An Overview of the Ninth Karmapa’s Mahamudra Eliminating the Darkness of Unawareness
Boise, Idaho, USA, November 2007
Part Two: Shamatha and Vipashyana
This evening we’re going to continue our discussion of the mahamudra practice as is presented in the Karma Kagyu school and following the presentation of it according to a text by the Ninth Karmapa called the Mahamudra Eliminating the Darkness of Unawareness.
Yesterday, we spoke about how on any spiritual journey, like going on a caravan, we need to make preparation for the various things that we’re going to bring with us on our journey. And so what’s usually referred to as the preliminary practices are the preparation – it’s the state of mind, it’s the context that we’re going to live in, like bringing the tent along with us as we go along the caravan that is going to house us.
So, having this safe direction in life, or refuge, and the bodhichitta aim to reach enlightenment in order to best be able to benefit others. And always keeping mindful of death and impermanence, and behavioral cause and effect, in other words karma. And being disgusted with the ups and downs of our ordinary type of existence and repeated rebirth and so on, and really wanting to get out of that. And to take advantage of the precious human life that we have now, because it’s not going to last forever. And having the inspiration from a spiritual teacher. And being open-minded and not sectarian about our practice, and not clinging desperately to the meditation, and not having any hopes or worries. All of these provided the environment, as it were, within which we can practice this method of mahamudra. So, we discussed all of that last time, and tonight let us go into the second two parts of the way that the material is presented, the first of which is shamatha meditation.
Shamatha, as I explained very briefly last night, means a stilled and settled state of mind. When we talk about shamatha and vipashyana – vipashyana being an exceptionally perceptive state of mind – those aren’t necessarily Buddhist practices; you find those in various other Indian traditions as well. In fact, almost everything within Buddhism in terms of actual methodology – particularly concerning concentration and various types of yoga, and so on – are pan-Indic type of things.
What really makes it the Buddhist presentation, the Buddhist version of all of this, is the bodhichitta aim – to become a Buddha to benefit everybody as much as possible – and the understanding of voidness, in other words, what is the actual state of unawareness, or confusion, or ignorance, however you want to translate it, that is the root of a problem. So when we talk about these methods of shamatha and vipashyana, be aware that just as a method itself doesn’t necessarily make it Buddhist; it’s the envelope within which it’s practiced that makes it a Buddhist practice.
Now, stilled and settled state of mind. We always have in the Buddhist presentation the three higher trainings, and again, that’s not exclusively Buddhist. But in any case it’s a very helpful foundation for structuring what we need in order to gain liberation or enlightenment. And this is training in higher ethical discipline, in higher concentration, and in higher “discriminating awareness” – that’s often just translated as “wisdom,” but here we’re referring specifically to the awareness with which we can discriminate between what is reality and what is not reality, what’s the actual way in which things exist as opposed to the way that they don’t exist, and also in a more broad sense, what’s helpful, what’s harmful, etc.
The analogy that’s used is: if we want to chop down a tree, you need the sharp axe, and that’s the discriminating awareness, which will actually do the cutting. But you need to be able to always hit the mark, so that’s the concentration. And in order to be able to lift the axe to chop the tree and hit the mark, you need discipline, the strength of ethical self-discipline. Two of the main factors that are going to be involved in getting the stilled and settled state of mind are factors that we develop already with the practice of ethical discipline.
Stilled and settled state of mind – it’s stilled of flightiness of mind and mental dullness. Flightiness of mind is a subcategory of mental wandering. It is when our mind wanders after an object of desire, because that is what is the most compelling of the objects that cause us distraction. We can get pretty angry about something and our mind can wander to that, but for most people it’s desire, whether it is for sex, for food, for changing our position because our knees hurt, or for sleep. It’s very, very strong. It’s far more compelling than just being annoyed with something. So, that is specified here as a major obstacle.
So it’s stilled, the state of mind is stilled of this flightiness – flying off after an object of desire – and of course all mental wandering, and stilled of being dull. There are many grades of that that are presented, many more, increasingly subtle levels that one needs to identify. And it’s settled, it’s settled either on an object or it’s settled into a state of mind, like love. Love isn’t an object that you focus on like a Buddha-figure. It’s a state of mind. But you want to stay in that state of mind and not have your mind wander off after, “What are we going to have for lunch?” or “What do I have to do later in the day?” or all the various types of mental wandering that we have.
What are the factors that we’re going to really use in order to gain this concentration? And as I say, these are factors that we develop already with ethical self-discipline. Ethical self-discipline is to avoid acting in a destructive manner. “Destructive manner” is defined in many, many different ways, but the principal way of defining it is acting on the basis of greed, desire, or attachment; or anger and hostility; or naivety, like coming late and, naive, you don’t even think that it matters to the other person. You don’t even think of the other person who’s waiting. This is naivety that it might hurt somebody’s feelings, so you just say something, whatever comes to your mind, and are naive that it might hurt somebody and be cruel. Obviously, acting out of greed or hostility or anger, that’s a little bit easier to understand how that can be destructive.
And these things are self-destructive. One can never be sure how our actions are going to affect somebody else, what their response is going to be. They may be very happy if we steal their car, because they wanted to get rid of it and they want to get the insurance. So, you don’t know how it’s going to affect the other person. But we can be quite certain, if we act on the basis of these disturbing emotions, that we’re going to suffer further on in the future, and it builds up a very strong negative habit.
Sometimes people find it a little bit strange that the Buddhists for example will try not to kill anything. And so if there’s an insect or something like that that we don’t particularly want to share our space with, we try to catch it in a glass with a piece of paper underneath and take it outside, something like that. And people might criticize and say, “Well, come on! This is a bit much, isn’t it?” Especially when you rescue a fly from the toilet with your hand, which is a very good test to see how devoted we are to this principle of nonviolence and helping others.
But in any case, if the first thing that we do, if we’re dealing with something that we don’t like, is to kill it, that builds up a very strong habit of reacting in that way. Maybe we don’t kill, but having total intolerance for anything we don’t like and using a violent method to get rid of it. So, although it might seem very trivial – swatting that fly and so on – it’s the habit that is important here in terms of destructive ways of acting based on a disturbing emotion. And it could manifest in anything that annoys us. We yell at somebody – same type of behavior.
So, what do we need to use? We need to use what is translated as “mindfulness” and “alertness” and “attention.” These are different mental factors and it’s very important to get the definitions straight, so that we know what we’re talking about here. We apply it first to our gross behavior, that’s why these factors are introduced in the discussion of ethical self-discipline. We apply it first to our gross actions of body and speech, primarily, and then in meditation when you’re trying to gain concentration, you apply the same methods to what’s going on in your mind.
