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The Gelug-Kagyu Tradition of Mahamudra

Originally published as
H. H. the Dalai Lama and Berzin, Alexander. The Gelug/Kagyü Tradition of Mahamudra. Ithaca, Snow Lion, 1997

Order this book directly from Snow Lion Publications

Part I: An Introduction to Mahamudra and Its Practical Application to Life

Alexander Berzin
July 1996

3 Preventing Preliminary Practices from Becoming Flat

Reasons for Preliminaries Becoming Flat

People engaged in preliminary practices sometimes find them becoming flat. The primary fault lies with our motivation. The main measure to prevent this is continually reaffirming our reasons for engaging in the preliminaries. If, as Westerners, we perform them as if it were our duty to do so, like following orders in the army, then certainly they become very flat. Or if we simply go through the motions mechanically without any understanding or feeling for why we are doing them, they have also gone flat. On the other hand, although there can be several different levels of spiritual motivation, if we sincerely try to develop a dedicated heart of bodhichitta, we always stay mindful of the difficulties others are experiencing and feel deeply the wish to be able to do something constructive to help them. This moves us to take action to develop ourselves fully; and the way to begin is through the preliminaries. Such an attitude, then, makes our preliminary practices vital and relevant to our goal.

Sometimes, however, even though we may have a proper and sincere motivation, we overinflate the preliminaries. We solidify them in our mind into something monstrous, "out there." We may then fall to one of two extremes. The first is to regard the preliminaries with a distorted, antagonistic attitude, usually translated as a "wrong view." We denigrate and dismiss them, thinking they are a waste of time. We feel they are only for beginners, not for ourselves, and thus we should go straight to the main mahamudra practice itself.

The other extreme is to make a huge ordeal of the preliminaries, like something out of a Greek myth – Hercules cleaning the Phrygian stables of centuries of accumulated manure. Overwhelmed at the prospect of cleaning our mind out of all mental trash, we feel we shall never get anywhere. Such an attitude makes the preliminaries into a horror-show, and of course they go flat because we become instantly discouraged, feeling we can never make any headway.

Being Creative with Preliminary Practices

There are many different types of preliminary practices mentioned in the texts. Although there are lists and instructions for four, five, eight or nine standard ones, any type of repetitive positive action we do can function as a preliminary – if we have the right motivation. For example, once Buddha had a disciple who was extremely slow-minded and unable to understand or remember anything he was taught. But he had the sincere wish to learn and improve. What did Buddha do? He instructed the lad to sweep the temple, day in and day out, while repeating, "Dirt be gone; dirt be gone!" In addition, he arranged it so that the temple would always be filled with dust. That was the preliminary practice Buddha set for this disciple. Gradually, the dull-witted boy was able to understand that the dirt he was trying to sweep away was, in fact, the confusion in his own mind. Soon he was able to understand everything, and eventually became an arhat – a liberated being.

For nine years I had the privilege to be the translator and secretary for my late teacher, Tsenzhab Serkong Rinpochey. I often joked that my preliminary practice was to write a hundred thousand letters and make a hundred thousand telephone calls on his behalf, helping to arrange his teaching tours around the world. Although in one sense this might have been a joke, I also think that in another it was quite true. I happily carried out these tasks and translated for him as best as I could because I saw that this was the most effective way I could be of benefit to others, namely by helping my guru teach them. Surely such an attitude rendered those myriad letters and calls into a method for weakening obstacles and building up positive force and potentials for later becoming a teacher myself.

The important point of the preliminaries is not the form they take, but the process we are trying to undergo with them. It is not the contents or structure of the practices, but the state of mind experienced before, during and after them that is the most crucial factor. In this light, even changing the dirty diapers of our baby a hundred thousand times can be made into a very profound preliminary practice. We need to be practical and creative. Not everyone has the time to make a hundred thousand prostrations and, surely, being a mother responsibly caring for her baby should not be inherently an obstacle preventing spiritual practice and progress. We need to understand the essence.

What are we doing when we are changing the baby's diapers over and again? If we look at it from the point of view of building up and cleansing – a Tibetan synonym for preliminary practices – we are cleansing ourselves of certain negative attitudes. Namely, we are working to overcome the laziness and selfishness with which we might think, "I do not want to touch someone else's filth. I do not want to get my hands dirty." Lessening that attitude also helps us diminish the strength of the mental block with which we do not want to touch or become involved with other people's personal problems because, figuratively, we also do not want to get our hands dirty. Furthermore, we are building up positive force. In the process of attending to our baby's needs, we are building up increasingly more ability and willingness to take care of others in the future.

