stop banging my head against the wall.

The example that I often use, since it’s so fundamental to our Western romanticism, is that “somewhere Prince or Princess Charming on the white horse is going to be there,” and the perfect partner, whether it’s a marriage partner, whether it’s a business partner, whether it’s... whatever, that the ideal person is going to be there. This is a myth. Sorry. And OK, you can cry over it for a while, but you have to give up that myth, and that’s a myth that most of us really don’t want to give up. We don’t give up hope that somehow the next relationship will work, somehow the next business deal will work, somehow the next whatever will work.

What does that lead to? Frustration, because we’re banging our head against the wall. Nothing is perfect in the samsaric world.

Any other questions?

Question: I have a comment. I struggled initially with teachings and practice as the whole process of renunciation requires that you have to go through the suffering of suffering. My initial six months of meditation really hurt and I didn’t like my legs and neck hurting. Some of the things that you give up like going out and drinking with your buddies are pleasurable activities. When you renounce certain things people look at you funny and ask what is wrong. That is a struggle when you initially get involved, and one needs a lot of perseverance with rituals and activities before beginning to see the benefits. So, what happens now is that I still struggle to a degree. Meditation is now easier three years later. Do you find that there are people who experience similar pain? The reward at the end is awesome, freedom and liberation from samsara, but you get started on the path, it is painful.

Alex: Well, to summarize, in case it didn’t actually reach the recording devices, he was explaining how, when we first get into Dharma practice, that the price we pay is quite high, that there’s a great deal of suffering in terms of actual physical suffering if we’re doing a lot of sitting, or prostration – the back hurts, the knees hurt, the neck hurts, etc – and if we are no longer engaging in going out to the bar with our friends and watching the game and other sorts of similar activities, that’s tough, because they were enjoyable, and our friends might think strangely of us and so on. And although the end goal is maybe very nice, it’s difficult along the way.

Well, there are several comments that could be made on that. One, which perhaps is not very comforting, is that nobody said it was going to be a fun ride. But that’s like saying “tough luck,” and that’s not a very nice answer. So let’s try a better answer.

Perhaps a better answer is that we need to proceed gradually. That if we start in a fanatic type of way, chances are that we will lose steam and give it up. So it’s very important to pace ourselves individually, and we know ourselves what pace is comfortable. And you don’t want to go at a pace that is not going anywhere, so we can always go a little bit further than we think we can go, but don’t be a fanatic.

We can, for instance, look at some of the teachings in the attitude training, the lojong teachings, which say to change internally, you keep your external behavior the same, but we change internally. That’s the most important transformation, is in our attitude. So if our friends are getting together and so on – well, there’s nothing wrong with having friends, but the point is: what do we turn to, what do we rely on, when we’re unhappy? “What is my refuge?” as it were, “Is it stuffing my face with chocolate when I am depressed? Is it going out and getting drunk with my friends at the local bar?” What is it?

And if we do turn to these things, making a clear differentiation between what’s called “temporary refuge” and “ultimate refuge,” that has to be very clear. “OK, I’m feeling really depressed and I know, as silly as it may seem, having a chocolate bar will make me feel a little bit better,” to use a fairly harmless example. So you have your chocolate bar. No big deal. Does it make us ultimately happy and make the problem go away? No. Does it make me feel a little bit better? Yes. So I give my teddy bear a cuddle or whatever, but then you look to something which is a little bit more deep. So like that we sort of pace ourselves – and know yourself!

Dharma practice is not punishment, it’s a way of being kind to ourselves. But it’s not going to be easy; nobody said it was going to be easy. But you really have to watch out for pushing too hard with meditation in the beginning. That’s a big mistake – mind you, I started this lecture by saying that some people just jump into doing prostrations – but there’s a danger there. The big danger is what is mentioned a little bit later – if you have hopes and expectations that you’re going to get... “Well, I said the magic words a hundred thousand times and I’m still miserable.” Well, then you become very bitter and give the whole thing up, “I did all these prostrations and what did I get from it? Aching knees. Maybe I lost some weight.” OK, that’s not bad, but there are easier ways of losing weight. So, I’m all in favor of a gradual pace, and I find it so, so important, this last point in the preparation, which is “no hopes, no expectations, no worries.” You just do it with some sort of confidence that it’s going to be beneficial.