Mindfulness is the most important factor and that, I think, is easiest to understand if we think of it as a mental glue. That’s what it is: it’s what keeps you on an object. It is the same word as the word “to remember.” So mindfulness… like you have mindfulness meditation: that’s not really mindfulness, that’s paying attention to what’s going on, that’s something else. Here we’re talking about the glue to just hold on. It’s like for instance, you’re on a diet and you walk past the bakery and there are all these cakes. They’re really delicious. And fudge brownies, and all these sort of naughty things in the window. And you want to just hold on – here is mindfulness – hold on to that diet and to that thought, “I’m not going to eat this.” And you restrain yourself and you walk by. It’s this mindfulness, the mental glue to stick to an object. Here, in terms of ethical discipline, it’s to stick to discipline, the discipline to keep your diet, for example, to say, “No, thank you,” when they’re serving your favorite cake or passing around some... whatever it is that we like very much but is against the diet. So it’s the mental glue that’s the most important thing.
Then there is alertness. Alertness will come automatically, if you have that glue. The alertness is to watch out for when the hold of that mental glue is either too tight or too loose. It’s always described like tuning a stringed instrument. If it’s too tight, if we’re holding on too tight, then we get very, very “uptight,” we say, and so you become nervous. You become tense and your mind will very quickly jump off into extraneous thoughts. If not, the energy becomes very, very nervous and tense, and that’s not at all a conducive state of mind.
So the hold of that mental glue – actually, the glue sticks to you there, there’s another factor called the actual “hold,” they’re related to each other – if it’s too tight that’s no good. If it’s too loose, of course, then you become sloppy. So we need to adjust the hold of the mind either on the discipline or in meditation. This is why one of the things that I was referring to last night when there was a question and I brought up the thing about not being a fanatic. If you’re a fanatic, you’re holding on too tightly and you’re not relaxed. But obviously, if you’re too relaxed, then you can lose everything.
So the alertness is like the watchout; it’s the alarm system. And if you have a strong mental glue, the alarm system will be there automatically. So the main emphasis is on the glue; it’s not on the being a policeman. This is very important, very, very important, because if we spend too much effort on being the policeman in our meditation or in our ethical discipline, then you have a dualism here, which is very artificial and really very screwy, I must say, that there becomes now a me, like the ego, and then there’s the superego who is the controller, and you have one part of me looking at another me and “I want to be good,” and “I want to watch out that I’m not bad,” and “Uh! You’re being bad,” and like that.
Now, that becomes very, very neurotic and falls into a heavy sense of dualism, which is completely a confused way of understanding how we exist and what is going on. So without a sense of a solid me that is keeping this discipline or watching that I keep the discipline, you just do it. That is one of the major keys to the whole Buddhist practice, and it’s particularly emphasized in mahamudra, but certainly not exclusive to mahamudra, you just do, without feeling “I am doing this.” Without that “I have to make myself do that.”
That’s really weird if you think about it structurally, “I have to make my self,” as if that’s another person, “do something,” and then “I have to watch to make sure that I do it and I do it right.” That’s very neurotic. So don’t put all the focus on the alertness, being alert: the alarm system. If you’re maintaining the mental glue, the alertness will be there. The main emphasis is on the glue; so hold on.
Then, when the alarm system goes off, it’s the mental factor of attention that reestablishes the mental glue. So that’s the mechanism, if you want to speak about it technically, in terms of what the Buddhist terminology actually means, what they’re talking about. So you have the mental glue that holds on. The alertness is the corner of the mind that is there, that knows whether it’s too tight or too loose, or if it’s lost it completely, and then sets the alarm. And attention is the factor that reestablishes paying attention. That’s what paying attention is referring to, to bring your attention back. All right?
Now, that we train first in ethical discipline, in terms of how we act and our body, physical behavior, our mental behavior, and it carries over into maintaining a posture in meditation. But obviously, far more important than the posture is that we don’t go around hitting people and screaming and yelling at them and so on. To act in a horribly destructive way but be able to sit perfectly in meditation is not exactly our goal here.
Once we gain this in our external behavior, then we have the tools. The whole approach is always in terms of “build up the tools!” So, we built up some tools, like our context with the preparation, and then we have to build up these tools through ethical discipline that we can then apply in getting a proper state of mind.
Now, what are we trying to accomplish with shamatha? As I said, a stilled and settled state of mind. It’s not just perfect concentration – what’s called absorbed concentration, that’s the Sanskrit word samadhi. Shamatha is a step beyond that, which has, in addition to absolutely no flightiness of mind or mental wandering, and absolutely no mental dullness or sleepiness, it has another factor which is a factor of a “sense or a feeling of fitness.”
I think that’s the closest word that we might have. It’s a very exhilarating feeling, a very joyous – but joyous in the exhilarating sense of feeling totally fit, like when you are an athlete and you feel fit that you can run a mile, or you can do fifty pushups, or whatever it is that you can do, you are fit. Or a musician, they’re fit; they can play any type of music and play it for as long as they want. This type of sense of fitness; and it’s a fitness that “I can concentrate.”
Serkong Rinpoche, my teacher, used to say, it’s like having a jumbo jet, that if you set it in motion, it’s going to fly; if it sits on the ground, it’s going to sit there. Similarly, if I need to concentrate and focus on one thing, it will stay. If I need to concentrate and focus on an activity, like during the day when we’re involved with various things, it’ll stay with that, not wander off, and not get dull. So, we’re not talking exclusively about just the passive settling of the mind on one thing.
Particularly in this approach in Karma Kagyu mahamudra, we look at both the settled and the moving minds, because obviously you can’t just function if you’re focused on one thing and that’s it. We have to live in the world, obviously; so we have to deal with many, many things and stay focused. So, this exhilarating sense of fitness is the characteristic mark of shamatha beyond a state of just absorbed, perfect concentration.
Vipashyana, which is the second part here, the exceptionally perceptive state of mind, is based on shamatha. You have to have shamatha first, then vipashyana adds on top of that a second sense of fitness. That sense of fitness is the fitness that the mind is exceptionally perceptive: it can perceive anything, exactly the way it is, in all its detail. Often that’s attained in terms of understanding voidness, but it doesn’t have to be just with voidness, it could be with so many different things.
As I said, it’s not exclusively Buddhist. We have this in other systems as well. So it could be gained, like in some tantra practices you gain vipashyana by focusing on a little drop or a dot at the tip of your nose, and then in the next row there are two dots while you keep that one dot, and then four, and then eight, and then sixteen, and thirty-two and so on. And you keep all of them clear and straight in your focus, and then draw it back. Well, if you can do that, your mind is pretty perceptive, pretty able to keep any detail, any amount of detail very clear, which is important to be able to do in order to understand the complexity of our lives.
The world and everybody in it is very complex, so you’re not going to have a simple type of solution to being able to help everybody. I’m just thinking of an example of psychologists or psychiatrists who have to keep everybody’s story straight, and they have to remember people’s names, and details, and things. That’s a good example of where one would really need to have that skill of an exceptionally perceptive state of mind, to not get everything mixed up, to keep it clear. So there are practical applications of these things as well.
Now, to get this stilled and settled state of mind, we can focus on many, many different things. Here, we’re talking about the nature of the mind. This is mahamudra practice, so it’s dealing with the nature of mental activity. Remember, mind is not some sort of tool in a box that a me which is separate from it uses to understand things. That is the cartoon version of what actually is the case. It’s not like that at all, but it’s just mental activity. And it’s not some separate me that’s doing it, or anything like that. It’s just happening; it’s functioning; and there is certainly a sense of a “me” that is there, but it’s not as though it’s some separate entity, separate from it.