Transforming All Activities into a Spiritual Path

The practice of preliminaries is not limited to merely the early stages of our spiritual path and then they are finished. We need to continue to cleanse ourselves of obstacles and build up positive force all along the path. We continue the process until we reach our goal of becoming totally purified and fully enabled to use all our potentials to be of benefit to others. As this is such a long-term and central process, it is important to realize that, with a proper attitude and motivation, we can transform any repetitive positive or neutral act we do in our home or office into a preliminary effective for wearing away mental blocks and building up positive force.

We read in many standard Buddhist texts how we can transform even the most mundane activities into a spiritual path. For example, when we walk into a room, we may imagine that we are becoming liberated from samsara, or uncontrollably recurring rebirth, and entering into nirvana, a state of release and freedom from suffering. We can also imagine we are bringing along everyone with us. We need to be creative with the Dharma teachings and apply this principle to the circumstances of our personal life and transform everything we do into a preliminary.

For example, suppose we are working in an office typing papers all day. If we regard it merely as our job and find it boring, meaningless, and we hate it, we derive little from it other than some money, a headache and much frustration. The same thing can be true with making repeated prostrations. We do not derive much from them if we regard them like an unpleasant duty at work we are obliged to do. We just get a backache and not any money! But, if we regard typing all day with the attitude, "I am making things clear so that something can be communicated effectively to someone else," we find it makes no difference how trivial the contents are of what we are typing. It is the process that is important – we are making something clear and available for communicating to others. With such an attitude and motivation, our daily office routine functions effectively as a preliminary practice.

To be creative with the Buddhist teachings, we need to put everything together that we have learned. In this example of making our office work into a preliminary practice, we are combining the teachings on building up and cleansing with the mahamudra guideline of not becoming caught up in the contents of our experience, but simply staying with the process. We are then fitting that together with lojong – the methods for cleansing our attitudes, or "mind training," with which we transform negative situations into positive ones conducive for practice. When we put different pieces of the teachings together like this, we can figure out the answers ourselves of how to apply the Dharma to daily life. That is how we make our Buddhist practice come alive and sustain the freshness of our interest.

Establishing and Strengthening Two Enlightenment-Building Networks

Another possible reason for our practice of preliminaries, and of Dharma in general, to go flat is because we are approaching the establishment and strengthening of the two enlightenment-building networks of positive force and deep awareness as if we were building up a collection of green stamps in an American supermarket. We accumulate more and more stamps with each purchase we make, which we paste in a book and keep in a drawer. In the end, when we have filled enough books, we can redeem them for a kitchen appliance. Thus when we spend time and energy on making repeated prostrations, we feel it is like spending money at the supermarket to get more stamps. They have no use or relevance to our life right now, but can be redeemed later for enlightenment as our prize.

We can eat what we purchase at the store, but, with the above attitude, we see no immediate effect from prostrations except sore knees and an aching back. However, when we transform each action of our day, particularly the repetitive ones, into preliminary practice, we also derive the immediate benefit of each moment of our day becoming meaningful. The quality of our life improves proportionately and we become happier, feeling that we are never wasting our time. This positive feeling of self-worth reinforces our enthusiasm for the standard preliminaries such as making prostration. In this way, by putting all the teachings together so that we apply them to daily life, our practice of preliminaries does not go flat.

Fitting Together the Dharma Teachings

It is a very exciting and challenging process to try to fit together everything we have heard of the Dharma and discover further implications. One of the greatest benefits of having heard, read and studied Buddha's teachings extensively is that we obtain all the pieces of the "Dharma jigsaw puzzle." Now we can realistically put them together. The beauty of it is that the pieces do not go together merely in one static way, like a child's picture puzzle, but each piece fits into every other in myriad ways. The interconnection is far more multi-dimensional and dynamically expanding than those on the World-Wide Web of Internet.

The mahayana sutras give beautiful images of this interconnection of all facets of the Dharma. They describe scenes of billions of Buddha-fields in billions of Buddha-universes, with each field interpenetrating all the others and each containing billions of Buddhas. In each of the billion pores of each of these Buddhas there are a billion more Buddha-fields, in which every other field is also reflected. We read this and often feel embarrassed, if we are a Western Buddhist, that the scriptures contain such flowery, seemingly absurd sections. We decide we do not want to read any more sutras.

But these sutras are, in fact, presenting a magnificent image of how all the teachings fit into and interpenetrate each other. In each teaching of each aspect of the Dharma we can see reflected every other aspect of the teachings. Just as billions of Buddha-universes can fit inside each tiny pore of a Buddha, likewise billions of Buddha's teachings can fit inside each word of the Dharma. Everything interrelates and fits together, like the image of Brahma's net in which each intersection of strands contains a mirror reflecting every other mirror of the net.

