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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

4 Meditation on the Conventional Nature of Mind

Preliminaries for Shamata Meditation

The text continues with a full discussion of the sutra tradition of mahamudra,

And so for this (sutra tradition of mahamudra), out of the two methods, namely seeking a meditative state on top of having gained a correct view (of voidness) and seeking a correct view on top of a meditative state, (I shall explain) here in accordance with the latter method.

All phenomena are devoid of true, inherent existence. To gain a decisive understanding of this and then to focus single pointedly on this understanding is the tradition of first understanding the view and then meditating on it. The second tradition, on the other hand, is to focus single pointedly on mind first and then to gain a decisive understanding of the correct view on this basis. This is the tradition of mahamudra that the First Panchen Lama now explains.

The text continues,

On a seat conducive for mental stability, assume the seven fold bodily posture and clear yourself purely with a round of the nine tastes of breath.

On a seat or cushion that is slightly raised in the back, we sit, with our back perfectly straight, in either the full vajra, half vajra or the ordinary cross legged position, whichever we can, and begin by clearing our mind with a round of the nine tastes of breath. We breath slowly and evenly, first in the right nostril and out the left three times, then reverse the order of the nostrils for the next three rounds, and finally in and out both nostrils simultaneously for the last three rounds.

Because we often feel compelling attractions and aversions, as well as oppressive confusion, we have great need to practice these nine rounds of breathing. We must quiet our mind of longing, angry and confused thoughts that take strong interest in and fixate, respectively, on pleasurable objects that we find desirable, displeasing ones that we find undesirable, and any object that we find confusing. By shifting the focus of our attention to our breath through these nine rounds, we temporarily stop all extraneous, disturbing thought and thus achieve an unspecified or neutral state of mind. We try to stay for a reasonably long time in this neutral state that is temporarily divested of attraction to certain objects, aversion from others and confusion about yet others.

As this is a meditation on mind, we need both a clear state of mind upon which to focus as well as a clear state of mind that does the focusing. Therefore we must first make our mind as clear as possible with such preliminary methods as these nine rounds of breathing in order to make it the most suitable for the task. But then, as there is great need to build up positive force for gaining success in our practice, we next generate this neutral state of mind into a positive one. The root text says,

Having thoroughly separated out muddied states of awareness from lucid ones, then, with a purely constructive mind, direct (toward your root guru) your taking of safe direction and the reaffirmation of your bodhichitta aim.

By thinking about the precious human life, impermanence, death, the suffering of the worst states of rebirth and so forth, we turn our mind toward the Dharma. On this basis, we then reaffirm the safe direction we are putting in our life by taking refuge once more, and re-enhance our motivation by re-dedicating ourselves with bodhichitta. We direct the energy of the positive state of mind that we generate in this way toward building up the positive force that will contribute to future success in our mahamudra practice.

The text continues,

Meditate next on a profound path of guru-yoga ...

As a preliminary guru-yoga for this tradition of mahamudra, we practice either The Hundreds of Deities of Tushita, or any other appropriate form of guru-yoga.

The text continues,

... and, after making hundreds of very strong, fervent requests, dissolve your (visualized) guru into yourself.

Absorb for a while unwaveringly in that state which is without the gurgle-gurgle of appearance-making and appearances (of “this” and “not that.”) Do not contrive anything with thoughts such as expectations or worries.

Making sincere requests with great faith to our guru for inspiration and then dissolving into ourselves whatever visualized form we have been imagining to represent him or her helps produce the state of mind that is most conducive for beginning our mahamudra practice of focusing on mind itself. This is because such preliminary practice renders our mind blissful and energizes it so that it apprehends its object with great strength of brilliance.

In such a state, we try not to contrive anything artificial, such as by conceptually thinking anything. Any conceptual thought is deceptive and disturbs our state of mind, causing it to waver. Thus we try not to think any thoughts at all, particularly those that hope for success in attaining something through this practice, or that fear or worry about possible failure. We try not to let any such thoughts that have already arisen continue and not to have any such thoughts newly arise. In this way, we settle our mind single-pointedly into an unwavering, vivid state.