Now, if you follow a Gelugpa approach, one would deal with what are the defining characteristics of this mental activity and try to actually stay focused on the defining characteristics, so that one doesn’t get caught up in the content of the mental activity, but in the mental activity itself. That’s quite difficult, actually, to recognize what in the world are they talking about, and we’re not discussing the Gelugpa approach to mahamudra, but that is one approach. In Karma Kagyu the approach is to quiet down. So the Karma Kagyu approach is a little bit more passive; the Gelugpa approach is a little bit more active, if we can use those parameters of active or passive. Passive in the sense that you want to quiet down to – there are many, many terms for it, let’s just keep it simple – the natural state, the uncontrived state of the mind.
There are many, many colorful adjectives that are used for that. And that’s not so easy; it’s not so easy at all. One must not trivialize the practice. How do we trivialize it? We trivialize it into something which is not so trivial, which is basically to shut up the voice in our heads. And we tend to think, if we could accomplish that – which, mind you, is a major, major accomplishment, very, very difficult – but if we do that, that is certainly not enough. That’s not what they’re talking about; that’s just a first step. You have to go much more deeply than that in order to really get down to the uncontrived, natural state of the mind.
And for this one needs to understand the Karma Kagyu definition of “nonconceptual.” What are we talking about when we speak about “conceptual” and “nonconceptual” cognition in Karma Kagyu? It’s different from Gelugpa. And in the Karma Kagyu approach, which is shared actually with Nyingma and Sakya, then we have sense perception – let’s say we look at an object, I look at this object here on the table, what we would call “a glass,” and what do I see? I see a colored shape. That’s what I see, it’s a colored shape. Now, if I turn my head away and I hold this object, what do I perceive? I perceive through physical contact the physical sensation of a physical shape. If I clink it with my finger, what do I perceive? I perceive a sound. So, what is the glass?
Now, Karma Kagyu would say that that is a mental construct on the basis of all the various sense information. A glass is not just a colored shape, and a glass is not just a cylindrical physical shape, a volume that you feel in your hand, and it’s not a sound, and if I put it to my lips, that’s another physical sensation. Is that the glass? So the “glass” is imputed on all of that. It’s conceptual, according to Karma Kagyu. Now, that’s pretty profound, actually, if you think about it, and it affects... so many things.
If you think about it, language? Did you ever wonder how language works? It’s amazing. We only ever hear one tiny little sound at a time, the sound of maybe a consonant and vowel. That’s all you hear at one time, and when you hear the next consonant and vowel, you don’t hear the first one any more. So how in the world do we understand language? How do you understand the whole sentence? We don’t hear a whole sentence at once. It takes an interval of time, and so that’s conceptual. It is a mental construct: it is put together in the mind in the manner of a mental hologram, if you want to speak of it that way. So objects that extend over various senses, and that last over a period of time, and language and these sort of things are mental constructs.
So, if you want to quiet down the mind, you have to get past the level of just not talking in your head. You have to get way, way down to just dealing with the information from different senses and not conceptualizing “glass,” or “watch” or these sort of things. Now, that starts to get very tricky: how in the world would you function in this world if you only stayed on that level and didn’t put the information from various senses together into objects? This is why a Gelugpa objects to this whole presentation and says, “You see not only a colored shape, you actually do see the commonsense glass. You can’t say that you don’t see the glass, that’s just too fragmented.”
But it is indicative of the mental process; and that’s what is important here, the mental process of putting things together. And what we’re trying to do here is to quiet down the mind to the level where it’s not doing that, in order to be able to actually investigate: how does that mental activity work? That is just basically dealing with information – very, very interesting, especially if we study informatics, this science of information, what’s involved. OK, so we try to quiet down, quiet down the mind to the uncontrived state, whatever that is, and we go deeper and deeper and deeper.
And we can do that with many different methods and the text that I’m using as a reference here goes through a whole slew of different methods. And first, how do we do this? Well, as I indicated a little bit last night, we don’t do this with our eyes closed, never with the eyes closed. Your eyes are open, because obviously we want to observe and investigate the nature of the mind, and the nature of the mind perceiving things, not with your eyes closed. Also, if we’re trying to do any sort of concentration meditation with the eyes closed, there is a very severe danger of falling asleep. So you don’t want to keep your eyes closed.
The eyes are looking forward, relaxed, but in focus. It always becomes an interesting question for those of us who wear glasses or contact lenses. Do you want to meditate with glasses on or glasses off when your eyes are open? And that’s an interesting question. With the glasses on, things tend to be in focus, at least for me. Now, with my glasses off, everything is a blur. So do you want it to be a blur or do you want it to be in focus? I think that’s an individual choice, but certainly worth experimenting with, to see what is the effect of having your glasses on or having your glasses off. In general, if you want to understand something, I find that if you’re doing analytical type of meditation, glasses on makes the mind more sharp, because things are in focus.
Again it becomes an interesting question when we’re doing visualization, because visualization practice is not done with the eyes. Your eyes look down, but you’re visualizing in front of you, or all around you, or what you yourself look like, if we’re doing tantra visualization, of ourselves as a Buddha-figure. And so it’s not visual. That’s a hard one, actually, to convince ourselves of that and to stop trying to make it visual – I mean by that using the eyes as the major vehicle.
So here, eyes are forward, relaxed, but in focus, and we concentrate first of all – and they suggest a visual object – and quiet the mind of thoughts, flightiness, or dullness. And the text suggests a Buddha statue, even a stone, or a flame, or a visualized OM AH HUM, whatever feels comfortable. This is a little bit odd from the point of view of some other meditation systems in Buddhism, because they don’t generally recommend just staring at something as a way to gain concentration.
And again they say here, the eyes are relaxed, but in focus – that means not staring. They’re just sort of looking at something as a way to keep your eyes from moving, basically, if you think about it. It’s not that you’re really focusing on the object, that’s not the point. So you want to use that as an anchor, almost, and quiet down. Now that is very, very difficult to do without spacing out, because that’s what happens. You sit there, and you’re looking at something, and you sort of lose focus and space out.
Now, “space out,” that’s a hard thing to translate. I always have a problem with that. Most of the time I’m not speaking to a native English audience, and that’s not an easy term to translate, because they don’t have quite equivalents. And if you say “your head in the clouds,” which some other languages have that expression, that’s not quite it either, is it? I try to explain it like being in a daze. I think that’s the closest. You’re not quite in focus, not quite paying attention. You sort of get a glassy look in your eyes. Sometimes you can notice it when somebody is with you and they’re completely spaced out, not paying attention to what you’re saying. Their eyes are sort of glazed over, but they’re not falling asleep – so we have this lovely expression in English, “spaced out.”
