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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 III: A Discourse on A Root Text for Mahamudra

His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama
Dharamsala, India, June 1978
translated by Alexander Berzin
July 1996

3 Mahamudra within the Context of Various Buddhist Traditions

The Different Lineages of Mahamudra

In general, we could gain a decisive understanding of voidness with respect to any basis characterized by voidness, or having voidness as its nature, such as a vase. There is no difference in the abiding devoid nature itself of a vase or our mind. There is, however, a great difference between a vase and our mind as things having voidness as their nature. Since our wandering in samsara is determined by whether or not we see the voidness of our mind, its abiding nature is especially important to see decisively. Therefore Aryadeva has stated in A Lamp for the Compendium of Practices, A Commentary on the Meaning of the Five Stages [of the Guhyasamaja Complete Stage], “The discussion of how to attain mahamudra entails methods for meditating on mind itself as something having voidness as its nature.”

These methods for meditating on the abiding nature of mind – specifically, on the abiding nature of the subtlest level of mind – undertaken in order to come to know, face to face, what mind actually is, have several different lineages of explanation. Each was founded by a learned and experienced master and expounded in accordance with his or her individual conventions. The text continues,

From the point of view of individually ascribed names, there are numerous traditions, such as those of the simultaneously arising as merged, the amulet box, possessing five, the six spheres of equal taste, the four syllables, the pacifier, the object to be cut off, dzogchen, the discursive madhyamaka view, and so on.

According to the First Panchen Lama’s autocommentary to this root text, the simultaneously arising as merged tradition “was founded by the venerable Gampopa who trained disciples with the six practices, or ‘yogas’ of Naropa. It deals primarily with meditation on simultaneously arising and merged deep awareness” – in other words the deep awareness of primordial clear light that arises simultaneously with each moment of experience. The tradition of the amulet box, “was founded by Kaydrub Kyungpo. It teaches that the preliminary basis is [mind’s] automatically coming to its own level in its three aspects. The actual method is [mind’s] automatically releasing into itself the three faults. The result is [mind’s] automatically giving rise to the three bodies of a Buddha. The actual method is also called ‘recognizing the thieves.’ The main guideline instruction of the Shangpa Kagyu line is that of the six practices, or ‘yogas’ of Niguma.”

Kaydrub Kyungpo, from whom the Shangpa Kagyu tradition traces, has written, “May everything be auspicious for the mahamudra of great bliss – the sphere of voidness, clarity and appearance – [seen] when purified down to the depths. Any appearance, to which mind gives rise, of anything that exists automatically emanates like a dream or illusion – a tone of uninterrupted great bliss.”

Gurus from various traditions, such as those mentioned in our text, have understood the points raised in this verse in slightly different manners in accordance with their personal meditative experience. Or, more precisely, they have described their experience in different manners, although their ultimate understanding has been the same. They each have ascertained the total absence or voidness of true, inherent existence and the play of simultaneously arising, primordial clear light mind of deep awareness. Any phenomenon that mind makes appear as if truly and inherently existent, and yet has the nature of being devoid of existing in the way in which mind gives rise to an appearance of it, does exist. It exists simply as the play of its devoid nature. Not only that, the appearance of it, to which mind gives rise, is the play of simultaneously arising, primordial clear light mind, which likewise is something having this very same nature. Each of these masters has understood both these points.

When the great gurus of the past have come to a decisive understanding of the correct view having both these points, they have explained it in two ways. Some have spoken of a correct view in terms of devoid nature itself, while others of a correct view in terms of what has voidness as its nature. We must keep these two correct views in mind when we consider the line, “Any appearance, to which mind gives rise, of anything that exists automatically emanates like a dream or illusion.” We can also read it, “Any phenomenon that exists, and to which mind gives rise an appearance of, automatically emanates like a dream or illusion.”

How are we to understand the meaning of “automatically emanates”? From the viewpoint of a correct view presented in terms of devoid nature itself, it means that no matter what item, having voidness as its nature, that mind makes appear, its appearing arises out of the basis of that item’s having voidness as its nature. Its nature does not block its appearance or the appearance-making of it, because its nature is that it is devoid of true and inherent existence. Thus the fact that, by nature, something is dissociated from true and inherent existence allows for an appearance of it automatically to emanate or arise as an object of cognition.