Focusing on the Conventional Nature of Mind

In his autocommentary to the root text, the First Panchen Lama lists various objects we can use to develop a serenely stilled and settled state of mind. He explains that any of them will do for attaining to this goal of shamata, yet taking mind itself as the object of focus for achieving that state has special significance. In the long term, such focus is extremely purposeful for our eventual practice of anuttarayoga tantra’s complete stage. More immediately, there are other benefits as well.

Of the five aggregate factors making up each moment of everyone’s experience, the aggregate of consciousness is primary. On another level, out of body and mind, mind is principal. Normally, however, we are not much aware of our mind. We must change this so that our awareness of our mind is as acute and constant as that of meditators. Usually our mind is so strongly and compulsively drawn to and caught up in external objects of sight, sound, smell, taste and tactile or physical sensation that the consciousness within does not appear at all. Although mind is obviously on our continuum, yet since we are so preoccupied, it seems as though we are nothing but body. This is a completely tainted and distorted appearance.

By focusing on mind, however, and by paying attention to and scrutinizing, or “ analyzing” the mind that controls the actions of our body and speech that cause us to experience happiness or suffering, we come to understand what mind is. This helps us become aware of our apprehending true, inherent existence which causes us to act out of confusion. It also helps us think about past and future lives, in terms of not only what continues through them, but also what causes them to continue. When we recognize that, loosely speaking, we are not only our body but also our mind, and we think about how mind continues from moment to moment following a course of cause and effect, we establish for ourselves that mind and this process obtain through past and future lives. Since focusing on mind itself has these more immediate benefits, we settle on mind as our object of meditation.

When we look superficially and quickly at the mahamudra practice of mind focusing on mind, we are reminded of Shantideva’s argument in Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior, “The Guiding Light of the World has said, ‘Mind cannot see mind.’ It is like the edge of a sword not being able to cut itself. How could it?” But here we are speaking in a totally different context in which Shantideva’s analogy of the mind to a sword does not pertain. We are not speaking of a separate, truly and inherently existent faculty, reflexive awareness, with which we are focusing on a truly and inherently existent mind. Since neither of them exist at all, mind conceived as existing in an impossible manner cannot focus on itself. Rather, in mahamudra meditation, we use either a later moment of consciousness to focus on the remembered experience of a preceding moment of mind, or one part of consciousness to focus on another, with both possibilities carried out within the context of understanding that consciousness or mind has a nature of being totally devoid of true, inherent existence.

We can understand this by analogy. When we focus on ourselves, we make a conventional, though not an absolute, difference in our mind between the “ me” that is focused upon and the “me” that is focusing on it. Likewise, when mind focuses on mind, we have either one portion or a later moment of consciousness aimed at another portion or a former moment of consciousness differentiated conventionally, though not absolutely, as its object of mindful focus. In this way, we experience a focusing mind single pointedly secured to a mind upon which it is focusing.

Employing Mindfulness and Alertness

The text continues,

This does not mean, however, that you cease all attention as if you had fainted or fallen asleep. Rather you must tie (your attention) to the post of mindfulness in order not to wander, and station alertness to be aware of any mental movement.

In general when we meditate, we must not forget about or lose the object upon which we are focusing. If we continually forget about or lose our object, we can never gain familiarity with it. How do we keep our mind on an object with endurance? We do so with mindfulness. As the First Panchen Lama says in the text, we must “tie our attention to the post of mindfulness in order not to wander.”

Mindfulness, which can be less misleadingly, although more awkwardly, translated as the mental factor of remembering or keeping something in mind, has three characteristic functions. First is to maintain a continuity of familiarity with what has been previously seen or known. Second is to prevent the mind from forgetting about or losing its object, and third is to hold the mind on its object with endurance. We must tie our attention to such mindfulness in order not to wander and to sustain meditation.