We cannot really appreciate these images simply by reading them. We can appreciate them only by fitting all the pieces of the Dharma puzzle together ourselves. Slowly, the image begins to emerge exactly as described in the mahayana sutras. This is the way to bring life back into our preliminaries. Try to see every aspect of the Dharma reflected in each tiny part of the preliminaries, while making everything in life a preliminary practice.

If we take our direction in life sincerely from the Dharma, we are confident that everything Buddha taught makes sense – not necessarily on a literal level, but as leading to a deeper, profound level of significance helpful for liberating ourselves from suffering and enabling us more effectively to help others accomplish the same. With this dynamic and pragmatic attitude toward the Dharma, we try to discover what Buddha meant by any and all of his teachings, and see how they could be relevant for our own, personal, spiritual path. If Buddha taught something, he definitely intended it to be of benefit to others, including ourselves.

Let me paraphrase a guideline instruction of Tsenzhab Serkong Rinpochey. Occasionally, one of his Western students would complain to him about some of the so-called "fantastic stories" in the teachings on karma, such as the description of the man who was always followed by an elephant that defecated gold. As a result of his endless supply of wealth, he was constantly plagued by jealous people trying to steal the wondrous beast. But no matter how much the hassled man tried to give away or lose the elephant, it would disappear into the ground from wherever he left it and always re-emerge directly behind him. Serkong Rinpochey used to say, "If Buddha had wanted to write a good story, he could certainly have made up a much better tale than that! Buddha gave this example to teach us something. Don't just look at it literally. There is meaning behind it. Try to figure it out yourselves."

Rinpochey's response also indicates how a Buddhist teacher sets the appropriate tone for the most beneficial relationship with a disciple. A skillful master simply arranges the circumstances for us to grow. "Here are the pieces of the puzzle. You put it together. You figure it out yourselves." By teaching in this manner, a spiritual master helps the disciple not to become caught up with, fixated and dependent upon himself or herself. The important point is for the disciple to focus on the process of putting together all the teachings and making sense out of them. The teacher provides the information, circumstances and perhaps inspiration for the disciple to gain insight and realization. The main focus is always on the disciple's spiritual growth.

Avoiding Becoming Infatuated with the Teachings

Fitting together the various pieces of the Dharma teachings and trying to understand the deeper significance of everything can be a very uplifting experience. But we must be cautious not to fall to an extreme of feeling overwhelmed with awe, "It's all so beautiful." If we become infatuated with the teachings, we can easily become set on a path toward what the mahayana sutras refer to as "hinayana arhatship." Arhats are liberated beings, those who have freed themselves from uncontrollably recurring rebirth filled with problems. Although living hinayana schools, such as modern Teravada, would not agree, the ancient mahayana sutras characterize such beings as so enraptured by their freedom that they lose all sight of the suffering of others and therefore remain in a blissful state of non-action, lost, as it were, in the bliss of nirvana. Teravadins would object that since an arhat is liberated from all disturbing emotions, such a person would certainly not have any attachment to the bliss of nirvana. Mahayanists would reply that attachment is not the issue. Arhats lack strong enough concern for others in order to overcome the inertia of simply remaining at rest.

In any case, regardless of how we label this extreme position and whether or not a Theravada arhat actually experiences it, we would all agree that enchantment with the beauty of how the teachings fit together is certainly not part of the path to Buddhahood. When our appreciation of the beauty of the Dharma leads us to feel, on the other hand, "How magnificent this is for being able to help others!" we are on a far more stable footing along the path. This is an important distinction to make.

It is very easy to become seduced into what we are calling here an "arhat-style path." We start to see and understand so many profound things, and it is all so beautiful. Our mind becomes so serene and uplifted that we do not want to get up from our meditation seat. It is so enjoyable and rapturous merely to sit with our head in the clouds, it is similar to being under the influence of a narcotic drug. We lose all mindfulness of anything else. This is a great danger.

What can arouse us from that state of enrapture? If we answer, "A feeling of compassion, the thought of others," and then think that our familiarity with compassion from previous meditation is sufficient to cause a feeling of concern for others to arise, we may still have difficulties. Some meditators – for example, from the Zen tradition – experience compassion naturally arising as part of their Buddha-nature. But most practitioners need a circumstance to trigger the arising of compassion in that state. If we think that simply recalling in our imagination all suffering beings is sufficient for generating concern in that state, we might well be disappointed. Generating conceptually a thought of others seems so artificial in that enraptured state that we lack sufficient energy to inspire ourselves to compassion through a visualization. What acts as a far more effective circumstance for generating compassion and what, in fact, rouses us from our comfortable meditation seat is actually seeing or hearing others – encountering others directly, not just conceptually in our imagination.