 

Also, in another way, we can say that ultimately any appearance, to which mind gives rise, of anything that exists originates from, or is the play of primordial mind as something having this devoid nature. Just as any mass of clouds that appears in the sky both originates from and dissolves back into the sky, likewise all appearances of anything that exists both originate from and dissolve back into subtlest clear light mind. From the point of view of its cause, or root, or mental labeling, any appearance is ultimately like a wave of clear light mind itself, or its play. Because it originates from this diamond-strong sphere, it is an automatic or reflexive emanation in the sense of being the reflexive luster of clear light mind.

Thus we can understand “automatically emanates” in terms of both devoid nature and something having this devoid nature, namely clear light mind. Moreover, we can take this both in a sutra and a tantra sense, depending on the level of subtlety of mind we discuss. On the sutra level, we speak of the correct view only in terms of devoid nature itself. From the tantra point of view, however, we can explain the fact that all play of clear light deep awareness is like illusion in the context of either of these two correct views. Thus mind gives rise to an appearance of everything as if truly and inherently existent, although everything it makes appear in this way is devoid of existing in that impossible manner. In this sense, “Any appearance, to which mind gives rise, of anything that exists ... [is] like a dream or illusion.”

As for “uninterrupted great bliss,” there are two types of bliss. One is an apprehension of a physical or mental feeling of bliss, while the other is the bliss of being free from all mental fabricating – specifically, mentally fabricating totally contrived, imaginary modes of existence such as true, inherent existence. This latter state is sometimes called the “youth of the mind” which, innocent of contriving fabrications, is blissful. According to the Sakya tradition of lamdray – the paths and their result – which speaks from the point of view of the path, primordial clear light mind arises simultaneously each moment as a blissful awareness in this latter sense of bliss. The term, “uninterrupted great bliss” may refer to this.

 

Furthermore, when our present coarse levels of mind apprehend sensory objects, or think about anything, they do so incorrectly, in the manner of taking a striped rope to be a snake. They do not have the ability to understand, in a bare manner, the stark, actual nature of things. To understand something in a bare manner means to apprehend something with an understanding stripped of all coarse levels of mind, both conceptual and nonconceptual. Thus the actual nature of things is stark in the sense of being not only uncontrived, but also beyond conventional thought. Therefore, it can only be seen from our own deep, nonconceptual meditative experience. As it cannot be apprehended by the coarse levels of mind, it can only be seen “when purified down to the depths.” Meditation on the “mahamudra of great bliss – the sphere of voidness, clarity and appearance,” characterized like this, is the amulet box tradition of Kaydrub Kyungpo.

As I do not have realization of the salient features of all the traditions the author cites next, I can only explain what comes to my mind. The possessing five tradition, as the autocommentary states, “asserts in songs of meditation experience that the enlightening influence of the Dagpo Kagyu lineage masters is great and that of Jigten-gonpo is the root.” The six spheres of equal taste is likewise another lineage.

The four syllables tradition elaborates on the four syllables, “a ma na si,” a Sanskrit word that means “not to take to mind.” The autocommentary explains the four syllables as follows, “The first means to cut down to the foundational root state of mind. The second shows the methods for settling mind. The third means to cut off mind from points where it can deviate. The fourth demonstrates how to take mind as a pathway.” The author does not elaborate further on any of these points.

Next is the pacifier tradition of fatherly Padampa Sanggyay, deriving from the scriptural line, “ The pure view pacifies all suffering.” There is also the object to be cut off tradition of the One Mother of All, Machig Labkyi-drolma, dealing with chod, the cutting-off rite. There is, in addition, the dzogchen or great completeness tradition of the Nyingma tantras of the old translation period and, finally, the madhyamaka or middle way tradition of the old and new Kadam, the latter being the Gelug tradition.

The Harmony of the Two Correct Views of Reality

The text continues,

Nevertheless, when scrutinized by a yogi, learned in scripture and logic and experienced (in meditation), their definitive meanings are all seen to come to the same intended point.

If we explain according to the Shangpa Kagyu tradition of Kaydrub Kyungpo, for instance, we can meditate on a correct view presented in terms of either devoid nature itself or something having this devoid nature, namely clear light mind. The latter is similar to Tsongkhapa ‘s explanation in Precious Sprout, Deciding the Difficult Points of [Chandrakirti’s] “An Illuminating Lamp [for ‘ The Guhyasamaja Root Tantra’]. In the prologue section, commenting on a quotation from Nagarjuna’s The Five Stages [of the Guhyasamaja Complete Stage], Tsongkhapa has mentioned that the inanimate environment and the animate beings within it are all the play or emanation of subtlest consciousness and subtlest energy-wind – in other words, simultaneously arising, primordial clear light mind and the subtlest level of energy-wind upon which it rides. This is the same understanding as explained before concerning the correct view presented in terms of items having a devoid nature.