Here, in mahamudra meditation, we have mind as both an object of focus and that which is focusing single-pointedly. It is very difficult, however, to have mind contact mind as its object. Although we can easily mouth the definition of mind as “ mere clarity and awareness,” but actually to have a notion of what is mere clarity and awareness is very difficult. Whatever appearance of an object dawns or arises as something experienced, “mind” refers to that which merely allows for (1) the arising of that aspect of the object that appears, and (2) a cognitive engagement with that aspect. It is what accounts for or describes the mere experience of objects. We can only recognize it from personal experience.

When we experience mind as mere clarity and awareness, we focus and hold our attention on the aspect, to which our mind gives rise, of what we experience. We do this by applying mindfulness, the mental faculty of remembering this aspect or keeping it in mind. We must not let ourselves forget about or lose this object    the mind    which is the object of our mindfulness.

In addition, to check whether or not the way in which our mindfulness is holding this object is correct according to definition, we need alertness. Alertness is the mental factor that checks if our attention on an object of focus is wavering or becoming dull, or if our mind is moving away from this object such as when it comes under the influence of the deceptiveness of thought. Thus alertness is like a policeman. While mindfulness keeps our mental hold or attention on the object, alertness keeps a careful watch, acting as a policeman to check if there is mental abiding on this object, and, if there is an abiding, to make sure it is correct and proper.

The text continues,

Firmly tighten (the hold of your mindfulness) on that which has the essential nature of clarity and awareness and behold it starkly.

When we experience our mind giving rise to and apprehending as its object of attention an aspect that is the conventional nature of mind as mere clarity and awareness, then, in addition to mindfulness and alertness, we need to tighten our focus on it. In other words, we need to single pointedly focus on this nature with a firm manner of holding it as an object of attention such that our mind gives rise to a stark appearance of it.

The object upon which our mind is focused is mind itself. The way in which mind is aimed at mind is with tightened, single pointed concentration. This is the function of mindfulness, namely to hold this object tightly in this way. In addition, on the side, one part of mind, namely the mental factor of alertness, accompanies this mind and keeps watch to see if mind is remaining on this object or not, and if it remaining, if it is doing so properly. “Properly” means not only with single pointed placement on mind as our object of focus, but also with perfect mental clarity and sharpness on this object.

In general, there are two types of interruptions to concentration – flightiness of mind and mental dullness. Flightiness affects whether or not mind stays fixed on its object. It can be divided into gross and subtle flightiness of mind. Mental dullness has gross, middling and subtle levels.

If we speak roughly, distraction is an interruption to placement of mind on an object, while dullness is an interruption to clarity of mind on an object. There can be many factors causing mind to be distracted, but the longing desire that causes mind to fly off to some other, extraneous, pleasing object is what is included under flightiness of mind. We single out distraction due to longing desire because it is the most compelling. Distraction due to annoyance, jealousy, pride, self-consciousness, doubt, boredom, weakness of mental hold on an object of focus, and so on is called mental wandering. With gross flightiness of mind, we actually lose our mind’s mental hold on its object of focus. With subtle flightiness, on the other hand, our mind maintains its hold on its object, but because the accompanying attention is weak, there is either an underlying current of thought or, even more subtly, a restlessness or “mental itchiness” to leave that object and focus on something else that we find more attractive.

Mental dullness concerns the quality of mind’s appearance-making – in other words, the quality of mind’s giving rise to and apprehending an appearance of its object of focus and attention. In simple words, it concerns the quality of mind’s seeing of its object – but “ seeing” in a figurative sense, and not necessarily in a visual or even a mentally visual one. When we focus on the sound of a mantra or on the nature of mind, we are not focusing on a sight or a pictorial mental image, yet we must still deal with the issue of clarity of such object of focus. Seeing the appearance of an object of focus primarily means giving rise to a manifest and, if manifest, clear appearance of the object, such that we focus upon and apprehend it. This occurs as a function not of clarity from the side of the object, but clarity from the side of the mind that is directed at the object.