That’s what happens when you try to do this meditation. And you have to watch out for that. So again, we need to have cultivated mindfulness and alertness to watch out for that. Now, again, I can’t stress enough that this is difficult to do, because you maintain the mindfulness again and what happens? You get caught up in looking at the object, which is not the point of looking at the object: it’s just your anchor. So it’s very, very delicate between not getting lost in the object and not getting lost in being spaced out and quiet down.
And it says, “Use whatever is comfortable.” That’s a very good instruction, very helpful. It’s not that one size fits all. Buddha statues are very good to use, or a Buddha painting, because – although that’s not the point here – of being mindful of the qualities of a Buddha and so on. Because there are methods to gain shamatha, which are not mahamudra methods, which are to visualize a Buddha, which helps us for refuge – safe direction – and bodhichitta, all these sort of things. But it’s something to look at that makes a good impression on the mind, as opposed to looking at some naked person that will just increase your desire, for example. That’s not what you want to look at in trying to gain this state of mind. Or some horrible, bloody massacre picture or something like that.
So, there’s a Buddha statue, a stone – why you would want to look at a stone I don’t know, but that’s based in the text. A flame – a flame is a difficult one, because that moves, so that’s not so good. Moving water is never recommended from what I’ve seen. It’s very relaxing. If there’s a fast moving stream and you stand on the bridge and you look at it, that’s a guarantee of getting spaced out. So, that’s to be avoided, you’ll definitely get spaced out looking at that.
To visualize OM AH HUM, that’s always a good one, if you can visualize it. Of course there’s always the question what alphabet are you going to use? My teacher was very liberal in that and said, “Use any alphabet. The Tibetans certainly don’t use the alphabets that were used in India at the time when they got it,” which are not the same alphabets that they use now in India – so dealer’s choice on that one.
Let go of hopes, expectations, worries, and even let go of the thought, “I am meditating.” Not easy. When we want to quiet the mind down, we want to quiet it not only of verbal thoughts, not only of conceptualizations, but of various distracting emotions. That’s much more difficult. It’s difficult even to identify some of these emotions, because they can be quite unconscious, like a hope or an expectation that something is going to happen, or that it’s going to work, or a worry that maybe my mind is going to wander off again, or a worry that maybe I’m not doing it correctly.
So, these things we have to let go of, and it’s not easy, especially if we are the type of person who’s a chronic worrier, and of course being nervous and all of that, and self-conscious, “I am meditating,” have a mirror in front of you, this type of thing, a video camera. We don’t want that either. So you just sort of do it. That’s the first step.
We’re not starting at a baby level here. We’re talking about a very difficult type of practice and I can’t emphasize that too much, because then we don’t have a false expectation that, “Oh, hey, this is easy, I’ll do this.” Not easy.
Mind you, there is a practical application to this – people often want a practical application – and this is dangerous though. It’s a dangerous practical application: it’s that it’s a good way to fall asleep. Now, you don’t want to fall asleep in the meditation, but when you’re lying in bed, wanting to fall asleep, because you have to get up in a certain small amount of hours and go to work, so you don’t want to lie there for an hour trying to fall asleep – simple solution: quiet your mind.
Not so easy, is it? “Just shut up” in your head, and without this worry, “Will I be able to fall asleep in the next minute or five minutes?” Or the hope, “Oh I really wish... oh, come on now, fall asleep, fall asleep...” None of that. But just really, really relax and be quiet, and then you’ll fall asleep. Now you don’t want to do that in your meditation. This is a danger. I always find it really funny. It is funny, actually, that people get in the habit of reading in order to fall asleep at night. Boy, does that build up a very poor habit, that even during the day you start to read and you fall asleep.
So, the practical application here is a dangerous one, although I tell you, it works, particularly on an airplane, when you have to spend an overnight flight on an airplane. This is a trick. I’ll give you a little trick: if you can sit there with your eyes closed and your mind quiet, it counts as sleep. Even though you don’t fall asleep, it rests your body, if you have to deal with a whole day afterwards when you arrive. So, being able to quiet the mind is a very, very useful skill. And don’t expect it to be perfect, because it’s not going to be perfect. It is very difficult.
Then... I’ll just go through the methods and then we can try it a little bit, but I want to get to vipashyana as well this evening, so our time is limited. We then focus on other sense objects. Initially we were using eye consciousness, so then you can do this with ear consciousness of listening to something and just using that as a focus. I certainly would not recommend listening to music. Music is far too enticing and so you get caught up in it. And if you’re anything like I am, I can’t listen to music without then becoming like a cricket or some sort of insect that involuntarily will repeat that song over and over in my head for the next day or two after I listen to it.
So one has to watch out when listening to music if it is something that has a deep impression on you, like for me, having been a student in the sixties, play a Beatles song and I’m gone for a week singing it in my head. So you don’t want to do the practice listening to something like that, but the tinkling of a bell, or chimes, or something like that, this sort of sound thing, a clock ticking, or just the traffic noise of cars going by, or if you live in a nice, tranquil place, the sound of the birds outside. In India you always have the sound of birds.
And then you can do this with smells, with tastes, with physical sensations. Then practice without an object, which is the main type of practice that is done. You don’t want to spend too much time with these anchors, but get sailing without an anchor of a sense object and practice without an object. For this – stare into space, so the eyes are a little bit even more in focus, with open eyes and not blank-minded – it’s very, very difficult, actually, very difficult – and rest in an uncontrived state of – here’s another jargon term – here-now, “Just be there,” this type of thing.
Obviously, when we’re practicing this way, we still haven’t quieted the mind even of verbal thoughts. But thoughts don’t have to be verbal. They can be emotional type of things; they can be picture type of things. Different people’s minds work in different ways. That is always an interesting discovery, if our minds are very verbal, to find out that there are some people whose minds aren’t verbal. Obviously, people who are deaf and dumb and don’t know verbal language don’t think verbally; and there are a lot of people – artistic type of people – that think in images. So, we want to quiet the mind of that too.
We try to then recognize thoughts for what they are – this is a big method here – as a way to be able to quiet the mind down to this uncontrived, “unchurning” state. And what is recommended is to just stare at them, in a sense, and to not follow them out, as they will naturally dissolve.
Not an easy one. Why is it not easy? What does it mean not to follow out a thought?
Question: No movie?
Alex: Not only no movie, but no sentence, no sentence. Because usually when we have verbal thinking – if we pay attention to that here as our topic – then it’s a string of words. So, not to follow it out doesn’t mean the grosser level of following out a logical line of thinking and one thought leads to another, but just stare at it where it is. And again, this becomes very, very delicate. There’s another method, which is to actually use discipline and stop it: that’s one method. That’s not the method which is used here. It’s not just “slam the door on it,” but to just look at it, and it’s sort of like a mouse, you look at it and then it runs away type of thing. But here it’s not that it runs away, that gets into the vipashyana thing, “Where did it go?” And you have to examine, did it go into the mouse hole in your head and is waiting to come out as soon as you let go of your vigilance? And that obviously is a crazy way of looking at it, but sometimes it feels like that, doesn’t it? That it’s sort of bursting to come out. You’ve got to think this nasty thought or whatever.