As for the correct view presented in terms of devoid nature itself, Tsongkhapa has written in A Treasury of Commentaries on the Five Stages [of the Guhyasamaja Complete Stage] and A Lamp for Clarifying the Five Stages [of the Guhyasamaja Complete Stage], “Many possess one taste and one taste is possessed by many.” This refers to the fact that all objects emanated, in a cognitive sense, from primordial clear light mind have the same taste of voidness as their deepest nature. This explanation from tantra literature corresponds to the main madhyamaka assertion of the sutra presentation of the correct view presented in terms of devoid nature itself.

Although there are many traditions of explanation, the definitive meaning of voidness to which they all lead is exactly the same. Many erudite masters have explained voidness through logical lines of reasoning concerning the conventional and deepest truths. But many other realized masters whose meditation experience did not accord exactly with these lines of reasoning have explained voidness by taking their innermost meditation experience as more significant than logic. If we examine the words of such masters strictly from the point of view of logic, they may seem to have faults. But if we examine them from the point of view of meditation, we see they are flawless. Thus despite there having been so many famous masters in Tibet with different traditions of meditation on a correct view, they all come to the same point in deep meditation.

Some learned scholars have said that this assertion of the First Panchen Lama that all these traditions come to the same point of realization must be understood as a teaching that needs interpretation and cannot be accepted literally. The Third Panchen Lama, for example, has said this when giving a mahamudra discourse at Kumbum Monastery. “Except for when the First Panchen Lama was alive and could explain what he meant himself, how can we understand now that a view based on an affirming nullification and one based on a non affirming nullification come to the same point in meditation? This must not be what the First Panchen Lama had literally in mind.”

Despite the Third Panchen Lama’s opinion, we cannot decide this issue for sure. Many other learned scholars have said that these teachings were definitive and, having thought myself about this for a long time, I concur with their conclusion. The First Panchen Lama was a monk upholding vinaya – vows of monastic discipline – and the three higher trainings in ethical self-discipline, concentration and discriminating awareness. Concerning such a crucial point, which if we understand properly we gain liberation and if we misunderstand we remain caught in the uncontrollably recurring cycle of rebirth, how could he not have spoken forthrightly?

The fact that if something were so, he said it was so, and if something were not so, he said it was not so, is demonstrated clearly later in the text concerning coming to a decisive understanding of the conventional nature of mind. There the First Panchen Lama has written, “The great meditators of the Snow Mountains are practically of a single opinion in proclaiming that this setting (of the mind) at ease, not cognitively taking (as a “this”) anything that arises, is a guideline for putting within your grasp the forging of Buddhahood. Be that as it may, I, Chokyi-gyeltsen, say that this method is a wondrous skillful means for beginners to accomplish the settling of their mind and is a way for knowing, face to face, (merely) the conventional nature of mind that conceals something deeper.”

From such manner of expression, we can see that the First Panchen Lama spoke straightforwardly exactly what he thought. He unabashedly stated that it is not an amazing feat to accomplish only this much and it is not at all the same type of realization as what we gain on the complete stage of anuttarayoga tantra. We have only come to know, face to face, the conventional nature of mind, not the voidness of mind. With only this much realization, we cannot gain liberation from samsara and it cannot be considered a state combining shamata and vipashyana. If the First Panchen Lama were not someone who spoke directly and straightforwardly, he would not have written such words. Thus it seems appropriate to take what he has said about a correct view as a definitive teaching to be understood literally.

Confirmation from the Dzogchen System

As for the Third Panchen Lama’s objection that a view of voidness that entails an affirming nullification and one that entails a nonaffirming nullification cannot be harmonious, it is pertinent to consider what great meditation masters have explained about the Nyingma dzogchen tradition. For example, the Gelug master from Mongolia, Kelka Damtsig-dorjey, a disciple of Gungtangzang, who in turn was a disciple of the Third Panchen Lama’s disciple, Yongdzin Yeshey-gyeltsen, has written in several of his texts on the Nyingma form of Hayagriva practiced within the Gelug tradition, “When you meditate on a correct view according to the dzogchen tradition, you deal with it in terms of both devoid nature itself and items having this devoid nature. This is the key for unlocking realization.” His statement becomes easy to understand in light of our previous discussion of these two views in the context of the Shangpa Kagyu tradition of Kaydrub Kyungpo.