With gross mental dullness, we lose placement on our object of focus, not because of losing the hold of our mindfulness, as is the case with gross flightiness of mind, but because of our mind’s lack of sufficient clarity to give rise to an appearance of it. With middling mental dullness, our mind gives rise to a clear appearance of the object, but without sharpness of focus. With subtle dullness, although our mind has sharpness of focus, it is slightly too loose. Thus it is not fresh in each moment. It has become stale. Mental dullness, then, concerns the issues of whether mind gives rise to an appearance of its object lucidly, forcefully and directly, or whether it is with a tired boredom. Even in colloquial Tibetan, when we say “dull,” the connotation is tired boredom. Mind is not alert and fresh, not clear and lucid.

Foggy mindedness is slightly different from mental dullness. Once dullness develops, it can degenerate into foggy mindedness. With it, mind becomes totally dark and both mind and body become heavy. It can further degenerate into sleep.

Mental dullness and flightiness of mind are the main interruptions and interferences to accomplishing a settlement of mind, and each has several degrees of subtlety. Therefore we need to station mental alertness single-pointedly to become aware of any degree of dullness or flightiness. In order to do so, we must be able to recognize correctly mental wandering, flightiness, dullness and foggy mindedness. We can only do this from personal meditative experience.

Methods to Employ When Mind Gives Rise to a Thought

As for the actual meditative method, the text says,

Whatever thoughts might arise, recognize them as being that and that. Alternatively, like a dueler, cut the thoughts off completely, wham-wham, as soon as they occur.

When we are meditating single pointedly, with nothing artificial, in other words with no thoughts, and mind is very vivid, we may experience a new thought arising on occasion. If, all of a sudden, our mind wanders by giving rise to such a thought, we have strayed from our principal endeavor which is to settle single pointedly on the mere clarity and awareness that is mind. We must immediately take hold of our meditation with mindfulness and alertness and not let ourselves be distracted by this newly arisen thought. We must come to its cessation. The text mentions two methods for reaching this end.

As soon as our mind gives rise to a thought, we must immediately become aware of it. This is necessary for either method. To do this, we need the power of alertness. The autocommentary says, “ When mind is tightened and looking starkly, if it deviates from this state, giving rise to a thought, you must recognize that this has happened. For this, you need alertness."

With alertness, then, we recognize any thought to which our mind gives rise as indicative of a loss of mindfulness. Then, by the force of the original intention we had set – which was to settle our mind in a state of vividness, which is not made artificial with any thought and which is not construed – any new thought that arises automatically ceases. This is the first method. The other method is a more active approach. As soon as we notice our mind giving rise to any thought, we immediately cut it off and cause it to cease. The analogy for this is like cutting down an opponent with a sword in a duel.

The text continues,

Once you have completely cut these off and have settled (your mind), then, without losing mindfulness, relax and loosen up.

As we progress through the nine stages of settling the mind, our mahamudra meditation on mind itself gradually improves. If, whenever our mind has given rise to a thought, we have either simply recognized it so that it disappeared automatically, or cut it off immediately with force, then, as a result of our familiarity in applying these methods, we experience a steady decrease in our mind giving rise to thoughts distracting our meditation. This is helped by the power of our mindfulness and alertness having become ever stronger.

Throughout this process of bringing our thoughts to a halt, our alertness has been remaining aware of whether or not our mind has been giving rise to thoughts. When we no longer experience the faults of dullness or flightiness, however, and we have good placement of mind on its object, we can let this forceful alertness be more at ease. Its work is basically finished.

We must do the same with the mindfulness with which we have been maintaining our hold on the object, and loosen it slightly. When mind is single pointedly focused on mere clarity and awareness, without any faults of dullness or flightiness, continuing to maintain our mindfulness very tightly causes our mind to tremble. To avoid this, we relax our tightness and remain settled in a more relaxed manner. But, we must not let go of our mindfulness completely. That would be a great mistake. We need to remain focused and clear.

In short, through study and actual meditative experience, we become clear about the nine stages of settling the mind as explained in the lam-rim teachings concerning the graded stages of the path. Then, at the appropriate stage, if our mind is too tight, we need to relax it.