And here it’s just to look at it and it naturally dissolves – that one can only appreciate by actually doing it and seeing, “Well, what’s going to happen? Just repeat over and over again the word?” If we’re thinking about.. What thought comes up? It’s very interesting, if you say, “Now think something!” Isn’t it amazing how quiet the mind is when put on the spot and asked to think something? Amusing, isn’t it? So if you’re thinking a line, let’s say... All right, I’ll I just read what I have here, “Common preliminaries in Karma Kagyu are the four thoughts that turn the mind to Dharma,” so, “They turn the...” OK, so we stop, “They turn the...” If we sort of stop there, it can’t go anywhere if you just look at it, can it? It’s not going to get stuck at “turn, turn, turn, turn...” It’s not like a stuck record, is it? No, so you look at it without letting it go on – although not as a control freak of not letting it go on, but – just sort of “there,” look at it, and there’s nothing else that it can do except dissolve – and it doesn’t go off into a hole in your head. That is the method.
Another method, which is a very helpful method, because that first method, it actually requires tremendous discipline – mindfulness, to remember to do it, and to actually do it – but the second method is to recognize that a thought is just a wave of the mind, that the mind is like an ocean, and these thoughts are just waves of the ocean. And the wave is not different from the ocean, and the ocean itself is just water, and so it doesn’t disturb the depths of the ocean, no matter how turbulent the waves are. So it’s just a wave.
That, by the way, is a very, very helpful method for dealing not so much with verbal thoughts, although it can be helpful with verbal thoughts, it’s very helpful with music going on in your head, which can be a horrible distraction; or, even more significantly, emotions – a wave of an emotion, which could be anger, it could be jealously, it could be attachment, greed, missing somebody, this type of thing, or a wave of sadness – which is a different category than emotion from a Buddhist point of view, but anyway – a wave of sadness comes up, a wave of depression comes up – it’s just a wave on the ocean.
Don’t get caught up in it. Don’t be the surfer, that you’re surfing on the top of it, as if you were separate from it. Don’t become the submarine, that you have to go down below and escape it. We are the ocean, in a sense, and this is just a wave. Don’t get caught up in it. And it’s very good for things like menopause and so on, or flashes of emotion that come up. It’s only a wave, no big deal, so what? That’s the attitude. So what? So I feel that. It’s a wave, big deal, and it will pass, and even if it repeats, so what? It’s just a wave.
And that can be very, very helpful, especially when we are emotionally distraught, or irrational waves of emotion – or sadness, or whatever – come up. We do this by just looking ahead, and if this becomes too difficult, which it may, then we can focus on the breath to help the process. So, focusing on the breath is not suggested as the first method here, but is suggested as sort of a last resort, if we can’t really handle any of the other methods, “OK, let’s go back to just focusing on the breath,” as an anchor.
Remember, it’s an anchor; it’s not that that is what we really want to have all our attention on. It’s not the breath; it is to quiet down within that context and then eventually settle into a nonconceptual state – that means without putting together objects, without that sort of stuff – neither too tight, nor too loose. And if we’re actually able to get that, then that sense of fitness that we get – that is the defining characteristic of shamatha – will have three characteristics to it, three flash experiences we might call them. They’re not a deep realization; it’s not that they last, but it’s sort of a flash thing that occurs. And they are a feeling of bliss, of clarity, and of bareness or starkness.
So it is very exhilarating, very blissful, but not, to use the idiom, “blissed out,” in other words, we shouldn’t be spaced out with bliss, but very blissful, very joyous.
Clarity means not that everything is in focus. When we hear the word “clarity” in the Buddhist teachings, it’s referring to the ability for things to just arise. Being in focus, of course, is helpful, but it can be not in focus also. It can be clear that there’s an emotion, it can be clear that there is a thought, that whole aspect of a clear space that allows for a fresh arising of a mental hologram, in a sense. That’s what we’re talking about when we’re talking about clarity, so it’s very subtle, not just “everything is focused.”
And starkness or bareness means that it’s free of all the frills, all the conceptualizations, all the words, all the negative emotions. We don’t want to discount compassion and patience and these sort of things, but free of these disturbing emotions.
So we get these three flash experiences, and they emphasize very much in the texts not to get attached to them. If you get attached to them, then there are the god realms, these various divine rebirths, celestial realms – if you get too much caught up in the blissful aspect and get attached to it, that can result in a rebirth as one of the desire realm gods. If you get too caught up in the clarity aspect, then as one of the form realm gods. And too much in this bareness thing, then as the formless realm gods. So, those things are to be avoided.
That’s shamatha. I’m a little bit fearful of asking for questions, because that might then leave absolutely no time for anything else, but one or two questions, if you have, about this topic, not about something else, please.
Question: You mentioned using as the anchor the sense perceptions such as the eyes, the sounds, etcetera. So you just do one at a time, and start with the eyes?
Alex: Right, you do one at a time. The question is, when we use these anchors of visual objects or sound objects and so on, do we do them one at a time or all together. There are various methods that you can use. Usually you do it one sense at a time. And it’s up to you. Obviously, in the beginning you want to just use one, so that you get familiar with that. Once you have become familiar with one, because when we get into vipashyana practice, then you want to see what’s the difference between a visual perception and a sound perception? That’s particularly emphasized when we’re working with the Gelugpa approach of the defining characteristic of mental activity, and it’s the same whether it’s seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting and so on, but here as well we want to see that with any of the senses you can get down and there’s no big difference between them. So, one can do one sense at a time and then go through let’s say a repertoire, and then you can also just – again, this is more in the Gelugpa approach – just anything that’s happening.
And that’s a very interesting, very, very interesting thing to observe, because in fact, we’re getting information from all the senses at the same time. It’s just a matter of attention, how much mindfulness and attention you have of all the senses. There’s information coming from the eyes; you’re hearing the traffic on the road; you’re smelling the air; you have a taste of the saliva in your mouth; you have physical sensations... have you ever focused on the sensation of your tongue in your mouth? It’s a weird one, actually, not just when you have a cut on your tongue, but there’s this thing in your mouth – that’s pretty weird, actually. Obviously, you have to be not emotionally unstable to focus on something like that, but all these sensations are there – the sensation of your clothing on your body, of the chair underneath your backside, if you’re sitting on a chair and so on – and to be aware of all those senses simultaneously is actually very loud, and very interesting.
And to see, what is mental activity, and as I say, it’s more the Gelugpa approach, but there are various things from these approaches which can be incorporated. As I said in the beginning, don’t be sectarian about this thing. There are many, many ways of trying to recognize what is the state of the mind. It’s just that rather than defining it with specific characteristics, which is the Gelugpa thing, Kagyu tends to say, “Well beyond words, beyond concepts” and so on. So they don’t really define it for you, and it’s more just sort of “quiet down into it.” Because if you point out its defining characteristics, then you tend to try too hard to see it, and you have your own idea and preconception of what it would be, and that could be a hindrance.
So, different approaches. Last question on this, because we really need to cover some other stuff.