And as His Holiness the Dalai Lama says, don’t evaluate the benefits of a practice based on just a short period of time, because there’s too much up and down. You base it on a longer period, let’s say five years. “Am I able to handle difficult situations in life” – which are going to still come up, let’s be realistic – “in a way which is more calm, without getting completely flipped out? Is it a little bit more smooth sailing, that I get less upset? I’ll still make stupid mistakes, still these things will happen, but what’s the general flavor here? Am I better able to get along with people – and not just strangers, how about with my parents, with my children, with the people at work – everyday?”

Yeah.

Question: I have the impression that first we must choose a root guru and then they give us permission and guidance to start the practice.

Alex: The question was, she had the impression that first we have to find the root guru and then we get the instructions and permission to do these practices.

I don’t think that that is so in terms of the root guru. It may take a very, very long time to find our root guru. The root guru is not necessarily the one that gives us the most instructions. It’s not necessarily the one that we spend the most time with. It’s the one who is most inspiring. Remember, “root” you get the inspiration, the sustenance from. So, we may start our practice in many different ways.

The difficulty – and this isn’t an easy pill to swallow – is that it’s fairly rare to get personal guidance, especially from a very well-qualified teacher. Well-qualified teachers are rare and we may only have contact with them sitting in an audience with ten thousand other people. How many people are going to have the opportunity to get personal, individual guidance from His Holiness the Dalai Lama? Not many. And so someone like His Holiness may be our root guru in the sense of being the most inspiring example – and for most Tibetans he is – but they never get a word of personal guidance from His Holiness.

So we may have to rely on somebody less qualified, a little bit inspiring – not just somebody that leaves us totally cold, but someone of much less caliber than our root guru – to give us instruction. And we may never really get that personal guidance, unless we are very, very sincere and willing to put the effort into seeking that guidance. Some people expect that all of a sudden the guru is going to appear. But if you look at the great masters of the past, they made tremendous effort to go and find their teachers and travel to India or to wherever and they worked hard.

So if we’re really, really serious, then we really have to put in effort. So again, what level of guidance are we looking for? And – realistically speaking – what level of guidance are we ready to accept and follow?

Question: I want to do Vajrasattva practice. Is that something that you need personal guidance for?

Alex: No, I don’t think you need personal guidance for Vajrasattva practice. It’s helpful for anybody, so long as you don’t look at it as the magic words that you repeat and at the end a miracle is going to happen. But have the proper state of mind, of regret etc. That anybody can do. Prostration as well, for that matter, as a way of showing respect. For many people, “respect” is almost a dirty word; they don’t respect anything. If you don’t respect your own Buddha-nature as a basic minimum, respect yourself, how could you possibly improve? You have to respect something. You have to respect the goal that you’re aiming to achieve. So, prostration is a very physical way of developing respect.

Yeah.

Question: For me to live in calm abiding, all day, if that was possible, everyday, would be liberation. But when we do get liberated from samsara, what are we liberated to? I read The Tibetan Book of the Dead, or what I could comprehend. And the thought is if you could recognize the different Buddhas and different bardos and maybe achieve liberation, but where are you liberated to? Where are you going to? Do you manage to maintain a subtle mind after death?

Alex: This is a very good question.

Question (cont’d): What are you liberated to? I’ve been reading for a long time and I haven’t found a passage that says… I can’t conceptualize what we are liberated to, or [where] do we go.

Alex: OK. The question is, when we become a liberated being, an arhat, liberated from samsara, then what? What do we become liberated to? That’s a difficult question and to just say “we go to a pure land” sounds like we go to heaven or a paradise, and that I think is oversimplifying things, whatever that might mean. But from a Mahayana point of view, the mental continuum continues. And so with the mental continuum going on, the mental continuum is going to need a physical basis, is going to need something that is its driving force.

And the driving force of that mental continuum will no longer be karma, which is referring to certain impulses that are brought on by a disturbing emotion or attitude – greed, desire, attachment, anger, hostility, naivety, etc – which is deriving from lack of awareness, or misunderstanding, or confusion about how we exist, others exist, and how everything exists. So our mental continuum, which means what we experience from moment to moment, is not going to be driven by these disturbing forces or energies, if we want to sum it up in a phrase.