If we look at the classic stories of bodhisattvas and mahasiddhas – those intent on attaining to enlightenment to benefit others and those with actual attainments – where did they meditate once they had achieved a stable level of realization? They meditated at busy crossroads – in places where there were people. They did not just retire and remain forever in an isolated cave. If we go off to a lofty mountain retreat and decide to stay there until we complete our spiritual path, we may never want to come back down. But if, once our meditation becomes stable, we meditate further in a place filled with traffic, where there are constantly people around us whom we can clearly see and hear, we are more easily roused to help others directly.

We must be very careful, however, about how we understand being roused by compassion from our meditative state. It is not like being woken up from a delicious sleep and feeling resentment at our rest having been disturbed. If we have been meditating properly, we are not deeply attached to our meditative state, although we might have become enraptured by it. Attachment to our own serenity and insufficient mindfulness of others are two distinct obstacles that do not necessarily accompany each other. If we have overcome the grossest levels of attachment, we experience no resentment or sense of loss when we rise from our meditative absorption by a renewal of our mindfulness of others and the compassion that induces.

Furthermore, there is a subtle, but extremely important distinction between being blissfully uplifted and serene, on the one hand, and being "spaced-out," with our head in the clouds, on the other. The former is a clear, fresh and alert state of mind, while the latter is a subtle form of dullness. The mind may be clear about how all the teachings fit together and have good understanding and stable focus, but if it is enraptured by this realization, it is not fresh. Its lack of freshness is due, again, to a deficiency in mindfulness. But rather than this being mindfulness of others, it is mindfulness of the state of our mind and alertness to bring its focus back to the "here-and-now" if it has become stale.

A serene, uplifted, blissful state of mind, then, is not necessarily a hindrance to helping others. If it is fresh, it can respond to each moment of life's happenings. It does not necessarily translate into an idiot grin on our face despite others' suffering. A mind of "spaced-out" rapture, on the other hand, is dull and insensitive to both the world and its own state. It leads to indifference. We are just "up there in our heads" and we simply do not react to anything. Thus Tsongkhapa stressed over and again that subtle mental dullness is the greatest danger to correct meditation because it is easy to mistake it for shamata – a serenely stilled and settled mind, sometimes translated as "mental quiescence" or "calm abiding."

The same danger of becoming enraptured can happen when we focus on the nature of mind in mahamudra meditation. We might just want to stay there, focused, and not get up. To avoid this hazard, the mahamudra teachings strongly emphasize the realization of the inseparability of appearance and mind. What is significant here is not the appearance of the wall before us, but the appearance of suffering people in front of our eyes. When we practice mahamudra correctly, we can meditate on the nature of mind and reality while still being involved in helping others. We do not simply remain focused on mind itself, but on its nature of being inseparable from appearance. Maintaining a balance, then, between mind and appearance in our practice is very delicate and totally crucial.

Thus, there are not only obstacles or mental blocks preventing us from entering into meditative states, but also obstacles that make us go too far and prevent us from combining our meditative states with ordinary life. This is another way of saying there are not only obstacles preventing our realization of the deepest level of reality, but also obstacles preventing us from seeing that level simultaneously with the conventional one. These are included among the obstacles preventing liberation and omniscience respectively. A proper relationship with a spiritual teacher can be very effective for helping us overcome both types of blocks. This is especially true if we are actually involved in taking care of our teacher. We cannot just sit and meditate, feeling, "How beautiful!" We must get up and make tea or answer the telephone.

The same is true, then, in our ordinary lives. Taking care of our family can serve the same beneficial purpose as taking care of our spiritual teacher. If, in our daily life, we are constantly being interrupted and asked, "Make supper! Get me a drink of water! Do this, do that!" we can transform it into something spiritually useful. We can make it into a preliminary practice helpful for overcoming an obstacle that may arise later on the spiritual path – the obstacle of wanting just to sit on our meditation cushion, feel so blissful and not get up.

Practicing this type of transformation of attitudes, we start to appreciate on yet another level how the kindness of other beings far exceeds the kindness of the Buddhas. Just seeing another suffering being brings us more progress for developing compassion and seeing simultaneously the deepest and conventional levels of reality than seeing all the Buddhas. The kindness of others to ask us to do something for them cannot be compared. As Shantideva has expressed it succinctly, "Nothing pleases bodhisattvas more than when others ask them to do something for them."