Question: As you’re going through the meditations and you’re lingering down to where you want to be, my one question is, how long does it take to quiet down?
Alex: How long does it take typically to quiet? Obviously, you may never accomplish it in this lifetime, or you may be able to do it very quickly. It depends on different people and of course the preliminaries, these preparations are very important. As I say, you need to cleanse the mind of gross obstacles first, mental blocks, and have your mind be very open and flexible. If the mind is uptight, you’re never going to quiet down.
Question (cont’d): The follow-up I had to that was, as you’re trying to get down there and at least superficially quiet yourself a little bit, one of the issues that I sometimes have is: there are some days where I don’t feel any physical pain and I can get my mind a lot more quiet, and there’s other times when I’m just hurting or I’m really hot.
Alex: Well, hurting or feeling hot when you try to quiet down – it’s just a wave on the ocean. So what? Big deal, so what? It’s just a sensation, no big deal. And I’m hot – don’t be a fanatic, take off your sweater, take off your shirt, take off your pants if you want to, what difference does it make? Open the window, what difference does it make? Deal with it.
Question: So moving around is OK?
Alex: Don’t be a fanatic on the one hand; on the other hand don’t be a baby. “Oh, the baby,” and “It doesn’t want to sit,” and “Poor me,” and “My legs hurt,” and “Pick up the baby and rock the baby in your arms so it’ll be OK.” Don’t baby yourself, you’ll never get anywhere babying yourself. And don’t complain – that’s a big obstacle, complaining – and we don’t have to have an audience to complain, we’re very good at complaining in our own heads. That comes into the category of “no hopes, no worries.” We can add to that “no complaints, no disappointments.” You just do it and don’t expect anything.
And it will go up and down and that’s the waves of the ocean, and just “No big deal.” This is very, very important as an attitude to have in life. Somebody steps on your toe when you’re walking, or bangs into you, or you bang your foot against the table, or stub your toe, or whatever, and “So what?” And you just go on. Don’t make a big deal out of it. You check that you didn’t break anything; and so it hurts, so what? It will go away. Ignore it. You have to do that, otherwise you spend your whole life being miserable, because we’re going to get bumped around all the time, and it doesn’t have to be physically bumped around, it can be emotionally bumped around. So what? It’s just a wave on the ocean. If you can do that and be sincere, it works; it really does. No big deal.
The reincarnation of my teacher, the young one Serkong Rinpoche – he’s twenty-three now – the line that he always used since he was a little boy was, “Nothing special, it’s nothing special.” I went with him around America for a month – doing the whole Disneyland, Statue of Liberty number – when he was twenty, and at the end, “Rinpoche, what did you think of America?” “Nothing special; it’s nothing special.” “What was your favorite thing?” “The Holocaust Museum in Washington.” That was his favorite, the highlight of the whole trip, because it reminded him so strongly of compassion. It was a better highlight than Disneyland.
Anyhow. Shamatha practice. Let us try it for three minutes.
Question: Not now.
Alex: Martin Luther King, “If not now, then when?”
Question: Just one question. When you have a sense consciousness, like the noise of a car going by, and then you have a mental formation, and the next step, “It’s a car,” and where do you...?
Alex: The question is, you’re using the sense of sound as an anchor; you don’t identify what you’re hearing, “That’s the sound of a car,” “Now a bird,” “Now the clock ticking.” No, not at all. Don’t follow it out. Don’t get caught up in the object, not in the slightest. It is – I can’t think of any other descriptive word except – an anchor, it’s not your focus. The aim is to quiet the mind down and that just helps to not wander so much.
Question: Thoughts, but no thinking?
Alex: Thoughts, but no thinking? No. It’s not thoughts, no thoughts, no thoughts. It is just “stay in place,” in a sense. And you want to do it for a short time, otherwise it gets very discouraging, short little sections, a couple of minutes, and then you take a rest – pause – another couple of minutes – pause – something like that. If you try it for too long, especially at the beginning, it’s not going to work, it’ll be counterproductive.
It’s sort of like in Zen, “looking at the wall.” That type of thing. It’s not that you’re examining the wall. It’s just an anchor.
OK, now let me describe to you, maybe as a help, my experience in doing this, and then we can do it again. I’m looking at the floor as an anchor, and what do I see? There is a maroon colored shape, which is the rug. There is the brown colored shape, which is the linoleum, and there are sort of these blue cylindrical shaped objects, which are the socks of the person in front of me on their feet. These are colored shapes, and all that is in my field of vision is colored shapes. I’m not thinking, “rug, floor, feet, socks” – don’t put it into an object – it’s just colored shapes to keep my head looking forward.
Now, first big obstacle, breathing. I tend to give in my head sound illustration to my breathing, so it’s not just the sound of the breath, but it’s sort of “Aah-haa, aah-haa.” So I add a vocal aspect to the breathing in my mind, which is actually very stupid and annoying, but I find that that sort of happens. So, try to go beyond that, go deeper than that.
Next thing, what is there? My heart beating. I can feel my heart beating, and the temperature of the room, and these sort of things. So it’s hard to just stay focused on one sense, because the information comes in from these other senses that normally you don’t pay attention to, but as you quiet down you notice them. That’s why the process is described in very colorful terms in Tibetan of “dropping down,” “rang bab” (rang-babs). You automatically drop down to the basis level. It’s like a cylinder of water is being shaken up and it has to sort of settle down.
That’s what you want to do, is settle down, and not get caught in all this more subtle and subtle type of information coming in from the senses as you quiet down. So these are the things you have to watch out for. Obviously, I’m talking about after you’ve stopped talking in your head – that is the most basic level. That’s why I say people tend to trivialize this practice and think that it’s only to quiet the voice in your head; it’s far deeper than that. Now we’re just talking about step number one here. This dropping down to the natural state is talking about something that is very, very subtle and you need to really go deeper and deeper.
And don’t make any big deal out of your breathing and your heart beating and all these other things that really can become distractions. You can quiet your mind of talking; you can’t really quiet the sound and sensation of your heart beating, or breathing. So it’s important not to make that into an obstacle, and not to make it into a focus. That’s not the focus. Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey – he was always very sarcastic – he used to say, “If you spend all your time focusing on that, you’ll be reborn as a lizard on a rock, just sort of breathing there” – you know how the gullet of a lizard goes in and out? So, that’s not the point and you want to go much more deeper than that.
So, let’s try it again for another two minutes and then we’ll get into this vipashyana.
OK. Now I think that perhaps you can appreciate the importance of renunciation here. One has to renounce and let go of our ordinary thoughts, and worries, and hopes, and nervousness, and tension and all of that that we’re so familiar with. You have to be willing to let go, the same thing with this nonsectarian thing that’s emphasized in the text – not be uptight about anything. Because unless you can let go, and are willing to let go, by understanding the benefit of letting go, you’re not going to be able to drop down to this natural state – no way.