The dzogchen system emphasizes two main points in connection with the hidden path of tantra: (1) meditation on a correct view presented in terms of what has a devoid nature – namely meditation on primordial clear light mind, known in dzogchen terminology as rigpa, pure awareness – and (2) understanding all appearances as the play of clear light. Let us examine how these two fit together in order to shed further light on the harmony of the two correct views of reality.

In general, we can speak of clear light as an object of mind and clear light as a mind that takes or apprehends objects. Here we must explain according to the latter type of clear light. Through the dzogchen meditation methods, we come decisively to, and habituate ourselves with this subtlest level of mind. Totally absorbed meditation on clear light mind, then, is the main implication of a correct view presented in terms of what has a devoid nature.

Dzogchen meditation focuses on clear light mind as being divorced of such characteristics as being produced, abiding and passing, or arising, remaining and ceasing. Such meditation is on an affirming nullification. An affirming nullification affirms or leaves a phenomenon with leftover qualities remaining as the focus of concentration when the meditating mind apprehends that phenomenon in the manner of nullifying that it has other qualities. In other words, this manner of meditation focuses on a basis and, in understanding that it is devoid of certain qualities that are absent, indirectly affirms that it is in possession of other qualities. It affirms this fact because the meditating mind still gives rise to an appearance of that basis as the focal object of its concentration or, in the Buddhist technical vocabulary, it still gives rise to an appearance of that basis before the face of its absorbed concentration. Thus, meditation that (1) focuses on a clear light mind that is dissociated from being produced, abiding and passing, or that is devoid of these characteristics, and (2) also understands this clear light mind to be the basis supporting the appearance-making and appearance of all phenomena – as in the Shangpa Kagyu and dzogchen systems – is clearly on an affirming nullification. Nevertheless, although when we meditate on clear light mind, we directly meditate on an affirming nullification yet, on the side, we indirectly understand, as the madhyamaka teachings explain, that all phenomena lack true, inherent existence.

The total absence of true, inherent existence, on the other hand, is a non affirming nullification. Meditation on such a nullification merely focuses on the total absence of something – in this case, the total absence of a fantasized, impossible manner of existence that does not exist at all. It does not affirm anything else. It does not focus on an appearance of the basis that is characterized by that absence. The meditating mind does not even give rise to an appearance of the basis of that absence before the face of its total absorption.

When we meditate on the correct view presented in terms of something having a devoid nature, we focus primarily on clear light mind that is free from arising, abiding and ceasing. Secondarily, however, as Kaydrub Kyungpo has explained, as we meditate on clear light mind, we gain decisive understanding that all appearance-making and appearances of conventional existence are the play of this very mind, or are the appearance of the sport of this very mind. If it is the case that the appearances of all pure or impure phenomena arise as the play of clear light mind, this means that all phenomena arise as objects of cognition dependently on clear light mind.

From another point of view, we can also consider clear light mind as a basis for labeling or a basis for affixing a name. In that case, all phenomena are not only that which this basis can give rise to an appearance of as its play, but also their appearances are that which can be mentally labeled or named onto that basis. Thinking in this way, we can understand the interdependence between phenomena and mind – described as the former being the play of the latter – also in the context of the assertion that the existence of all phenomena is established by virtue simply of names or mental labeling. In other words, the fact that mind gives rise to appearances of all phenomena of samsara or nirvana as the play of the clear light mind of deep awareness serves as the ultimate reason for understanding that the existence of all phenomena is established by virtue simply of factors other than themselves – and, specifically, by virtue simply of names. Thus when we come to a decisive understanding of a correct view presented in terms of what has a devoid nature    clear light mind    we indirectly understand that all phenomena exist by virtue simply of the fact that they can be mentally labeled, without their existence being established by something inherently findable from their own side. We understand this only indirectly, however, because our meditating mind does not give rise to an appearance of the total absence of this fantasized, impossible manner of existence while focusing on clear light mind.