The text continues,

As has been said, “Relax and loosen its firm tightness and there is the set state of mind.” And elsewhere, “When mind itself, ensnared in a tangle, loosens up, there is no doubt that it frees itself.” Like these statements, loosen up, but without any wandering.

Thus, when we no longer experience the faults of dullness or flightiness in our meditation, we remain in a relaxed state of equanimity.

The text continues,

When you look at the nature of any thought that arises, it disappears by itself and an utter bareness dawns. Likewise, when you inspect when settled, you see a vivid, nonobstructive bareness and clarity.

Some learned masters of the past have pointed out that whenever our mind gives rise to a thought, if we look nakedly or barely at its nature, we do not need to “stuff the thought back into the mind.” It automatically disappears. We are left with the vacuum that is its bare absence. Likewise, if our mind is not giving rise to any thoughts, but rather is settled, and we scrutinize the settled mind, as it says in the text, “you see a vivid, nonobstructive bareness and clarity."

Mind has no form. It has neither shape nor color, cannot be touched, does not obstruct anything and cannot itself be obstructed. In this regard, it is a bare absence of these qualities, like an open space or vacuum. Yet it can give rise to a clear appearance of anything, in the sense that it allows for anything to dawn clearly as an object of experience. Its nature, in fact, is mere clarity and awareness. If we recognize it properly, we can figuratively “see” this bare absence or bareness that is a mere clarity and awareness vividly in our meditation.

Whenever our mind gives rise to a thought, if we look at its nature, it automatically disappears. Just as waves disappear into water as they are of the nature of water, likewise thoughts naturally subside since they are of the nature of mind. They do not go beyond having a nature of mere clarity and awareness. Therefore when we scrutinize the nature of thoughts, we see that they automatically dissolve. Thus we come to the foundation of thought – mere clarity and awareness itself.

The root text says,

(This is) well known as “the settled and moving (minds) mixed together.”

Whether our mind is totally absorbed on its focus without any thoughts or is moving, giving rise to thoughts from moment to moment, if we scrutinize the nature of thoughts, we see they do not go beyond being mere clarity and awareness. They have the same nature as that of the settled mind. Thus we reach the same conclusion whether our mind is settled or moving. We come to mere clarity and awareness.

Since this conclusion is based on meditative experience, it is well known. The Kagyu tradition, for example, speaks about not consciously blocking thoughts or trying to “stuff them back in.” But when our mind gives rise to thoughts, try to see them as waves of play of dharmakaya – omniscient awareness encompassing everything. This is one version of “the settled and moving minds mixed together.”

The text continues,

(Thus,) no matter what thought arises, when, without blocking it, you recognize (that it is) a movement (of mind) and have settled on its essential nature, (you find) it is like the example of the flight of a bird confined on a boat. As is said, “Just as a crow having flown from a ship after circling the directions must re alight on it ...”

When our mind emanates a thought, no matter how far it goes, where can it go? When we focus on the nature of the thought, we experience that the thought automatically disappears. In other words, when we look at the nature of any thought, we realize that it arises in the nature of mere clarity and awareness and subsides also in this very same nature. When we experience this nature, we also “ see that the settled and moving minds are mixed together.”

The text continues,

From cultivating such (methods as these...

By cultivating single pointed placement of mind on mind, we experience a steady decrease in wandering with thoughts and a steady strengthening of absorbed concentration on mere clarity and awareness. As our mind becomes increasingly free from faults of dullness or flightiness, the nature of mind as mere clarity and awareness becomes increasingly manifest and clear from personal experience.

The Attainment of Shamata Focused on the Conventional Nature of Mind

What comes from this? The text continues,

... you realize that,) since the essential nature of the totally absorbed mind is a lucidity and clarity, unobstructed by anything ….

The nature of the settled, totally absorbed mind is free from all faults of dullness or flightiness. How it is to be experienced? This nature is a “ lucidity and clarity, unobstructed by anything.” It is a cognitive lucidity and clarity that can be set on any object and used for any purpose. In other words, no matter at what object mind directs its attention, it can focus on and engage with that object single pointedly such that it gives rise to an aspect of it by virtue of its cognitive clarity and lucidity. Its functioning is not obstructed by any disturbing emotions or attitudes, not even their instincts. It obstructs neither liberation nor enlightenment. In fact, it is the main factor that allows us to achieve either. Thus it is a “ lucidity and clarity, unobstructed by anything.