So it is more than just relaxing your muscles, and they don’t even mention that, but that obviously has to be there before. You can’t have your shoulders way up at a tension, and your neck all tense, and your brow furrowed with intensity, this type of thing, and worry. All of that has to be totally relaxed, so it’s very important that the posture be relaxed as well in a way that is not an artificial strain. Artificial strain is if you don’t have your hands in your lap, but they’re up six inches from your lap – boy, does that strain the muscles in your upper arm, if you do it like that. Don’t do that. So, just simple things.
Vipashyana – we have already achieved shamatha. One can do facsimiles of shamatha meditation beforehand, but then that’s not vipashyana. That’s practicing similar to vipashyana. Vipashyana we achieve upon the piggyback of shamatha.
Here, the eyes need to be more intense, “looking slightly upwards” are the instructions. It doesn’t mean having your eyes rolled up at the top of your head in some unbelievably strained eye position, but with shamatha you tend to look slightly down, and that’s the more common posture for the eyes – when they say toward the tip of your nose, it doesn’t mean cross-eyed looking at the tip of your nose, it just means in the direction of the tip of your nose, which means towards the floor in front of you – but here the eyes are slightly up, so it’s a little bit more intense. One always wants for vipashyana for the mind to be more intense. In Gelugpa you actually are really supposed to stare, but here it doesn’t say stare.
And the mind should be “at its own level” – that’s another jargon term that is used in Karma Kagyu Mahamudra – at its own natural level, uncontrived, unselfconscious. And “make it more intense,” it says, make it more intense, tighter awareness, and look at the nature of the settled mind, the mind that is in the state of shamatha. Obviously you can’t do that unless you’ve achieved shamatha, or at least something similar to shamatha, even if it’s only for a few moments.
Now, that becomes an interesting question, what in the world does that mean, “to tighten your awareness.” How do you do that? And one of the ways to do that seems to be with your eye muscles. Have you ever tried to sort of increase the tension toward the rear of your eyes with the muscles? Like when you’re having trouble reading the fine print on a bottle of something? Especially when it’s in raised white letters on a white plastic background, it’s a really challenging thing to be able to read the very important instructions. And so you sort of scrunch your eyes a little bit to try to get it more in focus.
I’ve never heard that instruction from somebody, but it seems to me that that’s the way, that when you do that, your mind is a little more intense, without being “tight” in a negative sense. Then the method here is to ask various questions. Well, that’s a form of analytical meditation, so let’s not kid ourselves into thinking that Karma Kagyu does not have analytical voidness meditation. It does. It’s just not in the form of logical syllogisms, but it sure has it – “Is it inside?” “Is it outside?” “Does it have a color?” “Does it have a form?” “Is it nothing, or is it just something that can’t be put into words,” and so on.
Well, this quickly becomes incredibly trivialized if one doesn’t really have a background in having studied Madhyamaka and so on. This is not your first step of looking at how things exist. “What color is your mind?” “Well, it’s not blue; it’s not green; it’s not up my nose; it’s not in my ear; it’s not in my bellybutton. So what?” That’s trivial. So that’s not what they’re talking about. Don’t trivialize it. So, what are they talking about? What about Madhyamaka philosophy?
We have words and concepts. Here is the clue. Is it something that can’t be put into words? That’s the clue here, words. You have to differentiate two things when you talk about words or mental labels: words have meanings – there’s no such thing as a word without a meaning. Then it’s a sound. A word has a meaning associated with it, so words refer to things, but there is nothing that corresponds to words. That’s the clue.
If I say “red,” “red” refers to something. It has a meaning; it refers to something, but out there on the color spectrum are there definite boundaries and lines that say, “One angstrom on this side is red, and one angstrom on the other side is orange?” That would be what corresponds to words. What corresponds to words is a universe which is structured like a dictionary, with everything in boxes, “It’s in this box; it’s in the box of red,” “This is in the box of orange,” “This is in the box of good, bad”... whatever. So, there aren’t things that correspond to words.
“The universe is beyond words, beyond concepts.” That’s what it says. But, of course, words refer to something. They have meaning and you have to use them for communicating. So what are you looking for here? You’re looking for “Is the mind a thing corresponding to the word ‘mind?’ Is it that there’s a separate me that’s using it as a tool in my head?” So you see, if you don’t understand this in the context of the whole theory of words and meanings and mental labeling and so on, it’s totally trivial. Of course the mind isn’t yellow or green and isn’t in my left elbow. Of course it isn’t; that’s stupid. So one needs to look on a much deeper level what this questioning process is.
For this, it says very importantly, to work with a guru, with a teacher – if you happen to have the good fortune to be able to work personally with a teacher. For most of us that’s not so readily available. And the teacher will pay more attention to someone who is sincere and really is properly motivated than to someone who is just fooling around and not so serious. Often we have the expectation, many of us, that we are great Milarepas, and we are special, and we should have special treatment. Well, if you really are a sincere practitioner, the teacher will pay attention; but if not, you have to grow up. And this isn’t kids’ stuff and nobody is going to baby you. If they are babying you as a teacher, they’re not really doing it in the traditional way. The traditional way is nobody babies you. You don’t grow by being treated like a baby. You have to develop the character yourself. That’s the way it is.
We look then at the nature of this settled mind. Settled mind means in the state of shamatha, with these flash experiences – it doesn’t mean that it’s only an instant, but it’s not a stable thing, you don’t have it all the time – it’s blissful, there is this clarity of “anything can arise,” and it’s bare and stark. And then you look at it like that and, “Is it a thing, corresponding to words like a color, form etc? Or is it something which cannot be... words don’t actually encapsulate it?” We say “beyond words, beyond concepts.” It’s not in a box of a word.
OK, and then – in that same state of bliss, clarity, and bare nonconceptuality – then you look at the moving mind, with thoughts. What is the nature of the thoughts? Do thoughts have an arising, an enduring, and a cessation? How do thoughts exist? That’s a very interesting question. Is it that they’re sitting offstage in my mind, and then they march out on stage, and “Here we are,” and then they march off, and go back into our memory or something like that? Or our imagination? Somehow our Western way of conceptualizing almost implies that: “Something came up from my unconscious,” as if it was sitting there waiting offstage. “It came up from my imagination,” “It came up from my memory.” Scuza, pardon me, where is it? And can you actually find it?
In the Gelugpa presentation of Madhyamaka Prasangika, when they’re talking about you “can’t find” something; again, don’t trivialize that. That’s the same thing as, “Is your mind up your nose?” Can you find it? Well, that’s referring to a referent “thing” in a box. Can you point to it? There are no things out there in boxes. That’s what it means, “is it findable?” So is it findable? Is there a thought?... so it’s very clever, they’re covering the same material as you would get in Gelugpa, but just not putting it in the terminology, in the jargon, because they’re very mistrustful of that type of jargon. So they use their own jargon. So you’re left with jargon in the end anyway: “fall to your own state,” “the natural...” all these words, jargon in the end. Anyway, don’t tell anybody that.