So, what’s it going to be generated by? Well, it depends what our goal was. If the goal was just liberation and nothing more, then still – even from a Hinayana point of view, whether it’s Theravada or another branch of Hinayana – there are the four immeasurable attitudes. There’s love, compassion, these sort of things, the wish for others to be happy, that’s there. But the main thing is just a wish for equanimity, for peace, and so one will experience a state of peace, with a connection of the mental continuum with either rough or subtle elements, depending on what sort of realm one goes to.

And those elements themselves might be subject to degeneration. They’re just elements, physical elements of a body, so they may degenerate and so on. But there will be no suffering; there will be no up and down, happiness or unhappiness, etc. It will be perfectly smooth sailing, in a sense, whether you just hang out by the swimming pool or what you do, that obviously is up to the individual.

Now, if we are following that path as a bodhisattva and we gain liberation – which is a stage, according to Prasangika, one version of Mahayana, that we reach liberation before we reach enlightenment – then, like a Buddha, the mental continuum will be driven specifically by that bodhichitta that, in the case of not a Buddha is the intention to achieve enlightenment and to benefit everybody with that. If we’re already a Buddha, it’s just to benefit everybody, based on love and compassion; so that will generate the continuity of the mental continuum. And that mental continuum will connect with some sort of physical basis, but that physical basis itself is not the enlightened being. A physical basis degenerates; it’s just elements.

So it continues. It’s not that we necessarily go somewhere when we are liberated, although we do find descriptions of pure lands and stuff like that. But how graphic and geographic we’re going to take these pure lands? That’s a matter of interpretation. Are they just psychological states? I don’t think that’s doing justice to it. Are they literally someplace out there that you take a space ship to? That also is not doing justice to it. But I think, rather than “Where are we going to be after becoming a liberated being or a Buddha,” more important is “What is going to generate the continuity of moments of experience?” And it will be either, as I said, the wish to have peace or love, compassion, and bodhichitta, and helping others. And that will be done in a way that’s not mixed with confusion or ignorance, let alone with greed and attachment and anger and naivety and so on. It’s like that.

One other point about The Tibetan Book of the Dead. Please don’t think that that is the generic, wonderful thing to help everybody when they die. Not at all. That is basically to remind someone who has done a very specific practice during their lifetime of that practice in the bardo. If they’ve never heard of that practice, that’s going to be very, very confusing for them. And as one of my teachers, Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey, used to say in a sort of sarcastic manner – he was rather sarcastic – “If others wouldn’t take our advice when they were alive, what makes you think they’re going to take it when they’re dead?”

Question: Wouldn’t part of liberation also necessarily mean that you’d also be able to identify where you’d been in the past and then direct your future too, instead of just popping up now and again?

Alex: Well, that opens up another whole topic. He says, when we become a liberated being, does that mean knowing where we’ve been in the past and being able to direct where we are in the future?

Well, actually I’m in the process of writing a very long, complex analysis of the past and the future and what a Buddha actually sees when a Buddha sees the past and the future. It’s not an easy topic by any means; it’s one of the most complex topics, actually. One starts to see what is no longer happening and what has not yet happened – that’s how it’s referred to in Buddhist terminology – before becoming an arhat, a liberated being. It’s just a matter of how far back and how far ahead one can see and the fullest extent is only when we’re a Buddha.

[See: What Does a Buddha Know in Knowing the Past, Present, and Future?]

Does that mean that we have control over it? That’s hard to say, because again, one has to be realistic here. Even a Buddha is not omnipotent, and so a Buddha can’t override cause and effect – and the cause and effect relationships of everything – like the universe, and the evolution of the stars, and the evolution of whatever. You can’t control that. This starts to get very, very complicated, because a Buddha doesn’t have to do anything; a Buddha doesn’t have to go anywhere. So the omniscient mind pervades everything. So that gets into a whole different level of a Buddha appearing in different places in different manifestations...