The text continues,

and not established as any form of physical phenomenon, it is, like space, an utter bareness that allows anything to dawn and be vivid.

Mind, by nature, cannot be established as having any form, shape or color. Yet, no matter what object it encounters at the moment, it produces an aspect or appearance of it as the object with which it engages in a cognitive manner. It allows for, or gives rise to the cognitive dawning of anything, precisely because its nature is mere clarity and awareness. As Tsongkhapa has said in Totally Clarifying the Intentions [of Chandrakirti’s “A Supplement to (Nagarjuna’s ‘Stanzas on) the Middle Way’”], “Mind is what allows for this or that aspect of this or that object to arise.”

We can only realize and be aware of this nature from our personal meditative experience, Thus, the text continues,

Nevertheless, although the actual nature of mind may be seen straightforwardly, with exceptional perception, to be like that, it cannot be taken as a “this” and be (verbally) indicated.

The conventional nature, abiding condition, or defining characteristic of this phenomenon called “mind” – its lack of form and its ability to allow for an appearance of anything to arise as a cognitive object – is not something to be known through logical reasoning. Rather, we can know it only from the impression we build up through the repeated habit of having our mind be focused on mind – in other words, from direct, personal experience. To do this, we need to develop, in addition to shamata, an exceptionally perceptive state of mind, known as vipashyana. Furthermore, although we may see straightforwardly this mere clarity and awareness – this mere experience, this mere awareness of experience – yet because mind has such a nature as it does, we are not easily able to capture it with a mental picture in terms of form or color, or pinpoint it with words. That is why the text says “it cannot be taken as a “this” and be (verbally) indicated.”

The text continues,

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 superficial nature of mind that conceals something deeper.

The conventional, superficial nature of mind is that it is a mere clarity and awareness that can allow for anything to arise as an object of cognition and, not being a physical phenomenon, cannot be blocked or impeded by any form of material object. The realization of the deepest nature of mind, however, is a realization of inseparable clarity and voidness, or, in terms of anuttarayoga tantra, the attainment of the deep awareness of inseparable bliss and voidness. Such realizations are what we must gain in order to attain liberation or enlightenment. Therefore, to confuse a single-pointed seeing of the conventional nature of mind with a realization of its deepest nature is a reversed or contrary way of understanding, and is a serious mistake. What we have achieved so far in the text is the attainment of shamata, a serenely stilled state of mind settled on mind itself. Although the attainment of such a meditation state focused on mind is the foundation for developing the highest attainments and is, of course, very excellent, yet by itself, it is insufficient for reaching those goals.

When we achieve a mind focused on mind with the perfect placement of absorbed concentration, free from all faults of dullness or flightiness, we experience, in stages, an element of bliss accompanying our meditation. When we experience serene joy, on both a physical and mental level, brought on by the force of total absorption of mind on mind, we achieve a meditation state that fulfills the definition of being shamata.

Our ordinary mind is like raw iron ore that needs to be made into a steel sword. Progressing through the stages for attaining to shamata is like forging the iron ore into steel. All the materials are there at our disposal. But since our mind wanders after external objects, then although it is the material for making steel, it cannot yet be used as this product. We have to forge our mind into steel through a meditation process. Attaining to a state of shamata accomplishes this aim. It is like putting the iron ore into fire. To fashion the steel into a sword, however, namely a weapon of mind that understands voidness, our serenely stilled and settled mind needs to come to decisive realization of voidness as its object. Without such a weapon of mind, we have no opponent with which to destroy the disturbing emotions and attitudes.

What has been explained so far in the text, then, is an effective and wondrous method for accomplishing the settling of mind for attaining to a state of shamata. In terms of the sutra mahamudra method of gaining first a meditative state and then, on top of this, an understanding of the correct view, just this much is the meditative state.