Do the thoughts leave a trace, like footprints in the snow, or something like that? Do they come from somebody? And so one method is to question it to death, so that the impelling force is gone – that’s one way of looking at this questioning process. But I think it really is more an analytical process in the end. They don’t want to say that it is; but in the end it really does come down to that. It’s just they don’t give you the answers ahead of time, except for the fact of “everything is beyond words, beyond concepts,” so one tries to see it a little bit more clearly. It’s more difficult this way, actually. Can you put your understanding into words? No, you can’t put it into words, because things don’t exist in boxes. Can it be expressed in words? That’s another question, because if it can’t be expressed in words, can you ever communicate it?
OK. So, we have the questioning, we question the thing, and we try to understand, “What is it?” And we see that it is a clear, blissful, bare awareness, even when it’s moving with thoughts, this mental activity. And it’s not really the Zen, the Rinzai Zen thing of profound doubt which is a whole another method of questioning, in which you just ask one question – “What is it?” or something like that – to gain a state of vipashyana that is always exceptionally perceptive by always questioning “What is it?” It’s not that, it’s quite a different method from Rinzai Zen. It’s more analytical and seeing that “OK, things don’t fit into boxes.”
And then we look at the mind and the appearances of sense objects, so the mental activity and the content of mental activity. What’s the relationship of appearance-making and appearance? “Appearance” – that’s a very difficult word. The way that I like to clarify that is more in terms of mental holograms. That’s actually what’s going on. Even from a scientific point of view, these electrical impulses and chemical stuff. And what do you actually see is more like a mental hologram. So the mental hologram and the actual perception, are those two different things, or is making a mental hologram actually that’s what perception is?
It’s the old question, does a thought first arise and then you think it? It’s not like that, is it? Or does a sight first arise and then you see it? You analyze this type of thing. Are they the same, are they different? Do the same with your body and mind, with feelings and the mind. Then you look at the difference between the settled and moving minds. Is it that there’s just sort of a clear voidness, or absence, or void, in a sense, and the thoughts just pop out from nothing, and then go back to a nothing? This type of thing. Or is it a truly existent nothing? How can a nothing become a something?
So here we are, back in our Madhyamaka analysis of causes and effects. Do things come from nothing? How does it become a something from a nothing? Can a something go back to being a nothing? When does it stop being a something? You can really start to investigate these things. And one understands that things don’t exist as clumps, encapsulated in plastic, encapsulated nothing, and then, all of a sudden, it becomes a something. It’s not like that. So one looks at all these things, and ultimately what we come to is that it can’t be identified as a “this,” or a “that.” It’s mental activity. It’s not in a box of a word. It’s beyond words, yet it functions with no obstruction.
Now we’re getting into what Gelugpa calls, “You see voidness in terms of dependent arising and dependent arising in terms of voidness.” It’s not that nothing really exists and everything is just voidness; that’s absurd as well. So one tries to see that there’s no obstruction. Even though there’s nothing findable, since it can’t be put in words; nevertheless everything functions. And there is a knowing; there is a clear vivid arising and knowing of mental holograms, and so on. It’s been there all the time; it’s never not been the case. This is getting to the basic Buddha-nature, and there’s no obstruction, which means that it can be aware of anything. This type of thing.
Without coming from somewhere, going from somewhere, no discontinuity. It’s not a total blankness, no matter whether it’s moving, whether it’s thinking, etc. Clear, stark, brilliant. This type of thing. And the text goes further and further, but I think you get a general idea then of what really is involved here with this type of practice, this type of meditation. But in order to really investigate the nature of mental activity, it needs to be in this stilled and settled state, otherwise the mind is too chaotic, too noisy to really be able to investigate clearly.
That’s vipashyana and, on the basis of this understanding, that brings you to the understanding of voidness – it’s in the context of bodhichitta, so aiming to achieve enlightenment for the benefit of all. And by applying this type of opponent of being able to stay with this understanding of the nature of the mind, then disturbing emotions and so on don’t arise anymore. So we’re able to get rid of them without having to smash them with a hammer, in a sense. So you go below them almost, in a sense.
Question: Raise them up?
Alex: Raise them up? No, it’s not that you raise them up. It’s that there’s no basis for them to arise, You’re below them. And it’s not that they’re sitting there waiting to arise. It’s not that either, and that now you have fooled them by going below where they are. It’s not like that. That’s why I was saying, not the analogy of a submarine, that you are in your protected space in a bubble, a submarine, below the surface of where all the agitation is. It’s not like that. It’s not like that at all.
Any final questions about this? This is just to give you a taste. Obviously, this requires a great deal of thought. First think it over, chew it over, what it’s talking about, and then gradual practice and experience.
And it’s very, very important to have a teacher that can correct you and help in this process, because it’s very easy, as I said, at the very beginning to just sit there and space out and you’re never going to get anywhere with that, not at all. In fact it’ll be quite detrimental. So one needs to be slapped around a little bit by a teacher. Good teachers are not gentle; good teachers slap you around, so that you don’t fall asleep or get complacent. That’s out of compassion, of course, but you can’t always be told “Yeah, yeah,” “Good girl,” “Good boy,” pat on the head. That doesn’t help. That doesn’t help at all. So, it’s like that. Any questions?
Question: What part of the mind is doing the observing?
Alex: What part of the mind is doing the observing? Are you talking about the policeman or the questioning?
Question (cont’d): After the calming.
Alex: After the calming? There is no separate mind that’s doing it. This is the whole point why we’re saying that you don’t want the dichotomy of the policeman part of the mind checking the other part of the mind. It’s just one mental activity. That’s what it’s saying.
If you think about it, your question is a very excellent question, because it’s trying to understand well, where is the mind and what is it? Because here is mental activity questioning about the nature of mental activity. So is there a mental activity separate from the mental activity of questioning that is the object that you are investigating? There isn’t. Now is that mental activity looking at itself? Well, in what way? Then you have this analogy that a knife can’t cut itself, so what are you looking at? These are the type of things that a teacher helps you with, or you discover yourself as you’re thinking about it, “What am I looking at?” “There is no something that’s separate from the looking,” and, “Is there a me that’s separate from all of that, that’s doing the looking with a tool in my head?” That then becomes really, really weird.
Although we can express it that way, it doesn’t exist that way. And that’s what we’re investigating, does it exist that way in which we conceptualize it? I – separate entity – am looking at – so there’s a looking – the nature of the mind – that’s three things. Are there three things there? Where are they? And we don’t get frustrated; we gave that up long ago in doing the shamatha practice. No hopes, no worries, no disappointments. We don’t get uptight about the whole thing, and investigate and realize that, “Hey, the way that I imagined things exist is not referring to anything actual.”
Any other questions? Good. Then let’s end here. I’ve silenced them all. It’s like my Aunt Ethel when she would make a huge family feast. The sign of success was that nobody could get up from the table and nobody could say anything – then it was a total success. She’d floored them. So, no questions. A good sign.
We end with a dedication. We think that whatever positive force, whatever understanding has come from this, may it go deeper and deeper and act as a cause for everybody to be able to really understand the nature of the mind – it’s there all the time – and through that realization and staying in the natural state of the mind – free from all this garbage that produces so much suffering and problems – be of best benefit to everybody.
Thank you very much.
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