Corroboration from the Chittamatra Practice of Tantra

Someone once asked the Third Panchen Lama, “At what stage does a yogi practicing anuttarayoga tantra with belief in the chittamatra philosophical tenets gain complete conviction in the uncommon prasangika-madhyamaka view of reality?” This master replied, as recorded in his Answers to Questions, “One comes to a decisive understanding of this correct view at the mind isolation stage of anuttarayoga tantra’s complete stage of practice.” Let us examine why this is so.

According to the chittamatra or “mind-only” tenets, also known as vijnanavada or yogachara, objects of sensory cognition are devoid of being substantially different from the sensory consciousness of them – both derive from the same seed of karma on the alayavijnana, foundational mind or “storehouse consciousness.” Although such objects and consciousness of them are dependent, or “other-powered” phenomena, they nevertheless have inherently findable self-natures making them what they individually are. They do not exist as what they are by virtue of imputation or mental labeling on the basis of their appearance. Only objects of conceptual cognition have imputed existence. As imputed, or “totally imaginary”objects, they are, however, devoid of having an actual basis to which they refer and upon which their name can be affixed. Nevertheless, they too have inherently findable self-natures making them what they are.

On the mind isolation stage of anuttarayoga complete stage practice, we actually manifest subtlest primordial mind through the power of gathering in and dissolving in stages at our heart chakra all coarse and subtle levels of sensory and conceptual consciousness. Even if we hold a chittamatra view of reality, we become convinced through this experience that the existence of all phenomena, particularly dependent and imputed ones, is established by virtue simply of imputation or names, which is the prasangika view of mental labeling. We directly experience that nothing has an inherently findable self-nature establishing its existence, because everything exists by virtue simply of the fact that it can be mentally labeled on the basis of clear light mind as its source.

The Third Panchen Lama’s assertion arrives at the same conclusion as the dzogchen position. According to the latter, when we arrive at a definite activation and understanding of clear light mind – which occurs on the dzogchen path at a point corresponding to the mind isolation stage in the Gelug presentation of anuttarayoga tantra’s complete stage – we also come to understand that the existence of all phenomena is established by virtue simply of imputation or names. In the case of dzogchen, we realize this through the experience of all vivacious appearances of existence arising as the play of primordial mind, whereas the chittamatra practitioner of anuttarayoga methods arrives at the same realization through the experience of all coarse and subtle levels of consciousness, together with the appearances to which they give rise, dissolving into subtlest clear light mind.

In An Ornament for “The Stainless Light” [Commentary on “The Abbreviated Kalachakra Tantra”], Kaydrub Norzang-gyatso has hinted at something quite similar. This great master has asserted that, at the time of the clear light of death, primordial mind directly gives rise to an appearance of voidness in the same manner as it does through the force of meditation. We cannot gain a decisive understanding of voidness at that time, however, unless we have previously built up the powers of listening, pondering and meditating on voidness. The implication is that all clear light minds manifested by pathway methods – whatever those methods might be – likewise give rise to an appearance of voidness and thus allow for a prasangika-madhyamaka understanding of that voidness.

In short, when we look superficially and quickly at the dzogchen method of meditating on a correct view, it seems to be a way of meditating solely on an affirming nullification and nothing more. When we look superficially and quickly, on the other hand, at the prasangika-madhyamaka method of meditating on voidness in the anuttarayoga tantra context, it appears to be something totally different. It appears to be meditation merely on a non affirming nullification – a total absence with which, when whatever is to be refuted is completely negated, there is no further manner of apprehension of the basis for the refutation left over. But if we look at both of these meditation methods deeply, we see there is no contradiction in what is attained by each of the two.

Dzogchen, as an example of meditation on a correct view presented in terms of something having a devoid nature, is a method of meditating by focusing single pointedly on a mind that understands voidness, specifically a primordial clear light mind having such an understanding. On the side, this meditation brings about the realization that the existence of all phenomena is established by virtue simply of names or mental labeling. This method, then, has a direct means of realizing a specific type of mind and, in addition, an indirect means of realizing, on the basis of this, that which that mind understands. Meditation according to the prasangika-madhyamaka approach to anuttarayoga tantra as transmitted by the Gelug tradition, on the other hand, as an example of meditation on a correct view presented in terms of devoid nature itself, focuses directly on the abiding nature or voidness itself. It can only do this, however, on the basis of realizing a mind that understands that abiding nature of voidness – specifically, in this context, a primordial clear light mind. Thus the meditation approaches of the two correct views each bring the sincere practitioner to the same end point.