But a liberated being? Because a liberated being is not controlled by the impulses of karma – we just act impulsively on the basis of disturbing energy and disturbing emotion – then a liberated being could act in a less impeded way on the basis of love, compassion, the wish for tranquility, prayers to be able to benefit others, and so on. But it would still have to be within the context of what is physically possible, based on the physical laws of cause and effect within the universe.

Question: Just another comment on that – in The Heart Sutra it states that Buddhas and bodhisattvas abide by means of transcendent wisdom. Can you explain that a little bit?

Alex: You have such easy questions! “The Buddhas and bodhisattvas abide by means of transcendent wisdom.” What does that mean in The Heart Sutra? Well, you’re asking a translator, and I object to that translation, highly – “wisdom” I would never use, because it’s much too vague a word, “transcendent” sounds as though it is in a completely different level, so we get a dualism here, which is not at all intended.

So, “wisdom,” it’s the term “yeshe” (ye-shes) in Tibetan which means a “deep awareness,” “ye” is the syllable which implies “deep” in the sense of underlying everything, and “deep” in the sense of not having any beginning, primordial – if primordial really means no beginning, but anyway it’s used these days in that meaning. And this is referring to what I was alluding to in this presentation of the fourth noble truth, true pathway of mind, mahamudra and so on, this is the deepest primordial level of the mind, which is capable, because it doesn’t have any obstructions by nature to not only reflect everything – it doesn’t mean reflect as like a mirror, but to be aware of everything – and to comprehend it. That is what it’s referring to by “deep awareness.”

And they “abide by means of that” – that’s a strange way of translating it – “abide” means they continue and stay in a certain state. “By means of?” – I wouldn’t translate it that way – “with,” “together with,” instrumental case; so they continue with or in this state of deep awareness of everything. So it means that. Translation is utterly critical.

Question: It is. It really is, because words just have so much...

Alex: Meaning.

Question (cont’d): What I really wanted to ask you... so the one thing that I really want to give up is self-cherishing. And yet I find, not only is it hard to give up, but I find that I don’t want to give it up. That really bothers me.

Alex: Yes, so you find that “self-cherishing is difficult to give up, because I don’t want to give it up.” Why don’t you want to give it up? Because of self-cherishing. So self-cherishing doesn’t want to get rid of and give up self-cherishing. Obviously. obviously.

Question (cont’d): This is a hard one.

Answer: This is a hard one and the only way to really – we discussed this with renunciation – you have to reach the level of boredom. Utter, complete boredom, “I’m not angry with it. I’m not angry at myself. This is just so boring that I’ve had enough,” and then you stop, or at least try to stop. But you have to constantly remind yourself – and therefore we have a wonderful term called “mindfulness,” which is often totally misunderstood, but you have to go the definition – mindfulness is the mental glue, it’s the same word as “to remember.”

You have to remember, hold on, and not let go of that state of being bored with it, “This is boring; I don’t want this any more; I’m tired of this,” and it’s how eventually you are able to give up addictions. We are addicted to self-cherishing, and you give up an addiction by being bored with it. Initially you can use self-discipline and so on, but then you’re constantly the policeman or the policewoman. When you get so bored with it...

Question (cont’d): So, little by little, then?

Alex: Little by little? Well, one doesn’t want to give up self-cherishing, because you still hold out hope that through self-cherishing you’ll become ultimately happy. And you have to fail enough times so that you give up that false hope, that myth. But it’s very difficult, because we are very... not only addicted, but conditioned to acting on the basis of self-cherishing. That’s why you have to remain mindful that this is a losing way.

But it’s very hard to give up hope. It’s very, very hard, because self-cherishing manifests in so many subtle ways, like wanting the best seat, like wanting all the company to leave so that we can go to sleep. So many little, subtle ways: wanting to pass that car on the road, wanting the light to change while we are waiting – who cares about the other people going in the other direction? That thought would never enter our minds, never. “I want that light to change. I want to get going.” “I want to go.” So, there are many very subtle ways. It’s not just talking about pushing someone away. And that is something you have to acknowledge, that this is very deeply embedded and it manifests in very subtle ways. So we work on the gross ways, the gross manifestations, first and you try to catch yourself with mindfulness – it’s what mindfulness is all about – remember it.

Let us take a break.